I actually enjoy spending time in extreme cold weather.  A lot of people think that makes me strange or crazy, and that is good.  It leaves a lot of places relatively unexplored for me to explore.  But, for others that enjoy the cold places around the world, I want to share some hints and tips I have picked up over the years.

1. Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and/or tent floors can freeze together.  The moisture that your body releases during the night will travel through your sleeping bag, toward the ground.  At some point, the moisture will freeze.  I have not had it freeze my sleeping bag, but I have found frost on top of my sleeping pad.  In the past, I would place my hard shell gear between my sleeping bag and sleeping pad as an extra layer to help prevent anything freezing together.  One of the very light silver emergency blankets would probably work very well for this too.  I have noticed that as I have increased the R value of my sleeping pad, this has become less of a problem.  I also think that perhaps the waterproof breathable shell on my Marmot Col sleeping bag is helping to prevent problems.

2. Sleeping surfaces vary dramatically in how cold they are.  Here is a rough list of thermal conductivity values (copied from Wikipedia).  The higher the number, the more insulation you will need between you and that surface.  Snow makes a very good sleep surface.

  • Air 0.025
  • Soil 0.17 – 1.13
  • Snow 0.11
  • Ice 1.6 – 2.2
  • Granite 1.73 – 3.98

3. The good thing about extreme cold weather is that the air is often very dry.  This means you can easily dry your gear in such conditions.  Opening your sleeping bag and hanging it in the wind each morning will work wonders to prevent moisture building up and increasing the weight of your bag over the length of your trip.

4. Frozen boots are not pleasant.  Insoles and liners can be removed from your boots and kept in your sleeping bag with you to keep them warm.  The boots themselves should be cleaned of snow and ice as much as possible.  Place them in a stuff sack (I often turn a stuff sack inside out to keep the interior of the sack clean).  Then place the stuff sack under the foot of your sleeping bag.  This also has the benefit of giving you a nice foot rest.

5. Hot water bottles have long been used to keep a sleeping bag warm at night.  It also helps keep the water from freezing during the night.  Be sure to use a very high quality water bottle.  A leaking bottle inside your sleeping bag can create an extreme dangerous situation as it soaks your insulation and freezes into ice.

6. The pee bottle is an essential piece of gear.  There is nothing worse than crawling out of your sleeping bag, putting on your boots and jacket, heading out of the tent or snow cave, and going to the bathroom.  Life is much simpler and more comfortable when you have a pee bottle.  Make sure you use either a unique bottle or a well marked bottle.  I use some athletic tape to create a textural difference on my pee bottle.  That way, I can find it by touch, even while I’m half asleep.  I suggest a 1 liter size bottle.  Overfilling the pee bottle in the tent will guarantee your partners will hate you.

7.  If you are setting up a base camp, a tarp is a great piece of gear to have.  You can use the tarp to shelter the kitchen area.  This allows you protection from the sun and wind and weather.  You can also hang a clothesline underneath the tarp.  If the snow is deep enough, dig a nice kitchen with benches and work areas and pitch the tarp to protect that area.

8. In avalanche terrain, everyone in the group should have a metal blade shovel, no exceptions.  I won’t go with anyone that refuses to have a proper shovel.

9. Similarly, in avalanche terrain, be sure to have a compass with an inclinometer.  You want to check those slopes to be sure you are not exposing yourself to unnecessary risks.

10. Pre-cut food that freezes solid.  Cheese, salami, sausages, sticks of butter, etc can all freeze into blocks that are tough to cut when it is time for meals.  I recommend cutting these things into bite sized pieces at home, and then packaging them into meal sized portions in plastic bags.  Keep your lunch bag in a pocket on your clothes, close to your body starting in the morning to help thaw and soften your food through the day.

11. Have a good surface to use for your stove.  You need to insulate the stove from the snow; otherwise you can melt the snow under the stove and spill your pot of dinner.  You can use your shovel blade, you can use a piece of plywood, or the stove stands sold commercially.

12.  As the temperatures get colder and colder, it becomes more difficult to create fire.  I carry several disposable butane lighters in my pockets all over my clothing.  This way, they stay warm and easy to use.

13. Liquid stove fuels are the best option in extreme cold.  Kerosene and white gas are the two most common.  Be careful, these liquids will stay liquid at very cold temperatures and can cause severe cold injuries if you spill any fuel on your skin.  When working with these fuels, keep in mind that priming your stove will be more difficult in the cold.  Priming pastes are made to assist with this, and are almost entirely necessary with kerosene.  I also have had success using the scraps of paper from tea bags or other packaging.

14. If you are in a forested area with deep snow, you need to be very careful near the trees.  The snow, especially near pine trees that can cover the snow with their boughs, tends to be unconsolidated and can be very dangerous.  It is very easy to drop right into one of these tree wells and suffocate just like in an avalanche.

Hopefully these tips help you with your cold weather adventures.

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