My winter sleep system for ultralight hiking
Sleeping good in the winter
Keeping warm is essential to sleeping good. Hypothermia and freezing to death is not a fun past time. In the summer it’s easier to get along with Ultralight gear and probably survive.. Chances are good… In the winter however, things are different. Especially in areas like northern Sweden where I live – here the temperatures can easily drop to -30c in the winter. It’s important to be prepared and have a relatively good idea of what your doing. Here I will go over some of the details that helps keep me warm and comfortable during the winter months on longer treks:
- Sleep system
- Food before bed
- Run around for warmth
- Pee bottle
- Extra bottles for foot warmer in the morning
A also made a video of this article that you can watch below:
First on my list is the sleep system – this is by far the most important aspect of sleeping warm and safe in the winter. All parts of the sleep system must work in order for the whole to work. With a sleep system I mean of course the Sleeping mat and Sleeping bag.
My system for winter hiking looks something like this with an example of a week long unsupported trip in minus 20 to 40 degrees:
- Thick evazote mat – 14mm – this I usually have directly on the ground as I use floorless shelters most of the time. I can also use a double wide evazote mat which can also work as a nice wide ground sheet as well.
- Thermarest xTherm sleeping pad – added warmth and comfort. The xTherm isn’t really necessary when using a thick 14mm evazote mat, in fact I know a few people who use their summer pads or xLite in the deep winter without any problems. The 14mm evazote is warm enough on it’s own. The blow up pad is an extra comfort. Don’t skimp on the sleeping mat – it’s just as if not more important than a proper sleeping bag.
- I have three bags in total – known of them are meant for extreme weather. So I stack them. I have a Sierra designs cloud 800 0c degree bag, an As Tucas sestrals synthetic quilt – rated at about 0c as well, and a Sierra designs nitro 0F (-18c). In Sweden, anything warmer than a 0c bag has very little use except for in the warmest two weeks of the year unless summer is just extreme. With the Cloud 800 and As Tucas Sestrals, these bags are fantastic for the Swedish climate. In anycase, if I know I will be in – 30c or colder for extended periods than I stack my Nitro and as tucas quilt giving me a warmth that stretches down to about -35.
Here is a rather decent stacking guide that I stole from Enlightened Equipment:
This is in Farenheit, for our purposes it works – just keep in mind that Celcius and Farenheit meet at -40, 0 Fahrenheit is equal to -18 Celcius. 32 Fahrenheit is equal to 0 celcius.
I rarely use my Sierra designs nitro -18c bag – I prefer to stack as it’s usually a warmer option in almost every situation.
For temperatures between 0c and -20 I usually go with my two summer quilts – Cloud 800 and As tucas sestrals.
xTherm on the bottom, Sierra designs cloud 800 35 in middle and as tucas sestrals apex 167 quilt on top. A great winter layering system
No matter which solution I choose – I always have the synthetic quilt on top of the down bag as synthetic handles the extra moisture much better than down does.
Picture stolen from the interwebs – Hyperlite mountain gear Ultamid 2
Shelter systems in the winter, much like summer can vary – my main recommendation is to find a tent that can handle everything. Wind, rain, snow – and is relatively easy to set up. I prefer the Hyperlite mountain gear Ultamid 2 or 4 for winter use. It’s the most solid winter tent I’ve ever used and gives me a lot of space to really live like a king. I know a few people such as Jörgen Johansson over at Fjäderlätt who likes his Black diamond Firstlight – even though it’s a tad small for him. I also like the Firstlight, but I don’t like how my head and feet mush the sides creating a lot of extra wetness on my bag and clothing. There are of course advantages to a free standing tent in the winter. If you don’t care too much about weight than there are tons of solutions out there with Hilleberg Suolo coming to mind among others.
In anycase, while a shelter is certainly important with a winter system, you could just as well bring a shovel and build a snow cave, or find a large pine and sleep under the snow drift. I prefer even the beauty of sleeping under the stars if weather permits.
If planned properly, your winter clothing can easily be a big part of your sleeping system – allowing you to leave one of your sleeping bags or quilts at home. This is a great solution for shorter trips where condensation is not going to be as big of a problem. If I’m leaving a quilt at home, which I can normally do in temperatures down to -10c. Than my winter sleep gear might comprise of the following:
- Wool long johns and long arm shirt
- Thick wool socks
- Fleece or wool sweater
- Down puffy jacket – something like the Cumulus incredilte – a great lightweight down puffy
- Down/synthetic puffy pants – The Omm Mountain raid pants are excellent synthetic pants as well as the Cumulus down basic pants
- Down/synthetic puffy socks
- Down/synthetic baklava or fleece beenie
This layering system gives me a lot of flexibility and warmth in camp – sometimes I even have two puffy down jackets with me depending on how low temperatures are expected to drop. This setup easily keeps me warm and comfortable walking around camp, as well as being part of my sleep system at night.
Food before bed
In the winter, keeping food and water in your system before going to bed is vital. Keeps the furnace burning hot for many hours. I try to load up on carbohydrates before bed, usually while lying in bed getting ready to sleep. This is usually in the form of pasta.
The way insulation in your sleep system works is that it keeps the warmth in. The more insulation the more warmth the sleep system is able to keep. The system itself does not create any warmth on it’s own. There is no heating element in your sleeping bag. This means that if you go to bed frozen, chances are the insulation will work more like refrigerator, keeping you nice and cold. This is why it’s important to get out and run a bit, or do jumping jacks, create a lot of internal heat before climbing into bed. Not so much that you are sweating, as the moisture will have an opposite effect.
This also falls in line with make sure you are ready for bed, before you actually climb in. Once you are in your sleeping bag or bags, body is warm, belly is full – make sure you stay in your bag. I have made the mistake a few times of being way too warm in my bag, got panicked and opened up the bag only to start freezing again.
Staying tight in your sleep system is vital for overall comfort and warmth. This is also why a pee bottle is essential. Make sure you get a wide mouth bottle as this will help take away the guesswork and leave less room for error. The important aspect is to not open up your bag and climb out in order to go out and pee. Also, remember to keep a large volume bottle for this purpose as bodily fluids coming out in the winter are usually much more than at other times. It’s not unusual to pee close to a liters worth of fluid in the winter.
In the winter, one of the biggest problems facing all hikers is keeping our feet and shoes warm. Some people place their shoes in the sleeping bag with them, others not so much. I fall into the category of “not so much”. I don’t want any moisture coming along with me into my sleeping bag. Not to mention, the wettest part of my entire system – my shoes. It is possible to keep your shoes in a water tight bag and put them in your sleeping bag with you. But then they are still wet in the morning. What works for me is a rather simple system: In the morning when I wake up, still tucked nice and warm in my sleeping bag, I cook water for my early morning coffee and breakfast and with that I cook extra water for two small water bottles. After I shake out as much of the frozen moisture as possible from my shoes, I then place the hot water bottles, one each, into each of my shoes. While I am eating breakfast, my shoes are getting nice and toasty – when I put my shoes on, my feet are encompassed with a warm and lovely feeling. Later on I have the added benefit of having two extra filled water bottles that I can drink while hiking.
Small bottles are filled with warm water in the morning and used as feet warmers while I break down camp and eat breakfast. The bottles are then just regular water bottles during the day. Picture stolen from http://www.fjaderlatt.se
Before heading out on your trek across antarctica, it’s important to practice first, find what works for you and get comfortable with all the nuances of winter camping. Winter camping is both hell and joy at the sametime. Dangerous and fulfilling. Be smart and don’t take anything for granted. Just because you have this checklist doesn’t mean you are an expert – Theory and practice are two completely different things. This list will help you maximize your chances of success – but this is only a guide and not a guarantee. What works for me might not work for you.
A good place to practice is your backyard och nearby forest. Car camping is also a great starting place or in wind shelters. I spent a season or two just camping around in my local forest. My first backpacking trip in the winter once I was comfortable with my gear was a fairly popular mountain trail and I setup my tent about 50 meters from the different cottages. This way I could practice without putting myself in any major danger.