Cold temperatures can be dangerous. They lead to shivering which saps your energy and even hypothermia and frostbite in extreme cases. As a kid, I participated in a neighborhood youth campout for girls. It was held in June, every year for five days at a time. The setting was a beautiful mountain campground complete with three lakes, endless hiking trails and magnificent starry, night skies.
I loved these campouts. But no matter how well I prepared, I found myself facing the same problem each year. No matter how warm it was in the daytime, as soon as night fell, I froze. I multiplied the sweatshirts, two pairs of socks, piled on the blankets but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to stay warm while camping. It wasn’t until several years later while taking a wilderness survival course that I learned that the secret was to be WISE (more on this later.)
These tips that I’m about to share with you can be used in any outdoor setting. However, they are particularly important while camping and even more so while backpacking, because the farther you are into the wilderness the more serious the consequences for your mistakes (like getting too cold) will be.
No Climate Control
Unfortunately the actual climate, unlike your luxury SUV, comes with no climate control. I personally believe that this is one of the things that makes nature so appealingly raw. The pent-up energy in a building storm cell, the soft sizzle of a fleeting desert shower, and the lazy summer breeze are all part of its ephemeral beauty.
The weather can change rapidly, especially in the high mountain areas that we often love to frequent for our outdoor adventures. When we’re backpacking or camping we have limited resources and this presents us with a problem. How do we plan for every weather eventuality?
When I attended my youth camp it was often blisteringly hot in the daytime and barely above freezing when night fell. We can’t bring our entire winter wardrobe, but we also can’t afford to bring too little. Fortunately, you don’t have to pack an extra thirty pounds of puffy jackets and snow pants. You just have to be WISE.
As you may have guessed by now, WISE is an acronym. I’ve repeated it several times already because I want you to remember it. It is not only the secret to dressing warmly while adventuring, it has the potential to save your life.
W – Wicking
I – Insulating
S – Shell
E – Extra
This is the secret to layering. Incorporating these layers into your outdoor gear is the most effective way to maximize the potential you have to adapt to any weather environment. Layering on multiple sweatshirts as a girl was not effective for me because I had only insulating layers and was still missing all the others. Following this plan will help you stay warm while also cutting down on some extra useless weight you may be carrying around.
When you dress WISE you can stay warm around the campfire, and watch the stars to your heart’s content. You can even slip fully layered into your sleeping bag to stay nice and toasty on an especially frigid night.
The wicking layer is worn closest to your skin. This layer is important because it helps to wick away the moisture you inevitably produce while being active.
Backpacking is going to make you sweat. Sweat is your bodies way of cooling you off but if the temperature suddenly drops, or you stop moving and are no longer exerting the energy to keep yourself warm, you could become a bit of a human Popsicle.
Wicking layers serve to essentially absorb the sweat off your skin and allow it to quickly dry and evaporate. Good wicking layers are made of synthetic fibers like nylon, spandex, polyester or blends. Think under armor or cotton-poly long underwear.
Insulating layers are meant to trap and store heat. You’ve probably heard of the insulation that construction workers put inside the walls of your house. Well-insulated houses are cozy, while poorly insulated ones are drafty and cold. This principle is exactly the same for your layering.
Down is a popular insulating material. The soft feathers in a down jacket create tons of little spaces between them to trap warm air. The puffiness is known as loft. Loftier down jackets will be able to keep you warmer. Down is a great choice because it is highly packable and very light. However, you should keep in mind that down becomes useless if it gets wet. It is nearly impossible to dry!
At the opposite end of the spectrum is flannel. It can be a great insulating layer but it is much heavier than down. Polyester pullovers can also be a great choice, as well as any combination of the three. Plan your insulating layers to keep you warm in your coldest expected temperature.
The shell layer is the icing on the cake. Shells are meant to keep the weather out and keep you and the rest of your layers dry. A good shell is lightweight, breathable and will protect you from rain and wind. The more waterproof your shell layer is the less breathable it will be. Keep this in mind and be sure to pay close attention to the weather forecast when selecting your shell layer.
When I’m backpacking I usually save my favorite purple shell until the sun sets and the wind picks up. It always drastically increases my warmth! Without a shell, wind can cut right through your insulating layer and quickly sap all your hard-earned-heat.
Your extra layer includes things like hats, gloves, and scarves. These things can also be layered when needed using the same principles. For example, you can wear a thin wicking liner beneath your winter gloves. Depending on the season you may not need any of these extras, but I almost always pack a thin pair of gloves. Nothing kills the camping fun like trying to gather firewood with Popsicle hands.
WISE Dressing Equals Better Camping
AND better hiking, AND better backpacking, AND better skiing, AND better walking between buildings on your college campus, etc.
Dressing WISE quickly solved my number one camping problem. I have definitely bundled into my sleeping bag fully layered on more than one occasion. Not only has this kept me warm from head to toe, but it also provides a little extra padding for sleeping on the hard ground.
Some people may find themselves to be extra chilly sleepers. In these cases, dressing wise may not cut it when you’re completely sedentary. I find that putting a sheet inside your sleeping bag works wonders. The sheet provides more air spaces to keep you warm just like the down jacket. Tucking your pant legs into your socks can also be helpful.
I continue to develop little tricks to keep myself warm while camping. But without the basic layering system, I would still be stuck shivering on a camp chair wearing ten sweatshirts and wondering why I couldn’t get warm.
If you have anything you want to share, personal tips you want to add, or questions you want to ask, feel free to post them below!
Happy (and WISE) Camping!