In the male dominated world of wilderness backpacking, unless I travel alone, my hiking companions mostly tend to be male.  One huge difference I notice between me and them is that they never seem to get frozen to the bone like I do. They parade around day and night wearing hiking shorts, extolling the virtues of carrying a frameless ultralight backpack.  Meanwhile, I’m standing by shivering in three layers of clothing, berating myself for bringing my stupid 20 degree sleeping bag instead of my zero.  Here’s a fact of nature: chicks get colder. Here’s what to do about it without breaking your back.

It isn’t a matter of toughening up and “taking it like a man”, there is an actual physiological explanation for this hot/cold gender divide.  It is the same principle at home when Mister leaves the bedroom fan on all night while Missus is throwing on an extra quilt. What it boils down to is that women actually have “thicker skin”.  When we get cold, our bodies prevent hypothermia by concentrating circulation closer to the center of our body and extremities. Women have a thicker subcutaneous layer of fat (below the skin), which puts the skin out in the cold, far from the home fires.  Sleeping bag manufacturers are aware of this difference (as well as the difference in body shape) and will often rate a bag’s insulation effectiveness by gender. So does this mean women have to spend a bundle on specialized sleeping bags or carry several more pounds of insulation in their pack?
The key to staying warm is to master the art of creating a microclimate for your body. The human body feels best when the layer of air right next to the skin is 70 to 95% humidity.  The body is constantly working to create that layer, either by shivering to push humid heat out, or sweating to bring the temp of that humid layer down.  Wind dries and blows all your hard earned body heat away and a the cold ground just plain sucks your heat away, humid or otherwise.  Once you’ve mastered the art of creating and keeping that warm humid layer next to your skin, you will feel warmer no matter how cold it is outside.
Here are 5 inexpensive backpacking hacks to stay warm without adding a lot of weight to your pack:

1. Rain Pants

A key rule of thumb when lightening the pack is to bring items that serve multiple purposes. Rain pants top the list of lightweight items that bring a lot to the party.  Rain pants obviously repel water and make it more comfortable to sit on damp surfaces, but they also block wind and create a humid layer between you and the chilly air.  Paired with fleece undergarments, rain pants can even double as snow pants if you find yourself in a unexpected flurry.  (If you will be intentionally snow camping, be smart, take proper snow pants.)

2. Poncho Tarp

A tent creates a great microclimate for the sleeper by keeping wind safely outside, but there is no question that a tent adds pounds. A perfect hybrid is the Poncho Tarp. It is a rain poncho that doubles as a tent by using a hiking pole to turn it into a teepee. You can stake the edges flush to the ground to keep out the wind and even place small rocks around the hem for a bonus seal.  The weight savings is in the lack of poles and no floor. Just use your ground sheet for a floor which you would bring anyway for a tent.  In a pinch you could McGyver your own poncho tent out of any large rain poncho, but for repeated use you would want to purchase one designed for the purpose.  Six Moon Designs makes the Gatewood Cape which gives full ground coverage, has a zippered entry, and it only weighs 12 oz.


3. Heat Reflective Sleeping Pad

Once you’re nice an cozy in your shelter the wind isn’t an issue, but the cold hard ground is.  The ground will be colder than your body, so when you lie your hot self down, your body heat will conduct straight out of your body and into the ground like hot water down a drain.  This is why you don’t just throw your sleeping bag on the ground and sleep out under the stars like a mythical cowgirl hero.  Instead, you use a sleeping pad.  To add heat as well as protect from heat loss you use a sleeping pad that also reflects your own body heat back to you.  There are any number of sleeping pads you can choose that have the heat reflective feature.  Most long distance hikers carry inexpensive closed cell foam pads that are light, inexpensive, and almost indestructible. A good one that checks all those boxes and is heat reflective is Therm-A-Rest Z-lite Sol.

4. Sol Bivvy

Wind is blocked?  Check.  Conductive heat loss blocked?  Check.  But you’re still sleeping out in the cold night air and you don’t have a space heater.  Or do you?  You can be your own space heater.  Yet again, embrace the art of reflecting your own heat back to you by slipping both your heat reflective sleeping pad and your sleeping bag inside an ultralight, heat reflective, breatheable bivvy sack, which is like a cocoon shelter for your body.  A bonus feature of the heat reflective bivvy is that in warmer conditions you can use it instead of your tent and it will still protect you from light breeze and dew.

The only heat reflective, breathable bivvy that I know of is the Sol Escape Bivvy which the company claims can be used by backpackers instead of a sleeping bag.  At 8.5 oz., what a revolution that would be if it were true!  This prospect sounded so appealing to me that I tried it for myself.  What I discovered is, yes, it can be used instead of a sleeping bag, but only in pretty warm conditions OR if I sleep in insulated pants and coat instead of a sleeping bag, which is a fine option if I’m going to take those items anyway to wear around the campsite.  Items that have multiple uses are A+.


5. Plastic Bags

Here’s a super geeky hack that is only talked about amongst the nerdiest gear heads on the trail, Vapor Barrier Liners (VBL).  Going back to that yummy 70-95% humidity layer that your skin loves so much, you can prevent heat loss by preventing the air from stealing away any of your body’s humidity.  Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL) technique prevents any of the humid heat your body generates from being convected away by the air.  It is locked right next to your skin with an impermeable layer of plastic.

While wearing a body suit made of garbage sacks would definitely work (and is a great trick to have in your caboodle for an emergency situation) it isn’t very cozy.  Instead, just put your feet and hands inside plastic bags, then slip on your socks and mittens.  You will immediately notice the difference in how warm you stay.  If you need a boost, add a vest made from a garbage sack under your clothing, or just over a thin synthetic base layer.

You’d think that wearing plastic would make you sweat profusely, but that is one of the miracles of the uber-geek VBL technique, you won’t!  Once your skin is confident that it’s lovely 70-95% humidity layer isn’t going anywhere, it isn’t too hot outside, and you aren’t exercising so hard that you’re overheating, your skin calls it good and just lets you be comfortable.

Bonus: Synthetic Insulation

When you use all these stay-warm hacks you will be so toasty that you may even sweat in your sleep.  Moisture is down insulation’s kryptonite.  It totally kills its ability to insulate.  But synthetic insulation doesn’t mind a little bit of moist abuse and it dries really fast.   Wearing synthetic base layers and using a synthetic sleeping bag will definitely add some weight to your pack vs. down, but it is guaranteed to keep you warm in all conditions and its way cheaper.
Backpacking is a physical sport as well as a mental challenge.  The game is to take your body out into uncontrollable environmental conditions and not only survive, but enjoy the experience.  Some people (mostly men) like to turn it into a game of who can carry the least amount of stuff, but that doesn’t fully define the challenge.  We all want to lighten our packs.  “When the weight goes down, the fun goes up” as they say, but hypothermia isn’t fun for anyone.  These 5 stay-warm hacks will help you make smart weight-management choices that will keep you in the fun zone.
The men may give you grief for all your girly heat concerns, but know this, your genetics also give you more endurance than men.  Even if you have a heavier pack, you can carry it for longer.  So go ahead and lighten up your packs boys, you’ll need it to keep up with us and our monster miles.  Aw, that’s cold, dude!

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