Stay Warm: What works for me


Site Index


Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links
Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links


Staying Warm: What works for me

In 2008 I started my Thru-Hike in January. I used a hammock and I went pretty darn light; especially for a winter hike with temperatures in the single digits and some wet/cold nights. Often I see hikers on forums preparing for a hike wondering about what clothing to wear and what gear to take. To me it is more about how you use what you carry than just a simple list of stuff to pack. So here I go trying to explain things again...

Before I get too deep into the meat of this, I have to say something: Clothing is the hardest area to recommend people "what to take". We all have different levels of comfort and endurance. I have seen people at home in shorts when there is snow on the ground, and I have seen people bundled up when it is in the 50's. I tend to believe some of that bundling up can be attributed to not knowing how to use clothing to your advantage, and a desire to be as comfortable outside as you are inside. Many people in the modern day go from one climate controlled area to another and never adapt or learn to deal with the weather - especially the cold.

I'll also mention (after saying that) that I do not expect my outdoor clothing to make me warm and toasty all the time. If you are hiking in bad weather this is pretty unrealistic expectation. Especially considering you have periods of heavy exertion followed by periods of total immobilization. Your body will compensate for one which can affect the other.

So getting past the expectations of comfort and allowing that we all have different levels of comfort and endurance, I'll move on.

Set a base:

This is what you would hike in, in any weather. For me it is microfiber underwear (prevents thigh chafe on me), shorts, wicking t-shirt, and a baseball hat. Even this weekend in 40 degree weather, this is likely what you will see me in. This is comfortable, has pockets, and dries quick - which is important in 20F weather and 100F weather.

Some people over-dress when they expect cold weather. They backpack in long sleeve shirts and long pants and find that they are sweating later on when they stop. And then they find that it is hard to add layers over long clothing. If you start small with your base layer, then you will probably find it easy to layer over it.

Example base:

1 Patagonia Shorts Patagonia baggy shorts 5.23 ounces
1 Patagonia T-Shirt Patagonia t shirt 5.16 ounces
1 Wal Mart Ankle length running socks 1.48 ounces
1 Wal Mart Microfiber underwear 2.05 ounces
1 Addidas Trail Runners 27.77 ounces
1 Ball cap Mesh 2.30 ounces
    Total 42.99 ounces

I'll also add that I carried a spare set of socks and underwear. I tried carrying some camp shoes, but never used them so I ditched them. What I did in camp was pull out the foot beds and unlace my shoes all the way - walking around Gangsta' style. Back when I first started backpacking we would bring running shoes for camp anyway. Save yourself some weight.

Walking in cold weather, use wind cover:

Now while you are hiking in that sort of weather (above 40F say) you may get cold, but this is normally from wind - not from the air temp because your body is generating enough heat. The biggest mistake I see people do at this point is put their base insulation layer on which causes them to sweat while walking. Most of the time they don't even realize it until they stop later - I've been through that myself. If you stop when you are moist with sweat, the cold will start coming in through your insulation layer that was supposed to keep you warm.

What you really need is a wind blocking layer. For this I use a wind shirt for my torso, a Buff for my ears and face, and my rain pants for my legs. I can effectively use this sort of layer when walking even down into the 20s. Sometimes I will have to add my gloves if my hands are getting cold holding my poles. But if you don't use poles you can tuck your hands into pockets.

Example wind clothing:

1 Buff Microfiber 1.31 ounces
1 Windshirt Granite Gear 3.25 ounces
    Total 4.56 ounces

If you are doing like I do, then when you stop for a break you have a warm, dry base layer you can don quickly when you stop. Which comes to my next point.

It is easier to STAY WARM than it is to GET WARM, REMEMBER THIS!

When you stop, if you haven't overdressed while walking, then your skin and clothing is relatively dry. Your body is probably comfortable at this point with the heat your are generating. BUT it will go away faster than you think. As soon as you stop, start getting out some warm layer(s) to add BEFORE you cool off. Once you cool off, your body takes time and energy to try and warm up, but if you put them on as quick as you can you save that heat you are now producing.

This is the perfect place to remind folks about the acronym COLD:

C Clean. Keep your clothing clean as possible. Dirty clothing does not breath as well. Not hiking in your warm stuff helps.
O Overheating. Do not allow yourself to overheat and sweat, you can get cold later and with wet sweaty clothing this could be dangerous.
L Layers. Use a layering system to regulate body heat.
D Dry. Keep everything as dry as possible. Staying dry seems to be 50% of the fight at staying warm.

Base Layer:

Now the next layer is your real base insulation layer. From the gear lists I see every year, many people have a few of these.

For me, this is what I keep in the top of my pack to grab when I stop for a break or as soon as I get to camp in cold weather. My base insulation layer is wool gloves, a wool cap, dry wool socks, and PowerStretch fleece top and bottom. I use this with my wind block, which I put back on outside the base layer. This combination will keep me pretty warm in camp even into the high 20s. And if I have to walk in very cold weather, I can do that with this layer combination even in single digits.

But the important thing to remember when walking with this layer combination on is:

When you start to get comfortable it is probably time to take it off.

Something to consider when talking about this level of insulation combination is leaving camp. I find it hard to go from being warm in camp to take this off before I start - but I try to. I know it is better to leave camp a little uncomfortably from the cold than to hike and get sweaty. Because I know when I walk, I will get warm.

Example base layer:

1 Wool cap Army surplus 2.23 ounces
1 Wool gloves Army surplus 2.23 ounces
1 Wigwam socks Mid weight 2.54 ounces
1 Powerstrech Pants Arc'Teryx 8.06 ounces
1 Powerstrech Shirt REI 9.16 ounces
    Total 24.22 ounces

Puffy Layer:

Here is where I see aspiring Thru-Hikers falling flat. Often their next layer is another level of base layer. Fleece is nice, but for me, nothing beats puffy insulation. You can debate between synthetics and down, but either way they both loft better and provide more insulation than the same weight of fleece. That is why we call it the puffy layer  in my family. We all carry it in the cold. Down jackets are good, I waffle back and forth on the down vs. synthetics when it comes to this. I also really like (no LOVE) the Army surplus field jacket liners and field pants. This layer is invaluable in really cold weather and you will be glad you have it.

Think about it: a Western Mountaineering down jacket weighs about 12 ounces and is as thick as about 3 or 4 layers of fleece. An Army surplus field jacket liner costs about $10-$15 bucks, weighs about 10 ounces, and can turn any rain jacket into a parka. Field pants liners are the same deal except for your legs.

Often the high end jackets that are heavier are often heavier because their shell is some sort of wind proof/water resistant fabric. BUT you are already carrying rain gear. Save weight on some special shell by just wearing the puffy layer under rain gear. If you were planning to walk in the puffy layer, this could be a bad idea. But, unless you are walking out of the mountains to civilization in a blizzard, you should avoid hiking in this layer at all costs. I have yet to need to do this. For me, the puffy layer is a camp insulation system.

In my puffy layer I have a a thick pair of wool socks, 300 wt fleece gloves, a fleece neck gaiter, a surplus pair of field pants liners, and a new Western Mountaineering down jacket, last year on the trail it was a field jacket liner.

Example puffy layer:

1 Neck Gaiter Army surplus 1.98 ounces
1 Polartec Mittens 300 wt 1.80 ounces
1 Wigwam Socks Heavy weight 2.61 ounces
1 Field pants liners Army surplus 8.02 ounces
1 Western Mountaineering Down jacket 12.61 ounces
    Total 27.02 ounces

Stay Dry:

And finally - staying dry is 50% of the fight (at least) so avoid ever getting sweaty in the first place by having the discipline to shed layers as soon as possible. Avoid any cotton in your clothing. And use rain gear to protect your fleece and down from moisture in camp. Your rain gear is more than just gear to be put on in the rain. Rain gear is usually windproof and will hold in heat. Don't leave it in the pack when you need it just because it isn't raining.

I also get asked all the time about my feet in the cold weather using trail runners. I found that most of the time when I was walking, just the ankle length running socks worked just fine. The only times I needed more were in the driving cold rain, and in snow - especially when walking in knee deep melting snow. The ice water was torture. But the solution was Gore-Tex socks. think about this: if Gore-Tex is such a great fabric for hiking, why aren't all hiking clothes made from Gore-Tex? The fact is you sweat in that stuff even though it is breathable. I use the same philosophy for my feet: Gore-Tex socks when you need that extra protection.

I also found Gore-Tex mittens to be useful in some some heavy, cold rain. My rain pants were on me almost all of the time when hiking in cold weather because of the wind break they provided. I also LOVED my Packa because I didn't need to mess with taking a jacket on and off with a pack every time the weather changed. The Packa had the nice ability to stay on the pack with the hood, arms, and front available for a quick slip on while walking when needed.

Example rain gear:

1 Packa Rain jacket/pack cover 10.39 ounces
1 Frogg Togg Rain Pants 7.95 ounces
1 OR mittens Gore-Tex 1.20 ounces
1 Rocky socks Gore-Tex 3.39 ounces
    Total 21.93 ounces

Conclusion on clothing:

As you can see, what you carry on a southern AT winter hike can weigh fairly little. All the clothing I carried in my pack for winter (unless I put some on to walk) only weighed about 5 pounds total.

I hope that helps you out when figuring out your clothing for your packing list. I tried to be as straight forward about it as possible. Use what works for you, but I bet with time and experience you will probably find something similar to what I do will probably serve you well.

Hammocks on a winter Thru-Hike:

Using a hammock in the winter I had a philosophy similar to my clothing. I think the main difference is I didn't have a base hammock that served for my year round use. I had one hammock that was for any season without bugs, and kept another back for when the bugs came out. So that said, I will describe my hammock system in reverse.

Total Winter:

My total winter package was a homemade hammock similar to the Ed Speer hammock. It was a basic piece of fabric from the Wal-Mart remnant stack with some climbers accessory cord, some Hennessy Tree Hugger Straps, and a pair of careeners. I figured while it was winter I didn't need to fool with bottom entry plus layers of insulation and a bug net that didn't serve much of a purpose.

For overhead protection I had an Etowah Outfitters 6'x10' tarp. In hindsight I should have had a larger tarp, and since I got off I have changed over to an Etowah 8'x10' tarp. To hold it down I carried 4 stakes, and I made more or used available vegetation when the weather required.

Underneath I had a Jacks 'R Better No-Sniveler with a Jacks 'R Better Weathershield. I laid on my own double layer pad. Over me I had a Hungry Howie quilt and in bad weather I augmented it with the top Jacks 'R Better Weathershield and my clothing.

So, the total base weight of my hammock and shelter at the start looked something like this:

1 Etowah Tarp 6'x10' 10.81 ounces
4 MSR Stakes Needle 1.28 ounces
1 Homemade Hammock About $12 in parts 12.30 ounces
2 Tree Huggers Hennessy Hammocks 1.84 ounces
1 JRB Weathershield Top 6.54 ounces
1 JRB Weathershield Bottom 7.95 ounces
1 Pad Homemade 9.72 ounces
1 JRB No Sniveler 21.27 ounces
1 Hungry Howie Quilt 18.02 ounces
2 JRB Shock Cords Quilt/Weathershield suspension 1.13 ounces
1 Stuff sack   0.99 ounces
2 Carabineers   2.54 ounces
    Total 94.39 ounces

That means my total weight for sleeping system and shelter was just a hair under 6 pounds. Compare that to a person with a solo tent at ~2.5 lbs, a 20F bag at ~ 2lbs, a Thermarest at about 1.5 pounds. So really no difference from someone carrying a "normal" packing system.

There was never I time I wished I had more or wanted to go to ground. At most, one morning I got up a little chilled to find it was ~6F. I put on the puffy layer and went back to bed in my hammock to warm up.


When I came back to the trail after Spring Break, I had gotten rid of some of my stuff I was rarely using at all in winter and hadn't needed for about a month by then. When I came back it looked something like this:

1 Etowah Tarp 6'x10' 10.81 ounces
4 MSR Stakes Needle 1.28 ounces
1 Homemade Hammock About $12 in parts 12.30 ounces
2 Tree Huggers Hennessy Hammocks 1.84 ounces
1 Pad Homemade 9.72 ounces
1 JRB No Sniveler 21.27 ounces
1 Hungry Howie Quilt 18.02 ounces
2 JRB Shock Cords Quilt/Weathershield suspension 1.13 ounces
1 Stuff sack   0.99 ounces
2 Carabineers   2.54 ounces
    Total 79.90 ounces

As you can see, I got rid of the Weathershield. Other than that, everything was working like I needed in the worst of weather and I didn't even need all that. I often slept on just my pad with the JRB No Sniveler on top, the HH Quilt still in the bag as a pillow. Total weight was under 5 pounds.


I had to get off the AT before I got to this level, but I hike a lot using the gear I've listed below. At this point I switch back to my Hennessy for bug protection and even find at night that this is too warm a set up.

1 MSR Stakes Needle 0.64 ounces
2 Tree Huggers Hennessy Hammocks 1.84 ounces
1 Pad Homemade 9.72 ounces
1 JRB No Sniveler 21.27 ounces
1 Stuff sack   0.99 ounces
2 Carabineers   2.54 ounces
1 Hennessy Hammock Asym Tarp w/JRB shock cords 9.43 ounces
1 Hennessy Hammock Hyperlight w/ Snakeskins 18.02 ounces
    Total 64.45 ounces

Now I am in the low weight level - 4 pounds and a hair. Compare that to a tarp tent at 1.5 pounds, 30F bag at 1.75 pounds, and a light pad at .75 pounds. Still compatible to a "normal hiker".

Hopefully this helps you look at doing winter weather on the southern AT with a new perspective. The only time I ever felt like I needed more was during a snowstorm in February outside of Erwin, TN. But I made it just fine with a cool story to tell about how it is sometimes better to be smart than hard, and I've added about 1/2 pound to my winter rig since then for added comfort - mostly for a bigger tarp and wider top quilt.

Good Luck!