Keys To A Good Night's Rest In The Cold
Winter is the best. But the cold is no joke. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. There’s a real deal, honest hardiness to it. The cold is relentless, it loves to hunt down lazy choices and macho tendencies. Short cuts are quickly exposed. But those who are able to adapt and embrace the work necessary to stay warm are rewarded with the invigorating feeling that comes from connecting with nature on nature’s terms.
Sleeping warm outside is a big part of that.
It is not possible to overestimate the importance of sleeping warmly in the cold. How a person eats, sleeps, and outfits themselves go a long way to determining whether they will enjoy the cold or suffer. Experience is a factor too.
At the Voyageur Outward Bound School, in Ely, Minnesota, where I got my start in the cold, students learn how to sleep outside in the winter on the first night of their course…under the stars or under an open-sided tarp, no tents, no huts. The school’s standard sleeping warm lesson can take more than an hour. I’ve added what I learned from working in the Arctic, but the bones and the philosophy of the lesson are the same. In the winter we are the warmest thing out there, so we need to do the work to keep the warm blood circulating and do the right things to harness that body heat.
Teaching people how to sleep warmer in the winter is fun. Once they get it, the gates of winter really start to open up. It can take a few nights to get into the routine of sleeping warm outside. Open discussion of what worked and what didn’t can help everyone in the group get comfortable with it. These discussions also contribute to a strong camaraderie that supports people in acknowledging that they are cold and making changes to warm up…which is really the name of the game when you get down to it.
Warm Winter Sleeping Routine
Here is a basic version of my warm sleeping routine. The details can go deep.
- Eat a big calorie dense dinner. If it is super cold, really stuff yourself. Think of those dense calories as adding a load of hardwood to the wood stove. You want it to burn all night. In extreme cold, my body runs out of fuel around 5:30 AM, but it sucks when that happens at 2:00 AM. See my previous Backpacker Pantry posts on eating right in the winter: here, here, and here.
- Lay out your sleeping system. From bottom up I use: ground sheet, ensolite (closed cell foam) sleeping pad, Therm-a-rest sleeping pad, big huge 0°F synthetic outer sleeping bag, 15°F (or 0°F) down inner sleeping bag that slides into the outer bag without getting compressed. Often we lay out the sleeping systems before dinner to give bags time to loft.
- Put a hot water bottle (or two) in your sleeping bag. Fill a water bottle (Nalgene) with boiling water. Screw the lid on tight. Put the water bottle in a sock or insulated sleeve. Put it in your sleeping bag an hour ahead of going to bed. Move the water bottle around the bag as needed during the night.
- Dry your socks. Never go to bed in the cold with wet socks. I like to switch to a designated dry pair of socks that I only use for sleeping.
- Generate your own heat. Do 5 to 10 minutes of exercises to generate body heat. Stop before you start to sweat. I like shuttle runs, vigorous shadow boxing, big jumping jacks.
- Go pee.
- Calmly get in your sleeping bag one step at a time. Take care to stow all your clothing and gear so it is easy to find in the morning or if you need it during the night. Don’t rush, trust that your body heat will keep you warm and that you have time to get things right. Keep finger (liner) gloves and your headlamp easily accessible, like your in armpit.
- Make sleeping bag hood adjustments. Take the time to make your sleeping bag hood adjustments and get cozy.
- Say good night to your teammates.
- If you get cold during the night, check to be sure that you are still on your sleeping pad, put on a layer, do sit-ups and leg lifts to generate heat, eat a snack.
- If you have to pee during the night, don’t hold it, your body is spending precious energy keeping the urine warm inside of your body. I’m a professional when it comes to using a pee bottle inside of a sleeping bag. Or get out of your bag, pee, generate a little heat and get back in.
And you’ve got to take care of each other out there. As a teammate and expedition leader I always check on people to make sure they are on their sleeping pads and cinched up against the cold. Over the years I’ve tucked in teenagers, grandparents, Mt. Everest summiteers, Navy SEALS, CNN crews, and even my narcoleptic North Pole expedition partner who kept falling asleep with his arms hanging outside this sleeping bag (we were pretty damn tired).
After a long day in the cold, getting into your sleeping bag knowing that you are going to sleep warm and cozy sure is a good feeling.
That’s how they say it in Norway.
John Huston ready for shut eye off the coast of Ellesmere Island, Arctic Canada. © Kyle O’Donoghue