GDT snow3

After a long yet rewarding day on the trail, it’s so important to get some quality sleep so you can recharge fully for the next day’s adventures. Ideally, you want to be relaxed, warm, and smiling as you effortlessly visit snooze-ville. You definitely don’t want a sleepless nasty shiver-fest.

Here are 10 tips I have picked up over the years. Keep in mind that everyone’s metabolism and body structures are different …and please consider these tips as suggestions, NOT rules!

1. Bag vs. Quilt

These days so many ultralight backpackers are choosing quilts over traditional sleeping bags, however, are they right for you? Quilts are lighter, more versatile, and can be more comfortable. While sleeping bags are easy to use, and for most folks … warmer and better on cold windy nights.  If you aren’t sure, it’s generally recommended to use a sleeping bag. Yet if you are an experienced quilter, or with a little practice, the quilt could be the insulator for you.  Hiker’s choice … there is no right answer!


2. Ratings

The manufacturer’s temperature ratings for bags and quilts are most often based on the lowest limit of comfort. When the manufacturer doesn’t tell you what standard they are using… assume it’s for the “lower limit”. Also, note that everyone has different metabolisms and sleeps comfortably at different resting body temperatures. For example, generally, women sleep colder than men and need more insulation. Other factors include hydration, shelter, body fat, diet, and fitness.

Here are the 4 most common temperature rating criteria:

  1. Upper Limit – when a male can sleep without sweating, with hood and zippers open and his arms outside of the bag.
  2. Comfort – this is when a female can comfortably sleep in a relaxed position.
  3. Lower Limit – the temperature at which a male can sleep uninterrupted for 8 hours in a curled position.
  4. Extreme – this is the minimum temperature for a female for 6 hours without the risk of death from hypothermia – albeit a touch of frostbite is still a possibility.

It’s recommended to choose a bag that is rated for the coldest temperature you expect.

3. Sleeping Pad

Getting your body insulated from the ground is crucial to maintaining warmth. When your body comes into contact with the cold ground, the ground acts like a vacuum, sucking away your precious body heat. Contact with cold ground will impact your body temperature more significantly than contact with cold air. Using a shorter pad than your bag will save some weight, however, you give up some insulation and protection from moisture. Consider a 2 pad system. An ultralight air mattress, on top of a very thin closed cell pad like the 3mm Gossamer, or 5mm MEC. Most manufacturers rate the thermal efficiency of their pads with an R factor. Generally…R factors less than 2 are for summer, between 2-4 are three seasons, and over 4 are four-season pads.

4. Size Matters

For maximum warmth, choose a bag that contours to your body without being too tight. The heat trapped between your body and the bag is what keeps you warm at night. You need enough room to create that pocket of warm air. Yet a bag that is too small will cause cold nights as you compress your bag against the areas with tighter fits. If you have too much room, you have more air to keep warm, causing your body to use more energy for less warmth.

To make it even more complicated, when sleeping with a quilt, it could be warmer with a wider cut.  This reduces drafts as you roll around at night. Often quilts are tucked under on the sides, to reduce drafts and increase the cozy factor. Wider quilts allow for more tuck-age and reduced frigid drafts.

Tracy on the Chilkoot Trail – Alaska to BC Canada

5. Shelter

Where you sleep makes a huge difference. Without shelter from the wind, rain, or snow… valuable heat will be sucked ruthlessly from your sleep system. Double-walled tents generally provide the best protection, followed by single-wall tents and bivy shelters, next would be a good hammock system, followed by a tarp… and last and least … cowboy camping. (snow shelters are the cats’ meow in the winter)


6. Keep it Clean

Dirt, sweat, and oil can cause your down bag’s insulation to clump creating cold spots and reducing your bag’s loft. You can get your bag warm and fluffy by washing it after moderate use.

7. Lofty Ambition

When you get to camp take out your bag/quilt and fluff it up and ensure the insulation is evenly distributed. Then lay your bag/quilt out when you set up camp. Give it a couple of hours to loft, for maximum thermal efficiency when you are ready to hit the hay.

8. Start Warm

Do some sit-ups or jumping jacks to get warm. Your body heat is the only thing heating your bag. Consider a hot water bottle to supplement your body heat.

9. Dress for success

If you are a cold sleeper, try adding a pair of thick wool socks or down booties, gloves, and a wool hat. Paired with a thin insulated base layer. Wool is exceptionally breathable and retains 70% of its warmth when wet, while synthetics only retain about 30% of their warming capacity and cotton has 0% warmth retention when wet.

A hat is your quickest fix. Up to 50% of your body heat is lost through your neck and head. If you can sleep in a hat you will be amazed by what a difference it makes. Don’t bury your head deep down in your sleeping bag. The moisture from your breath, will wet your bag insulation and make you even colder.

10. Stay Warm

Empty your bladder. “Go” before you get in your bag and don’t hold it until morning – your body will waste energy trying to keep urine warm. Sleep better and warmer by letting it flow!

Drink something hot – your body needs to be well hydrated to heat efficiently.

Eat something fatty – your body needs fuel to create heat, fats burn slower and help your body heat more efficiently.


Staying warm during a cold camp isn’t rocket science, but it does take some planning, wise consideration, appropriate gear and clothing, and mostly… a great attitude.

CA 6756
Dinner in the tent all bundled in down and other warm layers! – GDT 2021


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