Tips for staying warm
You’re used to cycle touring and cycle camping in summer, but how do you stay warm in winter, while still going riding (and hopefully camping)? Hypothermia can be a killer, so from the outset you need to be able to manage your plans, so you can avoid it altogether. Your ancestors survived an ice age with kit you would consider too primitive to use when camping in your garden, let alone survive a night on a glacier, so there’s no reason you can’t keep yourself safe and warm. Remember the old saying “Outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens” – it’s true, and winter camping is a great way to step outside your comfort zone.
That strategy begins with understanding how clothes keep you warm, so here’s a mini history lesson: a man called Henrik Brun was an officer in the Norwegian army – they have far colder weather than the UK, so it stands to reason that the Norwegians know a thing or two about staying warm. Brun correctly surmised that what keeps you warm is the ability for a garment to trap pockets of air, and he set about making a vest out of fishing netting. This proved to be so effective that he soon had his design manufactured, and the string vest was born.
Though string vests have fallen out of fashion, and tend to often be associated with less-than-refined men these days, the principle holds true, and virtually all clothing designed to keep you warm follow that same principle. Of course, there’s far more to it that just slipping on a string vest!
The next secret is layers. Layers work simply because you can stack multiple layers of pockets of air around your body. Air (and the clothing fibres themselves) still acts as a thermal conductor, meaning that a single layer won’t keep you very warm, while adding more layers means you’ll be far warmer. Of course, there are a few catches, with the first of that being wind. As long as wind can cut through the clothes you’re wearing, all those pockets of warm air will be replaced by cold air, and you won’t stay warm for long, so it’s essential to have a wind-proof outer layer. Remember, warm clothes don’t make you warm. Instead, they slow down heat loss from your body, and as long as your body can reproduce the heat it’s losing, your core temperature will remain stable. Wearing multiple layers means you can remove some layers when you start to overheat, and add them again when you start to cool down.
The big catch is moisture, as you simply cannot avoid it. The obvious one is external moisture, perhaps from rain, but we cannot overlook internal moisture, from sweating. In cold weather, especially if in a survival situation, sweat is your enemy. In severe cold, it can freeze on your skin, and when that happens, no amount of layers will keep you warm. This is why a wicking base layer is so important – it will draw sweat away from your skin. Though it can very from person to person, usually merino wool is the best material for a base layer, and as an added benefit, it’s naturally odour-resistant. If you can’t get a good merino wool base layer, usually polyester is your next best bet. Polyester has the additional benefit of not only being excellent at wicking moisture away from your skin, it also dries fast.
Obviously, water is a better thermal conductor than air, and this is why you will lose heat far quicker if wet, than if you remain dry. However, no matter how badly you may want to keep dry, on especially longer bike rides in the rain, you will find it impossible to remain dry. Either you’ll get wet from outside, or from inside (the boil-in-the-bag effect) and often it will be both at once. Personally, I prefer polyester base layers, precisely because they dry quicker, but others feel different.
Your rain coat should be wind-proof, and rain coats open up a whole new minefield. There’s a myriad of “breathable” fabrics available, but as a rule of thumb, and with the possible exception of Gore-Tex rain coats, any breathable rain coat will result in you getting wet in the rain. The only question is how long it will take. Cheaper rain coats tend to be made from more waterproof fabrics, but are also airtight, meaning sweat build-up will result in you also getting wet. My strategy therefore is not to try and remain dry – I ride with a well-vented rain coat that’s not breathable, and I accept from the outset that I’ll get wet sooner or later. My focus is simply on retaining body heat.
Off the bike
Cycle touring, and especially cycle camping means you will get off your bike. That becomes an issue, because while riding, you’ll be generating extra body heat, probably enough to keep you warm. However, as soon as you stop, you’ll rapidly cool down, and then the risk of hypothermia becomes real. As a result, it’s important to carry extra warm clothes, and in particular a warm coat. I have a hollow-fibre filled coat that packs surprisingly small, and I rely heavily on that, with my rain coat over the top. And yes, I wear both when going to sleep, if it’s cold enough to warrant doing so. As I shave my head, and have done so for years, I also carry a Thinsulate beanie, which I put on as soon as I’m off the bike. It’s far more efficient to retain heat, than what it is to try and regenerate lost heat. You will also want to cover your legs as soon as possible, as well as your shoes. Despite neoprene overshoes being essential for winter cycling, unless you’re wearing Shimano MTB winter boots, your feet will get wet. The neoprene overshoes (get the thickest ones available!) are for thermal insulation, not to keep your feet dry. I suggest synthetic trousers – denim gets wet too quickly, and when wet, you’ll rapidly cool down.
At the end of the day, as soon as I have my tent up I change out of wet, or damp clothes, into warmer, dry clothes. Obviously, that starts with a base layer, and I use running tights under walking trousers. As space is an issue when cycle camping, I carry neoprene swimming shoes to wear off the bike. Because they’re neoprene, they help keep my feet warm, and I’ll wear thick socks too. Before I go to sleep, I’ll usually put on another pair of socks, and if it’s cold enough, I’ll sleep wearing Thinsulate gloves, too.
Your ice-age ancestors could rely only on the body heat they generated, or heat from a fire, with animal skins to slow down heat loss and help them keep warm. Even if you wanted to, making a fire in winter would be difficult, as any wood you may find will be wet, and besides, making fires is very much at odds with the “Leave no trace” principle I strongly believe in, so let’s look at other sources of heat available to you.
Lithium-Ion batteries have truly changed the world, and you can now get USB-powered (powered from a hefty power bank, in other words) heated gilets, insoles and even gloves. If you feel the cold quickly, or if it’s forecast to be a very cold night, you may want to invest in these. You also get re-usable hand-warmers. Basically, they contain a special liquid that solidifies, and starts producing heat when you click the metal disk inside. To reset them, you boil them in a pot of water for a while. Finally, you can get chemical hand and foot warmers. These react to air and warms up, due to a chemical reaction. On a freezing cold night, all of these will make a huge difference.
If camping, boil water for hot drinks as soon as you can – drinking something hot raises your core temperature. Just remember that most camping gas cannisters use butane, which doesn’t burn well at all when cold, so ensure you take a gas cannister containing a propane/butane mix, else you’ll not manage to boil water. Oh, and avoid Coleman Performance Gas!
Also, consider taking an old-fashioned hot water bottle. No – it won’t stay warm all night long, but we’re deep into marginal gains territory here. As soon as you can, fill it with hot water, then place it inside your sleeping bag. Before you go to sleep, reheat the water, then refill the hot water bottle. That way, you’re crawling into an already warm sleeping bag, with additional heating. Pre-heating your sleeping bag makes a big difference – remember, your sleeping bad otherwise will only be warmed up by heat lost from your body. I usually save my re-usable hand-warmers for when it’s time to go to sleep, and would have one or two inside the sleeping bag with me, saving at least one in case I wake up cold in the middle of the night. Ensure that you eat a warm meal just before going to sleep – your body will need extra fuel to stay warm, and the warmth from the food will help maintain a stable core temperature, and that is the recipe for having a good night’s sleep.
If you wake from the cold in the night, the temptation will be to curl up into a ball and not get out of your sleeping bag. Resist that temptation! Get out, reheat the water from your hot water bottle, and make a hot drink, too. Waking up from cold is a warning sign that your body is losing too much heat, so use what you have to replace that heat as soon as you can.
Shelter is vital when it’s cold. Ironically, if it is snowing, it can be to your benefit, as snow can be a surprisingly good insulator, and a tent covered in snow can be warmer inside than one free from snow. A massive problem will be ground cold, especially if the ground is wet, which means you will need decent insulation against ground cold. My self-inflating sleeping mat isn’t enough, so I supplement it with a closed-cell foam mat. Yes, that means I carry more bulk on the bike, but in the middle of the night you’ll be glad for the additional insulation. Obviously, you will need a sleeping bag. Mine isn’t rated for winter camping, so I supplement it with a sleeping bag liner, as well as a fleece blanket. Fleece is a good insulator, and remains surprisingly effective even when wet. Finally, as emergency, I carry a foil “space blanket”. They’re noisy, but can make a big difference.
Some people prefer to sleep in bivvies, while others – me included – prefer tents. In very cold weather, you can be better off with a bivvy, as there’s less air around you to warm up, but my preference remains a tent especially if there’s any chance of rain, as I can still cook, or boil water while mostly remaining inside my tent.
And there you have it – good strategies to help you enjoy cold-weather camping, and that simply means you can stretch your adventure season to year-round.