11 Tips for Staying Warm While Backpacking in Fall

When you’re in the backcountry during the shoulder seasons, it’s no fun to wake up freezing cold in the middle of the night. You can’t just “turn up the thermostat” or grab an extra blanket from the closet. So, since shivering uncontrollably is only fun for so long, here are 11 tips for staying warm:

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1. Wear dry clothes to bed

If you go to bed in the shirt you’ve been sweating in all day, it’s going to be hard to escape the damp chill. I often pack a spare base layer, so that I’ll have something dry to put on just before bed, and I’ll put all my dry layers—including puffy jackets, hats, and gloves—on over it.

2. Set up camp in a protected area

Finding a campsite away from the wind is another way to increase your chances of keeping warm through night. If you’re doing a multi-night Pemi Loop, for example, you’ll be much warmer if you walk the extra mileage down to the Mt. Guyot tent platforms instead of camping in overflow sites right on the Bondcliff Trail. If you’re unfamiliar, these are located on the ridgeline and get exposed to wind all night long. By contrast, the Guyot tent platforms are tucked away a few hundred yards below the ridge.

3. Keep your stuff warm, too

There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and trying to force your feet into damp socks and ice-cold boots. To prevent this, dry your socks in your sleeping bag overnight. And, if it’s really cold and your boots are soaking wet, consider putting them in a plastic bag—a grocery bag works well—and stuffing them into the bottom of your sleeping bag. They’ll stay warm enough, so that your feet won’t turn into icicles when you put them back on.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

4. Zip your sleeping bag all the way up

It never ceases to amaze us that the person complaining about how cold the night was is also the same person who didn’t bother to zip his or her bag all the way up—or who wasn’t using the mummy hood. Pro tip: Wearing a hat to bed is a good insurance policy if you’re likely to squirm out of your mummy bag during the night.

5. Bring two sleeping pads

Although most focus on a sleeping pad’s comfort, it also serves an important insulating purpose by preventing conductive heat loss. I’ve found that the best combination for warmth and comfort is a closed-cell foam pad, like the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol, on the bottom with an inflatable, like the Sea to Summit Ultralight, on top. Pro tip: Closed-cell foam pads also work great around camp, and are much warmer than sitting directly on the ground or on rocks.

6. Make a heater

Fill your water bottles with boiling water before you go to bed, and then stuff them in your sleeping bag. They’ll act like a heating pad, keeping you warm all night long. Just make sure the caps are on tight!


7. Bring a heater

Get yourself some Yaktrax Handwarmers. Disposable hand warmers are an awesome addition to your fall backpacking kit. It’s amazing how much warmth these little suckers add when tucked into your pockets, at your feet, or simply stuffed into your sleeping bag.

8. Pack and eat extra food

When it’s cold out, your body has to work extra hard to keep warm. To fuel your furnace, make sure to bust into that stash of cookies you hid in your partner’s pack.

9. Have something warm to drink

Hot liquids both increase your body’s temperature and work as fantastic morale boosters. If possible, avoid alcohol, which, in spite of the warm feeling it gives you, actually speeds up heat loss, and caffeinated beverages. The latter is known to dehydrate you—bad for circulation—and could send you on a cold run for the bathroom in the middle of the night.

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10. Get up and get warm

Good circulation is a sure way to beat the cold. If you’re hanging around camp, periodically get up to jog in place or do some jumping jacks—just try to avoid sweating—to increase blood flow and fight off the freezing temperatures.

11. Spread the love warmth

When the going gets tough, cuddle. If it’s colder than expected or you’re less prepared than you thought you were, there is always the miracle of body heat. You always wanted to get closer to your hiking partner…didn’t you?


Do you have a tried-and-true trick for staying warm in the backcountry? If so, share it in the comments.



A Guide to Backpacking the Virginia Triple Crown

From lush, dense forests to stunning overlooks and winding ridges, Southwestern Virginia offers plenty to keep any hiker busy. And, the three iconic destinations included in the Virginia Triple Crown give hikers an unparalleled set of challenges and rewards.

The Virginia Triple Crown combines three spots along the Appalachian Trail, all of which are located in close proximity to each other, and can be reached via day hikes or in one fell swoop through 30- to 40-mile backpacking routes. Whether you’re a day-hiker or backpacker, you’ll enjoy what the Triple Crown has to offer.

Things to Know Before You Go

If you’re considering day-hiking or backpacking the Triple Crown, plan to:

  • Start your hike early. Parking lots fill quickly during the peak season.
  • Be challenged and know your limits. Each day hike covers five to eight miles with a minimum elevation gain of 1,500 feet. Triple Crown backpacking routes may feature up to 16-mile days, depending on your route.
  • Spend time doing careful, thorough route planning. Water sources and campsites may be few and far between.
  • Practice Leave No Trace, observe group size restrictions, and camp only in designated areas to help protect the trail and landscape.
Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

Day-Hiking to McAfee Knob

Start: McAfee Knob Parking Area
Round-Trip Distance: 7-8 miles, steep
Time: 4-5 hours
View Route

McAfee Knob is one of the area’s most photographed hiking destinations. It has also seen an exponential increase in visitation recently, making observing rules and Leave No Trace principles paramount. You’ll share the trail with others, but the overhanging cliffs and panoramic views will be worth it.

Start at the McAfee Knob Parking Area, cross VA 311, and pick up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north. Pass an information kiosk, wind through dense forests, and pass the Johns Spring Shelter (0.8 miles) and the Catawba Mountain Shelter (1.5 miles). As you continue to gain elevation on the AT, you’ll see signs for an overlook, and as you hike through, you’ll arrive at McAfee Knob. To return, retrace your steps on the AT or take the McAfee Knob Trail back down to the parking lot.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

Day-Hiking to Tinker Cliffs

Start: Andy Layne Trail Parking Lot
Round-Trip Distance: 7.5 miles, steep
Time: 4-5 hours
View Route

Tinker Cliffs offers beautiful creek crossings, panoramic valley views, and a trail section named after a 1980s incident called Scorched Earth Gap. It’s a tough, steep hike but absolutely worth the journey.

From the parking lot, follow the yellow-blazed Andy Layne Trail. Cross two bridges over Catawba Creek, avoid stepping in cow patties, and move through a gate (1.2 miles), which indicates passage onto private land. The remaining part of the Andy Layne Trail is steep; you’ll gain 900-plus feet of elevation before arriving at the white-blazed AT and Scorched Earth Gap. Turn right onto the AT, and then, you’ll come to the first good viewpoint (0.5 miles). Over the next quarter mile, take in the views along Tinker Cliffs. To go back, retrace your steps to the parking lot.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

Day-Hiking to Dragon’s Tooth

Start: Dragon’s Tooth Parking Lot
Round-Trip Distance: 5.7 miles, steep and technical
Time: 4 hours

Dragon’s Tooth is a giant, scraggly rock formation sticking out of Cove Mountain and the sand-covered land above the Catawba Valley. It’s the shortest of the three Triple Crown day hikes but by far the steepest, and it requires some hand-over-hand climbing and good balance.

From the parking lot, pick up the blue-blazed Dragon’s Tooth Trail, cross two small bridges, pass the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Connector Trail, and continue up. Here, climb steadily through dense tree cover, until you reach the intersection with the AT (1.4 miles). Then, turn right onto the AT. The next 0.7 miles cover extremely rocky terrain, including rock steps, two sets of iron rungs, and narrow sections just wide enough for two feet. As this portion eases, continue 0.3 miles to Dragon’s Tooth. To return, you have two options: Retrace your steps, or follow the AT north, turn left onto the Boy Scout Connector Trail, and catch the last bit of the Dragon’s Tooth Trail back to the parking lot.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

Backpacking the Virginia Triple Crown

Start: McAfee Knob Parking Area
Type: Loop
Round-Trip Distance: 37 miles
Time: 3 days, 2 nights

If you’re a seasoned backpacker looking for a challenge, you can visit all three Triple Crown destinations in one trip. The recommended route is a loop, but it’s also possible to complete it via a point-to-point route along the AT. For the recommended loop, refer to this trip report and the following itinerary:

Day 1: 10.6 miles. Starting at the McAfee Knob parking lot, follow the AT north. Then, pass McAfee Knob, three AT shelters (Johns Spring, Catawba Mountain, and Campbell), and Scorched Earth Gap, and stay overnight at Lamberts Meadow Shelter.

Day 2: 15.5 miles. Retrace your steps 0.7 miles south on the AT to Scorched Earth Gap, and take the Andy Layne Trail down the valley. Pass through the Andy Layne Trail parking lot, cross the road, and hike up to North Mountain Trail (yellow blazes) via the Catawba Valley Trail (blue blazes). Come down North Mountain, cross VA 311, head through Dragon’s Tooth parking lot, and camp at the campsites off the Boy Scout Connector Trail.

Day 3: 9.6 miles. Leave your packs at the Boy Scout camp, and then, tag Dragon’s Tooth via the Dragon’s Tooth Trail. After you retrace your steps back to camp, pick up your backpacks, and take the Boy Scout Connector Trail to the AT. Follow the AT back to VA 311 and the McAfee Knob parking lot.

Have you done any of the Triple Crown destinations as day hikes, or done all three via a backpacking trip? We’d love to hear from you!