Tips on enjoying an early season outing
by Francisco "Karate Kid" Miller
Karate Kid on a sunny spring day in the Smokies,
Photo by Francisco Miller
As an experienced backpacker and backcountry guide, I always look forward to the onset of spring. The abundance of colors, smells, plant life, and creatures stirring make for truly inspiring adventures. The tricky part about this time of year, especially in the mountains, is the extreme variability in weather and conditions. In four days it is common to experience all four seasons! Last spring I guided a trip into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Day one we had temperatures in the 70s and sunny. Day two the temperatures dropped into the mid-50s and we had intermittent rain. Day three we saw rain all day and the temperatures fell into the mid to low-40s and on our last day, we experienced temperatures in the upper 20s and low 30s and saw snow as we made our way out of the park!
The purpose of this article is to outline a few tips and tricks on how to maximize the effectiveness of our gear in the often variable conditions of early spring. It is important to note when going out in the backcountry it is important to have the right gear, information, safety equipment, and knowledge. Always tell someone what your plans are in case of an emergency. Personal locator beacons are becoming more and more affordable and are a very simple way to call for help. Camping away from water and avoiding low lying damp areas will keep you dry and safe. Never be afraid to turn around if conditions are worsening. The outdoors are meant to be enjoyed and unnecessary suffering can be avoided!!
Moisture is the Enemy! (Clothing Tips)
LAYERS LAYERS LAYERS!
Rain is dangerous because getting wet makes us cold, but hiking in spring we also face the danger of sweating too much! I always pack a lot of layers to make sure I am wearing the right amount of clothing for any temperature or time of day. My favorite line-up includes a midweight base layer, a fleece, and a mid to light-weight puffy. Shedding layers BEFORE you start to sweat is important for staying comfortable. We like to tell our clients, “Be bold, start cold!” If you leave camp or the trailhead slightly cold, you will soon warm up to the ideal hiking temperature. Keep your heavier layers safe and dry so you can throw them on at breaks or at camp.
The hands, feet, and head are often where I have the most trouble and find myself taking off and putting on layers over and over again. I typically bring two to three pairs of gloves, socks of varying thickness and two pieces of headwear. I prefer a thin, breathable pair of gloves (cotton or wool) that I don’t mind sweating into and can dry easily in my pockets or sleeping bag overnight. They also work as a liner for my thicker gloves if it gets really cold. For headwear, I carry a warm beanie and a buff that (similar to the gloves) can function as a lightweight liner or beanie. A thick pair of socks is great for sleeping, and if you keep those dry they work really well as mittens.
A few extras: If you don’t want to invest in waterproof shoes or boots, I recommend neoprene socks to keep your feet warm. Grocery bags can also really come in handy for a lot of things! For short periods of time, you can wear them over your socks on your feet (for creek crossings or really wet days), though they tend to trap moisture and may make your feet cold over extended periods. If you’re afraid of your shoes freezing overnight, you can put them in a shopping bag and keep them in your tent.
Avoiding low lying campsites close to water will help keep you warmer and drier at night, Photo by Francisco Miller
Staying Warm in Camp
As the sun goes down, temperatures typically plummet and I often have to do a lot to stay warm. Wearing rain gear around camp is a great extra layer and can help cut the wind. If it happens to be wet, I can sacrifice the comfort of my hands and keep my gloves dry while I set up my tent. (Trying to set up camp with gloves on often takes longer and will just keep you uncomfortable longer!) Carrying a small tarp to cook under makes camp life in the rain much better on cold spring days! If it’s dry out I sometimes wear my sleeping bag as a blanket while I cook.
Sleeping comfortably in the cold takes a lot of practice but some of these tips can help to start out. I typically carry breathable sleeping clothes and try to avoid wearing too many layers in my sleeping bag to avoid sweating. Your body will naturally sweat at night and trapping that moisture will make you cold, even in a 0* sleeping bag! A camp blanket or another sleeping bag as a quilt works well as an additional sleep layer in really cold weather. Besides carrying extra bags, draping jackets over you will help the sleeping bag stay warm.
Cold feet at night is a common problem. Try putting them (sleeping bag and all) inside your backpack or rain cover! You can also slide them into a jacket (zipped up and through the bottom). Even if my sleeping bag has a hood, I try to wear a beanie at night and sometimes gloves.
Lastly: Heat some water on your stove and put it in a Nalgene or heat resistant bottle to keep with you (carefully) in your sleeping bag. If you feel like you have to use the bathroom, do it! Your body will waste energy holding all that in (plus you won’t be able to sleep very well thinking about it). On the flip side of that, eating (digesting) and drinking will keep you warm. Cold weather tends to dehydrate you (by constricting capillaries and pushing moisture out of the body).
This short list of tricks should be a good start to enjoying that early spring weather. Stay safe, and happy hiking!
Getting out in less than ideal conditions can pay rewards, like getting to see Trilliums in bloom
Photo by, Francisco Miller
About the Author: Francisco "Karate Kid" Miller is a
Francisco "Karate Kid" Miller is a Triple Crowner and mountain guide in the Smokies for both Blue Ridge Hiking Company and Wildland Trekking. You can contact Karate Kid directly to book a trip for some great personal attention and hiking tips while enjoying the mountains and he is also available to answer questions.