A Contribution by James Menta
So, you're outdoorsy.
I get that. We are like-minded on that one.
You like the fresh feeling of chilled air in your lungs and the increased chances of being eaten by a bear. Or just the chilled air? Ok, that's fine, too...not a fan of bears myself...
But let's get serious now. Chances are that you are reading this article for one of two reasons - you are either homeless or as George Carlin would say: "houseless", or you are just a fan of hiking and camping. Since I don't know too many homeless people with a laptop, I'll presume that you are the later and take it from there.
Now, if you are an experienced hiker or camper, you know your way around and you know that sleeping outdoors is not just throwing a few things in your backpack.
To get most out of your experience and to be able to truly relax, you need a well crafted plan, and that calls for a little know-how. What I'll try to do in this article is save you from the costly mistakes that I've made back in the day.
I'll try to be clear and concise and compress the basics into 5 tips:
Tip 1. Keep warm by following these few simple rules
First of all, we are primarily talking about camping and hiking conditions here, so I will presume that you are sleeping in a tent. I will also presume winter conditions, since I want to cover the worst case scenarios.
ü Keep the zipper closed - this one might seem like a no-brainer but you would be amazed at how many people I hear saying they froze on their trip only to discover that "they wanted to admire the stars". So, zip up if it's cold, even if you don't think it will be of much help, it will make the world of difference.
ü A sleeping pad is a simple must - I have read that some of my articles for ultra light hiking were being scorned by adrenalin near-death experience junkies who travel with a spoon and a for a can of tuna. I say, sleeping pad can be a life saver. Self inflating air mattresses are maybe even a better idea. More on that in the last tip.
ü Dry sleeper - warm sleeper - when preparing for that good night's sleep, make sure you are dry. Often, your clothes will be damp or wet, so just slip into something dry, who cares if it's the smelly dirty yesterday clothes that you put out to dry during the day
ü Avoid cotton and go for synthetics or wool - my preferred choice is synthetic fleece and a knit cap. I go for fleece because it is so light and has nice insulative quality to it. Wool is good too, but I prefer synthetics just because wool is so darn hard to dry.
ü Have a snack and a cup or two of something warm - have a quick bite of something before you go to sleep, because you will need all the energy you can get. Stay hydrated and warm yourself with a nice cup of cocoa or tea (a drink of half Jell-O half water is my favorite) . Make it warm, not hot, because you'll start sweating and remember what we said - a dry sleeper is a warm sleeper.
ü Change your socks - do it before you go to bed and again in the morning
ü Answer the call of nature - empty your body from any fluids that you might be retaining. I am including this one just for one of those nights when you've done all the previous steps and are in a ten, but you are not quite sure and you need to "go". If you are in the "not sure" zone, make it a rule of thumb to get up and do your stuff, no matter how little comes out of you.
ü Use warm water or heated stones wrapped in clothes - an excellent trick that makes all the difference in the cold. I prefer the water because, believe it or not, it stores more heat then stone and as the night goes by, you can drink it.
Well, if that's so then you haven't camped in the heights of Canada, where the word "disgusting" looses all it's meaning.
ü Don't fall asleep right away - Ok, I know you might be tired and your finally warm, but fight it for a few minutes.
Because you've been active and your blood is rushing and even though you might feel warm, there's a chance you'll wake up in a few hours freezing as your body becomes sedentary and the blood sets a little. Put your hands under armpits and just wait for a few minutes, those few minutes will give you an idea if you should add more clothes.
ü Keep a close eye on the signs of hypothermia - if you are cold enough to shiver and then the shivering stops and you are still cold, that's a clear sign of hypothermia. Get up, get moving and put some more warm fluids in yourself until the cold in your body fades.
A lot of what I said might seem as fluff to you right now seating in front of a computer screen all warm and cozy and thinking straight but out there, when you are tired and your mind is boggling in the cold you need a structured pre-thought plan. These are the same simple but crucial rules of thumb they will teach you in the army.
And yes - one last thing, should you find yourself without a tent in the cold, the best you can do is find a secluded place to keep the wind at bay. If there's no such place, make one, find a ditch or something or make a wall out of snow.
If you carefully place these simple rules in your memory and you are not naked in the North Pole - you'll wake up refreshed and rested, ready for the day ahead.
Tip 2. Keep the bugs away
If somebody was to ask me the one thing that I would remove from the world, my instinctive answer would be: "Mosquitoes." Sure, if you give me a second or two, I would change the answer to something more important, like "Cancer", but man, do I hate these pesky little buzzards. Here's a few tips to keep them away:
ü Go for scent-free hygiene products - You know how they say that certain blood types attract insects? We'll I am sure there's some truth to that claim, but we can't change our blood now can we? Instead, I'll share what did the world of difference for me - not using perfumed soap or deodorant. Go for scent-free stuff. If you have scented products, store them outside the tent.
ü When getting a bug repellant spray go for a water resistant one - the reasoning behind this is simple, the sweat will not wash it away
ü Go high and dry - if you have the choice, when settling for the night, choose a spot that is high and away from any water - this will cut the initial problem in half
ü Throw a branch of sage in the camp fire - this is a very cool trick I've learned from an aged hiker, works like magic
Tip 3. Resist the night-cap urge if you're cold
I know, I know, your instincts tell you to have a night cap by the campfire. I'll have to disappoint you here - not a good idea, my friend. The alcohol will dehydrate you and interfere with your body temperature regulative processes. I know it feels good, but should you find yourself in the cold, stay away from alcohol. Harsh, but true.
Tip 4. Take 5 minutes and do some sit-ups
Some of you are probably starting to hate me by this point in the article, but I have to tell it like it is.
Yes, no matter how tired you are, use those last drops of strength you have in you for a couple of minutes of sit-ups.
I know I said that your blood will settle within minutes when you lay down, and let me make this clear - that tip does not contradict what I said here. Simply because a couple of minutes of exercise will make the point of where the circulation settles much higher compared to just jumping in your sleeping bag.
Do this before you change your clothes and socks.
Tip 5. Choose the right sleeping gear (crucial)
This one can make or break a trip.
Now, it goes without saying that much of what I said depends on whether you are hiking, or go canoe or car camping. So, here I will presume that you are hiking, because the later two will make it much easier to pack bulkier and more comfortable stuff.
Here are a few tips on choosing the right sleeping gear:
ü Adjust your gear to the conditions - this is an obvious one, you probably know the conditions you will be sleeping in, so this will determine how light you go with your sleeping bag, sleeping pad and pillow.
ü The sleeping bag - Three things to consider when choosing your sleeping bag are warmth, space and weight. These days it's easy to get a light fleece sleeping bag that will fold in a package not much bigger than a bottle. And go for one with a head cover. Obviously, if you will be sleeping in the cold, you will have to go with something sturdier with more insulation. The sleeping bag packaging always includes recommendations of temperature range it should be used for.
ü The sleeping pad - If I am backpacking, I usually go for a lightweight air sleeping pad and a classic foam sleeping one (which you can conveniently fold and use to sit on by the campfire, too).
ü The pillow - This one is often overlooked. What I usually do is use a folded, fleece jacket or something, then a cotton shirt and place a lightweight small camping pillow on top of that. The reason I put the cotton shirt between those two is to avoid the two slippage you will se if you combine synthetic surfaces of the fleece and the camping pillow, waking up to sore neck.
If you have some extra dry clothes and your feet are still cold, put the extra clothes at the bottom of your sleeping bag around your feet. This will both keep your feet warm and give a nice warm clothes to put on in the morning to ease that morning transition from the comfort of your sleeping bag into the open air.
Now, you may not like everything I said here and you might think that I am over-diligent, but remember me the next time you are in the Rockies or someplace like that and the temperature suddenly drops, and send me a positive thought.
I hope these few basic tips come in handy at some point.
Take care and sleep tight.