How to stay warm while climbing mountains?

How to stay warm while climbing mountains?

Keeping your body at the correct temperature levels is one of the most important aspects of mountain climbing that you don’t want to get wrong.

I’ve been mountaineering for almost two decades now, and if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that you must be 100% prepared before starting your adventure.

One of America’s finest high-altitude mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, said it once –

It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory.

Ed Viesturs

These words might sound simple now, but they have a career’s worth of accidents behind them. Take North America’s tallest mountain, Denali, for example. With a base-to-summit distance of 18,000 feet (5,500 meters), Denali is even taller than World’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest.

According to Denali National Park & Preserve (U.S. National Park Service), Denali is extremely cold. The mountain’s climate sits at minus 75°F with wind chill down to minus 118°F that can freeze a human in an instant.

With statistics like that, you have to keep yourself at proper temperature levels to prevent problems such as frostbites and hypothermia.

And, I’m going to help you do just that. In my twenty-plus years of countless mountaineering adventures, I’ve learned nine important tips/techniques to keep myself warm and safe while climbing and a couple more for sleeping in the night.

How do mountain climbers stay warm while climbing/hiking?

1. Warming-Up Is Important

Warming-up is one of the most basic rules of doing any physical activity. Just like you stretch before going jogging or exercising, you should regulate your blood flow and body temperature properly before you begin the climb as well.

I usually warm up with an extra layer of clothing to facilitate sweating, which helps regulate body temperature. Most pros do the penguin exercise while warming up, where you rub your sides of the torso with your arms swiftly, just like a penguin.

I’ve seen people not correctly warm-up because “climbing is a hardcore exercise, and the body will warm up anyway.” However, that’s just a half-truth.

Since climbing is a demanding exercise, it’s vital to feel warm and comfortable beforehand and help your body get in an active state.

2. Handle Numb Fingers Properly

While climbing and touching frozen rocks almost all the time, your fingers will get numb sooner or later, no matter what type of heavy-duty gloves you’re wearing.

Once they do, you’ll want to warm them up. This will hurt like hell since you’ll be able to feel the warm blood flowing down your veins and opening them back up.

Instead of trying to avoid the inevitable, I say you “stare down the barrel of the gun.” The idea is to make this process happen as early as possible because the overall pain will subside when you keep reheating your fingers.

You’ll also benefit a lot from the warm blood. It’s like a warm-up for fingers, just a tad more painful.

You can fashion a mini heater to warm your fingers by getting chemical warmer packs at your local supply store. Put these warmers into your chalk bag so you can keep reheating your fingers every time you apply chalk.

3. Keep Yourself Hydrated

Believe it or not, keeping yourself hydrated will help you stay warm and comfortable. Your body needs fluids for all sorts of stuff, including the breakdown of solid food. If you’re well-hydrated, your body will process food and calories more quickly.

Dehydration is also one of the major causes of hypothermia among mountain climbers. Dehydration will lead to lower blood volume in your body, which drastically affects circulation, and the body will start losing heat quicker than it can produce.

So hydrate yourself properly before you start climbing and have access to your choice of fluids during the adventure.

As long as you know when to stop the caffeine intake, I prefer bringing a portable stove to make coffee (or tea if you like) and hot cocoa. Hot chocolate and soups give you some extra calories to burn and maintain the warmth.

4. Don’t Procrastinate on Eating

Did I mention that eating is just as important as keeping yourself hydrated? More often than not, I see people carrying food with them but not eating because it takes extra effort to unfreeze the food, and they don’t want to stop and “disrupt their flow.”

My friend, keeping the flow going and not stopping to eat is literally one of the worst things that you can do. You can’t burn any calories if you don’t have them in the first place.

Always have a healthy and balanced breakfast to keep your body in optimal physical condition. Make sure you don’t overeat and start yawning even before you reach the mountain base!

Also, carry high-energy food such as nuts and fruits (apple, banana, etc.) and energy bars so that you can easily access your food and have a quick bite.

5. Alcohol Isn’t As Good As The Movies Say

You’ve probably seen actors climbing mountains and having a quick sip here and there. Well, ignore it; it’s all show. While it’s not the end of the world if you consume alcohol in a small amount, I strongly advise against it, and here’s why.

Alcohol can make your body lose heat faster and make you prone to hypothermia. Also, against a temperature of minus 58 degrees, alcohol will do you more harm than good. 

Under the influence, it’s difficult to gauge how cold you really are. So it can trick you into thinking you’re getting warmer when in fact, the opposite is happening.

Add this with the increasing heat loss, and it can get pretty ugly pretty fast. Just drink something warm and enjoy the adventure instead.

6. Don’t Stop Too Much: Climb & Keep Moving

While it’s crucial to stop at regular intervals to rest and eat, don’t do it too much. When you’re not moving or climbing the mountain, your body will burn fewer calories and generate less heat.

Also, if you sit idly for longer than necessary, you’ll end up getting sore muscles and numbness in your hands and legs, which you should avoid at all costs.

I limit myself to no more than a 15-minute break, especially in the cold climate. Plan out the breaktimes properly with your partners and keep climbing to keep your body warm.

7. Master the Sacred Art of Layering

Understanding the different layers required and their respective purposes is one of the most important lessons you can learn as a mountain climber.

Once you learn to regulate your body between proper layers for different activities, you can save yourself from countless hardships and setbacks.

What do I mean by regulating between layers? You don’t want to climb with many layers because it can lead to excess sweating, which has its problems (more on that later). 

Similarly, you don’t want to be wearing fewer layers while belaying and standing still or resting. There are four layers that you need to be aware of:

  • Base Layer: The base layer includes the clothes that touch your skin. You don’t want these to be super warm since they are here to keep your skin and body comfortable. Most pros recommend using polyester or merino wool.
  • Mid-Layer: This layer is worn over the base layer. In addition to warmth, it provides resistance from scraping and moisture. For this layer, you should use soft-shell jackets and pants along with liner gloves.
  • Insulation Layer: The insulation layer is the most customizable. The clothing for this layer depends on where you’re going, the temperature, and how much heat your body is comfortable with. Insulated jackets and pants and heavy-duty goggles like glacier goggles will prevent inside heat from going outside.
  • Outer Layer: The outermost layer is essential in the areas with high moisture and possible precipitation. It’s also known as the “waterproof layer” and consists of waterproof jackets and pants and glacier goggles.

Here’s a complete article on layering if you want to learn more.

8. Choose the Right Fabric & Clothing

Even after understanding the various types of layering, you can easily get confused by the sheer amount of fabric choices available for each layer.

Don’t use fabrics like cotton no matter how good they feel because cotton is a poor insulator. Choose wool or synthetic options, like polyester or nylon, instead. 

Keep these points in mind when packing your bag:

  • Head & Neck: Pack a wool scarf or neck gaiter to keep your neck warm. Keep a winter hat handy that can fit under your climbing helmet.
  • Body: The zipper jacket you wear shouldn’t be too puffy, and the zipper must go up to your neck. Remember that you can’t leave any part of your skin exposed to such extreme temperatures.
  • Hands: Don’t be brave! Your hands have many capillaries and can make your entire body ‘feel’ cold even if it’s warm. Bring a couple of extra pairs of both thick-layered and finer-lined fleece gloves with you.
  • Feet: Make sure your boots aren’t too tight as they can make your toes cold, and you need them moving and generating warmth. Always use waterproof and breathable boots like Gore-tex.

9. Wait, Don’t Get Too Warm Either!

Yes, you heard that right. Too much of anything can be harmful. If you get too warm, you’ll sweat more than necessary and end up wetting your base layer of clothing (a reference to my brief lecture on the art of layering). And, you don’t want to know what happens next.

The wet and sweaty layer will end up cooling your body as the sweat starts getting colder. The same will happen to your hands and feet if your gloves and socks get wet with sweat.

If you do end up in such a situation, change your inner layer quickly. Don’t stay in wet clothes, especially if they’re touching your bare skin.

As for the gloves, always keep an extra pair of gloves in your backpack. You can also try removing the insoles from your boots to disperse the moisture/sweat.

How do mountain climbers keep warm in their beds?

staying warm in bed while climbing

Learning how to keep yourself warm at night in the mountains is quite tricky, and it takes a lot of time and practice to get the right instincts.

If you understood the nuances of keeping yourself warm while climbing/hiking outlined above, the nights won’t be that different with a couple of extra factors to consider.

Unlike climbing/hiking, your awareness of your surroundings will reduce quite a bit, and you won’t be able to notice and act against subtle fluctuations in your body temperature. 

Here are some precautions you’ll need to take as soon as possible:

1. Schedule Your Sleep

It’s imperative that you schedule your sleep in the mountains carefully and adequately. If you’re new to hiking, you’ll probably not sleep as much as you’re used to because of the obvious differences between the mountain and your cozy bed, along with several reasons.

In this case, don’t sleep early no matter what. If you do end up falling asleep early in the evening, pray to your gods that you don’t wake up early. You don’t want to be up at 3 am sitting in the cold wondering when the sun will rise.

Instead of sleeping early, play a few more games and talk with your friends and hiking partners. If you make sure not to get up at 3-4 am, you’ll be able to enjoy the true morning glory of the mountains at its best!

2. When to Drink & How to Do Your Business?

Understandably, this can be a tricky question to truly understand since I just asked you to keep yourself hydrated. But if you do that now, you’ll definitely have to pee.

Well, the trick is to keep yourself hydrated in a timely fashion. Have your last drink about an hour or so before you hit the hay. That way, you’ll have time to go to the bathroom and won’t have to get up to answer nature’s call during the cold night.

On the other hand, if you have to go, just go right away – holding it in is one of the worst things you can do while sleeping in the mountains. Also, I don’t recommend using a pee bottle inside the tent. While you should bring one, I’d just get up and go.

3. Eating is Just as Important

As I explained before, eating up is essential. When you’re in the mountains, the pressure and the environment will force your body to burn much more calories than usual. And that number is even more significant at night.

The body will try to generate heat by burning calories since you won’t be doing any physical exercise or you would freeze. So, make sure you eat properly.

Also, no dieting either. Start eating right away. You’ll need as much fats and carbohydrates as possible so that you have the calories to burn whenever needed.

4. Sleeping Pads & Dry Tents Go A Long Way

Unless you think sleeping on a cold floor is a good idea, buy a good sleeping pad. 

Sleeping on a cold floor can expose your “warm” body to a lot of cold air that’ll start to rise when you hit the floor. In case you’re not familiar with thermodynamics, heat transfers from higher concentration to lower concentration quickly, and you’ll need a good sleeping pad to counter that.

Buy a sleeping pad with an R-value of atleast above 10 to ensure proper insulation against the cold mountain. Speaking of cold and wet mountains, you must keep your tent dry at all times.

Sometimes amateur mountaineers don’t pay attention to where they’re keeping their bags and end up getting their tents wet. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you because the consequences are dire.

Keep your tent under a proper tarp and take extra caution to not get it wet.

5. Understand the Sleeping Bag Mechanism

Understanding the sleeping bag and its types is the most crucial part of your night stay. While people use a lot of scientific terms and overcomplicate things, sleeping bags are fairly simple.

I prefer using a double-bag mechanism with an inner down bag and an outer bag to provide proper insulation. And, unless you know the temperature your body is comfortable in, you’re going to have to experiment a bit.

If your sleeping bag mechanism is too hot, you’ll start sweating and get cold. If it’s not warm enough or doesn’t have enough insulation, that’s not ideal either.

You should also ensure proper airflow between the two bags. If any one of them is too small/tight, it’ll not only block the air but bind your body too. This could lead to extra moisture and a lot of problems.

Ensure you read the guidelines and temperature ratings of both sleeping bags to choose the best combo.

heating up before sleeping while climbing

6. Prepare Before Sleeping: Pre-Heating & Proper Clothing

Pre-heating your sleeping bag and yourself is important before going to bed. We’ll be going extra lengths to ensure proper insulation in your heating bags so nothing goes in or gets out. If you’re feeling cold, warm up before going to bed.

First, preheat your tent with a simple trick from the old book – take an insulated bottle of hot water and keep it inside your sleeping bag. As for yourself, do some squats and other mountain exercises before going to bed.

Choosing the proper clothing to wear at night is relatively basic if you understand the requirements. There’s obviously no dress code so just wear what you’re comfortable in and make sure it’s breathable.

But don’t wear too many outer layers that might end up trapping the moisture and making you cold. You want your clothes to stay dry. I recommend bringing an extra pair in case something goes wrong.

Also, don’t forget to even things out – climbers sometimes make the mistake of wearing a little too much on the torso and a little too little on the rest of the body.

Trust me; you don’t want to wake up half-hot half-cold on a mountain. Make sure you even things out and spread the warmth out nicely.

Do you have more tips and techniques to keep yourself warm when mountain climbing? I’d love to hear from you!

Jonathan Spaeth

I got into extreme sports about 20 years ago and am a die-hard adrenaline junkie. Just like in business, I choose my outdoor adventures based on how much they scare me. My goal is to share the lessons I've learned over the past couple of decades braving the unknown to encourage you to do the same.