This is why you were cold on Chadar Trek
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
Bought the best sleeping bag available and still felt cold at night during your last trek?
You are doing it wrong. Let us tell you what went wrong and how sleeping systems can make a world of a difference.
4Play aims to create awareness about the best practices, specific to the Indian outdoors. And enable you to step out with confidence. By making accessible an ocean of empirical knowledge gathered by the Indian Bear Grylls – Pranav Rawat himself.
Pranav Rawat is a seasoned mountaineer and an ice-climber, with a decade long experience as a summiteer. Pranav is also an UIAA certified Himalayan Mountain Guide and Wilderness First Responder, which makes him an unparalleled expert on climbing and trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
Beyond the humdrum of buying new trekking shoes, choosing a good tent mate and picking the best trekking route, have you wondered that a good 1/3rd of your time will be spent sleeping in a tent perched on a frigid hilltop? And that your sleeping system will make all the difference between lying awake and frozen all night vs dozing peacefully while warmly cocooned?
Pranav says that several factors determine why you might feel cold at night while sleeping in your tent.
Tenting the wrong way
Pitching your tent is as important as buying the right sleeping bag, when it comes to keeping yourself warm. When trekking in the Himalayas tents must be pitched in regions where wind breaking can happen.
“Natural protection from trees and large rocks help break the effect of cold winds. You must also search for higher and drier ground, because if it rains or snows, the cold water will flow around the tent and may seep inside. Lastly the tent must face away from the direction of the wind,” advises Pranav.
Another beginner camping mistake people commit is not ventilating the tent at night, as this can leave you feeling very cold. Yes, as contrary as it may sound, allowing air inside the tent in fact helps keep you warm. When you don’t keep your tent ventilated, the air you breathe out (which is loaded with water vapour) and the perspiration through your skin condenses on cold surfaces inside the tent like your clothes and sleeping bag.
This can be very dangerous as sleeping in wet clothes can drop the body temperature. Avoid this by keeping mesh zippers open and ensuring that there are no obstructions to the ventilation gaps in your tents.
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Not getting your mattress right
Most beginners often underestimate the significance of mattresses. The lower portion of your sleeping bag gets compressed under your weight when you sleep in it, depleting its ability to keep you insulated from below.
The mattress, an essential item for trekking, functions by keeping a layer of trapped air between you and the ground, providing insulation. When trekking in the Indian Himalayas, not choosing the right mattress can leave you uncomfortably cold at night. You must look for R rating, which is an indicator of resistance to conductivity with a higher R indicating better insulation.
“On normal medium altitude treks, when camping on bugyals or meadows, an R of 2.5 would suffice. On snow treks, an R value >3 is necessary to keep your body from losing heat to the ground. And on treks like Chadar or sleeping on glaciers, an R value greater than 4 is recommended,” advises Pranav.
You can choose from three kinds of mattresses: Closed foam, open cell foam and air mattresses, according to your specific trekking needs and budget. Closed foam mattresses, often used in the construction of yoga mats, have fixed cells where air remains permanently trapped and aren’t found above R value of 3. They are cheap and durable but not designed for very cold treks. Open cell type mattresses are light and highly compressible thereby occupying very less space in your rucksack. Once decompressed, they trap air and provide insulation. Air mattresses are the most sophisticated, providing the best insulation and are the most expensive.
Selecting the wrong sleeping bag
Available in all shapes and sizes and priced for every pocket, choosing the right sleeping bag is a mistake many trekkers make. You can choose between down and synthetic, depending on your needs. Down sleeping bags are warmer and if your needs require sleeping at very high altitudes or snow, these are definitely the ones to go for.
Within this category too, those made from the down feathers of geese are warmer and also more expensive than those made of duck down. Also, the older the bird, the warmer the down is and hence the more expensive the sleeping bag becomes.
Pranav recommends looking out for down fill power (which is the insulating ability of the down. The higher it is, the warmer it will be for its weight). A mix of duck and geese down is often adequately warm and relatively affordable and can be a good pick.
Another important aspect when choosing sleeping bags for trekking in India is to check their compressibility and not comparing, this is a sleeping bag mistake every beginner makes. More compressible sleeping bags occupy less space while providing the same warmth. If compressibility is high on your priority list (for serious alpinists or self-sufficient trekkers) choose down as it occupies way less space than synthetic sleeping bags.
When buying a sleeping bag, trekkers often ignore the hydrophobic properties of sleeping bags. Down is usually treated with wax for removal of moisture and waterproofing, and if the hydrophobic power is less, the moisture will be trapped within the sleeping bag making you feel cold.
Pranav also suggests, ”If you are likely to face wet environments and moisture laden winds, down might not be that great an option, compared to synthetic sleeping bags.”
Synthetic sleeping bags are a good alternative to down, especially for those who are either on a budget or are fundamentally opposed to using animal products. Though not as compressible, they are way cheaper and are more water resistant than down. One can buy a decent synthetic sleeping bag for under INR 3000.
However synthetic sleeping bags are much heavier and if your treks don’t involve sleeping on snow or ice (glaciers), and if the temperatures are unlikely to dip below -5 degrees then synthetic sleeping bags will suffice. However, when it comes to lighter weight with great insulation, nothing beats down.
Underestimating sleeping bag liners
Sleeping bag liners are often undervalued add-ons to your sleeping bag system. A sleeping bag liner is lightweight as well as portable and acts as a bedsheet or a duvet cover, essentially a layer between you and your sleeping bag. They also add a layer of insulation between you and your sleeping bag, providing extra warmth. They also serve another important purpose: hygiene maintenance.
“When trekking in the Himalayas, sleeping bags can become colonies of bacteria through repeated usage, perspiration, spilt drinks and insects,” says Pranav.
Using a sleeping bag liner prevents you from dirtying your sleeping bag unnecessarily and reducing the need for it to be washed frequently and effectively increasing its life. If you think you picked a slightly lower rated sleeping bag for the cold you might encounter, add a sleeping bag liner for additional warmth.
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Here are a few hacks to keep warm and not spend a zillion bucks on your trek:
- Most trekkers feel cold at night because of their feet being cold. Wrapping your woolen cap around your feet can keep them warm and reduce the sensation of cold.
- If the weather isn’t going to be freezing cold and you are camping in a tent with friends, two or three of you can use a quilt and ditch sleeping bags. This is a great way to cut costs. The body heat gets transferred from one person to another, retaining warmth, making sleeping bags unnecessary and saving money.
- A wonderfully cheap alternative to mattress is the black coloured foam, used as floor mats and easily available at upholstery sellers in India. It is very light and doesn’t cost more than INR 150. It can easily replace specialized mattresses and offer decent insulation.
- A great way to increase insulation from the ground is to put your emptied rucksack below the mattress. This acts as another layer and effectively increases the distance between your sleeping bag and the ground.
- Aluminium foil is very light weight, cheap and is a great insulator. Using an aluminium foil wrapped around the mattress greatly increases its insulating abilities.
If you take the above points seriously, choose your gear wisely and follow best trekking practices, sleeping in tents on cold nights during treks won’t make you uncomfortable anymore.
If you have had an experience when you almost froze to death at night during a camp stay, do let us know below.
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Author: Pranav Manocha
Pranav is a Nepal earthquake survivor with a flair for marketing. Beginning with a Quote T-Shirt business with a school friend after grade 12, he did his graduation in Literature from the University of Delhi. In his free time he loves reading Camus, trail riding and skinny dipping in rivulets around Manali.