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Backpacker Magazine – December 2000

Too Cold For Comfort

How to improve your tolerance for cold and enhance your outdoor performance.

by: Buck Tilton


Exposure to cold temperatures while backpacking or backcountry skiing causes two important physiological responses: increased production of body heat and constriction of blood vessels in your skin, making the skin a better insulator. Good on both counts, though there are negative side effects: You tire quickly, your aerobic power is reduced, and you're clumsy and have lessened muscle function. In other words, you don't perform as well.

That's no reason to stay indoors, though. Boost your winter tolerance and performance levels by warming up to the following cold-weather tips:

  • Be fit: Compared to thin folks, the metabolisms of fit people generate heat more quickly and easily. The fit are able to work harder and longer, and work makes heat. Plus, a greater aerobic capacity means a more efficient metabolism.
  • Dress for success: Stay warm by staying dry. Winter clothing should be made of synthetics or wool that wick moisture away from the skin. Layering lets you add and subtract clothing to control sweating. Also, heat and moisture are lost just by breathing in the cold. Mask your nose and mouth with some sort of material, such as a thick scarf, to trap moisture and a little heat.
  • Food is fuel: Having plenty of fuel on board enhances heat production, so don't scrimp on food or water. During winter trips, you should eat high-calorie meals and drink water often, even if you don't feel thirsty. Avoid alcohol-it gives you a sensation of warmth by dilating blood vessels in the skin, but that makes you more susceptible to heat loss.
  • Get used to it: Getting acclimatized is a long, slow process, and prolonged exposure to extreme cold produces few, if any, major results. Even so, months of living in frigid temps can increase production of hormones that boost heat production, usually benefiting hands and feet the most.
  • Be plump: Fat increases the insulating value of skin, so overweight people tend to tolerate cold better. Unfortunately, muscle insulates poorly compared to the flabby stuff. This is not a license to gain 30 pounds, though, just a legitimate excuse to put off losing that holiday fat until your winter camping is done.

Put A Lid On Heat Loss
There's good advice in the old maxim, "If you have cold feet, cover your head." That's because about half of your body's radiant heat escapes through your head. Now you can reduce that heady heat loss with a silver hat called the Hot-Head Thermocap. Durable, waterproof, washable, and weighing less than an ounce, this "shower cap" contraption really does keep your heat close to your noggin. It can also be wrapped around cold hands or feet. The down side: It looks odd, but, hey, no one ever said comfort was cute.

Price: $24.50 for a box of 25. For a free sample, call (888) 585-HEAT, or see www.hot-head.com.



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