Ten Essentials: Don't Be Cool, Be Insulated!

By Hester Lam, Girls Who Hike Texas Ambassador

When going to the backcountry, it is a good idea to always be prepared for the worst. When going on day trips, I always have items from REI’s Ten Essential Systems. If lost, having the Ten Essentials might be the difference between making it out of the hike relatively unscathed or much, much worse.

In case you missed the previous entries in the Ten Essentials, I covered map and compass skills (navigation systems) and sun protection systems, the first two systems within the Ten Essentials. Today, we will cover insulation.

Were you inspired by Jessy’s post, “5 Reasons to Keep Hiking in Winter"? Now that you’re craving the snow and hikes in the snow, are you prepared? Are you properly insulated?

The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines insulation as “a material or an object that does not easily allow heat, electricity, light, or sound to pass through it. Air, cloth and rubber are good electrical insulators; feathers and wool make good thermal insulators.” When we think of insulation, we typically think of the layer of material within your house’s walls. Think of trail insulation in the same way. Heating a house in the winter, or cooling it down with air conditioning in the summer can be pricy if all of the heat/cool air is escaping your house. Similarly, without proper insulation on your body, heating your body (shivers) or cooling it down (sweat) can also be expensive (energy loss). Having the proper insulation helps vastly.

When you are out in the backcountry (which can be defined in a variety of ways. For example, my college, which was right on the eastern edge of LA country was considered “backcountry” because emergency response times for a county-wide disaster could be up to a week. However, for our purposes today, backcountry will be considered anywhere you may be hiking), your conditions can abruptly change. The weather forecast may be 80 °F and sunny one moment, and the next moment, you are experiencing hail. Or you fall into a creek. Either way, your core temperature may suddenly change due to external forces, and you should plan to be prepared for that. When planning for my trips, I like to consider what I would ABSOLUTELY need in order to survive in all conditions I could reasonably encounter on this trip (in essence, what I would need to survive if I unexpectedly got lost and had to stay the night).

Day Hiking Outfits:

Being prepared for an emergency temperature change is often as simple as bringing an extra layer. I typically warm up quickly when I am hiking, so layers that were necessary when I am still might not be required later. An easy pullover/ hoodie is often a great addition to my pack; most of mine are pretty lightweight and do not take up much room which is helpful!

Depending on how cool the weather is, I normally have some combination of the following:

Head:

  • Hat, balaclava, or headband: Keep your head warm. As an extremity, you lose a lot of insulation through your head, but it is often overlooked when considering warmth. I like headbands,personally, because I typically have my hair up in a ponytail, but if it’s extremely cold, an insulating hat is typically my go to. While there are many cute hats out there, I wear my ski hatn the winter because it’s honestly the warmest.

Upper body:

  • Patagonia Capilene Midweight crewneck base layer -  Baselayers are essential to being warm and comfortable
  • Nike dri fit pullover (very lightweight and thin, but light enough to easily toss in my pack) – I
    purchased this from one of my marathons, but light pullovers are easy to purchase! I have a
    Saucony running pullover I purchased from Sierra Trading Post years ago that I love too; it was
    cheap and provides plenty of sweat- wicking warmth
 a typical fall hiking outfit of a thin pullover, light puffy vest, and headband– Charlie’s Bunion in the Smoky Mountains

a typical fall hiking outfit of a thin pullover, light puffy vest, and headband– Charlie’s Bunion in the Smoky Mountains

  • Fleece Pullover (I like this one from Kuhl) – Fleece is great for the outdoors because you do not lose warmth integrity if it gets wet. North Face outlets have many classic jackets, such as the ubiquitous Denali jackets that are another great option! If it’s cooler, I will wear the fleece in lieu of my light pullover.
  • Down puffy vest – I love wearing vests (this is probably inherited from my dad), but my favorite are puffy vests (Outside had a great article about them). I have two – one thinner for the fall and one with higher loft for the winter.  

(Side note: this is a great resource about how down works)

 a typical chillier hiking outfit of fleece pullover, thicker puffy vest, and Capilene midweight tights– Mount Tamalpais in Muir Woods National Forest

a typical chillier hiking outfit of fleece pullover, thicker puffy vest, and Capilene midweight tights– Mount Tamalpais in Muir Woods National Forest

  •  Puffy jacket – As a final layer, I typically throw a light puffy jacket (I like Marmot’s featherless jacket because I don’t have to worry about losing its warmth capability if I get it slightly damp) in my pack or as my top layer when I’m not worried about rain.
  • Ski jacket shell – If it’s slightly rainier, I will wear the shell of my ski jacket; it’s made to repel water and provides extra insulation. It’s bulky though, so if at all possible, I will try to avoid wearing this layer.

Lower body:

Raingear:

  •  Rain jacket – my mother invested in a nice Marmot PreCip rain jacket about 6 years ago, which I promptly stole (thanks, Mom!). The exact model is no longer available, but the newer ones are lighter and (probably) better. The reason I like this model in particular is that the seams haven’t worn out despite nearly 6 years of wear. Growing up in a rainier city, I went through many raincoats, and most of them would lose their seams and begin to leak water, which isn’t exactly ideal when it comes to raingear.
  • Pack cover – most backpacking packs come with their own cover, but you can buy a pack cover if yours does not. REI typically has several relatively cheap options to choose from, and you should be able to find one that fits your pack size. 
  • Pack liner – an inexpensive way to protect your gear is to line your backpack with a trash bag. They add almost no additional weight to your pack and are very effective. They won’t protect your pack itself from wear and tear, but your pack’s contents will be dry.

ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS check the weather before you go. If there is the slightest chance of rain, plan for what you may need. At the minimum, I like to bring a freezer Ziploc bag to hold my essentials (phone, wallet, car keys) to prevent water damage. For a cheaper/ more lightweight option for your raingear, you can always throw a plastic disposable poncho in your pack!  

 Not quite a hiking picture, but a picture of me and my pack in our raingear avoiding the water splashing onto the boat in Ireland

Not quite a hiking picture, but a picture of me and my pack in our raingear avoiding the water splashing onto the boat in Ireland

In addition to a spare layer, I always keep an emergency blanket in my daypack. Emergency blankets are super lightweight and fairly inexpensive; you can pick one up from REI for $5 plus tax or from Amazon for about $0.88/ blanket if you buy 10 (disclaimer: GWH gets a small percentage of the sale from Amazon, at no extra cost to you. Thanks!).


Hester is the Ambassador for our Texas chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Texas chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.

Sharron McBrideComment