A 21 day winter rafting expedition down the Colorado River in the middle of winter will teach you a lot.
I learned how to row an 18 foot oar boat down class V rapids.
I found there is a lot more to back country cooking than oat meal and pasta.
I discovered the power struggles of embarking on a 21 day expedition with 10 close friends.
I learned that exemplified doesn’t mean the same thing as amplified.
I grew accustom to sand in every beverage.
I ran out of conversation topics and learned more about my friends’ sex life than anyone should know.
I swam in bluer water than I knew existed.
I got pretty good at peeing while hanging off the side of a raft and I observed that fire doesn’t burn you if you roll threw it quickly.
But the most important skill I learned was how to keep warm in a sleeping bag.
I’ve never had trouble sleeping outside before. I grew up sleeping on pallets under the stars every summer, I’ve fallen asleep after a long day kayaking and woken up the next morning to realize I was laying on a pile of rocks. I’ve slept crammed with four other people on the ridges of the bed of my pick-up.
So, Christmas night at Lee’s Ferry the night before put-in, I didn’t think much about sleeping arrangements. I threw my zero-degree synthetic sleeping bag down on the sandy beach without a second thought to the ice gathering on my dry bag.
And that night at put-in was how I discovered there is one thing I can’t sleep through — being cold.
Just zipping up my sleeping bag my hands were already numb, every time I rolled over ice crunched against me. As the night progressed my feet and hands got so cold that curling up in a ball and breathing on my extremities didn’t even thaw them.
For the first time I considered that I might regret embarking on this trip.
I hadn’t been scared by the fact I didn’t know how to row, or that none of us knew what we were doing out there. But suddenly I considered that I might regret going on this trip, because 21 days of freezing cold nights just sounded so not worth it.
However, each cold night came with the discovery of new ways to keep warm. I’m no pro at sleeping in the arctic, but these are just a few of the things that kept me warm on my Grand Canyon winter expedition.
Tip 1: Don’t be stingy, buy hand warmers. Artificial hand warmers, they cost 99 cents for two. Bring enough to have four for each night of your trip. One for each foot and two to cuddle against your body to keep your core warm.
Tip 2: It’s worth a thick sleeping pad. Sleeping pads are not for comfort, they are to insulate you. Having a think sleeping bag, like a Paco Pad, will keep the cold ground from sucking the heat from your body.
Tip 3: So you’re like me and you already showed up for a three week trip with a the thinnest sleeping pad you can buy? Use your resources. My most important resource: friends. Two friends who brought Paco Pads strapped them together and let me sleep between them sharing a portion of each of their pads.
Tip 4: No friends? Even if you have to get creative, just get off the ground. We had two inflatable Stand Up Paddle boards along. Remove the fins and lay it across a raft and they serve as perfect firm inflatable mattresses.
Tip 5: Don’t under estimate body heat. Cuddle up to people even if it means being squished. Better crammed than cold.
Tip 6: Shelter. Even if you don’t need a tent to protect from the rain (our three week trip down the Grand Canyon in the middle of winter didn’t see a single rainy night) a tent can be a great tool to protect from the wind and keep your heat around. Especially because a tent usually prompts Tip 5 to come into effect.
Tip 7: For me, sleeping under those desert stars on the deck of my raft was hard to pass up, so I tended to avoid Tip 6 even if it meant having to get innovative. Try the hot water baby. Fill up your Nalgene water bottle with hot water and shove it in a wool sock. Cuddle with it.
Tip 8: Don’t wear layers of clothing. Take it off. Your sleeping bag is designed to insulate your body, layers of clothing just get in the way of it doing its job. I had heard this theory before but it seemed so counter intuitive I never trusted it. It actually works. Sleep in as little cloths as you can and you’ll actually be warmer.
Tip 9: When you take off those clothes don’t leave them outside to freeze over night. Stuff them to the bottom of your sleeping bag to fill the extra space and keep your feet warm. When you wake up you’ll have warm cloths to put on.
Tip 10: A down jacket and fur hat are the only exceptions to Tip 8. Wear only those two items and they will act like a fluffy cap to keep cold air from entering through the top of your bag. A fur hat with ear flaps is an excellent pillow for sleeping on rafts because it clips around your neck so you don’t risk pushing it into the river as with other pillows.
Tip 11: I have this awesome fleece liner, only cost $10 at Walmart, but it’s bulky, so not wanting to pack an extra item along I left at home it to keep my closet shelf warm. I discovered how worth it it would have been to bring it along when a friend lent me his for the second half of the trip. (See Tip 3, which could have been more adeptly named “Take advantage of your friends being more prepared than you are.”)
Tip 12: Before bed, eat chocolate. It will give your body a little boost of calories to help keep you warm.
Tip 13: Don’t hold your pee. As much as you don’t want to climb out into the cold and get your feet sandy, it takes your body extra effort to keep your pee warm, so get it out of your body as soon as possible.