Ski Camping In Cold Weather with Raynaud's
Warning: this article contains only text and may not be suitable for some audiences. Reader discretion is advised.
This started out to be a trip report for TAY, but now it's just a collection of lessons learned the hard way over the last 8 or 9 years about ski camping with Raynaud's. This condition causes hands and feet to loose circulation with even minor exposure to cold. Here's a link from the Mayo Clinic with more information:
Reynaud's poses a significant danger when camping in cold weather. Your hands can become so numb that setting up a tent could become next to impossible. A minor equipment malfunction can escalate into a major problem as hands and feet become less and less functional. But I've found more and more ways to cope. For quite some time I would not do much except stay in the tent when the temperature was below say 15 degrees. Now I'm up to starting out from my tent in temps as low as +2 degrees, skinning up before dawn and having a great ski back to the campsite. I guess I should mention that I do ski camp a lot; each week, every week while there is snow from November to the end of May, mostly in the Central Cascades.
Some general thoughts first:
I think of the heat content of your body as water behind a dam. The body however is not very accurate in sensing the water level; it has to drop significantly before you feel any degree of chill. If you get out of a warm sleeping back when it's very cold, initially you will not sense how cold it really is. In the mean time, heat is pouring out of your body like water over that dam. If you have Raynaud's, by the time you sense even a bit of chill the vasoconstriction may have already begun. Once started, you cannot recover by just filling the dam back up to the level just above the point where you felt chill. You have to fill it all the way back to the brim. (It took me a long time to figure this out.)
So the obvious first lesson is never get chilled. Never. Ways accomplish that is what this article is all about. It's also important to know the very first signs that vasospasm is starting, such as a slight tingling at the tip of one finger for example. If you have previously been warm, it means you are loosing more heat than you are generating. Your heat balance is negative. The solution is not just to put an extra pair of gloves on, because your body has already begun to reduce the heat loss from your extremities. Gloves alone are not going to change much. You need more general insulation. More on what you can do at this point later.
Several classes of drugs have been used to treat Raynaud's but my impression is that although they can help, they alone will not solve the problems associated with this condition. Calcium channel blockers are often used, but these drugs inhibit exercise performance.† This is not a particularly exciting option for backcountry skiers. Low dose alpha blockers are also used. In higher doses alpha blockers (e.g. prazosin) also inhibit exercise performance but at say 1- 2 mg. twice a day they should have minimal effect. Some have tried over the counter niacin but it can lead to uncomfortable flushing.† There are other choices too, but no magic answers.
Clothing - base layers:
I make my own base layers. I found that good fit makes a huge difference. It's not that hard to learn to sew with fleece, and you can use old base layers to generate a pattern. From there you just keep tweaking the pattern to suit your needs. For winter I use Powerstretch for the tops, and PT 200 Stretch for the bottoms. The fit should be as if the fabric was draped over your skin with just a slight amount of tension. Nothing the least bit tight, but no baggy areas either.
I'll skip a discussion about fleece layers other than to say I make my own. It takes time to find the right combinations for each temperature. In that you sometimes need to layer the fleece garments, I think it best to avoid as many bells and whistles as possible. Extraneous zipped pockets, chafe patches, side zips, etc all add extra weight and bulk that may become completely useless when covered up. Also, every time you add an extra fabric layer the drying time for that area increases significantly. Parkas and outer insulating layers should be sized so that they will fit easily over all the layers you will need in the coldest weather. The result is that you need a dedicated winter parka, and another for warmer seasons.
Most of the outdoor stores have large collections of thick down or synthetic jackets, but few have the equivalent insulation for your legs. To me it's like insulating your house but leaving the doors open. All the heat goes out the doors; the insulation is not changing much. The most efficient way to insulate is to insulate everything fairly uniformly.
I use a jacket and pants insulated with Primaloft from Integral Designs. To this day I have not found better insulation per pound of garment weight than the stuff ID makes. If you just buy one special item, make it the Primaloft pants from ID. You can use down for the top layer, but at times I find I need to wear the jacket under my parka while skinning up. Primaloft retains its insulating properties even when wet with perspiration.
Insulating your head and neck are particularly important because the carotid vasculature cannot constrict to conserve heat like other blood vessels in your body. (Guess why!) This means that no matter how cold it is, you are always pouring core heat full blast right to your head and neck. Thus the expression 'cold hands - wear a hat'. When it's very cold, just a hat or balaclava won't do. Back to the uniform insulation idea, you want at least as much insulation as you have on your chest, or more. Some insulated jackets come with hoods, but I like the freedom of a completely separate one.† Years ago Frostline made a nice little down hood kit. The one I made served me well for many years, but a few years ago I decided to make an improved model from an old down jacket. It's quite easy with a surger. Just trace the pattern, baste along the waste side and surge away. I made mine with snap closures that can be operated with mitts on. This extra thick hood makes an amazing difference.
Gloves and mitts:
No finger gloves like downhill skiers use. I love my big OR mitt shells with the thick removable Primaloft liners. Mitts with sewn in liners are a bad idea because you can't dry them out in a tent overnight. I also use Manzella knit polyester liners. When skiing, I never take them off when it's cold. Knit liners are now getting hard to find, but for ski camping I think they are much superior to the sewn variety. In particular, they are much easier to get off when they are wet, and over time they mould to your hand. To keep them dry, say when setting up the tent, or removing skins, I slip on a pair of extra large disposable nitrile gloves. They make a huge difference. They should not be at all snug around the fingers or your hands will go numb; you may have to try a number of different brands to find ones that fit properly for the purpose. The gloves can tear on occasion, so I carry 2 or 3 pair.
Keeping snow out of the shells is important. Be careful when you need to take them off while skinning or skiing. I have a little hook taped to one pole so that I can hang the mitts by the idiot straps while I'm fiddling around. I also carry a plastic bag from the grocery store for the gloves and other stuff that should stay dry while I'm taking the skins off.
I wear 3 pairs of knee high socks. I suppose it does distract from the performance fit, but that's the price I have to pay. I never really notice however. I wear two thin pairs of socks when my boots are themo-fitted, and then fine tune the fit with a third pair of socks. In the last few years I switched to all knee high socks and found it made a big difference in protecting my shins. On longer trips my old socks would sometimes work down and create a wrinkle over the shin. If you keep going you get a blister, so you have to stop, take the mitts off, get down to the layer that is causing the problem and fix it. That's a setup for triggering vasospasm. And the fix usually does not last that long. Sometimes solving all the little things makes a big difference.
Boots and boot liners:
Damp boot liners can easily trigger vasospasm at the start of a trip, before you are warmed up. Although liners will dry out overnight to some extent in the warmer weather in spring, they will not dry by themselves in a tent with the temps are low. When I get into the tent for the day, I first brush the snow off the boots with my little snow brush, and then wipe off any water. Then the liners come out and the footbeds too. I then loosely stuff a Kimberly Clark Wypall automotive shop towel (same ones I mentioned here) in the forefoot of each liner. They will wick out a fair percentage of the moisture overnight. Just wiping the inside of the liner with these towels helps.
When it's very cold and the liners are extra damp, I've tossed Grabber hand warmers in the liners before I go to bed. I've been told by boot technicians that this is not recommended, but I only do it when it's below perhaps 10 degrees. At that point they do not even get close to the temperature of a Peet boot dryer.
Hand and foot warmers:
In short, don't leave home without them and have them readily accessible. I buy Grabbers by the box; it's just the price of admission for someone with Raynaud's.† They will save the day on so many occasions. I fire off a pair of hand warmers at the start of each day out. I do carry toe Grabbers, but use them only on rare occasions. When it's really cold, say below 10 degrees, I use the Grabber foot warmers. They are expensive, but once your feet go numb at the top of what should be a delightful run, the cost becomes rather trivial. If you have any degree of performance fit, you need to figure out the sock and footbed combination to use with the foot warmers ahead of time. When it's extra cold, I just take out my quite thin footbeds and replace them with the foot warmers. At that point, I'll gladly trade a slightly loose fit in the forefoot for warm feet.
On the way to the destination:
When it's very cold, just the time it takes to get out of the car, find the insulating layers and put them on can result in numb hands and feet that will not warm up in spite of the exertion of skinning.† A reliable outside thermometer for your car is extremely helpful. RadioShack has them for example. Great for accessing driving risks too. Based on the outside temperature you can decide how careful you need to be at the parking lot. When it's below perhaps 10 degrees I stop well before the destination and get out the layers I will need: hat, parka, Primaloft jacket and pants, gloves and mitts. The idea is to minimize the time it takes to find all this stuff.
Back in the car I turn the heater up to fill my heat reservoir to the brim again while I'm driving. About 5 to 10 minutes before I arrive at the destination I stop again and get fully dressed, insulating layers and all. I put my wallet in the pack, get the sunglasses out if necessary, and do as many little things as I can to minimize the time standing around later. While I drive the last few miles I crank the heater up again to top off my heat tank. The idea is to feel so warm that you can't wait to get out of the car. If all goes well, the time from arrival to the start of skinning is quite short, say 10 minutes, and the insulating layers stay on until the last minute.
A word about putting the boots on; I've had problems with shin bruising when it's very cold, and finally figured out what was causing it. By the time I put my boots on they had cooled to the point where the plastic shell was very stiff. The solution is to put the boots on soon after you get out of the car, and then to flex your ankles way forward pressing your shin against the tongue for a half minute or so. This will warm the tongue to restore its normal flex before you start skiing.
Overdress or not?
Perhaps I'll add more here later, but for now I'll only mention that the issue is different when you are camping overnight. For a day ski there is not much problem with initially overdressing until you warm up. Layers may get quite damp before you shed, but that may not have much consequence as long as you stay active throughout the day. When ski camping however, all those damp layers must be completely dried out before bedtime. Anything you can do to reduce the moisture load you bring into the tent is a big help. Once you know the layers to wear for each temperature range, both snowing and not snowing, the cleanest solution albeit with some risk of numb hands and feet, is to strip to the optimal layers plus maybe an extra heavy hat right at the start of skiing. I have mitten hooks on my hats and mitts so that I can carry them clipped to loops of cord on the shoulder straps of my pack. It looks funny, but I can quickly adjust my heat balance that way. Thanks to Clem for suggesting these last few topics.
Time in the tent:
This is too big a topic to tackle here, but here are a few quick thoughts. To enjoy skiing the next day, all your clothes should be bone try by evening. They are not going to dry out much over night. When you ski in wet clothing, your body expends a huge amount of its limited heat energy first warming the water, and then vaporizing it. Itís the vaporization that I think really does you in, because it takes five times as much energy to vaporize water as it does to raise it from 0 degree centigrade to boiling.†
I wrote a bit about wet weather camping here, much of which would apply to cold weather ski camping. Perhaps I should say more about running a stove in a tent. Please do not try this because you read this article! Running a stove in a tent is not for everyone. Being compulsively neat and careful helps.† Obsessively neat and careful is far better. Two people in a tent with a stove running is a setup for a big problem. I've never done it, and would not feel comfortable trying.† I have a set pattern for using the stove in the tent that never varies. I always do it exactly the same way; little things like never getting the sleeping bag or the clothing between me and the stove. I pull the sleeping bag out of its stuff sack behind my back for example. I don't know of any easy way to learn how to use the stove safely in a tent other than years of practice, initially in warm and benign conditions. A final thought on the subject: if you go down to the rec. store and tell them that you want a stove to run in your tent, chances are the sales person will be horrified. "You can't run a stove in a tent" they may say.† OK, so what do high altitude climbers do?
When it's extra cold at night, I consider my sleeping bag a tent within a tent. I pull all the clothes I will wear skiing the next day into the bag in the evening with the exception of my parka and Primaloft layers. I've learned how to get fully dressed completely inside the bag too. A small LED pinch light that I can hold in my teeth makes this much easier. I put the small stuff I will need like gloves, extra socks, the lighter for the stove, the altimeter-barometer-watch, etc, in a small mesh ditty bag so things won't get lost. A digital indoor - outdoor thermometer is a huge help in knowing how to dress for the day's skiing, and when it's cold, I pull the thermometer inside the sleeping bag too. It's important to know just how cold it is outside before you get out of the sleeping bag because when it's extra cold you can dump so much heat in the few minutes it takes to get dressed that you never recover. As to exactly what you should wear for each temperature range, it's something you just have to figure out over time.
And here's a tip to extend the range of your sleeping bag. I carry a piece of heavyweight Thinsulate insulation cut to the size of my sleeping pad. I can't say for sure, but it seems to work best between the air mattress and the bag, rather than under the mattress. Speaking of the air mattress, if you use a Cascade Designs ProLite mattress, be sure to blow it up fully, almost as hard as you can, just before bedtime. The lighter fabric used in these mattresses can stretch out to some extent, and if your mattress is not fully inflated the situation will only get worse as it cools off at night.
Getting up in the morning:†
If you start to get cold in the tent after getting up, it's very difficult to recover.† Learning to light the stove while still in my sleeping bag made a big difference. While I'm staying nice and warm, I have breakfast, get my outer gear ready, fire off a pair of grabbers and put them in the mitts, and finally put my ski boots on while inside the tent.† A folded waterproof map makes a functional shoe horn and makes the process of getting the boots on without sock wrinkles much easier.
I then turn the stove off, hopefully even a little too warm, get out and quickly do something for exercise. Just shoveling out the fresh snow is often enough. You can also put the skis on while wearing your full insulation and take a few quick laps around the tent. At this point I prep the skis, and check the temperature on the second digital thermometer I have taped to my ski pole. Weird yes, but its one more price I pay for having Raynaud's. If you are sufficiently warm, you don't have to over dress for the conditions. This helps keep you dry.† If you are cold by the time you start, you have to wear too many layers, and by the time you feel warm enough to shed a layer your clothing will be damp to wet with perspiration. That water will later suck the heat right out, especially if you start to run out of gas and can't keep up a high energy output.
Whether or not it's snowing makes a big difference too. When it's not snowing you can dispense with the parka for a while and keep your intermediate layers dry longer. When you have to wear the parka, and if the skin up is strenuous your inner garments will gradually get wet and loose some of their insulating properties. While at times it's possible to stop and add another layer at the first sign of a chill, this has its problems. Stopping for any length of time can start an episode of vasospasm as you cool off, and adding an extra layer means taking the parka off, loosing more heat, and getting inner layers further wet with snow. It's a tradeoff. I try to just slightly overdress when it's snowing, and then make just one stop half way up for an additional layer. Just before I reach my high point I make a quick stop again to put on my Primaloft so that I can stand around and enjoy the summit. To avoid too much additional moisture when adding layers, I quickly slip the parka off and then put the hood over my head and drape the rest of the parka over my shoulders. Then I can add or change a layer by sliding it under the parka so that it stays fairly dry. Zip up fully next so that you don't loose more heat than necessary. Then attend to pack and gloves.
Back from skiing:
By the time you are back at the tent after a day ski your clothing will probably be at least damp. One option is just to start packing up and ski out while your metabolism is still revved up. I like to get in the tent, have something to eat, and maybe take a nap. I like naps. Your body will cool down however, and if your clothing is still damp it's back to numb fingers. The stove makes a huge difference. Yes, same caveats as before. You can also dry out in the sleeping bag; it just takes a bit of time.† Here's how I do it. I take off the outer layers and bundle up in the sleeping bag wearing just the base layer. It typically takes about 45 minutes to dry this layer out, and I know when it's dry because I suddenly feel warmer. Then I pull the next layers into the bag, perhaps drape them over me for a bit, and then put them on and take a nap or read. It takes forever for things to dry if you don't start with just the base layer first. Same thing with socks.† If I have not run the stove, the whole process takes perhaps an hour and a half. At this point I can pack up and ski out without the Raynaud's acting up.
There are lots more little details, but I'm amazed that I got this much on paper. I'll try to add more in future revisions. As usual, corrections are welcome.
Second revision, February 2008
National Security Risk Assessment Office
This document has been reviewed and found not to contain risks to US national security.
Approved by: ___Alberto Gonzales_____† Date _____2-12-2008______