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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The discreet hiker 2: The coming of winter

Those of you who have been following The Discreet Traveler for a while know that I was at Barack Obama's inauguration eight years ago. But I had to cut my nails on Friday, so this post is about something totally different.

A gentleman asked me to take his picture with that memorial in the background, and then offered to take mine. He told me to have a blessed year—not day, but year! Only later did I absorb the significance of two strangers, a white girl from the South and a black man, taking each other’s pictures at the Lincoln Memorial. 

Winter is coming. I don't just say this because of the resistance to the horror upon us (resisters are being called "snowflakes"). It's that I've been gearing up for hiking, specifically cold-weather hiking, and I actually miss the cold (think below -10 degrees Celsius). I can hardly wait to try some of this stuff out.

Why? Because I'm trekking Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the continent of Africa, and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.

The Discreet Traveler is actually going quite a few places this year, and I hope you, my millions of readers, will be interested enough to follow along. But as Marek Bron says in his excellent travel resource, many travelers spend far too much too much advance time planning their itinerary, and not enough deciding what to pack (and not pack). So, that's where I'm starting. And while many of the things I'll need on Kilimanjaro I would pack anyway, there are some specific requirements, as any spin around the internet can tell you.


Photograph: Bob Haisman


The real concern on Kili is the extremes of weather. Because one hikes from an equatorial zone (rainforest climate) up to an altitude with arctic conditions, one has to be prepared for all weathers in between. Apparently, some people flying into Tanzania have a hard time believing the top of the mountain can be that cold, even though they can look up and see "the snows of Kilimanjaro" and the glaciers for themselves.

This skepticism is not new. William Desborough Cooley, who in the 1840s was regarded as an East Africa expert despite never traveling there himself, spent the rest of his life disputing eyewitness accounts of Kilimanjaro and insisting that there could not be snow and ice that near to the equator. The arrogance of ignoring evidence is with us still!

As I mentioned in The discreet hiker (1), I've become a big convert of wearing layers to manage different temperatures. I've come to think that's the way to dress no matter where I am, even in cities doing more (or less) pedestrian activities. But realistically, I think about all the years I lived in Toronto, and Chicago before that, walking everywhere (never owning a car), waiting for transit, etc. I always had a big winter coat--the kind that's too bulky and impractical to wear on Kilimanjaro, or carry around the world, for that matter. I never remember wearing more than one layer on my hands in my entire life--just swapped gloves for mittens if I wanted to play in the snow. I've never worn more than two layers on my legs, and the base layer in that case was cotton long johns, when we all know now that cotton is bad because it doesn't wick moisture from the skin. 

None of this seems to have hurt me. I got frostnip on a toe once when I was out dogsledding for 5 hours--not moving around much (the dogs did all that) and wearing only one pair of socks, although they were thick socks.  My toe stopped being numb eventually. I've never worn sock liners or used hand or toe warmers. The coldest I've ever been was one period in Chicago--not even Canada--when the temperature dropped to 40 below 0.

Point of trivia: -40 is where the Fahrenheit and the Celsius scales meet. No matter where you are, -40 is damn cold. That's not counting wind chill, which in a continental winter is measured religiously: how cold you are likely to feel. That time in Chicago, the wind chill was said to be -70 degrees F. We did not wait at the bus stop. We stayed inside and rushed outside when the bus came. I remember looking out my apartment window and seeing Lake Shore Drive deserted, empty of cars for once. The mail was not delivered that day.

I do not expect it to be -40 on Kilimanjaro. Still, it's windy at the top! My goal is to always have one more layer in my backpack than I'm actually wearing. I may not ever need that extra layer, but it will give me great comfort to know that it's there.

(This is probably not important if you're just traveling/living in a city. Worst case scenario, you can buy a cheap umbrella or just duck into a store or coffeeshop if it's raining really hard. But living in the outdoors, on a hiking and camping trip, it's imperative to stay warm and dry. The body is much better at keeping warm, with proper insulation, than at getting warm after it's already chilled from wind or precipitation.)

So what am I going to wear? And how am I going to get it all without breaking my travel budget? I'd prefer to spend extra dollars on acclimatization days (i.e., a more gradual route to high altitude) and to make sure the Tanzanian crew is properly compensated for all their hard work--not brand new items that I may never use again.

Starting from the inside out:

1. Base layer (next to the skin): Underwear should be self-explanatory, although for really cold conditions, there's no substitute for wicking long underwear. I chose a merino wool/synthetic blend that keeps one warm without stinking after a day's wear. Not cheap, but there's no going without it. Check the outdoor stores for sales if you have enough time in advance.

2. The next layer I just like to call "regular clothes." As anywhere else, you wear a shirt and pants, with the long undershirt and tights underneath at the coldest temperatures (-30 C, or summit night!) You can buy trekking pants, but I already have two light pairs from when I was a volunteer at the London 2012 Games. (I'm just proud they still fit me, to be honest). I was going to take them traveling anyway. As for shirts, I have a few T-shirts (both short- and long-sleeved) made of "technical" material that I got from running 5 or 10Ks (yes, I used to do this). At home I normally prefer cotton shirts, so I'm putting these synthetic, wicking shirts into my backpack for travel.

3. Mid- or insulating layers. Fleece is a good insulating material, light and packable. I can no longer remember where I got it, but I have a thin fleece vest that is great for extra insulation, as well as a thicker, "Polartec" fleece with sleeves. The thicker fleece is great as an outer layer in milder (dry) conditions, and the vest is an extra layer of warmth underneath, without the bulk of yet another pair of sleeves.

Please note--so far nothing on this list have I bought, except underwear :-)

4. "A packable down jacket is the secret weapon of ultralight backpacking." (There are ethical as well as synthetic variations.) When I found one on sale for 2/3 off, I took the plunge. I've had occasion to use it a few times hiking and camping in the cold so far, and I have to say it's incredible. Nothing provides that kind of instant coziness when sitting around at night, and even though it weighs almost nothing and packs down into a small ball, I spread it on top of my sleeping bag and it felt like an extra blanket immediately. I don't anticipate hiking in my down jacket except on the coldest night, but layered with fleece, I'm going to bet it's as warm as one of those old winter coats. And much more versatile!

5. Outer layer: This is for wind and water resistance. There is always a tradeoff between waterproof (like a poncho) and breathable. The Olympics provided me with a light rain jacket that rolls into its own pocket. For most occasions, I see that being adequate in the rain, but for wet days on Kili I'll be more comfortable with a slightly heavier, high-tech material such as Gore-Tex or Hy-Vent. Luckily for me, T. has just such a jacket that she won't be needing, as while I'm up on a windy ridge somewhere on summit night, she'll be celebrating a BIG birthday far below in Arusha

Whether you borrow or buy such a wind- and waterproof layer, do go for a size larger, or at least check that it can go over all your other layers of clothes at the same time.

The torso is most important to keep warm, but in the coldest weather extra layers on the legs are necessary too. I have an old pair of fleecy pants that I plan to substitute for the light walking pants (the rest of the nights they can serve as pajama bottoms). I also bought a pair of rain pants made of similar material to the outer jacket. These might seem like an unnecessary expense, but it can rain on the lower elevations of Kili at any time, and once clothes are wet on the mountain, they're useless. So I plan to keep these, the waterproof jacket, and one extra warm layer in my daypack at all times. (I live and do most of my hiking in England, so there are plenty of opportunities to use the rain pants in the meantime! Make sure they fit comfortably over whatever you're walking in, and that they're flexible enough to bend your knees.)

I've raved elsewhere about merino wool hiking socks, which I pack all the time for traveling now. The best recommendation I've found for summit night is to get a thick thermal pair, and wear these on top of thin liner socks (a wicking material like polypropylene). I've also tried toe warmers and removable thermal insoles in my boots. I hope, with the boots I've broken in hiking and walk pretty much everywhere in, that these will withstand the coldest, windiest weather!

A few more clothing items--I'll save non-clothing for another post:


  • You're covered from your feet to your shoulders now. But hand protection is important. I have a pair of thin, fleecy running gloves that have some water resistance in normal temperatures; I plan to have these available always, as hands can get chilly when I'm holding hiking poles. I'm also borrowing a pair of thin glove liners that can go under these or, on the coldest night, the only pair of mittens I've had in my adult life (old, but resistant enough to snow and wind). 
  • As it happened, I recently lost my scarf, and instead of replacing it I got a balaclava (ski mask in North American). It's not heavy--a thin merino wool blend--though it does make me look a little like a bank robber when I have it pulled over my face. More comfortable than a scarf, though, and I can pull it under my chin if I just need my neck and head warmed. Covers the ears completely.
  • Two hats are essential. For sun and rain, I finally treated myself to a Tilley hat, which I'd wanted ever since I moved to Canada (it's part of becoming Canadian, like the citizenship test or Tim Hortons). It has proven perfect in both kinds of weather, and even ties under the chin if necessary. For cold nights and sleeping in camp, there's no substitute for a toque! That is to say, a woolly or fleecy hat. If you live anywhere with winter, you probably already own one. It may not be fashionable, but after a couple of nights in a tent you will no longer care about any of that.
Whether you're booking a trek up Kilimanjaro or just planning how to get through the winter in the northern hemisphere, I hope this layering logic makes sense. By using thin layers, some of which you probably already own, and taking them off/putting them on as the temperature changes (say, a wind chill drop of 10 C), you can achieve maximal comfort with minimal extra expense. 

*BONUS FUN THING: See how many Canadian references you can find in the layers of this post (top to bottom)!

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