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Monday, October 05, 2009

Hot Springs in Cold Weather

. . . or, how do you get out of that wonderful water and get dressed without freezing your buns off?

I'm often amused by the hopping antics some soakers go through after a long and relaxing natural hot spring soak when they have to get out of the toasty warmth into cold weather. Some delay the inevitable for as long as possible and then go through a mad rush to find clothing and cover themselves amid 'brrrrrrrr's and wrapped arms around chests and one step, two step gingerly hopping on snow while shivering and declaring, 'Damn, it's cold out here!' Others again delay and quickly slip back into the pool amid growing worries that the day is getting long . . . the sun is sinking and sooner or later they're gonna have to face the cold if they ever want to get back home. It's only going to get colder out.

I'm amused because it's not that traumatic an event . . . if you're prepared and you know the secret to getting out of a superheated hot spring pool into freezing weather without yourself becoming a popsicle. Let's debunk one myth; you're not going to freeze. You might feel a little bit of the cold . . . how much depends on how you get out of the pool and whether the clothes you wore in are still dry. Two steps ...

Keep Your Clothes Dry

This is the 'be prepared' part. It does your soul no good if you emerge comfortable and toasty warm from a hot springs pool only to have to put on wet and cold (perhaps frozen) clothes. While you were wearing those clothes on the hike in they stayed warm along with your body . . . they wicked out sweat from the exertion of the hike. It doesn't take much time for really cold weather to freeze and stiffen those trace amounts of perspiration and moisture in your clothing into a shivering nightmare of redressing.

An intelligent hiker practices layering, avoids cotton and then forgets that these principles only work when the heat of your body is powering the system. Remove the clothes to partake in a soak, and your clothes are now subject to the environment on their own. Any moisture in them will freeze if the temperature is low enough . . . and you have to put that clothing back on . . . frozen as it is. Even if temperatures are not below freezing, there is nothing more miserable than having to put wet socks and boots back on for the hike out. As a hiker who hikes nude in cold conditions all the time (and enjoys it), I can attest that if my feet are dry and warm the rest of the body does not feel the cold quite as much. Get my feet wet and bone-chilling cold and I won't be hiking long.

Soooooo . . . while you are soaking, keep your clothes dry! That starts with having somewhere to keep your clothes while you are soaking away. The simplest answer is to carry a couple of plastic trash bags in your pack and use them to keep your clothes out of the elements. Plastic sacks also come in handy to sit or stand on and keep bare skin off snow, ice or frozen surfaces.

Ideally, segregate outer damp or wet clothing from drier inner clothing using two plastic sacks. Don't forget to protect your boots from the elements as well. A good approach is to pack a second set of dry inners wrapped around an activated foot warmer to keep them warm for when you need them. Whatever approach you take, the idea is not simply to hang your clothes from a tree or a post nearby, but to keep them dry and warm for a comfortable hike out. The sacks you used to protect your clothes can then be used to pick up a little of the trash left by less considerate users and pack it out.


Emerge in stages

This is the real secret to getting out of a hot spring into cold weather. Don't just hop out and madly try to dry yourself while shivering. Dry yourself from the top down while still in the pool, rising higher as you dry. For example, sit up exposing the upper chest and towel your head, shoulders and arms off. Stand up and towel down to the waist . . . and so on until your merely have step out of the pool (perhaps onto the plastic of one of your trash bags) to dry your lower legs and feet off. The process is as simple as it gets yet I see few who practice it, instead ending up hopping around sopping wet and barefooted on the snow complaining about how cold it is!

Water (and water-dripping humans) conduct heat 50 times more effectively than still air. You've probably spent a good part of an hour soaking in 105 to 115F water . . . superheated your body . . . and then you complain when the environment soaks that heat away 50 times faster than if your skin were dry? Stay in the pool and rise in stages to dry yourself off, limiting the amount of time wet skin is in contact with cold air. It works . . . trust me.

Three parts of your anatomy are particularly susceptible to the cold. They are: your scalp, your hands and your feet (no, that other part is not as vulnerable as you might think). The scalp, with close surface blood vessels, radiates as much as 30% of the available heat in your body. The hands and feet have limited peripheral circulation and especially feel the cold. Pay special attention to drying these areas and then get them covered and out of the cold soonest (hat, boots and gloves).

How you dry is just as important. Forget thick, plush bath towels. They soak and hold water without really drawing enough moisture off your skin to be dry. Drying with a cotton bath towel in cold weather is like re-wetting your skin with the absorbed water after a few passes . . . and that towel is now cold as heck! And heavy to hike back out with because you're hiking the water out.

I prefer using a hiker's chamois (like the chamois we dry our cars with but marketed for backpackers). This item will suck an amazing amount of water from your skin, works wet and is easily renewed by wringing out. Another cheap alternative are the Shammy's and Sham-Wow's now advertised on TV. These viscose materials also make great cloths to use in the pool to wipe the face, cover the head, etc. A small chamois dries you much more effectively than a cotton towel.


Dry, you withstand the cold better . . . your superheated skin guarantees it. A small, dry cotton washcloth finishes the drying of head, hands and feet. Get a knit cap on your head, then fresh, dry socks with the boots . . . gloves if needed. Then you can get around to dressing the rest of yourself, knowing that most of the moisture is off your skin and your not going to saturate your inner, wicking garments on the way out because your skin is still slightly damp.

Better yet, stay nude and see how long you can withstand the cold with the heat you've absorbed from the hot springs. You'd be surprised at your endurance level if you keep moving and generating additional heat. Of course, know your limits and dress when even the first hints of cooling too much (mild hypothermia) become evident. You'd be surprised at how pleasant cold weather nude hiking feels . . . especially after a hot springs soak!

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