5 tips for staying warm in the Drakensberg Mountains
I have been around for 40 years and have been hiking in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa for 20 of those years. And what have I learnt? Well they are quite simple really. They are only 3 guarantees in life. You are going to die. You have to pay taxes and there will be rain and mist when you go trekking in the Drakensberg. Wet clothing can be potentially dangerous as they conduct heat away from your body thus making you very susceptible to hypothermia-a life threatening condition that can easily be prevented.
Staying dry is probably one the most important factors to take into consideration when trying to stay warm on a hiking adventure. And this not only applies to the Drakensberg mountains but any other mountain in the world. And as you may know, mountains can be unforgiving places where weather patterns can change within minutes. Not only do mountains get wet, but they are home to high winds and freezing temperatures. Now add being wet to that equation and you are definitely looking for problems. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is the best remedy when planning a hiking trip in the mountains.
Always prepare for the worst case scenarios, especially in the Drakensberg Mountains
To give you an example, we have been on the escarpment on top of the Amphitheater in December, the height of the summer season in South Africa, and had to endure sleet and freezing temperatures for 2 days. If we had not be adequately prepared for the cold despite the assumption that it would be ‘hot and sunny’, we would have been in serious trouble. And this is on a 3 day hike where we were over 25km from base camp. There have been stories of hikers getting hypothermia on day hikes in the Drakensberg.
One such story sticks out in my mind. A hiker who was attempting to hike to the Tugela Falls on top of the Amphitheater was struck with hypothermia when a freak thunderstorm, high winds and freezing temperatures hit at the Chain-ladders. The hiker only had a cotton t-shirt and no rain protection gear. He was planning to hit the summit and return to his car within 4 hours. Luckily some other hikers found him and managed to raise his body temperature and get the then delirious man down to safety.
Follow these tips on staying warm in the Drakensberg Mountains
1.Carry an Umbrella
Yes, we know this is a topic of great debate. And yes I have traditionally been a bit of purist when it comes to surviving in the mountains, but maybe a humble umbrella can add some benefit to a Drakensberg mountains hiking adventure. What about the extra weight? What about high winds? What about lightning? We have spent a lot of time trekking on Kilimanjaro and got the idea from the guides there. They all carry umbrellas. So why not try them out on a Drakensberg hike. Obviously it would need to be a lightweight one and can be very effective at keeping the rain off you as long as the wind isn’t howling and there isn’t a torrential downpour. And when you don’t need it, you can just strap it to your backpack. And of course, you are not going to be sticking it in the air when there is lightning about.
2.Don’t Wear Pants
Okay so no need to get excited. We are an adventure company and do not condone sexy ladies with stunning kegs walking around the Drakensberg without pants. We just use that title to get your attention. We are talking about rain pants. The only time you need to wear rain pants when hiking is in heavy rain or in freezing conditions. We recommend that you hike in soft shell pants that will probably get wet in hard rain but dry pretty quickly from your body heat when in your tent or if the rain stops. And if your legs get a bit cold it’s not the end of the world-you can’t get hypothermia from cold legs. Another option, if it is not too cold, is to wear quick drying shorts with gaitors. Why gaitors? They serve to keep the rain from running down your leg into your boots.
3.Invest in a good quality rain jacket or poncho
Keeping dry is vital to surviving a rain drenched Drakensberg hike. It is a good idea to rather spend a little bit more on a good quality rain jacket than a substandard one that will risk your life. What is our advice on rain jackets? They should be breathable and preferably contain Gore-tex which is excellent at protecting a hiker from the potentially freezing effects of wind. Ponchos are also a good idea as they can cover not only your body, but your backpack as well. The only negative is that they are pretty useless in high winds.
4.Control your hiking speed
Body heat increases the faster you hike. The increase in body temperature will give rise to an increase in sweating especially under a rain jacket. In fact, the humidity that is generated could create an environment favored by mountain gorillas so be sure to keep the jacket closed to keep out any undesirable primates. The beauty of today’s highly advanced hiking gear is that they are designed to be breathable and ‘wick’ moisture away from the body. It would be a good idea to slow your pace down as you near camp. Your body heat will produce enough heat to dry out your clothing from the inside and thus allow you to handle the cold when you do stop hiking for the day.
5.Use your body heat to dry wet hiking clothes
One you reach camp, keep your wet rain jacket on while you pitch the tents and set up the campsite. This will allow you time for your body heat to dry the inside clothing. If the rain is still bucketing down, and the tent is all set up and ready for tired and wet hiker, try and shake off as much water as you can before diving inside. You are then faced with 2 options. Firstly, keep your jacket on and allow it to dry. Or take it off and let it air dry by hanging it up or draping it over your backpack. If it is not too cold, keep your wet hiking shirt on and or maybe jump into your sleeping bag and allow the body heat generated to dry the clothing.
Bonus tip #1: Always have spare dry clothing
Always keep an extra set of base layers and fleece tops!!!! And most importantly….make sure they are waterproofed so that they do not get wet from the rain. When you get into camp, you can change into your dry clothing which will be invaluable in helping you to warm up. And obviously this is followed by the customary sherry which is common practice while hiking in the Drakensberg in South Africa’s mountain dwelling society.
Bonus Tip #2: Wet sleeping bag is a dangerous sleeping bag
No matter what conditions you expect while hiking, always make sure your sleeping bag is kept in a waterproof bag. In a survival situation where keeping warm is a necessity, a wet sleeping bag can be become useless in its effectiveness at keeping you warm. Remember what we said about planning for worst case scenarios? Even if the weather forecast 5% chance of rain, always make sure you are prepared for the worst case scenarios in the Drakensberg.