Vapor Barrier Socks Using Reynolds Oven Bags

Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for very cold winter hiking

Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for very cold winter hiking

I’ve switched to a new vapor barrier sock system this winter: Reynolds Oven Bags! They work great, they’re super durable, and relatively inexpensive. They also work a lot better than the Stephenson’s Warmlite vapor barrier socks I used last winter because they don’t have any sewn seams.

Vapor Barrier Clothing

If you’re not familiar with Vapor Barrier clothing, you haven’t been reading Section Hiker long enough. I’ve been messing around with the idea for years after being introduced to it by my friend Chris, author of the blog Hiking, Climbing and Mountaineering in Japan. I read more about it in Mark Twight’s awesome book, Climbing Light and Fast and have been incorporating vapor barrier components into my winter clothing systems ever since (vapor barrier liners are actually the thing that first got me interested in ultralight backpacking.)

The basic principle is this:

Wrap yourself in an impermeable membrane like plastic and raise the relative humidity of your skin (by sweating a little bit) so your body thinks it’s on a warm tropical beach and not on top of a freezing cold mountain. Your body will stop sweating because the relative humidity next to your skin has increased, which means you’ll need to drink less water to stay hydrated. The plastic barrier also prevents the transmission of moisture into your higher layers and you’ll be able to wear less insulation because your sweat isn’t degrading its ability to trap your body heat.

Oven Bag over a thin sock liner

Plastic Oven Bag  worn over a thin sock liner

Anti-breathability

Vapor barrier clothing flies in the face of everything you’ve ever been told about breathable clothing, especially the part where breathability helps preserve the insulating properties of your warmer layers. This is particularly helpful on multi-day trips where you want your insulation to remain consistently effective for the duration, so that you don’t need to bring extra dry clothing or stop to dry your gear off in the sun.

Vapor barrier clothing and liners work best in very cold temperatures, starting at about 10 degrees fahrenheit or less. Much warmer than that and you’ll sweat too much, which gets uncomfortable. They also make you much more aware of your perspiration rate and you’ll want to dial down your activity level if you find yourself overheating.

My Cold Weather Boot System

When I go on winter backpacking trips, I wear a mountaineering boot that has a removable insulating liner so that I can sleep with it in my sleeping bag to prevent it from freezing solid. However, you don’t have to do this (sleep with them or wear a removable boot liner) if you wear a vapor barrier sock because it prevents the passage of sweat from your socks to the boot. They also help keep your feet and boots much warmer in camp when you’re sitting around melting snow for drinking water because your socks and boots remain dry.

Scarpa Omega Mountaineering Boot Layering System

Scarpa Omega Mountaineering Boot Layering System w/ Vapor Barrier Liner

When I hike in my mountaineering boots with a vapor barrier liner, this is the layering scheme I use. I often wear boots with a removable liner in very cold weather because I find them comfortable, but I also sometimes I wear unlined mountaineering boots. It depends on the demands of the trip, trip duration and weather conditions. This system will work either way.

  1. I wear a very thin polyester sock as a base layer over my foot. These socks absorb very little moisture and I wear them for comfort, so I don’t have plastic touching my skin.
  2. The next layer out is a large-size Reynold’s Oven Bag (see above).
  3. I pull an REI wool expedition sock over that as an outer sock for warmth and cushioning.
  4. Next is my removable boot liner. Both it and the wool expedition sock stay completely dry when I wear a plastic oven bag underneath them.
  5. The outer waterproof mountaineering boot.

Using a vapor liner works best if it’s 10 degrees fahrenheit or colder. The colder, the better. Just make sure you get the large sized Reynolds Oven Bags and not the Turkey-Sized ones. Those are too big, even if they do have multiple uses.

Disclosure: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) purchased a pack of five large size Reynolds Oven Bags from Reynolds Consumer Products with his own funds.

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26 Responses to Vapor Barrier Socks Using Reynolds Oven Bags

  1. Marko January 14, 2014 at 4:09 am #

    I’ve used Subway bags as they are fairly long and more tubular and they worked well…. but having a fair bit of winter camping experience I finally bought some vapor barrier socks… not sure what brand as its been a few years, but I swear by them. My feet tend to perspire anyway and keeping foot insulation dry is crucial for me and frankly, its just a good idea! A person may carry extra socks but no way will they carry extra boots!

  2. Jim C January 14, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    I also find VBL socks (gloves also) are a huge benefit for long winter days or multi-day outings. They not only keep insulation dry, they jeep your warm with less insulation. Learned that from my father 50 years ago! I haven’t had the issues that Phillip experienced with the seams on Stephenson’s Warmlite socks but then my winter outings are not as intensive nor extensive as his.

    I’ve always used VBL right against my skin, not liking the wet liner sock feel but I’m sure that is a “your mileage may vary” thing.

    Plastic bags haven’t worked well for me because my “killer toenails” pierce them too easily (as they do the lightest liner socks) but I’ll have to give the turkey bags a try … they are pretty tough.

  3. Joan January 14, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Great post! I also have had really good results using the large sized reynolds oven bags as vapor barriers to keep my feet warm. They didn’t break as quickly as other types of bags and had a better fit. I use them even into the 30’s, but then again I get cold very easily.

  4. mke January 14, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    Would breadbags work? Used to use them as a kid and in college to keep feet dry in snowy weather. They, too, are long, narrow!

    • Philip Werner January 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      I’ve tried bread bags but found they are too small (narrow) for my feet. The oven bags are bigger, but not too big.

    • Rocket January 15, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Bread bags are way too fragile IME. I was constantly getting holes in them. The person up above who uses Subway bags is astounding. Those things are about as sturdy as tissue paper.

  5. ighwoman January 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    I also am a great proponent of Vapor Barriers in very cold weather. I have a sleeping bag VBL that I used winter camping (Northern Minnesota) with a down bag years ago. The biggest downside to that is having to dry yourself off before dressing in the morning… But it easily adds 15°+ to the rating of a sleeping bag.

    • Philip Werner January 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      I’ve tried that – my first purchase was the Western Mountaineering VB liner. Sweating was a problem for me too. The flash off is almost not worth it, but it does wake you up!

  6. Paul Mags January 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    Bread bags, turkey bags etc are something I’ve used myself. I call it BagTex (TM) :)

  7. Grandpa January 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    I keep a few bread bags in my kit. They also make pretty good trash bags. Of course, my feet and trash will get to smelling pretty much the same after a few days…

  8. Joe January 14, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

    These bags can also serve double duty as snow melters (& cooking water pre-heaters). A black painted water bottle inside one of these bags can easily melt snow when given enough sun. Best to set the bag on an insulator (foam pad) to minimize heat loss. You can also double the heat input by using a reflector (silver mylar or stove windscreen) behind the bag.

  9. Chris January 15, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    I was really hoping this review would say this at the end:

    “Disclosure: Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) received a pack of five large size Reynolds Oven Bags from Reynolds Consumer Products for review.”

    Another home product used without its intended purpose in mind. Makes me wonder whether they ever have hikers calling their customer service line complaining about the integrity/features of their oven bags — if not, they should know they are filling a niche need in the winter backpacking community! Also makes me wonder if you have ever received a product for review from a company like this that has discovered that their item serves another purpose!

    • Philip Werner January 15, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Oops – put the disclosure in. Unfortunately Reynolds turned me down when I asked them to sponsor the Stinky Socks Esxpedition to the South Pole I’m trying to organize!

  10. JERMM January 15, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    and by the end of the day your feet smell like roasted turkey…sorry I couldn’t resist :-)

  11. Greg January 15, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Are you still using the Warmlite glove liners as VBLs? How have they been long-term?

    I’ve sometimes used plastic bag VBLs for my feet at a higher temp than what you recommend when there is slush and some deep puddles of water at the base but snow as you gain altitude.

  12. znara January 16, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Does the added humidity cause blisters or is there something else you do to prevent them?

  13. Scott January 16, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    As a young boy back in the 60′s, my friends and I found that the best way to keep our feet warm during a full day of sledding, was to wear 2 pairs of socks with a wonder bread bag in between. Of course we didn’t have anything as high tech as mountaineering boots. We were wearing PF flyers…

    • Doug R. January 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      Oddly enough, I was just logging in to mention the bread wrapper method, too. My mother used to have me wear one as the outer layer, just inside the boot, when I was a kid. Her purpose was so that the boot would go on and off more easily, but I remember my feet stayed nice and toasty with them on.

      Funny – I haven’t thought about that in probably 30 years…

  14. Steve McAllister January 24, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    Regarding the problem with toenail wearing holes in the bag, an inner sock liner helps with that, unless your toenails wear through the socks as well:-)

  15. Andy Fox January 24, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    I use the turkey sized ones because they seem to be slightly thicker and more durable. I switch between using these and thin neoprene socks–not sure which I like better yet. The neoprene socks are more comfortable and slide less, but I’m not convinced they’re as effective and blocking moisture.

  16. Matt January 24, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    Disclosure: this author has very little foot odor.
    Based on a comment in a very old Patagonia catalog I started using Mitchum anti-antiperspirant while guiding on Denali in the 1980′s. This has worked quite well over the decades. My boots stayed dry (very important in Alaska) and my tent mates were happy with me.

  17. Will Rietveld January 28, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Great article Philip, its a good reminder for me to use VBLs again, especially in my backcountry skiing boots. My feet have gotten very cold on several recent ski trips.

    I might mention that I often wear a plastic bag over dry socks in camp while summertime backpacking to keep my feet warm and dry in my hiking shoes, which are usually damp or wet at the end of the day. That way I don’t need to carry any camp shoes, just a pair of dry socks and plastic bags. The oven bags should work better since they are so tough, so I will switch to them.

    I might also mention that turkey bags make a great liner for the front mesh pocket on many LW backpacks.

  18. Leon Redbone February 16, 2014 at 5:14 am #

    there’s plenty of mountaineers who get frosbite from having a VBL virtually full of moisture and then having a temperature which creeps into the boot and chills the sweat, or when you have a pool of sweat adn the bag breaks, then you have soaked socks and not sweaty socks. As a medical students, I cant condone restricting your skin anywhere, especially when your body needs to fully engage in the bio-specific processes that accompanies sweat. what i do condone is having insulating footbeds and/or layer of C.C. foam,felt or thinsulate with a wicking bed over it, then having a high quality merino/coolmax sock next to skin with no olefin, no acrylic, and little nylon, rather favoring polyester, then having a virtually all merino even thicker sock outside of it.usually an insulating bed is too hot underway, but good for the end of the day or if your unhealthy. usually a (SOLE) brand insert with wicking bed and shock absorbing foam is more than enough. Top it off by staying with breathable leather boots like our original inspirations in the alps long ago, with a sportee 3 bar knit lining like laSportivas have, or a top notch glove leather interior(mine doesnt even freeze in winter; so well I dont even have to put them in my sleeping bag). Then use the right kind of Nikwax for the right leather or sometimes even combinations of both. Warm the boots with a hairdryer and warm the product in cool hot water. Apply a minimum of 3 moderate coats soaking the boot each time and completely drying in between. My feet literally steam out of my boot surface and never get wet, haven’t in 20 years and I even dry out wet snowy or river soaked boots on the go in cold temps. If your feet get cold in boots like that with gaiters on while your moving, then you really shouldn’t be underway to begin with, especially with the warmth of inner glove leather, outlast membrane, or insulated leather. Leather itself and the standard lining are warm. May you all have comfortable feet, and hike in leather and not hurt your knee, hip and back joints with plastic boots!!!

  19. Darrell February 28, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    I tried using the large oven bags and found that they were more durable but also more slippery between my polypro liner sock and smartwool outer sock. I found that the Target Brand 8 gallon trash bags have a lot of stretch to them before they break and don’t slip around inside my Koflach Degre’s as much. The bag is so thin that even if it bunches up around my foot I don’t even notice it as long as it doesn’t on the bottom. I’ve experimented with several bags before committing to using on a trip and found the VBL sock to work very well for 0 degree F and above temps. I’ve found that since my degree’s have a closed cell “intuition” liner that doesn’t breath both my inner and out socks get sweat soaked as well as the fabric over the liner foam. It’s much easier to use the bags. the only thing that gets wet and it’s only a dampness is my polypro thin liner sock and both my insulating sock and boot stays completely dry inside. This allows me to wear one pair of smartwools, with one pair for sleeping, and two or three poly pro liners. The liners dry out much better in my bag at night or jacket during the day. I also warm up my liners in my bag for about 10-15 minutes before putting on in morning.

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