Cold Weather Camping
“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Snowy weather while hiking at Coal Bank Pass near Silverton, Colorado.
Camping is a way for us to get away from our commodities and enjoy nature as simply as it is given to us - in the trees, on a mountain, by a river, in a desert, sleeping among the elements. We know how autumn nights feel with everybody surrounded by the campfire, huddling for heat against the crisp night air, and eating melted marshmallows. It’s chilly, but not unbearable; you know that the moment you step into your tent you will be warm and ready to drift into sleep. This is the bliss of camping.
But then comes the fourth and most bitter season. With snow, creepingly low temperatures, leaving even the branches of trees shedding their leaves to hibernate during the cold. Generally, it seems easier to stay within our commodities and heaters instead of spend our time in nature like we would during the other three seasons. Plus, it definitely seems warmer. Yet with a cozy attitude, and even cozier gear, cold weather camping can be just as, if not more, enjoyable than the remaining times of year.
There are two basics to cold weather camping: warmth and dryness. If you can apply these two concepts to every piece of gear and clothing, then you can enjoy your time camping amongst snow or freezing temperatures.
The way to successfully dress for winter nights in the forest is with layers, preferably of wool, not cotton. A base layer, mid layer, and outer layer will change the way your body retains heat in the colder months.
A base layer is essentially your underwear and the first pieces of clothing that touch your body. In cold weather, this layer is important because it helps prevent you from sitting in sweat. By using wool, or even synthetic materials for your base layer, the fabric will wick away any sweat or moisture you produced, leaving you dry and warm. In extreme situations, it is common to double or triple up on base layers, with each one consecutively becoming heavier.
Your mid layer is your insulation, the layer that does the most work for keeping you warm and comfy. Fleece and down insulated jackets are the optimal choice for this layer. The goal of these pieces is to keep your body heat in, maintaining your level of warmth. In extreme weather, don’t forget to apply this layer to your legs and use a kind of insulating pant to keep your whole body cozy.
The final layer is your outer layer - the primary purpose of this layer is to waterproof yourself, and keep you dry, one of the vital components of cold weather camping. Technology like GORE-TEX, or Patagonia’s h2no, or RIE Elements are all waterproof laminates that keep all water out, and are more often than not one way permeable, meaning they only allow moisture to go one way. Your base layer is designed to wick away moisture, and its exit is through the outer layer. Without the outer layer, your clothes and body are likely to get wet leaving you miserably cold.
Footwear is just as important as clothing - your body loses heat primarily through the head and the feet. With this in mind, make sure to pack a beanie or two to keep your noggin and ears warm. As for your feet, socks and choice of shoe/boot are vital. Wool socks will be the best insulator for your toes, retaining the body heat. It’s common to wear two pairs, a thin wool pair, similar to your “base layer”, and a thicker wool pair fitted to your boot, similar to your “mid layer.” Warmth is easily covered in your choice of socks, but if you get your feet wet the socks will do nothing but make you shiver more. This is why it is important to pick a boot or shoe that comes with waterproofing, such as the GORE-TEX talked about for your outer-layer. In terms of feet, your shoes are your outer layer and should be treated as such. With water/weather proof shoes, and wool socks, your feet will be kept toasty and dry.
All of these layers, including your feet layers, are vital to making sure you are warm and cozy for your winter expedition. But remember that are all equally important and that each of them are required to keep warm and dry, and that they all work together and fit like a puzzle.
Never forget the beanie! I also often like to use a vest, like this blue one, as a midlayer to keep my core extra warm.
Now that clothing is covered, the other main factor is gear. This includes sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, waterproof gear such as tarps and tents, and recreational items such as fire starter, firewood, and the beloved marshmallow. Remember though, dry and warm are the key components to gear as well.
If you bundle up with all the correct layers, you will undoubtedly be warmer and also be able to maintain that level of warmth. But at night temperatures drop significantly, especially if your campsite is surrounded (or buried) in snow. Ensuring that you have a correctly rated sleeping bag is vital. Sleeping bags come with different fillings, from goose down, to synthetic, to a combo of both. Each one offers different advantages as well as price points. The main goal when choosing a cold-weather bag is to pay attention to the degree rating; they come in varies of 20°F, 15°F, 0°F, -20°F, etc., depending on the severity of weather. This degree indicates the lowest temperature that the bag will continue to insulate you, the bare minimum. That being said, it’s smart to pick a bag that is rated lower than the predicted temperature, to ensure your warmth.
What you sleep on at night is just as important as what you sleep in - if you sleep on bare ground, the Earth will soak up all your warmth leaving you freezing and unable to sleep. Just like your bag is insulated, you will need an insulated sleeping pad. These pads are rated on an R-value, indicating the pad’s ability to insulate you in cold circumstances. The higher the R-value, the more insulated it will be and warmer the pad will keep you. A 4.5 R-value is generally perfect for 15°F, and a 5.5 for -25°F. For a more comprehensive list of R-values and their correlated temperatures, Big Agnes has a nice chart with all specifications clearly laid out.
Sleeping pads come in a number of lengths, shapes, and weight. Typically, the lighter the better, unless the type of camping you generally do is car-camping and weight isn’t an issue. Shape and length are important however - if your feet are hanging off the mat it will be a long cold night. Make sure you buy a mat that will fit your height, as well as width (oftentimes pads will have different width options). Shapes vary, specifically to fit mummy shaped sleeping bags. These are made to be lighter due to the fact that there is less actual pad, because of the mummy shape up top by your head. Pads can also be self-inflating or need to be blown up. For some people, blowing up a pad every night, especially at high altitudes, can be a pain and buying a self-inflating pad is worth the extra penny. Make sure you take into consideration all of these factors when you decide it’s time to invest in a nice pad.
We can’t forget a pillow can we? For the serious backpackers, a compact blow up pillow works perfectly for minimizing weight and space. The same insulation theories talked about in sleeping bags and pads applies to pillow - you can buy insulated blow up pillows to make sure your head stays warm at night. For extra measures, I always wear a beanie at night so my ears stay covered and cosy.
Fire and mallows, you can’t go wrong! Fire is important for both a warmth and social factor. Make sure to remember firewood if it’s not accessible where you are camping, and some form of fire starter and a lighter if you’re not into spending a long period of time trying to make your own spark by rubbing sticks together.
Winter camping in the San Juan National Forest, at an altitude of around 9,000 feet and a temperature of 10 degrees fahrenheit.
Winter camping can be fun, but sometimes it’s so cold that it becomes only manageable and lacks all sense of adventure. For me, this happens when I can’t get a decent night’s sleep because my toes are too cold to let me sleep. One of the easiest ways to stay warm at night, on top of correct gear and bundled clothing, is a hot water bottle.
Weird, right? If you boil water and put it in a sealed water bottle right before bed, then you can shove it down to the bottom of your bag, by your feet, for extra insulated warmth. If your core or legs tend to be colder, then place it there. The insulation of your bag and pad will keep the warmth inside and let you sleep soundly and comfortably.
Another tip for warmth is to eat a heavy meal right before bed. This will make your digestive tract work on digesting the meal, and create warmth from all the energy it’s using on the food. Plus, eating a heavy meal always makes me ready for bed.
Camping and enjoying the outdoors doesn’t have to cease when the temperatures drop. If you remember to stay warm and dry, to bundle properly, get the right gear, and maintain the level of fun you’re bound to enjoy the bitter temperatures, as well as be able to sleep under clear skies of a different season.
Mornings woken up to a thin layer of snow - start a fire and grab your Kubie for warmth to wake you up!
Contact or share with us at:
Photos and words by Madeleine Roberts | @raddiemoberts