Camping in the winter or high in the mountains is not for the inexperienced but cold weather can often catch you off-guard even in warmer months or at lower altitudes. That’s why it’s crucial to always be prepared and to make sure you’re not only ready for a fun camping experience but for safe cold weather camping as well.
Cold weather camping can be tricky, however, and many people are understandably hesitant to try it. Staying at home is the safer thing to do if you’re not ready as cold weather camping can easily turn from fun to uncomfortable and to outright deadly.
The risks of cold weather camping
Lots of things can go wrong if you’re not prepared for camping in the winter or even just on high-altitude cold nights.
- Discomfort and lack of sleep. Trying to sleep in cold weather can be next to impossible. Even just a cool autumn day can lead to a cold and windy night that leaves you unable to sleep at all. That’s an easy way to ruin your entire camping experience but it’s also the least bad scenario you should worry about.
- Frostnip and frostbite. There doesn’t need to be any actual snow or frost for you to get frostbite or even just frostnip overnight. Painful numbness and feezing of the skin and flesh beneath it, frostbite can happen most easily at your body’s extremities – your toes, fingers, ears, nose, chin, cheekbones.
Frostbite typically occurs at temperatures below 32°F or 0°C or even easier with strong winds or direct physical contact with colder surfaces such as the wall of your tent or the ground.
- The biggest danger of cold weather camping unprepared is hypothermia. This condition is simply the result of your body temperature dropping from 98.6°F or 37°C to 95°F or 35°C and below. The difference of just a couple of degrees may seem small but your body will actually “fight” for a long time to try and prevent even that minor drop. When the heat lost by your body becomes greater than the heat it can produce, however, then you’re in trouble.
Hypothermia can either occur quickly if you find yourself in overly extreme temperatures or slowly if you stay unprotected for too long at otherwise manageable temperatures.
The main symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, shallow breathing, weak pulse, sleepiness, clumsiness, frostbite, and slurred speech.
How cold is too cold?
There are too many factors to consider as the wind and the time you’re going to have to spend in the cold also matter.
However, as a general rule of thumb, mid-30s°F and up to mid-40s°F (0-10°C) are considered “cold weather camping” and anything below that can simply be deemed “a bad idea” for non-professionals.
50°F to 75°F (10°C to 24°C) is usually considered the most comfortable temperature range for camping as anything above that can be annoying or even dangerously hot.
20 cold-weather camping hacks to stay warm
There are lots of things you can do to keep warm and safe when camping on a cold-weather night. Many of them require at least a bit of preparation and others can be dependent on your particular circumstances. But here are 20 basic camping tips and hacks for cold weather that can either save you a lot of trouble or even save your life.
1. Check the weather
This seems obvious at first but it’s important to not only check the average temperatures for the area of your camping trip but also the minimal possible nighttime temperatures, any and all possible hazards such as winds, weather fluctuations, trail closures, and more.
And even after you’ve done all the necessary research, it’s important to still err on the safe side and prepare for even colder weather than what’s being forecasted.
2. Secure and wind-proof your campsite
Where you’ve decided to camp plays a big role in what the temperature conditions are going to be. Most of the campsite basics remain the same regardless of the weather – make sure the site is flat, dry, and has nice natural wind covers from as many sides as possible.
The wind is an especially big problem in cold weather as it can lower the temperatures even more. Additionally, if you haven’t secured your tent well and the wind compromises its stability, having to resecure it in a cold winter night can be annoying at best or disastrous at worst.
Lastly, the surface you’re on is also important. It should be flat and smooth, yes, and you may even flatten it additionally with your tools or boots. However, it’s also a good idea to create a small, shallow trough beneath the tent where you’re going to sleep. This will make you even more secure during the night as it’ll be harder to roll around accidentally.
Note: If there are strong winds, make a sleeping schedule and sleep at shifts with your friend(s). If something happens to the structure of the tent through the night cause of strong winds, it’s imperative that you notice it as soon as possible.
3. Get an insulated foam sleeping pad
Having a nice cold-weather sleeping bag is nice but if the weather is really going to be cold, an insulated sleeping pad underneath the bag can be invaluable.
Self-inflating air mattresses are also nice for camping but only until the temperature drops to or below 30°F/0°C – then, neither an air mattress nor a sleeping bag will be enough to keep you warm.
Note: Make sure the sleeping pad is rated at R-Value – this means that it offers better thermal insulation. The higher the rating, the better the pad.
4. Make sure your sleeping bag fits you well
You should pick a sleeping bag that is as good of a fit as possible – not too short and not too long. If your bag is too small for you, your shoulders and arms may need to stay on the outside which is a big problem on colder nights. On the other hand, bigger bags won’t keep you as warm because they won’t preserve your body’s heat too well.
Note: Keep in mind that you may also need a little extra space inside the bag for extra layers of clothes, hot water bottles, a pee bottle (see below), a midnight snack, and other things.
5. Be conservative with the sleeping bag’s temperature ratings
Sleeping bags are rated for different temperatures but it’s smart to get a bag that’s for extra cold weather than the one you’re going to, especially if you’re a cold sleeper and you know you need extra warmth.
Note: Bring a sleeping bag liner with you as it can add extra ~5 degrees of warmth or even more if it’s flannel or merino wool liner.
6. Don’t use a big tent
Large tents are nice – they offer lots of space and comfort. Not when it’s cold, however – then you want to reduce the ambient space as much as possible.
Having a smaller tent will greatly improve the temperature inside during the night, not to mention that smaller and lower tents are also more secure against wind.
7. Reduce the space inside the tent as well
There are lots of things you can do to fill the space inside the tent. Place all your bags, sacks, and gear inside with you and around the perimeter to create further insulation from the walls. Try to place the bags and gear next to the walls of the tent but without touching the walls – this will make for the best possible insulation.
Buddying up with someone you’re camping with is also a good idea. There’s no point in using two tents instead of one – yes, you might be more comfortable but you’ll also be cold. Hug and cuddle too – it’s all about heat preservation, nothing else.
8. Put a hot bottle or two in your sleeping bag
Heat a stainless steel or another BPA-free bottle of water and put it in your sleeping bag before going to sleep. The best places for it are near your inner tights, near your stomach, or at your neck. Yes, it will go cold after a while but any bit of heat you can get is welcome on a cold camping night.
9. Warm up before going to bed
The warmth you bring with you inside the sleeping bag is the warmth you’re going to have to sleep with. It’s much better to do some pushups and light warm-up exercises before going to bed as that will make you much more comfortable once you’re inside the bag.
10. Keep your hands and feet warm
As the night gets colder your body will prioritize keeping your core warm as that’s where your vital organs are. However, this is bad news for your hands and feet as they will be awfully cold in the morning. A good solution here is to take your boot liners and a pair of gloves with you in the bag. Don’t worry that you might get too hot – you can also take them off inside the sleeping bag.
11. Do NOT burrow your face or head inside the bag
Your head will likely get cold during the night while your body remains warm inside the comfort of your sleeping bag. You may feel incentivized to burrow your face inside the bag but that would be a mistake – breathing out inside the bag will also get moisture from your breath in it. This may seem insignificant but even a little moisture can create condensation and compromise the insulation properties of your bag.
You can cover the back of your head inside the bag if possible but keep your face and nose on the outside.
12. Protect your head from the cold as well
You’ll still need to make sure your head is safe, of course. Wear a nice winter cap, as well as ear protection, a scarf, or even a sleeping mask – everything that can help keep you warm.
13. Wear warm clothes inside the sleeping bag
There’s a ridiculous myth going around that sleeping naked inside a sleeping bag will keep you warmer. This is 100% wrong. The better you’re clothed, the warmer you’ll be. Don’t hesitate to cover yourself with as many layers as you can – you can always take some of them off during the night if you’re too hot. Having to get out of the bag to look for more clothes in the middle of the night can be much more annoying and costly for your body’s heat preservation.
Wool or synthetic fabrics are usually the best bet but avoid cotton as it doesn’t wick moisture properly and that can easily drop your body temperature through the night. Also, make sure that whatever you’re wearing isn’t too body-tight as that can lead to sweating and discomfort.
Note: However you’re dressed, make sure that you don’t sweat during the night. As with #11, keeping the sleeping bag free from any moisture is a must.
14. Keep your tent well-ventilated
This may seem counter-intuitive. Surely, you don’t want any outside cold air getting inside your tent, right? Actually, the heat from your body and your breath can quickly cause condense inside your tent if it’s not at least a little ventilated. That condense can cause much more trouble than a slight draft, so make sure your tent is ventilated.
15. Get a mylar thermal blanket
Emergency thermal blankets can be attached to the ceiling of your tent. This way, a nice mylar blanket will keep your whole tent warmer and will reflect your body’s heat back at you. You can secure it with duct tape and as long as it doesn’t obstruct the ventilation of the tent, you’ll sleep much better.
16. Prepare some midnight snacks
Your body will burn a lot of calories trying to keep you warm during the night and it’s a good idea to help it by munching on some extra high-calory snacks If you can. Eating just before going to bed is a good idea (even though it’s generally terrible health advice if you’re home) and having another snack nearby in case you wake up during the night is also smart.
17. Hydrate but through a straw
Staying well-hydrated is important in this scenario as in any other, however, make sure that the bottle or cup you’re drinking from can’t be easily spilled. Something with a cap and a straw on it would usually be your best bet since the last thing you want is to accidentally spill something into your sleeping bag.
18. Insulate your water bottles
As the temperatures drop, the water or other drinks can easily freeze or at least get too cold to drink safely. Coldwater is not only bad for our teeth but it can also drastically lower our body temperature. Not drinking at all is also not a good idea so the only safe option is to make sure that your bottles will keep your water from getting too cold.
19. Don’t hold your pee at night
There are several things you can do when you feel the urge to pee during a cold camping night:
- Hold it. That’s a big No-no as you definitely don’t want your body to waste any energy on keeping your pee warm while you’re holding it. This may seem silly and inconsequential but your body will actually waste a lot of energy to keep your “wastewater” warm for no reason if you hold it.
- Go pee outside. Not only is this annoying even on a summer night, but this can also cost you all your precious body heat and can end up being one of your last mistakes – do not leave your sleeping bag in the middle of particularly cold nights!
- Pee in your bag. This is obviously nobody’s favorite option, not to mention that we already warned you not to spill any unnecessary moisture in your sleeping bag. However, on a particularly cold night, it can be the lesser of these three evils.
- Pee in a designated pee bottle or pee funnel. This is easier for guys as they can simply prepare any standard bottle in their bag and designate it with a marker as their “pee bottle”. The ladies can come prepared with a pee funnel, however, which is harder to use but is definitely better than any of the options above.
20. Keep your electronics safe as well
Cold weather isn’t just dangerous for us but for our electronic devices as well. Low temperatures can quickly drain your batteries or even permanently damage all electronic devices.
And those are the main 20 tips and hacks we have for cold weather camping. Always make sure you’re well prepared and stay safe!