What To Bring When Camping In The Cold

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Many people believe that you cannot camp in the winter. Which is wrong. Start by layering your clothes including a moisture-wicking base layer and a wool or fleece middle-layer topped by a puffy coat and you’re sure to be warm during the day. At night sleep with the same type of base layer with a pair of clean wool socks on. Make sure to sleep on a R3 or higher sleeping pad with a sleeping bag rated for the temperature you’re expecting for the night. You can significantly improve your sleeping pad’s warmth by adding a survival blanket between you and your sleeping pad.

Now that you know the essentials to camp in the cold, let’s look at this topic in more detail.

Infographic on how to camp in the cold

Dress In Layers To Regulate Body Temperature

The most important lesson for camping in the cold is to learn to dress in layers. We need to dress in layers because a single layer is not going to be enough to keep you warm. Furthermore, you must avoid getting sweaty while camping in the cold.

It doesn’t seem possible to sweat when the temperatures begin to drop below freezing, but it is very easy to do so while you’re doing camping chores. And sweating in freezing temperatures can lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia can become a dangerous condition that can cause injury or even death.

Thus be very cautious about sweating. The most important step in preventing sweating is to remove layers of clothing before you start to do strenuous camping chores.

And you can always add layers if you get cold.

Now that we have drilled into your head why we want to layer our clothes, let’s get into specifics.

The base layer for camping needs to be a synthetic material that will wick away sweat. You do not want it to be cotton because wet cotton takes a long time to dry and loses its ability to keep you warm.

The next layer (called the middle layer) for your top should be long-sleeved but suitable for your area. I prefer to wear fleece-lined wool flannel shirts. However, you might prefer a sweater. Wool is the predominant fabric because it’s affordable, lightweight, warm, and stays warm even if wet. While wool can feel itchy, modern wool garments like my shirts can be lined with another softer material.

If you’re camping in the snow, you can wear ski pants. Otherwise, your standard camping pants will work.

Over this middle layer, you can wear a puffy jacket. Down is ideal because it packs so small and is very warm. However, they’re expensive and if down gets wet it loses its ability to keep you warm. So you can get a synthetic version as well. Make sure the jacket is large enough that it will zip over your layers. This might mean you need to get a larger size than you normally wear.

For socks, wear wool socks. Wool is great because it’s warm and will retain most of its warmth even if wet.

You can complete the outfit with a beanie hat that covers your ears, gloves and a buff. We can use the buff to cover our face if necessary in the cold.

When you sleep, prepare to sleep in your base layer. If you want, you can bring a separate base layer to sleep in. And also bring at least an extra pair of wool socks. Adding an extra pair of socks can make you feel a lot warmer without adding any more layers. You might also want a thin pair of gloves for sleeping since your hands also lose a lot of heat.

Finally, you should bring along a complete rain suit such as Frog Togs. Though keep a poncho on hand for emergency use.

Invest In A Quality Sleeping Pad And Sleeping Bag

The next most important item for keeping you warm is your sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

We have created an in-depth guide on how to choose a sleeping bag which you can read here.

The most essential item to remember about a sleeping bag is its temperature rating. In particular, the lowest rating. That rating is not a comfort rating, but rather the lowest temperature the bag will keep you alive in. So the general rule of thumb for choosing a sleeping bag is to get one rated at least 10 degrees colder than what you plan to sleep in.

Next, make sure to get a sleeping pad. The ground is always going to be colder than your body and the laws of physics dictate that the ground temperature will try to reach equilibrium with your body. This happens by drawing heat from your body.

So you want insulation between you and the ground. This is the primary purpose of a sleeping pad. And why many sleeping pads are not comfortable to sleep-on. Because they’re not optimized for comfort but for survival.

However, there are sleeping pads that will provide comfort and warmth so don’t be afraid to try many out to see which one works best for you.

One final tip for improving the warmth of your sleeping pad, is to put a survival blanket between you and the pad. These blankets will reflect around 90% of your body heat back at you. While you will sound like you’re sleeping in a Doritos bag, it will add a lot of warmth for almost no weight at a low cost.

Hammock Campers Need A Top And Under Quilt

Many people like to camp by sleeping in hammocks. We have a complete guide to hammock camping here.

While hammocks can provide a nice comfortable night of sleep (the trick is to lay diagonally), they suffer from cold butt syndrome.

This is where cold air blows along the bottom of your hammock and draws the warm air from your body.

You can prevent this by adding in an underquilt to your hammock. Underquilts are specially made sleeping bags for the bottom of your hammock. And when attached properly, your hammock becomes a cocoon. They immediately make your hammock warm and cozy. But they are expensive and there’s a trick to get them attached properly that you learn over time.

Cot Campers Still Need A Sleeping Pad And Sleeping Bag

Another popular option is cot camping. I have a secret, I keep forgetting about cot sleeping. Because I was in Boy Scouts for many years and did over 100 campouts. And my Dad was our Scoutmaster.

For some reason, he rarely let us sleep on cots. I think he thought he was toughening us up, but we didn’t have sleeping pads in the 1980s. So that ground was cold!

Anyway, if you are a cot sleeper, make sure to bring a sleeping pad with you. Because it will help insulate you from the cold air under the cot. It does a similar job as an underquilt for a hammock but at a much lower cost.

You can also bring along a mattress topper if you want instead.

Hand Warmers Aren’t Just For Your Hands

You can buy hand-warmers in bulk. They are affordable and work well. The way hand-warmers work is by generating heat from a chemical reaction that is activated by shaking the bag.

Besides using them to keep your hands warm, you can place them at the foot of your sleeping bag to heat it up before you get into your bag. Do this at least 15 minutes before heading to bed.

I am a side sleeper and I held onto them by placing them under my upper chest while dozed off. This made my sleeping pad almost as warm as my bed at home.

You could even place them around a plastic water bottle to warm it up a bit before drinking.

Tent Heaters

Another popular option is bring along a portable heater like a Mr. Heater Buddy heater. These are propane heaters that can be used indoors.

However, follow the instructions that come with the model. Many of them have low-oxygen sensors and will shut-off. However, if I was using one, I would also bring along a portable carbon monoxide sensor as a backup.

You can also use an electric heater if you are at a campsite with an electric hookup.

Electric Blankets

I know many people who will only camp at state parks in the winter if they can get one with an electrical connection. This is because they bring along an electric blanket to keep warm.

I personally try to avoid judging people on how they camp, but if you need an electric blanket to keep warm, I would suggest avoiding tents in the winter. Find a nice cabin. There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a cabin to stay warm.

Drink Plenty Of Water

My worst case of dehydration didn’t come from camping in the summer but rather on a cold-weather camping trip.

This was because I was doing a lot of exertion from setting up camp and getting a fire going. While I had water with me, it was cold outside so I didn’t feel like drinking even more cold water.

And because it wasn’t 100 degrees outside I wasn’t thinking about how much fluid I had lost from sweating. I was just making sure to keep the layers off and let the sweat evaporate.

So make sure you are drinking your fluids.

Get Your Water From Hot Coffee And Tea And Broth

In winter camping, you will want to drink warm liquids. Thus make sure to bring along coffee, tea, and broth or bullion cubes.

A gas stove will make it much easier to heat the water up if you are not constantly maintaining a campfire. You can learn more about how to boil water while camping with this article.

Test Everything Out At Home

Before going on your first winter camping, in particular, if it’s going to be a backcountry campsite, make sure to test out all of your gear at home.

This way you can know for sure how to setup your sleep system to stay warm and make sure the gas stove is working properly.

Finally, you’re camping for fun and as a vacation. Thus if the weather does get too bad or too cold don’t feel like you must stay. Get into your vehicle and warm up if necessary. Or even leave if it’s required.

While it’s never fun to leave a campsite early, it’s much better than suffering hypothermia.

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