There’s nothing like camping in the wilderness, away from the hustle and bustle of the world. Getting away to the great outdoors is one of America’s favorite past-times in the summer months. Some people opt to head out in the winter for winter hikes, snowshoe excursions, overnight ski trips, and more. Or, perhaps, they are addicted to the outdoor life and just can’t get enough camping in during the nice weather seasons so they brave the wintry landscapes. And cold weather camping is a completely different animal.
Weather can change on a dime and temperatures can drop to frigid levels in a couple of hours, so it is best to be prepared for whatever might come your way when camping in the snow or in the winter season. There are four overall objectives to achieve, and if you are successful with these, you will be able to call your cold-weather trip a winner.
1. Keep warm. Obviously, this is priority number one, but it’s not easily achievable. This includes the most vulnerable parts of your body, like your fingers and toes.
2. Get a good night’s sleep. Again, you’re only getting a good night’s sleep if you’re not freezing and shivering all night. Without sleep, you won’t be able to function properly during the day.
3. Stay hydrated. Drinking a glass of cold water might not seem appealing surrounded by snow and below-freezing temperatures, but it’s crucial to keep your body functioning at optimum levels in the cold—and that means staying hydrated and fed.
4. Stay safe and secure. This includes things like not getting frostbite and staying connected to the outside world in case a serious emergency should arise.
If you make the four items above your priority, everything else will be incidental and your winter camping trip will become something of legend that you will want to repeat. So, the question is, what do you need to accomplish this? Here are the most important cold-weather camping tips for a fun and successful outing.
Do your research and homework first.
Be proactive before adding even one item to your backpack. That means checking and double-checking the weather forecast for the area you plan on camping. If it looks like temps will be hitting below zero or there is a potential massive storm front coming through, it would be wise to delay your trip until you get a decent forecast for the days you want.
It’s important to let others know when and where you plan to camp so that if there is an emergency (if you don’t return when you say you will), they can let authorities know where your campsite is located. And speaking of authorities, if possible, see if you can locate the closest ranger station or rescue authorities and let them know, too, where you plan to enjoy the frosty outdoors.
Keep your tent small.
If you’re wondering about the number one tip to keep warm in a tent, it’s do not camp with a large, spacious tent. The bigger the space, the longer it will take to heat it and the harder it is to keep that space warm. A trick to help you shrink your interior tent space is to store all of your gear inside the tent. Also, when not in use, it is a smart idea to keep the tent closed up. This will not only help keep out the cold, but also the potentially blowing snow. Getting snow in that small space, which then warms up, and then you’ve got moisture. Moisture and water are great at cooling you off, which is the last thing you need when winter camping.
Layers and layers of clothing.
If you’re a t-shirt and jeans kind of person, I’ve got some bad news. You’re going to need a wardrobe change. Dressing in layers is crucial to keeping warm and staying happy on your winter camping trip. The goal here is to maintain control over your core body temperature. You get too cold, you add layers. Get too hot, you remove them. It’s that simple.
You will want to start with a base layer, such as silk or thermal underclothing. A common saying when it comes to winter camping is “cotton kills.” In other words, avoid cotton fabrics, especially for your first layer. This base layer will help to keep sweat and moisture off of your skin by wicking it away. As mentioned earlier, you want to avoid getting wet and being in contact with moisture as it leads to dropping your body temperature. If you’ve ever worn wet gloves, you know what I’m talking about!
Your middle layer will serve as your insulation layer. This layer of clothing should help you retain body heat and keep the cold from touching your skin.
The outer layer not only helps to keep you warm, but it should also protect you from the wind and rain. Again, if that middle layer gets wet, which eventually leads to your base layer getting wet, you could be in trouble. Stay dry and stay warm with multiple layers.
Actually, the more layer the better. Feel free to add an extra middle layer to your winter camping clothing system. These multiple layers work together as an insulator because warm air is trapped between them. This will help keep your core body at a nice warm working temperature.
Layers and layers of sleep gear, too.
A single sleeping bag will not be enough to help you with the first two items in our above list; keeping warm and getting a good night’s sleep. Although today’s sleeping bags are amazing, it is better to add layers for even better warmth throughout the night. Just like with clothing, warm air trapped between the payers will lend itself nicely to a comfortable and non-cold night of sleep.
Although you can double up on sleeping bags, more winter camping enthusiasts have found better success by simply adding a featherweight quilt to their sleep gear. This is a very lightweight “blanket” that can be added to the inside of your sleeping bag. You can simply use a blanket-type quilt or try a more advanced version that has side baffles and neck enclosures to keep out cold drafts, box-baffled construction to help the material keep its shape and minimize cold zones, and more.
One of the biggest warmth-stealing culprits is the ground on which you plan to sleep. That’s why it is important to get yourself the right sleeping pad—or pads.
Think “Princess and the Pea” when it comes to sleeping pads.
If you remember the story, the princess felt a pea under her single mattress. As the staff added more mattresses, she claimed she could still feel the pea. We know her reaction was entirely psychological, but freezing cold seeping up from the ground and into your bones will be entirely physical! A simple sleeping bag and a yoga mat are not going to do the trick when winter camping. You will need a sleeping pad with a higher R-value.
R-value is the amount of thermal resistance a material has. The higher the number the better. Anything rated above R4 is good, but consider investing in a pad rated R6. Although these pads add weight to your pack, at less than a pound, they will make all the difference in the world regarding your sleep comfort and warmth.
Cover your head when you hit the hay.
Although it is a myth that we lose most of our body heat through the tops of our heads, we still lose a significant amount—according to a report in the British Medical Journal, that number is somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. That’s enough to make an impact. There’s no reason to give up that body heat as you sleep all night. The simple solution is to wear a head covering of some sort as you catch your Z’s. Be sure to select a piece of gear that is comfortable and non-restrictive. As long as it doesn’t impair your sleep, you should be good to go.
Hand warmers and hot water bottles day and night.
When it comes to hand warmers, there are a few options from chemical ones to ones that use lighter fluid. The safest and most practical are electronic hand warmers that are rechargeable via USB. You will have the most control using one of these types and you can either recharge them in your car or with some kind of generator if your camping situation allows.
Hot water bottles are an old-school solution that still works well. You will need a pan to heat the water over the fire. You will also need to be extremely cautious as scalding can occur when filling the bottle. There are plastic and metal options perfect for camping.
To vent or not to vent?
Most tents have a ceiling vent that we use to keep airflow moving, especially in hot temps. But what about winter camping? Believe it or not, airflow is still crucial in the winter. Thanks to our breathing and the science of evaporation, condensation can form inside your tent. This moisture will help the cold do its thing, so it is best to keep that vent cracked to avoid this situation.
Stay as dry as possible.
Again, moisture and outer wetness are our enemies. Cold water mixed with freezing air is not good, makes us uncomfortable, and robs us of life-giving heat. Always have some extra “dry towels” ready to wipe up spills, remove moisture build-up inside the tent, and dry off our most vulnerable parts, our fingers, and toes.
Keep your water from freezing solid.
You will need to keep the hydration flowing and to do so, you can’t drink a block of ice! You should have no issue with this though if you keep your water storage container in your tent. Adding layers around it will also help insulate the water. Finally, if you have a way to heat water over the fire, you should be covered.
Portable heat and portable power.
If you can drive close to your winter campsite, there’s no reason why you can’t bring some extra luxuries along. For instance, an electronic portable heater inside the tent could almost be considered “glamping” because it’s so convenient. If you do utilize the portable heater, be sure to use the tent vent and turn off the heater overnight.
Charging your portable heater using your car is fine, but if you can bring a generator of some kind, even better. Solar generators will work best in this situation since there will be no intrusive engine noise from the generator or your car. Small, portable, and powerful, recharging for free thanks to solar energy is the way to go. Adding the option to bring lighting will also help with safety and convenience.
Keep your electronics charged and in working condition.
Although our goal might be to cut ourselves off completely from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, it is irresponsible to completely disappear and lose contact with society. What if something happens and you need help? Cell phones reach just about every corner of the world now, so having a phone and keeping it charged is optimal.
Small portable batteries for recharging only go so far. If you are able to bring along a small convenient generator, it will give you the peace of mind that recharging won’t become an issue.
As for storing your phone and any other sold-state electronics, if they are small enough, storing them at the foot of your sleeping bag is a neat trick many campers use. Not only will this keep them from freezing and possibly getting damaged, but it will also keep them dry and ready for use.
Winter camping preparedness will make or break your experience
As you can see, camping in the wintertime is much more than just throwing some normal camping gear into the back of your truck and driving out to the snowy wilderness. It takes extra work and extra planning. You could say learning how to stay warm camping in a tent is your top priority, because cold is not only uncomfortable, but it can also be dangerous. But it is not your only responsibility. Winter camping is an incredible and unique experience that very few people get to participate in. If you plan to be one of them, follow the above steps and guarantee you’ll be able to camp in your winter wonderland again and again.