Cold Weather Camping: Why & How You Should Do It

There is nothing quite like the quiet tranquillity of a gently moving river, the crunch of fresh snow underfoot or the twinkle of the bright stars against the dark elixir of the night sky. But even the most spectacular sights the winter countryside has to offer won’t make up for a lousy night’s sleep in sub-zero temperatures.

Getting the gear you need to stay toasty in low temperatures is absolutely vital when you’re camping out in the cold.

The Essential Check List

 Investing in the correct gear is the difference between experiencing nature in its most purest form or suffering from the side-effects of the cold.

This list is absolutely non-negotiable and are absolute must-haves when you’re cold weather camping:

Staying Warm –

  • Warm fleece jacket
  • Thick hooded jacket
  • Warm, perspiration wicking base layers
  • Warm fleece gloves
  • Plenty of spare outer and under layers
  • Warm wool hat and spare
  • Scarf
  • Waterproof, 4 season sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag cover
  • Closed-cell sleeping pads
  • Plenty of blankets at varying thicknesses
  • Thick sleeping socks
  • Self-inflating air mattress
  • Mylar blanket
  • Hot water bottle
  • High-quality snow boots
  • Boot liners

Staying Dry –

  • Lightweight, waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Spare socks
  • Plastic bags

Staying Safe –

  • Long wind resistant, grooved tent poles
  • Head torch and plenty of spare batteries
  • High energy, nutritious snacks
  • Medicines and fully stocked first aid kit

Camping Like a Pro

Check Weather Conditions & Hazards

This is the absolute number one rule before undertaking any outdoor activity: check the weather and any potential hazards.

Besides knowing what temperatures you may be up against, it’s important to also think about any weather conditions that could be potentially hazardous – if the weather becomes too harsh to the point where it’s dangerous to attempt camping, then it’s best to postpone your trip altogether.

You should also think about the kind of terrain you’ll be greeted with and decide before arrival where you will pitch your campsite.

Choose Your Campsite & Flatten Your Sleeping Surface

Once you’ve chosen a location that’s relatively flat, dry and protected (as much as this is possible) from the wind, snow and rain you should expose the area underneath where the tent will be and begin to flatten down the dirt.  

Once in the tent, use your knees to flatten down the specific area where you’ll be sleeping. This technique reduces ambient space and any heat loss from cold exposure, which would make it difficult to get a good night’s rest and can even make you susceptible to the early stages of hypothermia or frostbite.

Body Heat Loss: How Does it Happen?

  • Evaporation: Evaporation creates a cooling effect. 85% of body heat is dropped when sweating during intense exercise. Wet clothing from sweating and an increase in respiration can also induce a drop in body heat – which is why it’s so important to have clean, warm and dry clothing on hand at all times.
  • Radiation: Radiation causes heat to repel from the body. The body can lose more than 50% of its heat due to radiation at temperatures lower than 20°
  • Conduction: Conduction transfers heat from physical contact. Conduction can occur from 20°C and lower and is the reason you lose body heat when sleeping on a cold surface.
  • Convection: Convection develops when heated fluid, either liquid or gas, travels away from the source. Think of a hot coffee for example. As the steam rises out of the cup, it indicates the movement of the heat as the hot water transforms into wet steam.

Closed-Cell Sleeping Pads

Conduction is the main culprit of heat loss when you’re sleeping on the cold ground. If you haven’t invested in a high-quality, insulated pad, then even your cold-weather sleeping bag won’t offer you much protection from the cold.

Most self-inflating air mattresses will insulate down to roughly -1°C, so if you’re looking for a bit more comfort, lay your foam pad down and place your mattress on top to offer optimal support and insulation.

Insulate by Reducing Unused Space

  • Snuggle Up: Pull your buddy’s sleeping pad close to your own, or better yet bind them together with tape or a coupler strap.
  • Barricade the Perimeter: Strategically placing your bags and extra stuff around the inside perimeter of the tent will help to keep heat from escaping.
  • Warmth Barrier: Packing a mylar blanket in your gear is a good idea, should you happen to be experiencing extreme heat loss throughout the night. Mylar blankets are foil sheets that are used to reflect heat, and by taping one to the inner-roof of your tent, you can prevent more heat from escaping.

Warm Up With a Hot Water Bottle

If you place a hot, non-insulated stainless steel water bottle in your sleeping bag each night, it will radiate heat up and down your body. Putting your hot water bottle near your critical areas, such as your core, femoral artery (inner thigh) and neck (jugular) will heat you up faster.

Don’t Forget Your Hands & Feet

There’s nothing worse than dunking your feet into ice cold, frozen boots first thing in the morning. Your body will instinctively warm your core over your hands and feet, by wearing thick socks and gloves your body will preserve energy.

A synthetic blend or wool options have moisture wicking qualities, which means they can reduce moisture build-up and keep bacteria that cause bad smells at bay.

Don’t Delve Into Your Sleeping Bag

Burying your head into your sleeping bag will cause moisture build up. This is especially the case if you have a down sleeping bag. Condensation means that your down bag will lose significant insulation and takes quite a while to dry.

Achieve maximum fluffiness by shaking your bag upside down each morning. This redirects the down back to the upper part of the bag to protect the core where heat retention is most important.

Dress Correctly For Sleeping in The Cold

For temperatures below -1°C, you need to wear the correct base layers:

  • Avoid tight clothing as it can restrict blood flow.
  • Don’t overdo it – if you get too warm moisture will develop on the inside of your bag and your temperature will drop to cool you off.
  • Wear synthetics or wool.

Whether you’re hot or cold, dress for the occasion and leave any cotton base layers at home.

After one cold-weather camping trip, there’s no doubt you’ll catch the bug, and while you may be anxious to get out there and try it for yourself, there’s nothing more important than safety.

As anyone seasoned camper knows, no one is exempt from the nip of the bitter weather. It’s essential to equip yourself, not only with the correct equipment and gear, but also with the knowledge that ensures you stay safe at all times.