Let’s be honest – with the right equipment, camping can still be fun in the winter months. But surely there’s a limit to the temperature that even the most thick-skinned camper would want to endure. So how cold is too cold for camping?
Most campers would agree that temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit are too cold to camp without specialist gear. Beginner campers should think twice before camping in sub-40 degree temperatures due to the risk of hypothermia.
Let’s take a look at the factors that make camping in such low temperatures so unsuitable for campers without the correct level of gear and experience.
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Issues Relating To Cold Weather Camping
Cold weather combined with rainfall is a nightmare for the unprepared camper. Even in milder temperatures, a sudden downpour can leave you soaked, greatly increasing the potential for reduced body temperature and possibly even hypothermia. Always make sure to carry the relevant gear, whether that’s a sufficiently waterproof tent, or at least a tarp to throw over your tent to protect it from the elements.
Biting winds are commonplace in the off-season, and can make temperatures feel much colder than they actually are. Not only does this present a further risk to both the camper and their possessions, wind chill is a key contributor to cold weather related illness and even fatality, when the weather turns on the unprepared.
During the night, your body gives off heat which turns to water vapour as it’s released into the atmosphere. This vapour then settles on the inside of your tent walls, which then freezes, significantly reducing the ambient temperature of the tent. The result for the not-so-happy camper is waking up in a freezing tent. Not the best way to start your morning.
One unavoidable element to cold weather camping is the need to carry additional gear with you. This inevitably adds to the weight of your pack. Heavier tents, thicker sleeping bags, propane canisters and cumbersome tarpaulins all come together to put extra strain on the camper’s load.
If you’re hiking from point to point and camping in the evenings, the extra weight could add to your fatigue levels, requiring you to move at a slower pace, take more frequent rests, and even consume more fuel in the way of food and water throughout the day, so it’s best to factor this in beforehand to make sure you’re prepared.
Lack of Others on Campsite
Camping is a social activity, and whilst many campers relish the peace and quiet that the colder months bring, it’s not uncommon to be on your own on a campsite when the lower temperatures set in. If you’re looking to make new friends, you could well be disappointed by the lack of opportunity here.
Similarly, it’s generally comforting to know that there are others around, in the event of having to borrow food or equipment, help during an emergency, or even to deter tent thieves who prey on deserted campsites.
What Gear Will I Need for Cold Weather Camping?
Camping in cold weather isn’t simply a case of throwing on a couple of extra layers and hoping for the best. Depending on the temperatures, and especially when below 40F, specialist gear is required to maintain comfort and safety levels.
The first item required without question is a suitable all-season, double wall tent. Whilst it’s not likely to do much to keep you warm by itself, it will offer some protection from buffeting winds, driving rain and even snow. Make sure your tent is fully waterproof as any water coming in will drip onto the occupants, making them cold. There is likely to be some condensation inside the tent produced by their body heat anyway, so leaving the slightest gap in the tent door could actually help alleviate this issue, without letting too much cold air into the tent.
Packing the correct clothing can literally save your life in a cold weather camping environment. Layer up with base layers such as long johns, which are made from a woollen, square-weave fabric, specifically designed to wick moisture away from the skin, keeping you dry and therefore warm.
The next layer should be a fleece which traps warmth inside. A large winter coat filled with an insulative material such as down should be worn over the top. Don’t forget to pack other accessories such as hats, scarves and gloves, as these are essential in keeping your extremities warm, which is where most body heat is lost when exposed to the cold.
There are additional options to consider, such as bodywarmers fitted with heating elements. Whilst these might sound like a good idea in theory, use them sparingly as they could cause you to sweat, and then become cold, rendering them counterproductive.
The quality of sleeping bag you use will have a direct effect on your ability to remain warm in cold weather conditions. It’s important to understand how sleeping bags are rated. Most manufacturers will advertise a temperature rating which refers to the level of cold that their product can be used for. This refers to the lower limit that it can be used for without seriously compromising your safety. Therefore, always choose a sleeping bag with a heftier rating than the coldest temperature you’re likely to use it in. Pick the lowest temperature you’re likely to camp in and then try and find a sleeping bag which is rated for lower temperatures than that.
For instance, the Marmot Trestles 15 Degree sleeping bag is rated for a comfortable nights’ sleep at 15 degrees Fahrenheit, however you should always opt for a rating better (meaning lower) than 15 degrees to ensure you remain warm, rather than merely comfortable.
Bear in mind that the temperature will drop sharply at night, so having an understanding of the coldest temperatures you’ll be exposed to is a must.
Other factors to consider when choosing a sleeping bag for cold weather camping:
A down sleeping bag, whilst expensive, will provide the best heat retention when compared to other materials. They are lightweight, however are prone to moisture build-up. A synthetic material such as polyester is a decent all-rounder when it comes down to cost vs warmth vs weight
For the ultimate in night-time heat retention, consider a mummy shaped bag. They taper down towards the bottom of the bag which helps keep you warm as there is less room inside the bag to heat. They are more restrictive than a traditional rectangular sleeping bag, so might not be suitable for those who prefer a little more wiggle room at night.
What Not To Do With Your Sleeping Bag
Pulling the Sleeping Bag Over Your Head When Sleeping
You might think that by cocooning yourself inside your sleeping bag from head to toe, you’ll be warmer during the night. This, unfortunately, is false. By sleeping with your head inside the sleeping bag, you run the risk of introducing moisture from your breath into the bag, which will cause you to be cold. A hooded top or a beanie hat would be a better idea.
Sleeping Bag Overkill
As mentioned previously, it’s wise to choose a sleeping bag which can easily handle the cold temperatures you’re planning on using it in, but there is a limit. Camping in mild temperatures with a heavy duty sleeping bag rated for cold conditions can cause you to sweat in the night and become cold.
Using the Sleeping Bag as A Duvet
Those who prefer to spread out at night might like to unzip the sleeping bag and use it as a flat duvet, but this is not the best idea when camping. Aside from the obvious issues surrounding heat losses, if the corner of the sleeping bag touches the wall of the tent, it could soak up moisture from the outside, leaving you with a wet sleeping bag to cling on to at night. Always keep your sleeping bag zipped up to get the most efficiency during the night.
A sleeping mat or pad is a clever way to put some distance and insulation between yourself and the cold ground when camping. It also provides a soft, forgiving surface to sleep on. Whilst it might not seem like much, a good mat could be the difference between a good nights’ sleep and a severely uncomfortable one.
Check the R-value of your sleeping mat prior to purchase. The R-value charts just how resistant the product is to heat flow. In the case of a sleeping mat, a higher R-value prevents the flow of heat from your body to the cold ground below. As a rule, you should be looking for an R-value of 2-3 for cold weather camping.
Bear in mind that you can combine the R-value of different items to create an overall R-value for your set up. For instance, using a sleeping mat with an R-value of 2 and a sleeping bag with an R-value of 2.5 would result in a cumulative R-value of 4.5. The downside to a higher R-value is added weight, so it’s best to experiment to find the sweet spot of warmth and ease of carrying.
Sleeping Bag Liner
Supercharge your sleeping bag’s R-value with a sleeping bag liner. Sleeping bag liners act as an additional layer between the insulating layer (your sleeping bag) and your skin. A good sleeping bag liner can add around 10 degrees Fahrenheit to your bag’s rating, which really represents good bang for your buck considering how cheap they are.
They are also easy to clean and quicker to dry than a sleeping bag, meaning you don’t have to wash your sleeping bag as regularly, if at all.
During exposure to colder temperatures, your body has to work harder to keep you warm, which burns more calories in the process. As a result, it’s important that you refuel with high calorie, nutritionally-dense foods whilst on a cold weather camping trip. It’s not unusual to need to eat up to twice as many calories as usual when you’re trying to steel yourself against the elements. Here’s a list of the best canned foods to take with you when camping.
Additionally, make sure to carry snacks to graze on throughout the day. Nuts, granola bars, chocolate biscuits and flapjacks are all solid snack choices as they contain a sustaining mix of satiating fats, protein and carbohydrates to provide you with extra energy.
Another added benefit of keeping your calorie intake up when camping is that as your body works to digest the food, it keeps you warm. Whilst you don’t want to be sleeping on too full a stomach, a few snacks before bed can go a long way to keeping the chills at bay. Another good thing about winter camping is that you won’t need to worry about keeping your food cold like in the summer months,
It might sound obvious, but keeping hydrated is an often overlooked element of cold weather camping prep. Whilst sweating is normally associated with exposure to high temperatures rather than low ones, your body’s ability to thermoregulate is severely affected as the cold sets in. This can result in periods of sweating where water is lost from the body and needs to be replaced to avoid dehydration. Here’s an in-depth look at how much water you should take when camping.
Possibly the most enjoyable part of a camping trip is sitting by the campfire. What might be a nice addition to your trip becomes an absolute necessity in colder conditions. Thankfully, a good campfire only needs a few key components. A base layer of fuel such as coal, beneath a good helping of tinder and kindling, should form the foundation of your campfire. A few hefty logs made out of oak can sit on top to provide a high temperature, slow burn.
Make sure that your campfire is at least 10ft from your tent to prevent the risk of a fire.
What Temperature Will It Be at Night when Camping?
Night-time temperatures vary from place to place, depending on the type of year. In winter, you should expect the temperature at night to be around 20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than temperatures during the day.
During the summer months, there is a larger swing; whilst temperatures might not drop as low at night as they do during winter, it’s often 40 degrees colder at night than during the day.
How To Stay Comfortable When Camping in Cold Weather
Select Your Campsite Wisely
Choosing a place to pitch your tent is important for your overall comfort. If you’re camping in a designated campsite, do some research ahead of time to ensure that it offers amenities such as hot water facilities for showering and cooking. You might also be able to hook up your electrical devices via a dedicated power supply on site.
If you’re camping out in the wild, you will have to get a little more creative and use the natural environment to your advantage. Try to pitch your tent where there is cover from the wind, whether that means pitching up at the bottom of a sheltering hill, or between some trees which prevent the wind buffeting your tent.
Don’t Oversize Your Tent
Try to keep the size of your tent to a minimum. The larger the tent, the larger the internal space which needs to be heated. Sleeping in a compact tent will greatly reduce the time taken to get it up to an acceptable temperature if a space heater is used. Similarly, it will retain heat much better than a larger tent, especially once your supplies are brought in, further reducing the interior space to heat and keep warm.
Hunker Down at Night
Even when taking into account the above advice, the chances of keeping your tent warm in cold conditions rely on a fully zipped up tent. Opening and closing the tent door is a sure-fire way to lose all heat from your tent in no time at all. Therefore, make sure to bring everything you need into the tent so that you can enjoy a cosy evening without having to keep leaving the tent.
Bring a Hot Water Bottle
If you have access to hot water, or the ability to boil some, a hot water bottle is a handy little hack to warm up a sleeping bag at night, or even to hold on to as you drift off to sleep. It’s important to make sure that the hot water bottle is secure and won’t leak, as a wet sleeping bag is a one-way ticket to a terrible camping experience.
Can You Get Frostbite or Hypothermia Camping in Winter?
Hypothermia and frostbite are both a possibility for the unprepared camper. Bringing the correct equipment is vital to avoid a dangerous situation. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature decreases to around 95 degrees. It can occur at above-freezing temperatures, especially if you get wet, so it’s important to be able to identify when it starts to set in:
Symptoms of Hypothermia:
- Skin which is pale, dry and cold to the touch, and may also be blue
- Slurred speech
Hypothermia and frostbite usually go hand in hand. When exposed to below freezing temperatures, frostbite can occur. Frostbite is damage to skin and tissue, and mainly affects the extremities such as fingers, toes, nose and lips, however it can affect any area of the body.
Frostbite usually displays symptoms in different stages, depending on the length of the exposure to the cold and the temperature. The first stage is known as frostnip, which includes pins and needles, cold, numb skin and an ache in the affected area.
Following prolonged exposure, symptoms worsen. Skin becomes hard and blotchy, and further tissue damage beneath the skin is likely, requiring immediate medical attention.
The extent of frostbite symptoms is extremely severe, and in certain cases, tissue can be so badly damaged that it has to be removed to prevent infection.
Hopefully by now it should be obvious that cold weather camping isn’t for the unprepared. Having said that, there is still a great deal of enjoyment to be had when camping even in winter. Bringing the right equipment, pitching up in a sheltered spot and keeping your calorie intake high are all essential to your comfort and safety. Master these, and the tips mentioned above, and you’ll be ready to confidently take a sedate outdoor pastime to the next level.