Useful cold weather camping tips and tricks

Maybe you want to venture out onto that snow-capped mountain you are driving by, or you get stuck on a high pass… In these situations it might come in handy to be prepared for some winter camping, or at least to know what you can do to manage the situation with the gear you have.

Being comfortable when the temperature drops is all about heat-conservation. It's like being inside; sitting close to the stove with a good book while outside it is unbearably cold. But how do you manage this without having a stove or a central heating system in your tent or sleeping bag?

One option is under ALL conditions out of the question: heating up your tent with any kind of open fire. Whether it is an unprotected candle or a cooking stove, never take it into the tent. Tents and sleeping bag are made of synthetic materials that burn really easy and fast. Numerous campers have had burnwounds because of tents or sleeping bags that burned around them.

So how do we cope with extreme cold (-10 to -25°C) when we can't light a candle to heat our frozen fingers? It is all about good preparation, some basic rules and practice.

1. Preparations.

Before you take off get a good idea what the temperatures are you might expect. There are several sources on the Internet, in travel guides, and ask people who've been there!

Once you know what to expect, take a look at the gear you have. The first thing is your tent. If you go to a really remote area where you can get low temperatures, snow, rain, (heavy) winds, you need a decent tent that can cope with all these conditions. It will protect you from the wind-chill and the rain or snow. Staying dry in the tent and out of the wind is very important. If your tent collapses under high winds and rain starts soaking your sleeping bag, while the thermometer indicates 2°C - taking the wind-chill in mind, you're in quite some trouble. Hopefully you can evacuate yourself to a building or whatever that gives you shelter nearby. If not, you're up for some hardcore survival.

Next is the sleeping bag. When buying one be sure that the temperature indicated is the comfort temperature and not the extreme temperature. Very often the extreme temperature is indicated twice as flashy as the comfort temperature. Don't think I have to explain the cheap reasons behind it. It is better to have a sleeping bag that is a bit too warm sometimes than one that is too cold most of the time. Your safety during the day is directly related to the quality of sleep you get at night, especially when you are travelling in an adventurous way.

If you already have a good sleeping bag that keeps you warm to for example -5°C, but you are expecting -12°C this time, don't panic. You don't necessarily have to buy a new one. By using a liner you can lower the comfort temperature of your sleeping bag. This liner can be made out of cotton or fleece. It is easy to make yourself and it can gain you (if you get good thick quality of fleece) up to 5°C. You also might consider putting a summer sleeping bag (or an old not too bulky sleeping bag) inside a three-season sleeping bag. This way you will end up with a good winter sleeping bag.

And last but not least: the insulation between you in your cosy sleeping bag and the icy ground or snow. You can get used to sleeping on hard ground. But you won't get used to sleeping while you are shivering from the cold. Therefore get yourself a good sleeping-pad. Whether it is a high tech self-inflating one or just a piece of foam, make sure it will do the job as long as needed. Remember that if it can leak you should bring gear to repair it. It's quite frustrating to end up sleeping on a rocky underground with a leaking self-inflating sleeping-pad.

2. The rules.

Once you can protect yourself from the wind-chill and the rain/snow, you still have to warm stuff up. Even your sleeping bag is at the start a cold thing that will not give you any heat. The only thing a sleeping bag is good at is in conservation of heath.

Since fire in the tent is out of the question and there aren't any electric stoves that work on a set of AA batteries, we need to find an other source of heat to warm our sleeping bag and later on ourselves.

The only source of heat you always carry with you is your body. If you treat it in the right way and give it some help with the right gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad) it will keep you warm under all conditions.

It comes down to this: when you get into your sleeping bag your body should be able to heat up the sleeping bag. Once that's done the sleeping bag will conserve the heat for the rest of the night. If you can't warm your sleeping bag up at the start or when your sleeping bag can't conserve your heat then you are getting ready for a shivering night.

Jump to top

A) The camping spot.

Do pay some attention to where you pitch your tent. Try to get as little exposure as possible. Wind is the most dangerous thing next to getting wet. Building a sort of wall around your tent might help deflect the wind a bit over your tent. It is a very common practice in the mountains. (Your bike makes a good windbreak - just make sure if it falls over it won't land ON you. Ed.)

If you get stuck without a tent you should look for a spot that protects you from the elements as much as possible. Try to remember how you used to build those camps as a little kid and start building one. If you expect rain try anything to stay dry as long and as much as possible. There are several survivalbooks (I would recommend the SAS Survival handbook) where you can find tips and hints about this stuff. Just reading one for the fun of it, and trying it out from time to time in your backyard is great.

B) Nutrition.

If you are expecting a cold night or period you should adapt your food to it. Your body basically burns sugars to create heat for itself. Therefore it is a good idea to add a bit more butter to your menu. Also pasta is a great energy source. These foods are long-term sugars. Your body will stock them in the form of fat and convert them to sugar when needed. Of course you should add short-term sugars too during the day to keep going. This is what I would eat on a day of winter-expeditioning:

Breakfast: hot oatmeal with brown sugar and chunk of butter, and a hot cup of tea.
Noon: crackers with marmalade or some other sugar-holding bread spread.
Evening: Macaroni with cheese and just before going to bed a hot cup of sugar tea.
Snack: a great snack during the day (I carry them in the pockets of my jacket so that I can grab some whenever I feel for it) is a mixture of chocolate M&M's with salty peanuts.

The hot meal in the morning and the hot cup of tea in the evening are key! The hot breakfast will help you to get warm in the morning (often the coldest moment of the day and sadly also the one when you have to leave your cosy sleeping bag). And the hot cup of tea will make sure that you feel warm when you get into the sleeping bag.

C) Clothing?

There are several theories on this. Personally I think it is best to sleep with as little clothing as possible. That way you can heat up the sleeping bag faster and during the night the heat conserved in the sleeping bag will be closer to your body. Also blood circulation will be optimal which is also better for your body heat. For cold feet sometimes a pair of cotton or wool socks might help. One time I also made a giant mitten every night out of a fleece pullover. I would put my feet in the main part of it and then tied the sleeves around my ankles. Had warm feet ever since.

If your sleeping bag doesn't cover your head or neck you can consider sleeping with a hat. Or just throw a fleece over your head, which might feel more comfortable. We lose over 30% of our bodyheat via our head and neck. If we can conserve this it can be used to heat up other parts of your body. (As the saying goes: Cold feet? Put on a hat!)

D) The sleeping bag.

Always make sure that your sleeping bag cannot get wet. Once a sleeping bag is wet when you really need it (rain, cold, high winds…) it is pretty hopeless. It is almost impossible to dry a sleeping bag under these conditions. Therefore put it in a good plastic bag. It should also be the last thing that you unpack. And if conditions are bad you should be sure that you can put it into the safety of the tent right away.

Ok, the sleeping bag is safely in the tent and you are getting ready to get to bed. If you have travelled a whole day in temperatures between 0°C and 5°C it is very unlikely that your sleeping bag will be warmer than 5°C. That's a very cold environment to get into when you are already tired. Therefore remember the hints given under nutrition. What I sometimes do is to undress when I am already inside the sleeping bag. This is such a struggle that I always end up nicely warm, now matter how cold the sleeping bag was.

Also avoid having big pockets of air in-between you and the sleeping bag. You'll also need to heat up all that extra air before your sleeping bag feels warm. It's better to stuff up the extra space with clothing, that way your body heat is used a lot more economically. And in the morning you have warm clothes to put on!

Also remember that anything left outside the sleeping bag will freeze. If I expect a real cold night (open sky, high winds…) I take my water bottles into my sleeping bag (check that they are closed really tight). My hiking shoes or riding boots I put in a stuffsack and then also in my sleeping bag.

E) Company?

Sleeping with several people in one tent has several pros. One sleeping bag next to another insulates the sides of each bag. I have known situations where somebody was cold every night. By just placing that person in-between the problem was solved.

When stuff gets really bad and somebody just keeps cooling down for some reason, don't hesitate. Zip open two or three sleeping bags and get body to body. Preferably one person on each side of the cold person. Hypothermia is no joke and you have to handle it swiftly once somebody is really cooling down. If there is a fourth person he can put up some water to make some hot sugartea.

3. Practice.

I am never going to forget the face of my father when I showed up at his door on a pretty cold evening. The evening news just announced -12°C. "Hey dad, can I sleep in the backyard tonight?"

Once you have your gear together, or you just wonder how far below zero you can go with your sleeping bag then it is time for practice. Experiment with different combinations and materials.

Get out there! If you don't have a garden then ask family or friends. And don't worry about the neighbours when they spill their coffee when you crawl out of your tent the next morning...

An additional tip from Matthew McLaughlin, San Luis Obispo, CA, United States:

Water bottles (good leak-proof ones) can be filled with warm water before being put into the sleeping bag. The water bottle is already going into the bag to keep it from freezing and there is no reason to waste valuable body heat to bring the water up to body temperature. Warm water (not hot enough to hurt if held a long time, but quite warm) not only warms the sleeping bag before you get in, it also warms your feet very quickly.

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