Staying Warm While Cold Camping
As temperatures drop it becomes increasingly tempting to throw on a blanket, curl up on the couch with a hot chocolate and stay as inside as possible. Oh, dear groundhog, how many days til spring?
But for the adventurous among us, the dropping temperatures don’t mean a retreat indoors, but merely require a different set of gear and behaviours.
In this post, we’ll go over some tips to help you stay warm while camping. We won’t go into the specifics of hot tents (that we’ll saving for another post), but we will touch on the following:
- Clothing for Versatile Warmth
- Designing a Sleep System
- How to Keep a Tent Warm & Dry
- Additional Tips for Staying Warm while Camping
Clothing: How to Dress for Versatile Warmth
As the name suggests, base layers are the clothing items that are closest to your skin. Some people call them long johns or long underwear. Base layers are meant to provide some warmth and come in different thicknesses for different temperatures. However, the main purpose of base layers is moisture management (see below).
Base layers are usually made from either merino wool or synthetic fabric. Merino wool is naturally moisture-wicking and odour resistant and provides amazing warmth for its weight. Our favourite base layers are these ones from Devold. They’re incredibly high quality and they trace all of their wool to the farms ensuring humane treatment and sustainability throughout the process. Synthetic, however, tends to be much less expensive. There are plenty of high quality, warm base layers made from either material, so you have lots of options when choosing base layers.
The Problem with Sweat
Even in the dead of winter, your body will still generate heat when you are physically active. Whether you are paddling, hiking, snowshoeing or skiing, moving your body will produce heat and, inevitably, sweat. Sweat poses two challenges for us in the backcountry. For starters, water transfers heat significantly faster than air, so you’re going to lose a lot more body heat when you’re wet. And even if the sweat dries, you’ll get cooled down by evaporation (the process of moisture drying off your clothes is evaporation).
So either way, sweating poses an issue for us in the backcountry. The purpose of a high quality base layer is that is moves the moisture away from our skin and allows it to evaporate faster, thus keeping us warmer.
Why is cotton bad to wear outdoors?
Cotton absorbs moisture, and once wet, takes a very long time to dry. This proves to be an issue when camping, especially in cold weather. Even if cotton clothing doesn’t come in contact with snow or rain, it can still get wet from sweat. Since it holds onto moisture and doesn’t dry, you will have damp clothing next to your skin until you change. In the hot summer months, this doesn’t have to be an issue. However, in the winter months, we need to preserve all of the body heat we possibly can. Since water transfers heat faster than air, wearing damp clothing means you’re going to lose body heat much faster… potentially getting hypothermia. So remember to avoid cotton clothing when camping in the winter.
Mid-layers, also known as insulating layers, go on top of your base layers. These are the items that provide insulation and prevent you from losing heat to your surroundings. The most common types of insulating clothing are fleece / wool sweaters and puffy jackets. Most people are familiar with fleece and wool sweaters, but let’s take a moment to dive deeper into puffy jackets.
Down vs Synthetic Down Puffy Jackets
Puffy jackets are insulated with either down (from geese) or synthetic down (petroleum-derived). Down offers better warmth-to-weight and compresses better than synthetic down. High quality down will always be warmer than a comparable amount of synthetic down, however, down is also more expensive. To stay warm while camping in very low temperatures, we generally advise people to wear down if it’s available to them. That said, down clumps when it gets wet and stops insulating, whereas synthetic down is a little more resilient to light water.
Doubling (or Tripling) Up
When it’s really cold, you may find yourself wearing multiple mid-layers. We often wear a fleece sweater under a puffy jacket when it gets really cold. (We’ve also been known to layer multiple puffy jackets from time to time.) The great thing about layering is that it gives you lots of options for managing your warmth.
Outer layers are windproof and waterproof. These items are your shield against the elements (like a rain jacket, rain pants or ski pants). Some outer layers, like those specifically designed for winter activities like skiing, have some insulation built-in as well. However, try to stay away from parkas that have tons of built-in insulation. You want the flexibility to change the amount of insulation as the temperature changes and your body heats up.
Regular hiking boots are usually okay in the autumn and spring, but often not sufficient for camping in really cold temperatures. In this case, winter hiking boots or insulated rubber boots are a better option. Compared with regular boots, winter hiking boots are designed to be less breathable but more water resistant. They typically have insulation to provide additional warmth. Insulated rubber boots are designed for extreme cold. These are all rubber boots that have a thick layer of insulation inside and are often rated between -25 C and -50 C.
If you only have regular winter boots, you may be able to use them for winter camping. If you’re unsure about their warmth, try them for a day trip and bring foot warmers to supplement if needed.
And don’t forgot about a thick pair of wool socks! As mentioned above, cotton absorbs moisture. You’ll definitely want to avoid wearing cotton socks, as these will absorb sweat and chill down your toes.
In addition to boots, you may choose to wear ice spikes or snowshoes. We’ll save the specifics of those for a separate post, but at a high level: ice spikes slide over your hiking boots to provide traction on icy trails, while snowshoes attach around your boot and prevent you from sinking into deep snow. Both of these attachments can be tremendously helpful when hiking in the winter.
Tip: If you do choose to wear a scarf, ensure the ends are secured inside your jacket so there isn’t any chance they could get caught on a tree as you’re trekking by!
Gloves or mittens? This often comes down to personal preference, however, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. For starters, mittens will keep your hands warmer because your fingers are together and can share warmth with each other. Second, mittens are easier to use with hand warmers. That said, gloves offer more dexterity, making them easier to use while setting up camp or cooking. You can have the best of both worlds by combining thinners gloves (or even a liner) and slipping mitts on over them, taking them off when you need dexterity.
Sleeping: How to Design a Toasty Warm Sleep System
What is a sleep system?
A sleep system is the combination of gear you have to keep warm and comfortable throughout the night. It changes as the temperature changes, so your sleep system in the summer will look very different than your sleep system in the winter.
There is no one-size-fits-all sleep system. Some people naturally run cold and need a warm setup, even in the summer. Meanwhile, others naturally sleep hot and need to be cognizant of overheating and sweating throughout the night.
So it may take some trial and error to arrive at the sleep system that will keep you warm while sleeping in a tent. That said, there are some general principles you can use to get started. From there, you can adjust your sleep system accordingly.
The most important thing is to ensure your sleep system is adaptable and warm for temperatures colder than what you’re expecting. It’s better to have a warmer sleeping bag, or a thicker sleeping pad than what is necessary, than to be cold.
Let’s start at the bottom, with the sleeping pad. Many people believe the purpose of a sleeping pad is to keep you comfortable. While comfort is definitely a factor, the primary use of the sleeping pad is to keep you warm.
Throughout most of the year, the ground is much colder than your body temperature. When you make direct contact with the ground, you lose heat by way of conduction, which is heat transfer through direct contact between two objects. To prevent this heat loss, we need insulation between the two objects (you and the ground).
Thankfully, air is a great insulator. Your sleeping pad puts a thick layer of air between you and the ground, slowing down the heat transfer. Generally speaking, the thicker the sleeping pad (and the more air inside), the warmer the sleeping pad. Rather than measuring sleeping pad warmth by thickness, however, we use a much more scientific term, R Value.
You may have noticed sleeping pads have an R-value assigned to them. The R-value is a measurement for the rate of heat flux between two objects. In this case, the side of the sleeping pad touching the ground and the side of the sleeping pad touching you. A low R-value corresponds to fast heat transfer, meaning a colder sleeping pad. A high R-value corresponds to slow heat transfer, meaning a warmer sleeping pad.
In the summer, it’s common to use sleeping pads with an R-value between 1 and 3 like the Therm-a-rest ProLite. In the spring and autumn, however, we need something warmer. Three-season sleeping pads usually have an R-value between 2 and 4, we love the Therm-a-rest ProLite Apex. All season sleeping pads are between 4 and 6 and the BaseCamp is a great option here. Sleeping pads with an R-value higher than 6 are rated for extreme weather.
Choosing a Sleeping Pad
If you don’t already have a sleeping pad, we recommend choosing an all-season sleeping pad so you can use it throughout the year. If you already have a sleeping pad, check the R-value. If it is low and you are planning late autumn/winter/early spring camping, you may want to consider getting a warmer sleeping pad or getting extra insulation.
The extra insulation could come from wool blankets or a second, foam sleeping pad. We’ve doubled up sleeping pads on many trips and it’s a great way to improve the warmth of your sleeping pad without shelling out for a brand new one.
Winter camping hacks: You may have seen on Youtube that people put additional items on the ground when winter camping, like wool blankets, cedar bows and cots. You can also double up sleeping pads; for example, place a foam sleeping pad under an inflatable sleeping pad. These will help keep you warm while camping because they add more insulation between you and the ground.
Another way our bodies lose heat is radiation. This is heat transfer between an object and its surroundings, without direct contact. Your sleeping bag is your line of defence against heat loss through radiation.
Sleeping bags are filled with either synthetic or down insulation. Down insulation has a lot of loftiness to it and provides exceptional warmth. It also compresses well, so you can pack a big sleeping bag into a small bag. The downside is that down loses all of that loftiness (and warmth) when it gets wet. It can also be expensive.
Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, is less expensive and performs better when it gets a little wet (though you still don’t want it to get wet). It isn’t as warm and it doesn’t pack as well, though.
Choosing between down and synthetic will largely come down to your budget. If you have the means to buy a down sleeping bag, most people would recommend you choose down for cold weather camping, as down sleeping bags have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio. If your budget only allows for a synthetic sleeping bag, there are plenty of excellent options that offer impressive warmth at a lower price point. Plus there are plenty of ways to improve the warmth of your sleep system beyond just the sleeping bag.
When you buy a sleeping bag, you’ll see that it’s got a temperature rating associated with it. Unlike the R-value above, the temperature rating for a sleeping bag isn’t quite as scientific. So you need to take the manufacturers’ temperature rating with a grain of salt.
Some sleeping bags will have two temperature ratings: one number is the absolute minimum temperature an adult male in a set of base layers would be kept warm, the other number is the minimum temperature an adult female would be kept warm (also known as the ‘comfort’ rating). This is because women tend to get colder than men.
As a general rule, choose a sleeping bag with a temperature rating warmer than what you think you’ll need. In the summer, a sleeping bag rated to 5 C or 0 C may be fine, we like the Therm-a-rest Space Cowboy. In autumn and spring, you’ll want something warmer than that. Consider a sleeping bag rated to -5 C or -10 C, the Nemo Riff will keep you covered here. In the winter, you may need something below -20 C or -40 C, depending on your location.
Similar to sleeping pads, you can always double up on sleeping bags if yours isn’t warm enough on its own. Just ensure you have enough room inside the sleeping bag that nothing feels constricted.
Sleeping Bag Liners
Another way to increase the warmth of your sleeping bag is with a sleeping bag liner. It goes inside your sleeping bag and creates a layer between you and the sleeping bag. A liner is usually made from either silk, fleece or another synthetic material (you can find cotton sleeping bag liners – avoid them!). There are even insulated sleeping bag liners – imagine sleeping inside a giant down jacket… inside your sleeping bag!
Depending on the liner, it can add anywhere between 5 C and 20 C of warmth to your sleeping bag. This is a great way to improve the warmth of your sleeping bag without purchasing a brand new bag.
Okay, so a pillow isn’t really an essential part of the sleep system for warmth, however, it does make for a more comfortable night! For years, we would stuff our clothes into a pillow case which did the trick. After switching over to a real camping pillow though, thats a luxury we never leave at home anymore.
The next part of our sleep system is our sleep clothing. A lot of people forget about clothing when thinking about their sleep system, but what you wear is a crucial component to ensuring you stay warm while sleeping in a tent.
If it’s going to be cold, you’ll want to start with a pair of base layers. You can choose a synthetic material or a natural material like merino wool. However, you should not wear cotton to sleep, as cotton absorbs moisture and doesn’t dry.
Our preference is merino wool in the colder months. Merino wool is naturally quick-drying and odour resistant, but most importantly, it offers incredible warmth for its weight. A pair of thick, merino wool base layers will give you a great foundation for a warm night of sleep.
Depending on your sleep system and the temperature outside, a base layer may not be enough to keep you warm. In this case, you’ll want to have an insulating layer available as well. Most people prefer fleece or wool sweaters for an insulating layer at night, though down or synthetic down is also common. And don’t forget about your legs – a pair of fleece pants over long johns will help keep you toasty warm.
Finally, in the colder months you’ll also want to have something for your hands, feet and head (and maybe your neck too!). We like a pair of thick wool socks on the feet and a wool toque on the head. You may also want a pair of mittens or gloves, though some people don’t like sleeping with something on their hands.
A buff or balaclava can keep your face and neck warm. Just ensure you don’t cover your mouth and nose. The water vapour in your breath will get trapped under the fabric, get the fabric wet and you may end up with a slightly frozen balaclava in the morning!
What tent do you use when it’s cold out? Well, there are two broad options depending on the type of camping you like to do.
Hot tents are usually made of canvas and have a wood-fire stove system integrated with the tent. To keep warm while camping in a hot tent, you add wood to the stove and the inside of the tent heats up. Toasty warm! Hot tents are very heavy though and are better suited for snowshoeing / skiing trips where you can pull a sled behind you or drive to your campsite. For winter hiking where everything must go on your back, hot tents don’t work. We’re in love with our Esker tents and stove for staying nice and toasty all night long.
Cold tents are basically any tents that aren’t hot tents. With cold tenting, you need to produce all of your heat yourself. There are both three-season tents and four-season / winter tents. The biggest difference between three- and four-season tents is in the construction. Four-season tents are designed to be strong enough to handle more wind and heavy snowfall like the MSR Access
How to Keep Your Tent Warm and Dry
So now you have the right clothing and the proper sleep system, but there are still a few more things we need to keep in mind in order to stay warm while camping. The perfect sleep system means nothing if our gear is getting wet, either through condensation or melting snow. This section will go over tent ventilation and groundsheets.
Condensation occurs when water vapour cools into liquid water. If you’ve ever seen a water bottle ‘sweat’ on a cold day, you’ve seen condensation in action. Basically, the water vapour in the warm air makes contact with your cold water bottle. The water vapour is cooled enough that it condenses into liquid water on the surface of the water bottle.
Why does condensation matter in winter camping? While you’re inside your tent, you are increasing the temperature inside. Your body radiates heat within the walls of the tent and your exhales bring warm air into the tent as well. In addition to carbon dioxide, there is also water vapour in your breath. When the water vapour from your breath accumulates in your warm tent and then hits the cold tent walls, it condenses and forms water droplets on the tent walls. If this happens enough, you’ll start to get drips of cold water on your sleeping bag, clothing and gear. Yuck.
So how do we prevent condensation? With ventilation. Venting your tent ensures that the inside of your tent doesn’t get dramatically colder than the air outside and that there is sufficient airflow to bring warm water-vapour-holding air out your tent and draw, colder air into your tent.
Venting Your Tent
To vent your tent, you can close the vestibule doors (to keep snow and heavy wind out) but leave the inside doors slightly open. This will allow for airflow within the tent. You can also choose a tent made with mesh sections in the fabric, as this will also help with ventilation.
If you’ve ever camped in a thunderstorm, you may have noticed that some tent floors are not exactly waterproof. In the winter, specifically, if you are camping on top of the snow, it’s possible for snow to melt underneath your sleeping pad. As it melts, the water can soak through your tent floor and make your sleeping pad (and other gear) damp. No thank you.
You can avoid this by placing a groundsheet under your tent. Some manufacturers make decent groundsheets for their tents, but a thick plastic sheet works really well (and often better, if you can pack the extra bulkiness).
Additional Tips and Tricks to Stay Warm while Camping
Before we wrap up, we have a few additional tips for keeping you warm in the winter.
Hand Warmers + Feet Warmers
There’s nothing wrong with seeking a little chemical help when things get cold. Keep a few packets of hand warmers and/or feet warmers in your first aid kit or backpack. If your hands or feet start to get cold, add the warmers to your gloves or boots. How long the warmth lasts will depend on the specific warmers you purchase, but it’s common to find warmers that stay warm up to 10 hours.
Remember to add the warmers when your hands or feet start getting cold, rather than waiting until your toes are numb. Your body has an easier time staying warm than it does warming up once it’s cold.
Stay Well-Fed and Hydrated
Your body will do a better job at keeping itself warm if you keep it well fed and well hydrated. Ensure you bring lots of snacks and drink plenty of water. We know it’s difficult to drink fluids when it’s cold out, but dehydration is actually one of the most common issues people face while winter camping!
Reduce Ambient Air in the Tent
Reducing ambient air means minimizing the amount of extra space in the tent. Your body releases heat, which warms the air around you (ambient air). If you’re in a small space, it takes take much body heat to warm up the air around you and you’ll notice the inside of the tent is warmer than the outside. That means, f you’re camping solo, bring a small tent. If you’re camping with a partner or in a group, share a tent. More bodies generate more heat inside the tent, and there’s less ambient air inside the tent to heat up. This will keep everyone in your group feeling warmer!
That said, don’t forget about ventilation. While it’s helpful to have the inside of the tent be warmer than the outside, we want to ensure the inside doesn’t get too warm and cause condensation on the walls of the tent.
When Nature Calls, Answer
Going to the bathroom is a pain outdoors, especially in the winter. No one wants to get out of a warm sleeping bag and exposure their lower half to the elements! While it might be tempting to put it off as long as possible, it’s better to go as soon as you need to. Your body expends a lot of energy keeping urine warm inside your body. That energy would be better used keeping you warm instead!
Protect Electronics from the Cold
You may have noticed your phone dies very quickly in the cold. Remember that electronics do not do well in freezing temperatures, so keep them insulated. For example, don’t leave your phone on the floor of your tent. Keep it in your backpack or inside your sweater. We recommend bringing a powerbank so you can recharge your electronics if they are to die. Also, some cheap headlamps can get finicky if left in the cold for too long.
Shake the Frost Off Your Tent Before Packing Up
Before packing away your tent in the morning, do your best to shake off as much of the frost as you can. This is especially important in autumn and spring, when temperatures drop below freezing at night but warm up during the day. If you pack away a frosty tent in the morning, you’ll arrive at your next campsite to find that the frost has melted and now your tent is soaked!
Review the Symptoms and Treatment for Hypothermia and Frostbite
Before heading out for cold weather camping, ensure you know the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia and frostbite. The Wilderness Medicine Training Center has an excellent article on diagnosing and treating hypothermia and Healthline has a good article on diagnosing and treating frostbite.
We also recommend finding a wilderness first aid course to take, as this will give you hands-on experience with experts in diagnosing and treating all kinds of injuries in the field.
Just because the temperatures are dropping doesn’t mean you have to give up camping for the season. With the right gear and preparation, you can stay warm while camping in the late autumn and even into the winter. Remember to pack to the conditions and always air on the side of over preparedness – better to have too many layers than not enough! If you have any questions or need to upgrade some of your gear, don’t hesitate to reach out or leave a comment below.