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Tips for Camping in Cold Weather

Whether you are camping in winter conditions or have merely struck a cold snap, you could be in for a real treat. But even the most amazing location won’t win everyone over if they are cold and miserable.

With a little preparation and the right gear, there's still plenty of fun to be had during a winter camping trip.

Don't let the conditions stop you from enjoying the outdoors. Here are some tips for camping in cold weather and winter.

Safety

1: Safety around Hypothermia

Probably the key safety concern when camping in particularly harsh weather conditions is hypothermia, which occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below 35 °C. It can occur in any situation where it is losing more heat than it can generate itself.

Severe hypothermia can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Rather than attempt to explain something we are not particularly familiar with, you can read about hypothermia in full on the Victorian Government's Better Health website, including:

  • symptoms
  • myths
  • risk factors
  • first aid and treatment
  • prevention
  • using a buddy system

Your clothing

2: Layer up

When cold weather camping, everyone should have adequate clothes for the expected conditions. 

Rather than taking a lot of thick warm layers, you should adhere to the three-layer rule of bringing a couple of base thermal underwear layers, a middle or insulating jumper or jacket layer and an outer layer to protect you from the wind and rain. In chilly conditions, bringing an extra layer in the form of a middle layer is also a good idea.

3: Avoid cotton clothing

Cotton or cotton blends are not recommended for the base or middle layers of clothing in cold weather conditions or for high energy activities, such as hiking. Unlike wool and other synthetic fabrics, cotton has poor insulation qualities because it will absorb moisture rather than wick it away from your body to the outer layers. Cotton will also take longer to dry in cooler conditions.

Wool and synthetic fabrics such as polyester are better suited for the base and middle layers because they are light weight, quick drying and have good wicking properties.

4: Keep your extremities warm

Girl with a beanie and hat on on a cold day

As a significant amount of heat is lost through the top of your head, a beanie or hat is essential to keep you warm when the weather turns cool. It can be worn while you are sleeping as well as around camp. A neck scarf, gloves for your hands and woollen socks to keep your feet warm will also make a bid difference.

5: Stay warm

It might seem obvious, but when the temperature starts to cool down, stay warm. If you feel the chills coming on, especially as evening approaches, add another layer to keep your body warm. It’s much easier to stay warm than it is to get warm when you are cold, especially when you are going to bed or when you don't have the luxuries of a heater or a hot bath on call.

Sleeping

6: Use a snug fitting sleeping bag

Children camping in winter and cold weather  in snug fitting sleeping bags having fun in a tent

As nights can get particularly cold, to achieve cozy sleeping arrangements your sleeping bag should be appropriately rated to suit the expected temperature. It should also be snug fitting with a hood and a drawstring tightened around your face to retain your body heat and minimise the amount of warm air escaping from the bag. A sleeping bag liner can also add extra warmth if the sleeping bag warmth rating isn’t adequate. You can go to our article for more on sleeping and bedding options.

In particularly cold conditions, for further insulation, clothing (especially those for the following day) can be packed into your sleeping bag to fill the empty spaces and to reduce the amount of air your body needs to heat.

7: Ensure your bed is well insulated from below

Whatever you choose to sleep on, ensure it is properly insulated to reduce the amount of heat escaping from your body. Self-inflating mats provide insulation and are our preference over inflatable airbeds for this reason and because they are less likely to leak (in our experience anyway).

Cots / stretcher beds and inflatable airbeds, on the other hand, will generally need a separate insulation layer, such as a thick woollen blanket or an insulated mat.

How well a sleeping pad or mat will insulate you from the cold ground will depend on its insulating rating, or R-value, which you will find in most quality sleeping pads. This value will range from zero, being no level of insulation, to 10 being the highest level. For camping in cold weather, you should ensure the R-value of your mat is at least 6.

8: Bring extra bedding

Girl with warming up with a woollen blanket and hot drink

If you have room, take extra blankets, such as fleece or woollen, for added warmth when camping in cold weather. This will be useful while sleeping as well as for added warmth around camp in the evening.

9: Use a hot water bottle

Include a heat resistant water bottle in your camping setup for use as a hot or warm water bottle to warm you up in bed. You could either use a stainless steel bottle or any other kind of good quality water bottle with a secure and tight fitting lid. Enclose it in a sock for added comfort and also to protect you from the hot container.

10: Don’t breathe into your sleeping bag

Breathing or snuggling deep into your sleeping bag can introduce condensation moisture into the bag and reduce its insulation potential. Keep the hood over your head but avoid breathing into the bag.

11: If you need to “go”, then go

As your body will use more energy to keep a full bladder warm, if you need to “go” then bite the bullet and go sooner rather than later. The sooner it is done, the sooner you will be back snuggled up in your warm sleeping bag again.

Around the campsite

12: Choose the right campsite

Two camping families enjoying themselves around a table in the sun

When camping in winter and cold weather, choose a campsite that has some shelter and protection from the elements, and configure it to take advantage of the position of the sun during the day. Sitting in the sun is a great way to help you warm up.

13: Provide an enclosed living area

Sitting outside in mild weather is very pleasant, especially in the evening, but not so when it turns chilly, especially when the wind chill factor drops the "feels like" temperature even more.

Ensure you have adequate enclosed shelter from the elements for a living area, whether that be in the form of a larger tent, annex accessories to create a second room, or a marquee or gazebo complete with side walls to fully enclose the structure.

14: Reduce condensation

Condensation is the collection of moisture, or water droplets, on the inside of your tent walls as a result of the differences in the internal and external air temperatures.

This moisture can dampen your gear and reduce its insulation properties. While it seems counter-intuitive to vent your tent on a cold night, it’s really the best way to reduce that moisture build-up. For other ideas to reduce condensation in your tent, go to our article on tips for reducing condensation in your tent.

15: Enjoy a campfire

Family sitting in the cold around a campsite in cold weather

Campfires are an amazing way to help keep warm around a campsite and for cooking hearty and warming meals. If they are premitted, equip yourself to be able to chop firewood if you can't buy it already chopped, to start and manage a fire and to cook over the campfire.

16: Indulge in hot comfort foods

Your body uses a lot of energy when camping in the cold, especially if you are also active during the day. High calorie, nutritious nibbles and hearty hot meals will not only be satisfying but they will help keep you warmer for longer. Opt for calorie dense hot foods high in carbohydrates, fats and sugars.

17: Enjoy a hot drink

Warm yourself up with the hot drink of your choice - tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soup or even a hot sangria wouldn’t go to waste! If you are likely to travel away from camp for hiking or day trips, bring a thermos along with you to enjoy a hot drink along the way. You can also wrap cold hands around the hot cup.

18. Avoid using butane gas

If you tend to go camping in cold weather, you may find butane gas unreliable. Stoves fuelled by LP gas and propane will burn at temperatures as low as -42°C / -44°F, whereas butane fuelled stoves will only burn at temperatures above -1°C / 30°F. 

19: Stay active

People walking on cold day

Go for a brisk walk to warm up or otherwise keep active with physical activities and games. Once you are warm, maintain that temperature by removing clothing layers to avoid excessive sweating if you are getting too hot, and adding layers if you start to cool down.

20: Stay positive

When camping in the cold, a positive frame of mind will help you to embrace the conditions rather than focus on the negatives. It will also help your brain to think broadly about what is going on around you and to get into problem solving mode. This will definitely come in handy when you are dealing with sub-optimal weather conditions.

Related articles

For further reading


Trailer-Free Camping Setup Inspirations

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