Cold Weather Camping Guide
It may sound crazy, but people enjoy camping in freezing weather. Why? Maybe they enjoy waking up on snow-capped mountains with a steaming cup of coffee. The mug warming their frozen fingers as the steam dances up and floats away. Maybe they cherish the stillness and blanket of white that only can be found in frost blanketed winter forests. On the other hand, they may be masochists and enjoy being cold and wet. In any case, cold weather camping has an appeal for some folk. If you find yourself in this select group, continue reading to learn the best precautions to take while roughing it in frigid temperatures.
Dressing the Part
You would think most people would know how to dress, but you would be wrong. Dressing for cold weather camping is not as simple as throwing on the biggest jacket you can find. There are a few things to remember. First, layering. You want to be like an onion. Start with long underwear that will cover your whole body. Make sure it is not too tight. The best form of insulation is the air between the clothing. Tight clothes will reduce your circulation and trap the cold. Add a base layer, something that will wick moisture, but not restrict movement. A lightweight thermal shirt for example will work. Then add an isolating mid-layer such as a down jacket or plushy vest. Finally, a waterproof layer. Waxed cotton or polyester will block moisture and wind.
The second key tip for clothing is this, cotton kills. What this means is that cotton is not what you should be used for cold weather camping. Cotton will hold the moisture to your body and cause it to freeze if the temperature is low enough. While you may feel cold, your body will start to sweat whether you like it or not. When this sweat freezes, you will lose heat faster than a snuffed candle. The material to use is wool. Wool will wick moisture away from your body so that you stay dry and warm.
The last tip is regarding clothing storage. You want to keep your clothing away from moisture while not in use, but you also want to prepare it at night for the morning. If you keep your clothes in your backpack, putting them on in the morning is going to be like climbing into an ice bath. Before you go to bed, roll up your clothes for the next day and store them inside of your sleeping bag. This way, they will be warm and ready to put on in the morning. They will also act as insulation at night.
On one of my first winter camping trips as a tiny child, I wore sneakers and long cotton socks. After walking in the snow for 5 seconds, my feet were soaked and my toes were frozen. The Boy Scout leader had to call my mom and have her bring me a new pair of boots, despite my protests about being fine. That night, all the kids gathered around the fire and tried to dry our socks by the campfire. The result was around 10 pairs of roasted socks and a few melted boots. This all could have been avoided if we had worn proper footwear. A phrase we had to learn was “Your head and your toes, that’s where all your body heat goes.” So, proper headgear and footwear will ensure warmth.
Store fresh pairs of wool socks in our Aluminum Stand Strong™ bags to keep them dry and protected
Being cold will keep you up and lead to a miserable night. Once you are away from the fire and bundled in your tent, the heat will slowly start to seep out, eaten away by the cold outside. There are ways to prevent this from happening. First, you need a proper sleeping bag. Most sleeping bags will have a temperature rating. You will need a bag that indicates that it is good for sub-freezing or lower temperatures. Ideally, for cold weather, you should be using a mummy style sleeping bag. These have little hoods that go over your head and can be tightened with a drawstring.
The next thing you are going to need is a sleeping pad. Not only will this make you more comfortable, but it will also prevent condensation. When setting up your tent, you should be adding a tarp to the bottom as well to prevent condensation. However, that is not always enough. A foam or rubber sleeping pad will prevent moisture from forming on the bottom of your sleeping bag. If you are using an air mattress, add the pad to the top of the air mattress rather than the bottom.
When sleeping, you should also be dressing properly. Wearing a hat and socks while sleeping will help prevent waking up freezing in the middle of the night. Other handy tools are hot water bottles and heat packs. Filling bags or bottles with hot water, then wrapping them in cloth allows you to add a portable heat source to your sleeping bag. Hand warmers can also suffice. Be careful with hand warmers however, if they are in contact with skin overnight, they can lead to red marks or burns.
When I first started camping in boy scouts, I used a lightweight green sleeping bag for all occasions. It was easy to pack and store, and relatively comfortable in warm temperatures. When I brought it for winter camping, it was horrible. I would stay up all night shivering, unable to get warm. Eventually, I got a big, ugly, brown sleeping bag. It was bulky and took up a lot of space, but it was warm. The higher-end ones combine the best of both worlds. Consider investing if cold weather camping is going to be a reoccurring event.
Hand warmers are activated by exposure to oxygen. Ensure the unused warmers stay effective by storing them in airtight packaging.
You will not be able to stay warm if your body does not have fuel. When you are freezing, the most appealing food is anything hot. However, what you need are calorie-rich foods. Fighting the cold and staying warm consumes much of your body's energy. You need food that is capable of replenishing this fuel. Consider easy to pack and store foods like trail mix that can be stored easily in insulated packaging bags. Nuts and dried berries are packed with proteins and sugars that will help sustain your body. Dry foods will also not freeze if left outside. One good thing about cold weather camping is that you will not have to worry about spoilage. Still, food should be properly packaged to avoid pests or contaminates. Keep your wet and your dry gear separate at all times.
Freeze-dried foods can also be effective camping food. It's already frozen, so regardless of the outside temperature you will need to de-thaw it. Most freeze-dried foods that are intended for camping are packed with the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to sustain itself.
One of my troop's go-to foods for cold weather campouts was quesadillas. The recipe is as simple as you can get. Tortillas and cheese, with oil or butter to grease the pan. Occasionally we would add peppers and other fun stuff to spice them up, but the core recipe stayed the same. We tried eggs on occasion, but would often wake up to find them frozen into rocks. Another handy meal was instant pancakes. These came in little plastic jugs. You just add water, shake, and then pour onto a hot pan. Regulating the temperature of a campfire or a portable stove is a little harder than an electric stovetop, so there were a few brunt flapjacks. Nothing a little extra syrup can’t fix.
Drink powders are great for cold weather camping. A drink mix rich in nutrients or calories can be a great pick me up. All it needs is boiling water added to them and suddenly you have a nice hot drink to warm you up. Store them in lightweight bottle pouches to quickly brew a nice drink.
Cold weather camping can be a rewarding experience if you have the guts to try it. Just keep the things mentioned in this article in mind while preparing. Follow all the key points and you will have a much better experience than I did when I was first trying it out. If you are interested in more outdoor activities, read this blog on the best packing tips for hiking and outdoor travel. The key to any successful camping trip is the old motto, be prepared.