Cold weather presents challenges that you won’t experience any other time. For example, in areas where there is a big temperature swing, a freezing night will cause frost and ice to appear on your tent, sometimes even inside it. When it warms up as the day progresses, that frost or ice will melt. If it drips onto your gear, that will be most unpleasant all day and downright dangerous the next night when the temperature dips. There are several things you can do to make cold-weather camping safe and enjoyable.
This acronym stands for:
- Keep it Clean.
- Keep it Open.
- Keep it Layered.
- Keep it Dry.
Mud and dirt contain moisture, so if your clothing, sleeping bag, or other personal items get dirty, they will freeze at low temperatures. If something gets dirty, clean it immediately. If it’s part of your clothing, and you cannot clean it, you might have to abandon it.
Tight clothing restricts blood flow, which will be dangerous in cold weather because inadequate blood flow leads to frostbite. Stay open by wearing, loose, breathable, wicking fabrics. Synthetics are best because they can be designed to breathe and to wick moisture away from you. Avoid cotton for the opposite reason.
Dressing in layers is the best strategy. Layers of breathable clothing insulate better than one giant layer. Layers also give you the flexibility of removing them when you get overheated during outdoor activities. Then, when you begin to cool off, you can put them back on. In this way, you can regulate your temperature and keep sweat at bay.
When it’s very cold, moisture is your No. 1 enemy. It can, quite literally, mean your death. Keep everything as dry as possible. Take more socks, for example, that you think you will ever need. Keep some drying foot powder in your gear and change socks often. Hang wet socks and other clothing to dry on makeshift clotheslines whenever possible and then repack them carefully.
2. Use a Combination of an Insulated Pad and an Inflatable Mattress.
Never sleep directly on the ground. Most of the heat you lose during a cold night seeps into the ground from your body. Instead, before you pitch your tent, remove all snow and outdoor detritus from the area beforehand. Use your knees and tamp the cleared area down. Using a foldable shovel, make a small indentation in the ground where you’re going to sleep and then tamp that down with your knees too. Then, pitch your tent over the cleared area. When you sleep, put the insulated pad next to the ground in the indentation. Then, put the air mattress on top of that, and climb into your sleeping bag on top of that.
3. Speaking of Sleeping Bags …
Sleeping bags all have temperature ratings. These ratings assume the camper will be wearing thermal underwear and sleeping on an insulated mat. You should always pick a temperature rating that is at least 10 degrees colder than the coldest temperature you expect on your trip.
It’s always advisable to get “more bag that you need” because, should you get too warm, you can always unzip the bag for some cooling fresh air. If you’re too cold, you’re largely out-of-luck. For the coldest temperatures, you’re going to want a sleeping bag with a hood. Still, you should never burrow completely into your sleeping bag or close the air vent. Your breath creates moisture, and you never want moisture anywhere inside the tent except in your canteen.
4. Speaking of Tents …
In the cold weather, you need a tent that will not only stand up to the cold but will also stand up to strong winds. Most four-season tents will do both admirably. There are three kinds of tents for cold-weather camping: double-wall, single-wall, and pyramid.
Double-wall tents are heavy at roughly 8 pounds, but they offer the best protection from the elements. Most of them have a “vestibule” in front of the entrance so that you can cook in bad weather or be shielded when taking off your boots. The two walls increase the “moisture out, warmth in” attribute of the tent.
Single-walled tents are lighter and function the same way as double-walled tents, just not as efficiently.
Pyramid tents don’t have floors, so if you’re pitching one of these, you can clear the ground and then do the “knee-tamping” thing inside the tent. In deep snow, however, you will be putting your insulated mat and air mattress right on the snow. You have to be extra careful about staying dry if you have to sleep right on the snow. These tents have the bonus of allowing you to get inside with your boots still on.
In all cases, be sure to have the right kind of tent stakes to withstand strong winds. This list has several tents that would make great choices for your cold weather camping trip.
5. Let People Know Your Itinerary, and Protect Your Electronics.
No one will know you’re overdue if something happens if you don’t tell anyone where you’re going. At the very least, tell family members and friends. Better yet, tell the nearest ranger station. Be sure you have a battery-operated GPS or some other navigational aid. Don’t try to be “Davy Crockett” with an oily needle in your canteen cup or try to “navigate by the sun.” Be safe and sure.
Be sure to get a sleeping bag that is a few inches longer than you are tall, too, so that you can put your electronics in there to keep them warm. Cold will zap your battery like crazy and even damage your devices. It’s a small thing, but it can save your life if you have battery power for your GPS after getting lost.
Camping in the cold weather might seem to be daunting and dangerous. While it’s crucial to respect Mother Nature, if you take the right precautions, you can enjoy yourself in any season at any temperature.