What to Sleep in When Camping in Cold Weather
Published December 10, 2019 | Updated December 31, 2020
Camping is an incredible experience, as you disconnect from electronics, drift off to the sounds of nature, or even sleep under the stars. But if you’re not prepared, camping can become miserable, pretty quickly, particularly in the winter. There are some things that you might not think about, especially if you’re new to camping, until you’re awake and shivering at 3am. To help you try to avoid this, here are some essentials for your winter camping trip.
There are several different types of shelter available for camping - including bivvy bags, hammocks, tents and tarps - although a tent is probably best for winter camping.
- Tents usually have a season rating (a number from 1 to 4) which gives some indication of various factors, such as the tent’s ability to retain warmth and its resistance to weather (particularly rain, wind and snow).
- Three-season tents are the most versatile as they provide good enough weather coverage for spring and fall and even a mild winter (with the right sleeping gear), but are ventilated well enough for use in summer too.
- Contrary to the name, 4-season tents are generally good for use in winter only, being too hot for summer. However, in really harsh, winter conditions, you will likely want a 4-season tent as minimum.
Your sleeping bag is your insulation layer while you sleep. There are a huge variety of sleeping bags available, with varied shapes (mummy or rectangular), temperature ratings and insulating materials.
- Sleeping bags have temperature ratings that indicate the optimum temperatures they are designed for. You might see a variety of numbers on the bag (comfort, limit and extreme), but pay most attention to the comfort rating for camping (the other numbers refer more to survival in extreme circumstances).
- Most people choose a sleeping bag with a comfort rating a few degrees lower than they expect to encounter. (Although there is another field of thought that recommends taking a bag rated for slightly higher temperatures than you expect and making up for it with clothing and your sleeping pad.)
- Due to personal differences and variations between brands, a bag rated for 30°F won’t necessarily keep you warm at 30°F. You will need to rely on experience (yours or someone else’s) in order to work out what temperature rating works for you and how you can use clothing, liners, etc., to keep you comfortable.
- The insulating material (down or synthetics) of your sleeping bag also has an effect on warmth. Down is warmer, and gives a better warmth to weight ratio, but tends to lose all insulating properties when wet. If the expected conditions include rain or high humidity, synthetic is usually the preferred choice, plus it’s cheaper!
- The main shapes of sleeping bag are mummy and rectangular. Many people like the additional space in rectangular bags, but mummy bags are designed with a snug fit to keep you warmer and pack down better.
A sleeping pad may just seem like something to protect you from a hard floor, but its principle function is to act as a barrier between you and the ground, so plays a key role in heat retention.
- There are so many options, from closed-cell foam pads, to self-inflating pads, to air mattresses and everything in between.
- Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are cheap, super light and not susceptible to punctures, but they are very thin, so probably not appropriate as a stand-alone pad in winter.
- A thicker pad isn't necessarily warmer than a thinner one. Small pockets or thin layers of air can be insulating, but If a sleep pad is more that around 1 inch thick and doesn’t contain an insulator like foam or down, it’s actually likely to be colder, as your body heat won’t be enough to warm up the larger volumes of air.
- The trick is to look at the sleeping pad’s R-value, which is a number from 1 to 7/8. The bigger the number, the better the pad is at insulating you from the cold floor and the warmer you will be.
- Pairing a lower R-value sleeping pad with a closed-cell foam pad, a warmer sleeping bag and/or more clothing, can work for less extreme winter conditions.
Clothes for Cold Weather Camping
There’s a long-lived debate about how much to wear in a sleeping bag, especially for cold weather camping, so this will come down to personal preference and experience. Using a layering system inside your sleeping bag means that you can improve the overall warmth of your sleep system and makes your 3-season sleeping bag and pad more versatile.
The general consensus is that you should wear one or two snug fitting layers (but not so tight that they cut off circulation) inside your sleeping bag, to trap extra layers of air. Some people do use thicker clothing in their bags too, but if you have a good enough sleeping bag, you shouldn’t need to. An alpaca wool shirt with an alpaca base layer will work wonders or add an alpaca wool jacket for colder conditions. It is very important to avoid getting too hot and sweating in your sleeping bag as sweat will really cool you down.
Protecting your head is important as it is not likely to be inside the main body of the sleeping bag. Most mummy style bags have hoods that you can cinch around your face with a drawstring but adding a hat as well will do wonders on cold nights. A beanie works best and should be snug fitting, so it doesn’t fall off during the night. Our alpaca wool beanies are designed with this in mind, so make the perfect choice. An alpaca wool neck gaiter will also also improve the coverage of your clothing and keep more warm air in.
3. FEET & HANDS
Our extremities are colder than our core and lose heat more easily, so wearing a good pair or two of socks and some light gloves will do wonders to help keep you warm. These are also easy things to shed if you find you’re getting too hot.
Additional Tips for Staying Warm When Camping in Cold Weather
- Eat or drink something high in fat or sugar before you go to sleep to help fuel your body and keep you warmer overnight.
- Add a liner to your sleeping bag to help protect you further and add a few degrees to your bag’s temperature rating.
- Pile clothing or your backpack under your feet to help insulate your extremities, furhter reducing heat loss.
- Use a hot water bottle: You can add extra heat to your sleeping bag by filling a reusable water bottle (hard plastic such as a Nalgene or stainless steel) with hot water and putting it in your bag before you sleep. Make sure it’s tightly sealed and doesn’t leak! Some people are very against this, as they think the risk of burns or a leaking bottle are not worth the benefit, so they suggest using a couple of hand warmers instead.
- Share a tent/sleeping bag. Sharing a tent with someone else helps keep you warmer in cold weather. If you’re camping with your partner, zip-together or double sleeping bags are a great option to share your body heat!
EMBRACE THE ROAD NOT TAKEN WITH ARMS OF ANDES