Winter camping can be one of the best experiences you can have in the outdoors! Not only do you experience far fewer crowds at popular destinations, but you also get the benefit of camping when there are no bugs around. Who can argue with those benefits!
But some people are understandably worried about encountering subfreezing and in some cases, subzero temperatures. Hypothermia can set in at temperatures that dip below 50°F, which is a lot warmer than below 0°F! So, how do you make sure that you can thoroughly enjoy your next winter camping trip?
In order to stay nice and toasty, regardless of whether or not it dips below zero, you need to be sure to do the following:
- Bring a lot of warm layers of clothing.
- Bring the appropriate tent/shelter to keep you warm.
- Bring a sleeping bag and sleeping pad that will keep you warm at the temperatures that you expect to encounter.
If you do those three things, you’ll be set! For more information on how to choose the best gear for each of these essential pieces of gear, keep reading!
While winter camping, your clothing is your first and best defense against the cold. There is a saying in the outdoor community that goes “it’s easier to cool down than it is to warm-up.” This describes how our bodies work, in that our bodies are very efficient at shedding excess heat, but when it comes time to warm up, we aren’t as efficient.
To that end, be sure that you bring along plenty of warm layers to stay warm throughout your trip! Add the following to your winter camping gear load out, and you’ll be sure to stay warm regardless of the temperature.
Warm hat that covers the ears
Make sure that your head is covered at all times when you are out camping in the winter. We lose a significant amount of heat through the tops of our heads, so an uncovered head in a winter environment can cause you to lose more heat than you realize!
Beanies work great here as they are easy to slip on and off and they also can reach down far enough to cover your ears.
One of the best hats you can wear for winter camping are hats that have ear flaps that you can use to cover up your ears entirely. These are great because the inside of the hat and the ear flaps themselves are lined with extra warm insulation, which will surely keep your head warm in subzero temperatures!
A face mask
Subzero temperatures present risks other than hypothermia. Frost bite is another potential risk when going camping in the winter. Frost bite occurs in areas that are exposed to extreme cold for an extended period of time. The reason that frost bite sets in, is because when the body gets exposed to extreme cold, it moves blood away from the exterior parts of the body in order to keep your vital organs warm.
This means that body parts like lips and noses that are exposed are at risk of getting frost bite first! Be sure that you bring along something that will cover up your face to avoid getting frost bite. A great item to bring along that will also help keep the rest of your head warm is something known as a head-sock.
Head-socks are great because they are basically a hood with extra material at the bottom. They can be worn so that the extra material can come up to cover the face, making it ideal for winter campers!
A set of mittens
Now it’s understandable to want to bring along a pair of 5-fingered gloves when you go winter camping in subzero temperatures, but mittens are much better at keeping your fingers warm. Think about it like this, when penguins get cold, they huddle up. Their shared body heat keeps each penguin warm way better than if they were to stand alone.
In the case of mittens vs. gloves, the mittens facilitate a system where your fingers act like they’re penguins! Your fingers will be close together and much better off at staying warm compared to gloves.
The attraction to wearing gloves is that you’ll be able to use your hands more freely. However, the large material that gloves are made out of make it difficult to do anything that requires your hands, and the material gets in the way. So, you end up having to take your gloves off to complete that same task that you originally bought the gloves to do with them on! It really doesn’t make any sense to bring gloves along for that reason.
A set of glove inserts
To help your mittens keep your hands toasty warm, be sure to wear thin glove inserts. These inserts, usually made out of wool or a synthetic material, are thin and light so that they can be worn easily inside a set of mittens or gloves.
Plus, when you do need to take your mittens off to do something that requires the coordination of using all of your fingers, the glove inserts can keep your hands warm for a short amount of time! Glove inserts are made of much thinner material compared to winter gloves, so they can easily be kept on while you work on a task that requires full dexterity like starting a fire or setting up a tent.
A hard-shell jacket
The waterproofing and wind proofing qualities of hard-shell jackets make them invaluable in a winter camping environment. One of the worst things that you can do in a subzero environment is get wet. Getting wet causes your body to get cold so much quicker than if you were dry, so it’s important to give yourself all of the advantages to saying dry as you can!
Wind chill is another factor that will zap your body of heat. Hard shell jackets are also great for blocking out the wind that would cut through a soft-shell jacket alone.
A soft-shell jacket
Soft-shell jackets are great to improve the insulation of your hard-shell jackets. Usually, soft-shell jackets are made out of fleece, which is a very warm material that keeps you warm regardless if it’s dry or wet. As mentioned before, getting wet in a winter environment can spell disaster pretty quickly.
Soft-shell jackets can also be worn when the wind isn’t blowing, and it isn’t snowing out. Wearing them alone will help you manage your body heat, especially if you’re doing a lot of work that could cause you to start sweating!
Wool or synthetic fiber base layers for top and bottom
Under your soft-shell jacket you should definitely wear a long-sleeved wool or synthetic fiber base layer top. These are great because they help you retain as much body heat as possible close to your body. Wool and synthetic materials also retain some of their insulating properties when wet, which makes them 100 times better to wear when camping during the winter!
Be sure to also wear a set of wool or synthetic fiber bottoms as well. While the legs typically aren’t at as high of risk for getting cold and causing major issues as the torso is, it’s still important to try to retain as much body heat as possible.
On your legs, it’s important to wear items like bibs or snow pants to ensure that the bottom half of your body stays warm. Bibs are basically like overalls that are designed specifically for winter environments. They are a bit bulkier than snow pants due to the extra material used to have them go over your shoulders, but that extra material makes it so that snow is much less likely to accidentally fall down your pants.
If you are doing a lot of hiking while you’re winter camping, it might be better to bring snow pants instead of bibs. Snow pants don’t have as much material in them compared to bibs, which might make them a bit more comfortable when you’re walking over longer distances. Be careful where you sit though, because snow can easily fall down into your snow pants!
As mentioned before, wool is one of the warmest fibers you can use in your clothing system. Keeping your extremities warm is key to preventing frost bite. As mentioned earlier, frost bite sets in when the body has moved blood away from extremities to keep vital organs inside of the torso warm. This means that toes and feet are some of the first body parts to lose blood when they get cold, putting them at risk of frost bite!
Boots with Thinsulate
To give your wool socks a bit of extra help, be sure to wear boots that are insulated with a material called Thinsulate. Thinsulate is very small insulation that is placed inside of boots designed for extended stays in subzero environments. They are great because they will keep your feet much warmer compared to wearing normal, uninsulated boots.
When you are looking for a pair of Thinsulate boots, be sure to check out the rating system of the boots. The higher the number, the warmer the boots will be. Some of the warmest Thinsulate boots are rated at 800 or more. If you plan on being outside in temperatures that are below 0 for an extended period of time, be sure to get the warmest boots you can afford!
By bringing those pieces of gear, you’ll be sure to keep your body warm throughout your entire trip! Be sure to avoid bringing anything made out of cotton to wear. Another saying in the outdoor community is that “cotton kills.” When wet, cotton tends to stay wet.
This presents a big problem when camping in subzero environments as wet clothing will speed up the onset of hypothermia. If you’re ever in a situation where your clothes are wet, regardless of what material they are made out of, try to change out of the wet clothing as soon as possible.
After your clothing system, it’s important that you bring along the right shelter system when you’re winter camping. There are tons of shelter systems on the market, so which one is best for you? Consider the following shelters before you go camping in subzero temperatures!
Tents are an affordable option for gearing up to go winter camping. However, it’s important to recognize the seasons that your tent is rated for. Most tents are rated as 3-season tents. This means that they are most suitable for the spring, summer, and fall. While you could technically use a 3-season tent while winter camping, you want to try to give yourself the most advantages as you can, so buying a 4-season tent is the best choice here.
4-season tents have much thicker walls and floors than 3-season tents do. Additionally, they tend to not have as big of mesh panels, which tend to let air flow in and out pretty easily. When you’re winter camping in subzero temperatures, you want to try to keep as much warmth with in your tent as possible.
Another thing to consider when buying a 4-season tent is the size. We have all been conditioned by a consumer society that bigger is better! But in the case of buying a winter tent, bigger is not better. Remember that analogy about how penguins stay warm that I mentioned from earlier? The same idea applies with tents.
Tents are much easier to keep warm when they are smaller, because there isn’t as much dead space inside of the tent to keep warm. That means that your body heat will efficiently help you warm your tent up and keep it warm through-out the night!
If you have a car or pickup truck that you like to use for camping, you can most definitely turn it into a winter camping rig with ease. Be sure that you prepare it well for subzero temperatures though!
Cars and pickup trucks lose a lot of heat through the windows and windshields. A great product to use to mitigate the heat loss from those problem points is called Reflectix. Reflectix is a material that is a bit of a cross between bubble wrap and aluminum foil. You can buy it by the roll and cut it to fit the size of the windows specific to your car or pickup truck. That way, you’ll be able to customize the shape of your window coverings to ensure that heat doesn’t escape!
A pro-tip for using Reflectix is to make it easy to put up by gluing magnets to the edges of it and then putting magnets on the inside of your window frame. That way, you can easily put up your Reflectix at night and take it down in the morning when it’s time to go!
Just like with car camping, RV’s and trailers can benefit from the use of Reflectix on the windows. Other than that, RV’s and trailers come standard with propane and electric heaters, which are great for warming up the inside of your sleeping area in subzero temperatures.
But if you end up running out of propane or you’re not able to access electricity, you’ll want to maximize the heat that you can produce inside. A great idea to add to the heat retention inside of your RV or trailer is to cover up the doors with blankets. This will prevent heat from escaping from this vulnerable area in your camper.
Another idea is to bring along a Mr. Buddy heater to help conserve your on-board propane and electric heater. Mr. Buddy heaters are portable propane heaters that are inexpensive and easy to use. The important thing to remember here is to never leave it running when you go to sleep, as it produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as it burns propane. Both of these gasses can be deadly if you are not able to shut off the heater. So while this is a great tool to bring along to keep you warm, be sure to use it carefully!
Your sleeping system is one of the best things that you can bring to help you stay warm and toasty all through the night. Aside from a warm sleeping bag, be sure to also bring along a warm sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground.
When choosing a sleeping pad, one of the best things to look for (aside from comfort) is the R-value. R-values indicate how warm the pad will keep you against a cold surface. The higher the R-value, the better insulated you will be against the cold ground!
Winter camping in subzero temperatures, like most other things, can be incredibly enjoyable if you put in the right amount of preparation. If you bring along the proper clothing system, bring the proper shelter and insulate it well, and you bring a great sleeping bag and high R-value sleeping pad, you’ll be able to thoroughly enjoy your camping experience! Now get out there and enjoy a winter wonderland all to yourself!