10 Tips for Cold Weather Tent Camping

As part of our weekly How To series, we share advice and knowledge about things related to our trip.

As the weather gets colder we are spending more nights indoors with family and friends, but we still camp in between and thought we would share some advice on how to enjoy cold weather camping.  Getting outside in the late fall and winter offers a different recreation experience.  You have more opportunity for solitude, no bugs, and different animals and viewpoints.  If you’re not prepared it can also turn into a cold and miserable night in your tent.

tent site in Oak Mountain State Park

Tent site at Oak Mountain State Park in February

Here’s our advice based on too many cold sleepless nights:

  1. Change into dry clothes – Usually campers are hiking or biking during the afternoon when it is warmest out.  It is very important to change out of sweaty clothes and into layers before the sun sets.
  2. Dress in layers – Start with a base layer that fits snugly (I prefer Patagonia capilene).  Next add a warm layer such as fleece.  Over that add a layer that will block out the wind.  A hat is vital and can make a huge difference in staying warm.
  3. Sleep in a base layer – When you’re ready to get in your sleeping bag it is time to strip down to the base layer or nothing.  There will be a few minutes of cold, but once your body heat fills the sleeping bag you will stay warmer than if you go to bed with all your clothes on.  You can keep your fleece layer in your sleeping bag so that it is warm when you get dressed in the morning.
  4. Use an insulating sleeping pad – Even if you have a very warm bag, you will lose all that warmth to the ground if you do not add an insulating layer such as a thermarest pad.  The pads that fill with air are usually more effective than foam for keeping you warm.
  5. Trap the warm air in your sleeping bag – Silk is a great fabric for trapping heat.  We use a silk sheet along the zipper of the bag or around our feet to make the most of our body heat.  I’ve also piled up clothes along the edge of the bag to prevent the heat from leaking through the zipper.
  6. Fire or no fire? – Most campers love to build a fire and consider it essential for staying warm, but to camp in a way that is safe and low impact you need to burn the wood all the way down to ash and that takes a long time.  You will end the night in the dark and cold checking your fire is out by using the drown, stir, feel method.  You may stay warmer and enjoy the evening more by just going to the tent sooner and reading or playing cards in the warm air of the tent.
  7. A smaller tent is a warmer tent – The rain fly traps the warm air that you are breathing.  A smaller tent will warm up a lot faster and stay a lot warmer.
  8. Don’t let essentials freeze – Take a moment to consider what might be at risk of freezing (water bottles, propane canisters, electronics, liquid or capsule medicines) and consider storing them in the tent or even in your sleeping bag.  Keep water bottles right side up so that the lids do not freeze.
  9. Set up your tent with the sun in mind – Ideally set up your tent without direct tree cover and in a spot that gets the morning sun.
  10. Get moving in the morning – A few minutes of yoga is enough to get my blood moving and help me get through those cold mornings.  Jumping jacks are always an easy, quick way to warm up too.
yoga mat at Oak Mountain State Park

My site for yoga in the morning

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4 responses to “10 Tips for Cold Weather Tent Camping

  1. I LOVE cold weather camping. Dennis and I were just talking about the unique pleasure of those cold mornings out in the wilderness, right when you force yourself out of your toasty sleeping bag into the fresh air, waiting for the water to heat up for coffee!

  2. Yes, Jay has the honor of being awaken to hot coffee, since I am the one that gets up first to prepare it. Thankfully we recently switched to a french press which is much easier and faster.

  3. Sounds like cool weather camping. I never did get a taste for snow camping, where it is several feet thick, and the lows go to sub zero. Yuck, somehow it just is not fun!

    So what about the early morning, I jus gotta go pee run?? Its 3 AM and you don’t want to get up yet…

  4. Keep a jar or bottle in the tent for that purpose – clearly labeled.

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