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5 Useful Tips for Cold Weather Camping

We recently went camping at Mount Laguna for a friend’s birthday, and although we’ve been camping in cold weather before, we were not prepared for this!  We’ve done car camping enough times and have a good collection of essentials, so we didn’t think too much about packing for this trip. We brought some extra layers because we knew the weather would drop into the 20s. Other than that, we weren’t too worried.

By the end of the night, no one wanted to leave the campfire. We eventually mustered up the courage to brave the night and get cozied up into our sleeping bags. Jacob fell asleep quickly. He never has issues sleeping. Me on the other hand… a few hours passed, and I was still awake and freezing. Finally, I heard our friend rustling around outside to start the fire again. Eventually, I gave up on sleep and decided to join him. The rest of the night, more people joined us at the fire until the sun came up. It was a humbling experience for all of us.

Winter Camping Tips - 5 Lessons We Learned from Being Unprepared for Winter Camping.Pin

Leaving the campsite, we were still baffled at why we were so cold. We thought we were prepared. We had plenty of clothes, an air mattress to get us off the ground, and even a sleeping bag rated for 15 degrees F. After researching and talking to friends who have been camping in negative-degree weather, we realized we were doing so many things wrong!

Next time we go, we definitely know what we need to improve, and if you plan on camping in colder weather, hopefully, these tips will help you out!

Winter Camping TipsPin


1. It’s not just about sleeping off the ground.

Typically, when we’ve gone camping, we try to avoid sleeping on the ground because it can get cold. When we’re backpacking, we have our sleeping pads, and when we’re car camping, we have this super cushy air mattress. But even with our air mattress that got me almost 2 feet off the ground, it was still extremely cold (although it’s still great for the other three seasons)!

Sleeping pads are rated by R-value from 1.0 to 8.0. This R-value is the measurement of insulation. You want to find a sleeping pad with an R-value of four or more. Many people also recommend using two full-length pads to keep you warm. Our new sleeping pads are rated at 3.3, which would have kept us warmer than the air mattress.

2. Turn water bottles upside-down overnight.

By morning, most of our liquids were frozen. Fortunately for us, we were leaving, so it wasn’t really an issue. Water has unique properties and freezes from the top down, so keeping the opening of your container facing down will hopefully prevent it from freezing entirely. We also forgot to dump out the remaining coffee in the French press, so by morning, it was completely frozen… meaning no coffee for us!

Winter Camping Tips - Turn your water bottles upside-down.Pin

3. Have the right combo of socks.

You would think that wearing more layers of socks will keep you warmer, but that’s not necessarily true. If socks are too tight, especially in your boots, it will cut off the circulation to your feet and result in cold feet.

The ideal combination is to wear a thin layer next to your skin and another layer over it. The thickness of the second sock should be based on how it fits in your boot. Also, they should always be merino wool or a synthetic fabric, never cotton, and it helps to have extra pairs in case they get wet.

4. Know how to properly use your sleeping bag.

First off, make sure you have the right sleeping bag. It’s recommended to have a bag that’s rated at least 10 degrees F (5.5 deg C) lower than the coldest temperature you expect. After all, you can always vent the bag if you need to. Ours was on the borderline of meeting this requirement.

After you have the right one, understand how the sleeping bag works. It’s all about trapping in the heat that you’re giving off. We were so cold, we bundled ourselves in multiple layers of jackets and pants before getting into the bag. That was a mistake! It’s actually better to sleep in just a base layer so that heat can help warm the bag up. We kept all our heat within our clothes and didn’t allow our sleeping bag to work as it was supposed to.

For added warmth, sleep with your next day’s clothes at your feet. Filling up the extra space in the bag will keep it warmer, and your clothes the next day won’t be freezing cold! You can also put a bottle of hot water at your feet or use hand warmers, which are always handy to have in cold weather. If you run on the cold side, a sleeping bag liner can add 8 to 15 degrees F (4.4 – 8.3 deg C) of extra warmth too. Lastly, as tempting as it is to bury your head your sleeping bag, avoid breathing in your bag. The moisture from your breath will make it colder and negate all the heat you’re trying to save.

5. Layer your clothes properly.

Similar to socks, there’s a science in how to layer your clothes. It’s not just about putting on everything you own! You want to get the right layers so that you can change based on how active you are.

The base layer is the layer next to your skin. You want to stick with synthetic or merino wool fabrics and avoid cotton as much as possible. You want this layer to wick any sweat to the outer layers so they can evaporate. We love these base layers and wear them on every trip!

The next layer is your insulating layer. You want this layer to keep in your heat. Fleece or a goose-down jacket are great for this. Esther just got this Nano Storm jacket that works as a great insulator.

5 Winter Camping Tips - Be Sure to Learn from Our Mistakes!Pin

The outermost layer is the waterproof, windproof, and breathable layer. Think Gore-Tex. Underarm and core vents are usually great options for this so that you can let out any excess heat and moisture. We fortunately didn’t have to worry about rain, so this pullover was perfect for Jacob to stay warm.

5 Winter Camping Tips - Be Sure to Learn from Our Mistakes!Pin

I’m sure there will be more to learn as we gain more experience, but hopefully, these will help you avoid the same mistakes we made!

Have you been winter camping? What other tips do you have for anyone interested in camping in cold weather?

Cover photo by Melly Lee. Go check out her portfolio for more amazing photography!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anlo

    Why avoid cotton? I live near Tne Northpole and we always use naturall stuff like cotton and wool because it last longer if you are outside. Wool is outstanding for cold weather and have been used since we arrived to this pole. Our chlidren wear cotton next to the body then some set with cotton/wool and then the “raincoat”. Something like skidress with goretex for exampel. At the feet same thing, first cotton socks and then wool and one number bigger boots. We always say that if you are cold on your feet you will freeze all over the body.
    The syntetic clothes are ok for one day or two but if you have to live everyday in low temperature it´s only natural stuff that counts.

    1. jacob

      Good to know! We’ve always been taught synthetic is a better base layer for winter camping because it doesn’t retain the moisture.

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