Come rain or shine; you should never let a bit of chill dampen your plans to explore Mother Nature. I am a hiker, backpacker, and camper, and I spend averagely 30-50 nights a year in the solitude of the winter cold; so you can trust me on this.
The brutal truth is that there is no thermostat in the woods. The temps sometimes dip to freezing point, and campers freak out. While it may not be easy picturing yourself camping around the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter, it gets better if you can brave the first frost. It’s all about ensuring your new sanctuary is comfortable and warm. Warmth is especially crucial during winter since you don’t want to catch your death and ruin your camping session. Over the years, I have found these tips useful:
*Check this out: 9 Tips for Finding the Perfect Campsite
The 13 Tips For Warm Winter Camping
1. Choose an Appropriate Location and Shelter
You need to select the best location to alleviate camping blues. Here are tricks that work miracles:
- Your tent should be far away from water bodies because they create a microclimate of cooler air that may hinder your efforts to stay warm.
- Pitch your tent behind a natural wind block like a tree, a cut bank, an outcropping of rocks, the side of a cliff, or a boulder. Strong winds may not only stress your tent; they may also blow it away. Also, the chill brought by such winds may make the cold unbearable.
- Opt for higher grounds than the surrounding area, and avoid low-lying areas as they trap cold. In the outdoors, cold sinks and heat rises.
*You might also want to read on How to Make a Survival Shelter.
When you are done, erect your four-season or three-season tent. When I visited the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, where the temperatures dipped into freezing, I learned to be extra careful when choosing a tent. I had picked a hot tent since I wanted to use a woodstove, but carrying it for 150 miles on the John Muir Trail was not fun. All I can say is you have to do extensive research when picking a tent for the winter weather.
I've always vouched for igloos when it's snowing. I find these snow caves warmer and more immune to the harsh winter weather. However, they are labor-intensive to set up and may require you to have several tools. This is why many adventurists opt for tents. While tents are less warm and tend to flap in the wind, you can set them up in just 10 minutes.
Check this out: Winter Camping Tips
2. Exercise Before Sleep
When you are within the confines of your home, your typical routine may include a bit of movie, browsing Instagram, and cleaning your teeth before hitting the sack. Nonetheless, it’s a different story when you are out in the bush, and the temperature is -3°C. Take it upon yourself to walk around the camp to get your metabolism going and to keep your blood flowing.
Remember, your core warmth comes from within your body, and you need to avoid getting into your sleeping bag when you are cold. The exercises are endless as long as you generate some heat within. You can work with your camp buddies and bench-press or turn up the music and dance to your favorite tunes. Or maybe do some push-ups and star jumps, but not to the point of sweating. Personally, I like jogging around the camp or doing some jumping jacks and crouches. Other times, I go for exercises that I can perform inside my tent or sleeping bag.
An exercise before bed will keep you heated for long since your body can warm the air inside your sleeping bag, and the warmth can be retained long after the heat from the workout has dissipated. Yours is to ensure your sleeping setup and your clothes are well insulated, so you don’t lose the heat.
3. Wear The Right Clothing
You need to wear as much clothing as possible, especially around your core (chest, stomach, back). You are better off having more layers because you can get rid of the extra layer or two when you feel too warm. When it gets too warm, you are bound to sweat, and that can lead to dampness and shivering.
Here are some best practices in regards to clothing:
- Rock a knit cap or a woolen hat when going to bed. Research has shown that 40-50% of your body heat is lost through the head.
- Wear a windproof hat when you are outside.
- Cover your neck with a neck warmer.
- Use dry socks on your feet. You can also wear socks while sleeping
- Cover your fingers with gloves.
- Night clothes need to be clean and loose-fitting. Tight clothing will restrict circulation and hinder you from generating heat.
This is not the time for the light summer T-shirt or any other short sleeved garment. You want to combine base layers and insulating layers to preserve heat and feel warm throughout. The primary purpose of dressing in layers is moisture control and to maintain maximum dead-air space. Let’s break down the layers a bit:
- Inner layer/base layer – its purpose is ‘wicking.’ The base layer withdraws moisture from your skin – to the middle – and needs to be tight fitting. Avoid cotton because it absorbs and retains moisture.
- Middle layer – to provide warmth. It needs to have a high capacity for “dead-air” spaces to reduce heat loss. Wool is the perfect choice for a middle layer of clothing.
- Outer layer – Prevent the body from wind and moisture. Examples are water repellant fabrics like Gore-Tex that keep wind and humidity away.
4. Treat Your Feet
Regardless of the fact that your feet may be dry, switching to a pair of dry socks before bedtime will make a huge difference. If it’s too cold, wear thick socks or even two pairs of socks: a thinner pair and a thick pair. Also, remember to carry spares because you never know when your feet may get wet.
Gather your socks, foot warmers, and insoles and place them inside your sleeping bag – at night – so you can heat them up and prepare them for the next day. In case you are doing some hiking, consider using gaiters for your walking boots to keep away snow and cold air.
While thick synthetic socks will get the job done, wool socks are your friend. Otherwise, stay away from cotton socks. For my polar expeditions, I always go for Merino Wool socks that I wear over synthetic socks. Of course, the bigger the socks, the more warm air it is going to trap next to your body, and the better the insulation. But remember, your toes need some space to wiggle because blood circulation is critical. The layering system can be applied to your feet too:
- The innermost socks should be a lightweight wicking sock
- The middle layer should be a thin wool sock
- The outer layer should be a mid or heavy wool sock
Here are some of the best practices:
- Have an extra or thicker insole in your boots to reduce heat loss
- If you need to be in one place for a longer time, for example, when cooking, then stand on an insulated pad and not on cold surfaces
- Try your best to ensure your feet does not sweat
5. Cover Your Fingers
Invest in reliable gloves and keep your fingers covered at all times. Most importantly,find gloves that are of the right size, so your wrists are not left uncovered. Wrists are areas of high heat loss.
*Guide to Best Extreme Cold Weather Gloves
Like your feet, your hands have a high surface area to mass ratio, and this makes them susceptible to cold compared to other body parts. To get more sciency, remember your fingers are further from your core – the part of your body that is responsible for creating heat. If your core is not well insulated, more blood will move away from your hands to help warm the body, and this means your hands will become colder. This is why your core needs the right layering to ensure blood flows to your hands.
The layering system will still work on your fingers:
- Go for liner gloves as your base layer. Merino wool will serve you right as it keeps your hands dry and warm. You may also want to consider polyester or a tight-fitting silk liner. The gloves dry quickly in case they get wet and will keep the fingers warm when the temperature is mild. The base layer weighs next to nothing
- For your insulating layer, go for Mittens; either fleece, wool, or down. Your fingers will generate more heat when they are close together
Add an outer layer over the insulating layer when it’s icy. Go for a pair of mittens that can keep away rain and snow. You may want to consider gauntlet cuffs to keep away cold air and snow
You may also want to consider hand warmers, which are mainly heat packs for your hands.
Check this out: How to Stay Warm During Winter Camping
6. Have a High-Calorie Meal Before Bed
Eat a hot, hearty meal before retiring to bed. Fatty foods are better because they are metabolized slower than carbohydrates and will last longer when you are in your deep slumber. Cheese and olive oil would be great. The secret is that a high energy snack leaves your body warming up as it tries to get rid of the extra calories.
The human body burns more calories as it tries to maintain its base temperature of 37°C in extreme conditions. Therefore, your work is to supply it with the energy it needs continuously. Look at these meals as the fuel that your body needs to produce heat.
If it’s in the midday and you need quick energy, utilize snacks with simple sugars like candy bars, chocolates, or energy bars. At least they will accord you some warmth. I find Snickers bars useful because they contain a substantial amount of quick-burning sugar calories alongside other valuable nutrients. For lunch, you can go for stews or canned soups.
Failing to take calories will leave you shivering the entire night as your body will be struggling to generate heat.
These are the best practices:
- 50% of your food should contain carbohydrates since they are easier to convert into energy. Examples are oil, cheese, nuts, chocolate, and cereal bars
- Around 30% of your food should contain fat. Fat takes longer to convert into simple sugars and will help you produce heat over an extended period. Take them before going to bed. The rest – 20 % – may be protein
Dinner should be just before bedtime, so you fall asleep with a full belly.
7. Stay Hydrated
During the cold season, it’s important to stay hydrated. During winter, for example, your body needs more water since your lungs lose moisture humidifying and warming the winter air, which is usually dry and cold. In fact, a typical winter exertion requires 2.5 to 5 liters per day. Hydration will also help you burn your ‘fuel’ efficiently.
The issue is that during winter, you may tend to drink less as it’s hard to think of taking water when it’s cold and snow is around you. You may not feel the sweat, but you are losing so much water as a result of breathing. The rules change a bit if you will be performing exercises during the camping period. Activities will require you to replace lost electrolytes as well as water. Therefore, you need to stock up energy and sports drinks.
One challenge that campers face during winter is dehydration, which can cause fatigue and can make you feel cold. Make it your duty to consume drinks like hot soup, cocoa,warm lemonade, apple cider, and any other hot beverage. But remember, you have to pee before going to bed. Always empty your bladder because our bodies use heat to keep urine warm. This way, you’ll avoid losing heat. But try as much as possible and stay away from nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. Nicotine decreases circulation while caffeine
increases dehydration. Alcohol causes loss of body heat.
8. Embrace The Pee Bottle
I like to call it strategic urination.
I embraced the pee bottle in one incident where I was met with torrential Pacific Northwest rain and could not get out of the tent. There was also this time when we encountered a sudden snowstorm in the Adirondack High Peaks, and we wanted to pee so badly.
I like to keep things simple, and I use Gatorade bottles all the time. It is always a decent choice when camping is not going to last for more than three days because it will give me the advantage of packing electrolytes and then drinking when I’m thirsty. Then when nighttime comes, it will do the trick by holding the contents of my bladder. But it falls short when I have to be in the tent for several hours. I learned this the hard way when I was at 15,000 feet on Mount Aconcagua, and it got windy as hell. My Gatorade bottle was limited in size, and I was introduced to the Nalgene Canteen, which despite being reliable, was collapsible and unisex. Some adventurists opt for a cook-in food bag, but you need to be wary of its press-to-close seam seal.
Once you have settled on your bottle of choice, label it using a bold permanent marker. By all means, you want to avoid a mix-up that may disgust you and your fellow campers. The advantage with this bottle is that you can preserve heat since you don’t have to leave your sleeping bag to pee. Every camper knows how the 2 am trip to the bathroom sucks. If you like, you may even turn your pee bottle into a hot water bottle.
9. Invest In A Proper Sleeping Mat and Sleeping Bag
A sizeable number of campers underestimate the usefulness of a sleeping mat, and I find it a pain in the neck. The truth is that the ground is going to suck as much heat as possible from your body during the cold season. Therefore, it is crucial to have a thick insulating layer between your sleeping bag and the ground surface or snow.
*If you're looking for the Best Cold Weather Sleeping Bag, just click here.
If you are confident with the condition of your sleeping bag, purchase a thermal sleeping bag liner to take things up a notch. I believe a sleeping bag is a priority item that should be sturdy.
Here are the tips for using your bag:
- Release moist air out of your pocket every morning. If the weather permits, this is the time to let your bag dry
- Your bag does not touch the wall of the tent because you are going to lose heat via conduction
- Avoid breathing inside the bag
- Zip up as much as you can to retain most of the warm air
Things to look out for when shopping for a sleeping bag:
- Check the ratings to find what suits you. Different bags have different
lowest temperatures for accommodating humans
- Extra features that will favor you. For example, additional insulation
- Size: You need some wiggle room. If the bag is too large, your body will
not heat up the extra space efficiently. You are going to be left with too
much space to warm up. On the other hand, if the bag is too tight, you
lose the air pocket that works as an extra insulating layer. Parts of you are
also going to hang out.
For the sleeping pad, choose one with foam to help with insulation. The best pad should reduce heat loss while adding comfort.
10. Consider Co-sleeping
Co-sleeping is warmer than sleeping on your own. If you are camping with a significant other, it is more comfortable to sleep together, but if you are with friends, it may be advisable to approach the subject with care. Some folks aren’t down for co-sleeping. I call it the cuddle buddy system and it was a lifesaver when I had to spend two cold nights in the Swedish Lapland.
Try as much as possible and snuggle with someone because when bodies are close, more heat is generated. The shared body heat that radiates through sleeping bags can go a long way in keeping you warm, but this will mean that your bag has sufficient space for two humans. If your bag is large enough, your fellow camper may get in with their sleeping bag. Alternatively, you may share a tent or erect your shelters close together to share the other person’s warmth. This cuddle buddy system ensures safety
in case someone is sick or hurt.
When you are cold, and a fellow camper is warm, heat is going to be transferred from his/her body to yours, at least until your bodies are roughly the same temperature.When two warm-blooded bodies are close together in a cold environment, the two will reduce the rate of heat lost to the environment.
Therefore, as much as the wilderness may be alluring, don’t go alone. Share the adventure with a colleague or two, and you will have found yourself a spooning partner.You may be surprised by the amount of winter camping skills everyone will bring onboard.
11. Ventilate Your Tent
As much as you are aiming for warmth, you have to ventilate your tent always. Leave a gap that will allow smooth airflow and reduce your chances of suffocation and condensation. You may be surprised to wake up to a wet sleeping bag when you have all the outlets sealed. While it may sound surprising, the heat from your body and your breath may cause condensation to build up and may lead to dampness inside your tent.
In the end, this may make the inside of your tent colder.
*If you're looking for the Best Winter Tents for Camping, here's a guide.
You may either find frost on your tent or some moisture on your gear and clothing. You don’t want to experience this during winter; when you want your apparel and equipment to provide the best insulation. Unzip the spots that are allocated for ventilation and let air flow freely. And don’t be stingy with the openings because a small hole is not effective in reducing frost build-up and condensation. Also, avoid cooking in your tent and or bringing snow inside. Snow is going to melt and increase humidity.
The size of the tent may come into play when considering ventilation. From personal experience, I have found 30 square feet of floor space to be enough.
12. Start a Fire
I cannot stress the importance of starting a fire during the cold season. In fact, the fire should be your primary source of warmth based on my experience. You will use it for most of your cooking needs, and it will help keep away predators.
The most significant challenge is that setting up a campfire may be a bit of a problem when it’s freezing. This is because snow and the frozen ground will tend to work against you. While there are several techniques for setting up campfires, I find that location is very critical. If the surface is covered in snow, work and remove all the snow so that you only work with bare ground.
Search for fallen trees, twigs, leaves, and branches and make sure they are dry enough to sustain a long fire. Always stay away from living trees as they are hard to burn. Use dry papers, bark, cotton wool pads, and cones for your fuel and start your fire. Always start with the small deadfall then place bigger pieces of wood as the fire progresses.Moist logs can be placed around the fire to help them dry.
Your goal is to keep the fire lit for as long as you need it and this means having enough firewood. Scavenge for woods, but avoid cutting down trees. You will want a wind blocker for your fire, and the rocks and logs will serve you right. In my opinion, the fire should come first – even before you pitch a tent. You can then use its residual ambient heat to heighten your energy levels when erecting the tent.
Check this out on How to Start a Fire in Winter
13. Use a Hot Water Bottles As 'Cached Heat'
A hot water bottle can act as a heater when it is filled with boiling water. But you have to be careful when choosing the bottle. It should be a sturdy plastic flask that can be stuffed into your sleeping bag to keep your fabrics warm. Stay away from metal flasks that are made of steel or aluminum because metal conducts heat and you risk severe burns. A metallic bottle with boiling water may even melt the synthetic material of your sleeping bag.
I have personally used Nalgene bottles for the longest time, and I haven’t experienced problems though I have heard of leaks from other brands. Nalgene bottles are made using a type of thick plastic that provides enough insulation and prevents my skin from getting burnt. I always carry a cotton shirt that I use to wrap the flask before throwing it into my sleeping bag, but you can also use a thick sock. This way, the heat from the bottle will be retained over an extended period. Some of these bottles come with a
synthetic sleeve that makes them easy to handle while sleeping.
Once I have my hot water bottle ready, I will either hug it around my chest or throw it at the end of the sleeping bag if my feet are cold. Mind you; the bottle does not always have to carry water, it can hold hot chocolate or tea that I can drink when I get too thirsty in the middle of the night. But I have to make sure the bottle is solidly capped at all times.
Having a good time in the cold weather starts with keeping warm. You need to start by making sure you don't get cold; then you can work your way up. However, if you allow yourself to get damp, you will have to use a considerable amount of energy to generate heat from scratch. In fact, more energy than you require to conserve the heat you have already created.
This is something you always have to keep in mind before you venture into the solitude of the winter cold.