Camping is often seen as a summer activity, but camping in fall and winter is fantastic. The campgrounds aren’t so crowded, and the changing leaves and snow are stunning. Unfortunately, the cold can sometimes spoil the fun.
Thankfully, you can keep the cold at bay. Here are a few cold weather camping tips:
- Use a highly insulated tent
- Double up on sleeping gear
- Ensure you have heated accessories
- Dress in thin layers
- Stay dry
- Protect your electronics and water from the cold
- Use a propane heater
There are many more tips to apply to your trip. Let’s go into them in detail.
Cold Weather Camping Tips: Where to Begin
You shouldn’t dive right into cold-weather camping as a beginner. Getting the conditions right will set you up for success, so plan ahead and get some practice in.
#1. Do a Trial Run
If you’re a cold-weather newcomer, then consider doing a trial run in your backyard first. If you get too cold, then you can run into your house for some extra blankets and hot water bottles.
This will help you figure out what gear you need to bring on your actual trip.
#2. Don’t Go Alone
Nature is unexpected. You could run into snowstorms, windstorms, severe hail, and more. Your setup could get damaged, or you could end up stranded by yourself with no phone signal, so it’s best to go with a buddy or two for your first time camping in the cold.
If you want to go camping alone in winter, then consider camping in fall by yourself first. It will help you get used to the changing weather and nighttime coldness.
#3. Find The Right Site
Ensure you don’t set up too far from your car the first time you’re camping in the cold. Keep extra gear in the car, and of course, you can go warm up in your vehicle in emergencies.
Stay close to your vehicle until you iron out the trial and error of camping in the cold.
You should also ensure that your site isn’t difficult to maneuver around. This applies more in winter. Snow and ice will likely add to the difficulties of moving around your campsite, so you want an area that’s relatively flat all over and free of large debris.
#4. Clear Your Site
If you camp in winter, then ensure you shovel as much snow away from your tent as possible. Clear the area under your tent, and try to keep a few feet on either side of your tent snow-free.
#5. Be Aware of Weather Conditions
Plan your trip meticulously as a first-time cold-weather camper. Make sure you know whether there’s supposed to be heavy snowfall, storms, or high winds when you’re planning on going camping.
Avoid these conditions if you’re completely new to cold-weather camping, even if the temperatures are mild. You can expose yourself to harsher conditions as you learn and grow as a cold-weather camper.
Cold Weather Camping Tips For Your Tent
Optimizing your tent for cold-weather camping will help immensely. If your tent isn’t optimized for the weather, then all the winter gear in the world won’t save you from the cold.
#1. Use a Canvas Tent
Canvas tents are excellent for fall and winter camping. They’re thick, hold heat well, and you can often use a stove in them. If you want to use a stove, then be sure to select an appropriate tent; consider one of the 14 best tents with a stove jack.
If you want to learn more about these tents, then read all about the pros and cons of canvas tents.
#2. Use a Winter Tent
If you’d rather not use a canvas tent, then there are tents made for winter. You can use these in winter and fall.
You may wish to use your existing 4-season nylon/polyester tent for fall and winter camping, but they might not be fully equipped to handle the coldest conditions. Most 4-season tents are great for fall weather, but they won’t work always as well in winter.
Here are a few attributes to search for in a winter tent:
- An extra-rigid frame to withstand the weight of snowfall/snow buildup
- Less mesh than in most tents
- Vestibule(s) for storing gear
- Full-coverage rainfly
If your 4-season tent has those, then it’s fine to use it. If it’s missing one of those attributes, then consider finding something new.
I recommend the ALPS Mountaineering Tasmanian 2-Person Tent, as it has all of those features. It’s also small enough to stop cold air circulating too much, and many customers state they use it for winter camping trips. One buyer has even used it in Alaska!
#3. Create a Wind Break
Camping in a windbreak is a great way to keep those icy and chilly winds out of your tent. A windbreak is an area of dense trees and shrubbery that keeps the wind away from your tent.
Try to find a gap between a group of evergreen trees and bushes, and see if you can set your tent up there.
You can also create a windbreak using some poles and tarps. Lodge the poles securely into the ground and suspend the tarps between them, or suspend the tarps between some trees if you don’t have poles.
Seal yourself in as much as possible, and the wind shouldn’t rattle your tent.
#4. Line Your Walls With Blankets
Line any mesh sections of your tent with blankets. You can line all the inner walls with blankets if you wish. This will create an extra layer of protection between you and the cold air.
If you’d rather line the outside of your tent, then you can do so with garbage bags. Although, the next two tips will help you with lining the walls from the outside.
#5. Double Up Your Rainfly
The rainfly doesn’t just keep rain out. It keeps cold out and retains heat, too.
See if your tent’s manufacturer sells your tent’s rainfly as a standalone. If you can’t get one of those, look for a rainfly that’ll fit your tent from another brand.
You won’t be able to attach the second rainfly to your tent’s poles with velcro, but the rainfly should be snug enough if you attach it to the bottom corners of your tent, just like with your main rainfly. Staking out the fly will ensure it’s stable, too.
If you have time, then you can sew the edges of your rainflies together before heading out. Fishing line is great to use as thread.
You could also use tape made for patching holes in tents. Select one that works in all weathers and is UV resistant, like T-rex tape.
#6. Utilize Tarps and Tent Footprints
You can use a tarp instead of a second rainfly if you wish. It’ll work just as well as a rainfly if you position it well.
You’ll also want to use a tarp under your tent. This will help separate you from the ground, so you retain more of your body heat while you’re sleeping. You can use a tent footprint for this instead if you like.
If you’re asking yourself, “Do I need a tarp under my tent?” then feel free to read more about the benefits of doing this.
#7. Reduce Ambient Space
Having too much ambient space in your tent gives cold air extra room to circulate, so try to fill up your tent with as much gear as possible.
Sleep close to each other if you’re camping with someone else, and if you’re camping alone, then try to wedge yourself in with your gear. Pack all the empty space with blankets, bags, spare clothing, and whatever else you bring.
#8. Ventilate Your Tent
I know it sounds counter-productive, but keep your tent’s vents open constantly. Breathing creates condensation, which settles on the walls when your tent lacks ventilation. This can freeze in cold weather.
The tent will be warmer with the vents open than it’ll be with frozen condensation on the walls.
Cold Weather Camping Tips For Your Gear
Once your tent is ready, grabbing the right gear is essential. There are lots of products that can help you stay warm, so put them to good use.
#1. Use Two Sleeping Pads
You could also use a closed-cell foam pad and a thermal mat under an inflatable pad like this. However, keep in mind that the air inside them will be cold, so ensure the pad is well-insulated and has a high R-value rating—the product linked above is an R-value of 5.2.
R-value ratings range from 0–6 and measure how well the pad insulates you. Which rating you need depends on the average fall/winter temperature of your area, so here’s a table that should help you out:
You can read more about how R-value works in general here.
#2. Use Two Sleeping Bags
If you’re using a sleeping bag, then using two is an idea you could entertain.
You probably won’t need to use two in fall if you use a sleeping bag that’s designed for winter camping. However, in winter, you need all the insulation you can get.
Sleeping in two bags can be impractical and uncomfortable if your bags are the same size, as this camper discovered:
This camper was more successful with it using two different bag sizes:
The camper goes on to mention feeling constricted in the bags, so it’s not ideal for claustrophobic people. If you don’t mind a tight sleeping arrangement, then the bags will work well for keeping you warm.
#3. Use a Sleeping Bag Liner/Bivy
Using a sleeping bag liner or bivy in your sleeping bag can add up to 10 degrees of warmth to your bag, so I highly recommend getting one if you can. You may not need one with fall camping, but these are incredible for winter use.
Many campers, like the one below, advocate that liners work well—although as the second camper below points out, you’ll need to choose the right liner. Fleece is great for adding warmth, and polyester is wonderful for wicking moisture/sweat at night.
This camper even says their liner adds 15 degrees of warmth to their bag.
The two products linked above are well-rated, and they’ll both work well for adding a little extra heat inside your sleeping bag. The bivy is particularly useful, as it reflects most of your body heat back onto you. This type of bivy adds some serious heat, according to this camper.
#4. Use a Blanket Under Your Pad or Sleeping Bag
Using a blanket under your sleeping pad or sleeping bag will add more insulation. Use multiple blankets if you wish. You can also roll up some blankets and place them next to your sleeping pad to stop cold air from hitting you from the sides.
#5. Use a Camping Cot With a Blanket Underneath
You lose a lot of heat through the floor, so raising yourself off the floor keeps you warmer. A camping cot is excellent for this, although there’s a lot of room for cold air to circulate underneath them.
Bring a few thick blankets to stuff under your camping cot, and that should eliminate the cold air that’s circulating; I can vouch for this trick. It eliminates the chill nicely. It’ll add extra insulation under your sleeping area, too.
#6. Bring a Quilt
Regular quilts are large and bulky, so you’ll want to bring a thinner, lighter one that you can seal in a vacuum-packed bag. Don’t forget to bring a manual pump to vacuum seal your bag, as bringing a portable vacuum would just take up space.
You could bring a camping quilt instead. These are more lightweight and easier to transport. However, because they’re lighter, it’s easier for them to move/raise and let cold air get at you if you move in your sleep.
Selecting a regular vs camping quilt is a matter of preference and convenience, but both add a little more insulation and coverage in winter.
A quilt can work excellently to wrap yourself up to sleep, or you could use it to cover the tent’s floor. It’ll be an asset to your trip regardless of how you use it.
#7. Bring Heated Accessories
If you’re sleeping on a campsite with electricity, then an electric blanket will be excellent to use in the fall. However, having a gap to run an extension cord through might be a bad idea in winter, so use a portable generator if you’re going to bring an electric blanket.
Heated boots, gloves, and hand warmers are excellent, too. Wear them at night, or have them on to warm up before you get into your sleeping bag for bed.
Here are a few high-quality heated products:
#8. Insulate Your Water Bottles
You need to stay hydrated, so use an insulated flask or add a fleece lining to the outside of your water bottles in winter. The water may freeze depending on the temperature of your campground, and you need to ensure that doesn’t happen.
It’d be smart to insulate your hot beverage flasks for a little extra heat retention, too.
Cold Weather Camping Tips: Other Ideas For Heat Optimization
Finally, there are a few things you can do to keep yourself even warmer inside your optimized tent and gear. There are a few tips that’ll help you protect your phone and drinking water, too.
#1. Use Multiple Hot Water Bottles
Hot water bottles are a must when you’re camping in fall or winter. Using one in fall, held at your core, should suffice.
However, in winter, you should also put one in the bottom of your sleeping bag. This will keep your feet warm. You need that, as your feet are highly susceptible to hypothermia if they get too cold.
You should also put a hot water bottle at your back, as you don’t want a chill running up your spine, either.
Ideally, place a few hot water bottles in your sleeping bag before you get into it to ensure it’s warm and ready for you.
#2. Don’t Hold Urine
The body uses a lot of energy to hold urine during the night, and using up all that energy will cool you down.
Try to use the bathroom before bed, and make sure you go in the middle of the night if you have to. Yes, you’ll be cold if you leave your tent, but it’s better than being uncomfortable for the rest of the night.
#3. Don’t Wear Cotton, Wear Wool
Avoid cotton at all costs. Cotton clothing doesn’t wick moisture. Instead, it holds onto it, and it’ll feel wet and unpleasant. It will make you chilly in fall as your sweat cools in it. In winter, the sweat could freeze.
Merino is excellent. It wicks moisture, it won’t freeze, and it’s well-known for helping regulate body temperature in the cold and the heat. Wear a base layer of merino, and try to have merino wool socks, gloves, and hats, too.
#4. Warm Tomorrow’s Clothes
Tomorrow’s clothes will be freezing if you leave them out in the open air, so stuff them into the bottom of your sleeping bag, under your hot water bottle. This will help keep your feet warm, and it will warm up the clothes, too.
However, the clothes may not fit, or you may find this uncomfortable, so the camper below has some advice on what to do if that’s the case.
#5. Eat and Drink A Lot
The body stays warm if it’s digesting food and drink, so be sure to eat before you go to bed, Eat and drink more often during the day, too.
Don’t eat foods that can easily freeze, like protein bars or squishy food. Meat, cheese, and soups are excellent for staying warm. Having soup or a hot drink before you go to sleep will help your body warm up.
If it’s especially cold on the camping trip, then waking up for a midnight snack would be good, too. Your body naturally cools down during sleep, so giving it a boost in the middle of the night might help you.
#6. Wear a Hoodie
If you own a hoodie, then you should use it to your advantage. They work quite well for sleeping in. Pull the hood over your face and pull the neck up to your chin, leaving only your lips exposed.
If you can, have only your lips exposed while sleeping in a sleeping bag. Breathing into your bag or inside your hoodie will create condensation, and this could freeze in winter.
#7. Wear a Balaclava
Balaclavas work better than hoodies, and they can be worn underneath hoodies and beanies when you need more layers. You probably won’t need the balaclava while camping in the fall, but it’s great for winter camping.
The camper below highly recommends balaclavas; they’re especially useful for keeping your neck warm.
#8. Don’t Wear Sweaty Clothes
You’ll likely work up a sweat when setting up your tent, so change out of those sweaty clothes immediately. Your sweat will cool down, and at night it may freeze against your skin. You’ll be much warmer after getting out of your sweaty base layer.
Ideally, don’t wear quite as many layers when you’re setting up. You can layer on your clothes once you get your tent ready.
#9. Wear Layers
Wearing multiple light layers will work better than wearing fewer thick layers. Thick layers often leave more room between them for air to circulate. Thin layers work best as they’re tight against your skin and seal heat in.
Wearing lots of thin layers will also ensure you can shed some of those layers if you get too warm.
#10. Protect Electronics
Cold weather can damage phones and tablets, so wrap them up in your clothes or put them at the bottom of your sleeping bag. However, heat can also damage them, so don’t put them right next to a hot water bottle.
#11. Shake Away Morning Frost
Your tent will likely be covered in a layer of morning frost, so shake it off when you get up for the day. It’ll cool your tent down if it’s allowed to stay on it.
Wipe down any morning dew droplets, too. They won’t do much harm in fall, but allowing your tent to stay damp in winter may cause it to freeze at the end of the day.
#12. Drink Through a Straw
Bring reusable straws on your camping trip, and drink through those. Spills happen, and you don’t want liquid to land on any of your clothes and blankets. It could freeze if you’re camping in winter.
Silicone straws are best in case any liquid freezes inside the straw. You can bend the straw to crack the ice.
#13. Work Out
If you find that you just can’t get warm again, do some push-ups, situps, or crunches.
Work out before you get into your sleeping bag at night, as it’s easier to warm up before you get in than it is once you’re already in the bag.
If you find yourself freezing when you wake up at night, then doing a few pushups in your sleeping bag should do the trick. Don’t get out of the bag to do them, as you would only get colder.
#14. Don’t Move
Try not to move too much throughout the night. Moving around will disturb the hot air that’s stored in your sleeping bag, and you want to trap hot air and let it circulate around you. Moving around will let some of the air out through the neck hole of your sleeping bag.
However, don’t burrow right down into your bag, as you’ll end up breathing in it and creating condensation, which can freeze.
Minimize movement, and ensure the opening of the sleeping bag is closed as the camper below describes.
Cold Weather Camping Tips Regarding Heaters
Finally, the best way to stay warm in winter is to use an actual heater. You’ll surely be warm if you heat up your tent for a few hours before you go to sleep.
#1. Don’t Use an Electric Fan Heater in the Winter
There’s nothing wrong with using an electric fan heater, and it can work well in fall. Leaving a gap to run an extension cable out of your tent will create a draft. Winter drafts have an icy bite; avoid them if you can.
You shouldn’t use an electric fan heater in winter unless you can keep a generator inside your tent.
However, make sure you bring a backup heater that doesn’t run on electricity, because your generator could break or run out of power. You don’t want to be stuck with no heater in the middle of winter.
#2. Propane Is Your Best Friend
Instead of an electric fan heater, you should use a propane gas heater. It doesn’t take any electricity to run, and you can bring several spare canisters of gas if you need to.
They don’t take up a lot of space, and the heat they generate is impressive. There are some made for use outdoors, while others are made for use inside the tent.
The Mr. Heater Buddy is an excellent propane heater made for tent use, and it’s well-loved by many people who camp in fall and winter.
However, ensure you bring your gas canister inside the tent so you can avoid the winter draft that would occur from running a pipe out of your tent. Keeping the canister in your tent will reduce ambient space, too, so you’re killing two birds with one stone.
#3. Bring a Backup Heater
Heaters aren’t foolproof, so make sure you have a backup heater in your car or your pack. Your heater could fail or fall over and get damaged.
Plus it’s good sense to bring spare gear anyway, as you never know what can happen.
Bring a gas heater as a backup if you’re using an electric heater, and bring a second gas heater if you’re sticking with gas exclusively.
#4. Bring Extra Gas
If you’re an experienced camper then you generally know how long your gas canister will last, but never underestimate how much gas you’re going to use.
Always bring an extra gas canister for your tent heater, even if you’re certain that your canister is going to last for your camping trip. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
The canister will help reduce ambient tent space in winter. And in the fall you can keep it in your car to avoid cluttering up your tent too much.
#5. Be Extra Safe
Propane heaters are safe in tents, but you have to follow proper safety precautions to ensure this remains true.
It can be easy to let safety precautions leave your mind when you’re desperate to get warm. However, there are still some essential safety tips that you should follow:
- Keep the heater away from flammable objects such as clothes, blankets, bedding, and the tent fabric
- Don’t put the heater directly against the tent walls, leave room for air to circulate
- Don’t leave your heater unattended
- Don’t get too close to the heater, as you may burn yourself
- Use a heater that’s intended for use in tents
You should also look for a heater that has some safety features built in. Look for one that automatically shuts off when:
- It falls over
- There’s too much carbon monoxide in the air
- It thinks it’s going to overheat
The Mr. Heater Buddy I mentioned earlier has all of these features. Specifically, it shuts off if it tips over or notices the oxygen level in the tent is too low, or if the pilot light (a small flame in the heater) goes out.
#6. Use Multiple Heaters In Larger Tents
It’s best to use a small tent if you’re camping in fall or winter. But if your tent is large, then make sure you heat up the entire thing.
Consider using multiple heaters in cabin tents and canvas wall tents. Place a heater in each corner, and project the heat towards the center of the tent. Hot air rises, so make sure you keep those heaters as low to the ground as possible.
There are tons of ways you can keep warm while camping in fall and winter, so take these tips, apply them to your trip, and adjust them as needed.
It’s always better to go overboard when you’re trying to keep warm, as nobody ever lost a finger or toe from being too hot while camping. However, hypothermia is a real danger, and you need to ensure you stay safe while you’re camping in colder weather.
Use these tips as a checklist of things to do while you’re camping in fall and winter, and if you like, keep this article open on your phone while you’re preparing for your trip.