My Tips for Cold-Weather Camping

I like to think I know how to tough out the cold. I mean, I’ve been cold — really cold — on more than a few occasions. Like the time I spent two December nights in Northern California without a sleeping pad to insulate me from the frigid ground. Or the time I sat huddled for 12 hours in a dead car in four-degree weather in the middle of Sequoia National Park, without a sleeping bag or proper winter attire. Or the time I became so lost on a snowy trail that a three-hour winter hike turned into an eight-hour, full-on trek.

Lightly put, I’ve had to get creative — really creative — in order to stay warm outside. And in addition to learning from my own mistakes and misfortune, I’ve gleaned some insight from people I’ve backpacked with. The thing about backpacking, and really any outdoor sport, is that you’re always learning new tricks from either the people you’re with or the little mistakes that inevitably happen.

So in the spirit of passing along learnings from adventures outside, here is a list of my favorite “stay warm in cold-ass weather” tips.

Sleeping Pad
When I first began backpacking, I was working as a journalist at a newspaper in Washington state. While I loved my job, it paid very little, so I had to get very creative when I first began purchasing backpacking gear. I couldn’t afford the expensive trinkets at REI, so I purchased most of my gear on sale online and at Walmart. I also decided I could live without a few things, including a sleeping bad. Boy, was I wrong. Sleeping pads are less about comfort and more about insulation, which I think is a common misconception made by first-time backpackers. These babies add a layer between you and the cold ground, so that you don’t lose body heat while you sleep. You can have the greatest sleeping bag in the world, but if you don’t have a layer of insulation between you and the ground, you might find yourself awake all night shivering, counting down the minutes until sunrise. Trust me, I know this from experience. For particularly cold outings, or ones where I know I’ll be camping on snow, I’ll occasionally bring two and layer them.

Gear Barrier
This is a tip I learned from my ex boyfriend during a particularly cold night spent trapped in my car in four-degree weather. You can lose heat very easily by touching the sides of your tent (or car, in our case). To avoid it, place your gear along the periphery of your tent. You can even use your gear to pack yourself in like a sardine. This will ensure you don’t wake up with your head or toes against a cold tent.

Down Booties
These definitely aren’t a necessity, but they’re pretty great. If you can fit a pair in your bag, I absolutely suggest them. There’s nothing like pulling on a pair of down booties to warm up cold feet. I really look forward to pitching my tent, unrolling my sleeping bag and slipping my toes into warm booties before making a hot dinner. There really is nothing better.

Warm Nalgene
This is a game changer. Before you curl up in your sleeping bag for the night, boil some water, pour it in your Naglene and seal it immediately. Throw it in the bottom of your sleeping bag and zip it shut. When you crawl in later, it’ll be nice and warm. I like to spoon my warm Nalgene as I sleep, but that part is up to you.

Protect Your Head
An exposed noggin is a major way people lose heat. According to a 1920s study, your body will push blood from other extremities to keep your head warm. So even if you’re wearing layers of winter clothing, if your head is exposed, expect to get cold.

Sleep with Gear
f you want warm boots in the morning, sleep with them. Same goes for anything else you want to keep warm.

Shelter from Wind
This isn’t always an option depending on where you’re camping, but, when possible, place your tent in a spot that’s sheltered from the wind.

Layer Properly
Base layers, mid layers, jackets, gloves. There many great articles about how to layer properly. The gist — start with a top and bottom base layer and add from there (think mid layers, jackets, etc.). Layering properly will help trap heat. You can then remove layers as you warm up on your hike.