Being cold conspicuously changes the dynamic of a camping trip. Sometimes you can plan ahead for chilly temperatures, but other times, extreme weather can creep up on you, especially on longer expeditions. Fortunately, there are ways to stay warm in your tent, despite the icy weather. Here are just a few handy hacks to help make frigid nights in the backcountry a little more comfortable.
First things first, just like with any other outdoor adventure, get an idea of what you’re getting into on your cold weather campout. Check the weather forecast, and pay particular attention to factors like overnight low temperatures, approaching storm systems that could bring rain or snow, and other potentially extreme conditions, like high winds. And then, tailor your adventure kit to handle anything coming your way. This could mean packing heavier clothing layers to combat icy evening temperatures, bringing an additional ground cover to cope with damp conditions, or carrying extra guylines to help stabilize your tent in the case of high winds and heavy rain or snow.
On a cold weather adventure, bringing the right gear is essential – and can be the difference between a restful sleep, or a night spent shivering in your sleeping bag. In particular, check the temperature ratings for your sleeping pad and your sleeping bag to be sure that your gear can handle the most extreme conditions you’re likely to encounter on your campout. Sleeping bags typically feature either a ‘comfort rating’ or a ‘lower limit rating’ to provide an indication of the temperature range the bag is designed to handle. On the other hand, to assess the cold weather capability of your sleeping pad, check the R-value, which is a measure of the pad’s ability resist to heat flow. A pad with a higher R-value provides better protection against heat loss triggered by sleeping on the cold ground, a process called conduction. Typically, sleeping pads with an R-value of 4 or higher are designed for cold weather camping trips.
In extreme weather, selecting a campsite that offers a little protection from the elements can lead to a more restful night of camping. If you’re worried about high winds, look for a spot where natural features like brushy bushes, trees, or boulders provide a little buffer from blustery gusts. However, while trees can offer protection from the wind, in snowy conditions, try to avoid camping beneath a tree with branches that could dust your tent with snow during the night. And in the daylight, be sure to take full advantage of the sun’s warming potential. Gauge the direction of the sunrise, and if possible, position your tent so that the sun’s rays will hit your tent at first light and warm you up through the morning.
In extreme conditions, sometimes simply relying on a sleeping bag and mattress pad just doesn’t cut it. For added protection from the heat-sapping ground beneath your tent, consider bringing two sleeping pads. Combining a more cushy inflatable air pad or self-inflating pad with more basic closed-cell foam sleeping pad will keep you warmer, and the supplementary padding makes a frosty night spent sleeping on the ground a little more comfortable.
Beyond bringing a second sleeping mat, there are a few other cold weather essentials to consider adding to your arsenal of comfort items. For instance, a compact sleeping liner made of merino wool, Thermolite, or fleece can provide an additional 15 degrees F to 25 degrees of warmth, and for especially extreme climes, consider packing an ultralight backpacking quilt. Just in case, it’s also a good idea to pack a Mylar blanket (also often called a space blanket). Made of a heat-reflective plastic sheeting, these compact blankets are small enough to throw into a first aid kit, and when unfolded and wrapped around a shivering human, they help to reduce heat loss due to thermal radiation, evaporation, and convection, and as an added bonus, they’re also waterproof and windproof.
At the end of the day, when you’re ready to crawl into your sleeping bag, make sure you have dry clothes for the night. In wet or snowy weather, this might mean you need to stash your sleepwear in a dry bag to be on the safe side. And, choose fabrics that will keep you warm, while also wicking moisture away from your body to prevent sweating. Opt for clothing made from merino wool or synthetic fabrics like polyester and polypropylene, which help regulate body temperature and moisture, and leave the cotton layers at home. And, don’t forget about your head and your feet, and be sure to pack a hat or a balaclava, along with a heavy duty pair of socks for sleeping.
When you are ready to call it a night, fill an uninsulated stainless steel or heavy duty plastic bottle with piping hot water and stick it in your sleeping bag. If using a plastic water bottle, just be sure it’s tough enough to handle scalding liquids, and is free of BPA (bisphenol A), BPS (bisphenol S), and phthalates, particularly because these synthetic chemicals leach into water more rapidly when exposed to high temperatures.
On a backpacking trip, hauling a bulky plastic tarp into backcountry can be a real hassle. But, when you’re camping in extreme weather, a study plastic tarp can be a genuine bonus. Try hanging the tarp over your tent for added protection from frigid rain, strategically string your tarp behind your tent as a wind block, or lay it beneath your tent to provide an additional buffer against the damp ground.
Late night bathroom trips are always a pain – and they’re even more annoying on cold weather camping trips. On an icy night, it’s tough to leave a cozy sleeping bag, and it’s tempting to ignore your bladder as long as possible. But, your body burns up precious calories warming the urine stored in your bladder. So, in the end, it’s better to just go. Of course, in truly brutal conditions, you can also consider bringing a leak-proof pee bottle. Opt for a wide mouth bottle or glass jar with closeable lid – and just be sure to clearly label your pee bottle, so there’s no possible chance of a mix-up.
On an icy night, you can also use extra gear like backpacks or stuffed dry bags to fill space in your tent, and help further insulate you from frosty conditions beyond the walls of your tent. And, taking things a step further, you can also use spare clothing to help further insulate your body inside your sleeping bag. And, if you’re prone to cold toes, use the unworn clothes to fill the ambient space at the bottom of your sleeping bag around your feet.
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