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Cold weather camping: 14 hacks that will keep you warm

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This post is also available in: Nederlands

Hello there adventurer! Are you ready to take your camping trip to the next level? I mean, summer camping is nice, easy and pretty straight forward. But camping in cold weather circumstances is a totally different type of camping which needs to be a bit more prepared.

Kelly and I have been camping during our three-month cycling trip in Iceland. We started in August when the weather was quite pleasant. We just had some strong winds every now and then, but our tent protected us from that.

During the last month of our trip, it was getting fun! Temperatures dropped far below zero during the nights, snow was falling and we really had to apply our knowledge to stay warm. It was a real adventure and we absolutely loved it. Being stronger than the cold is an art. Luckily an art that can be learned by everyone!

So, let’s go! Let’s have a look at how you can stay warm at night during a winter camping trip. Because a tent really does not keep the elements outside! Obviously you need the right stuff, but there are also a lot of simple hacks that will help you get through the night!

Winter Camping Iceland

Winter Camping Iceland

Cold weather camping: 14 hacks that will keep you warm

How your body loses warmth

Your heart, nerves and other organs perform best with a body temperature of 37ºC. With just a slightly warmer or cooler temperature, your body doesn’t function well anymore, which causes various health risks.

As this blog post is all about winter and cold temperatures, I will only discuss the causes and consequences of a cool body temperature. And to give you a better understanding of how you can keep your body warm, you first have to understand how your body gets cold. There are several causes for a body to lose heat:

Sweat

When we get active, or when the outside temperature is really warm our body produces sweat. This is mainly water that evaporates from our skin. In order to evaporate water, you need energy, or in this case warmth. So, when the sweat on our skin evaporates it extracts heat from the skin, which gives you a cooler feeling.

So, always make sure you wear just enough clothes to stay warm, but don’t get sweaty. As soon as you feel like you start to transpire, take off a layer.

cold weather camping body temperature

condensation

Direct contact

If you’re in direct contact with something very cold, such as cold water or the cold ground, heat is conducted away from your body. Body heat is lost much faster in cold water than in cold air because water is very good at transferring heat from your body.

Your body loses heat fast when your clothes are wet. This is exactly why you need to make sure you don’t sweat in your clothes. The sweat itself makes your body losing warmth and the wet clothes make it cool off even faster.

Wind

Wind removes body heat by carrying away the thin layer of warm air at the surface of your skin. To prevent wind making your body cold, protect it with windproof gear. This may also include protecting your face from the wind with a facemask.

Risks of low body temperatures

As I mentioned shortly in the introduction of this blog post, winter camping is another type of camping than most people are familiar with. It is not something everyone would like to do and to be honest I don’t even think everyone is capable of doing it.

Cold weather camping requires perseverance and knowledge. Besides, camping in cold weather isn’t without risks! And the risks are what I want to inform you about now.

Hypothermia

Your body is in a state of hypothermia when it loses heat faster than it can produce. The result is a lower body temperature which is a serious health danger. Just a slightly lower temperature than the optimal 37ºC can cause serious problems because different processes in your body disrupt.

Hypothermia is associated with a body temperature of 35ºC degrees or lower. Symptoms are shivering, slurred speech, slow shallow breathing, confusion and at the end even loss of consciousness.

The biggest problem with hypothermia is that you are often not aware of it as the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness.

Hypothermia can be treated by getting the body warm again. This can be done by seeking shelter from the cold and eating or drinking warm beverages. You can also use an emergency blanket.

Iceland Winter Camping 4.3

Iceland Winter Camping 4.5

My experience with hypothermia

I have suffered from hypothermia myself. During a three-month cycling adventure through Iceland, we had to cross several glacier rivers. The first one was fun, the water only came to my ankles. The second one up to my knees and the third one became serious. The ice-cold water reached as far as my belly button and I had my bike in my hands which I was pushing through the water.

At a certain moment, my bike was stuck behind a rock and I stood still for just a couple of seconds. A couple of seconds too long. My body temperature dropped immediately, I couldn’t think straight anymore and was just standing there. In the middle of a freaking ice-cold strong, flowing river. Not having a clue what I had to do to get out of there.

Luckily Kelly was paying close attention to me, ran back into the water and dragged me and my bike out of it. Once on the dry land, she helped me get dry and warmed me up. She literally saved my life.

That for, I can highly recommend not going on a cold weather camping trip on your own. Hypothermia will catch you by surprise without you even knowing it. Once you suffer from hypothermia, it’s too late to be able to do something about it yourself.

Small river crossing Iceland

cold weather camping - hypothermia - glacier river crossing iceland



Frostbite

Frostbite is another health issue that can occur during cold weather circumstances. It is an injury caused by freezing skin and underlying tissues. First, your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. Frostbite is most common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin.

Frostbite occurs in several stages:

  • The first stage. This is the beginning stage, also called frostnip. The skin turns red and at a certain moment becomes numb. When the skin warms up it might feel tingling and sometimes a bit painful. Never warm your skin with hot water. This stage of Frostbite won’t leave severe damage.
  • The second stage. This is the intermediate stage, also called superficial frostbite. The reddened skin turns white or pale. It remains soft, but the damage has occurred. When you rewarm the skin, fluid-filled blisters might appear after 12 to 48 hours.
  • The third stage. This is the advanced stage, also called deep severe frostbite. The skin turns white or bluish-grey. This stage of frostbite affects all layers of the skin including underlying tissues. Sensations of cold, pain or discomfort disappear and joints or muscles might no longer work. Rewarming the skin will cause large blisters within 24 to 48 hours. The affected area might turn black and hard, when the tissue died.

Frostbite can be treated by a doctor. Immediate help is important here. As soon as you experience the second stage of frostbite during your cold-weather camping trip, make sure to get to a hospital. Do not use or massage the affected areas. Get something warm to drink and seek shelter from the cold circumstances. Never rewarm the area if there is a chance of re-freezing.

14 hacks to stay warm at night during cold weather

So, now you know everything about the risks of camping in cold weather. If you’re still up for this adventure, I will make you totally ready for it! Here are 14 hacks that will keep you warm during the night!

Hack #1: Choose the right sleeping bag

A sleeping bag will not only keep you warm, but it will also provide you comfort. For a sleeping bag to keep you warm and comfortable during the winter, you have to choose one carefully. Keep the following things in mind:

  • Comfort temperature. Every sleeping bag has a temperature rate. It tells you until which temperatures you should feel comfortable in it. Keep in mind that each body works differently. One person sleeps more comfortable with colder temperatures around him and another person needs more warmth to feel comfortable during the night. Decide for yourself if you are a warm or a cold sleeper and keep in mind that the comfort temperatures on the sleeping bags are for cold sleepers!
  • Size. Make sure you fit the sleeping bag! A sleeping bag that is too big, has too much air in it. Too much air will cool off instead of stay warm. If you are a woman, have a look at women sleeping bags. These are smaller and less long, so will probably fit you better.
  • Material. Probably most important! Goose down keeps you really warm but doesn’t work anymore when it gets wet. So, either choose a water repellant goose down sleeping bag or a sleeping bag made out of synthetic materials.
cold weather camping down sleeping bag

foam mat

Hack #2: Use your sleeping bag optimally

Get most out of your sleeping bag by taking the following tips in practice while camping in cold weather:

  • Don’t let your sleeping bag touch your tent. Remember how our bodies lose heat because of direct contact? The same happens when your sleeping bag touches the tent.
    Besides, a sleeping bag can also become wet by touching the tent. When your tent gets damp, the first place where it gets really moist is where items touch each other.
  • Don’t stick your head into your sleeping bag! Every time you breathe out you damp your sleeping bag. Remember how damping sweat cools off your body? The same happens in your sleeping bag when you make it damp. If your face gets really cold, put on a face mask or bandana and keep it out of your bag.
  • Bring a liner. A liner is a thin sleeping bag that you can use in your sleeping bag to create extra warmth. These can be found in different stages of warmth.
  • Zip up your jacket and put the end of your sleeping bag in your jacket. This will help you keep your feet warm and dry. This only works if your jacket is dry!

Hack #3: Insulate yourself

To keep yourself warm during a cold night, you should insulate yourself the right way. Add extra layers if you are cold, but always make sure you are not sweating inside your sleeping bag. This is counterproductive!

  • Body: Especially keep your stomach, back, and chest warm. For example with merino wool or synthetic underwear. If you add an extra layer, make sure this layer is looser. This way there will form a small layer of air between the layers that warm up because of your body heat.
  • Head: Use a knitted head or buy a sleeping bag with a hoodie.
  • Feet: Bring sleeping socks and make sure they stay dry! Sleeping socks aren’t tight, so they do not interfere with the blood flow to your feet, which actually keeps your feet warm. Fleece-lined waterproof socks are ideal!

Hack #4: Choose the right tent

Not all tents are suitable for winter camping. It depends on material and features if a tent is ready to accompany you on your trip.

  • Make sure your tent is a winter or a 4 seasons tent. The materials such tents are made of are stronger and more suitable for camping during cold weather.
  • Ventilation. It is very important that your tent can ventilate well. Make sure your tent has options for this.
  • As small as possible. The more empty space in the tent, the more cool air around you. Are you going camping alone? Get a 1 person tent, camping together, get a 2 person tent, etc.
  • Waterproof. Make sure your tent is very waterproof! This will keep the moist of snow and rain outside and avoids the tent getting cold.
  • Vestibules. These extra compartments are ideal to store your stuff. Especially stuff like shoes, backpacks that take up a lot of space etc. You don’t want to have all this stuff in your tent, but you do want to keep them dry.

Everest base camp

Hack #5: Keep your tent as warm as possible

During a winter camping trip, your tent kind of is your home. You like to come home in a warm and cozy room right? Do everything you can to keep your tent as warm as possible with the following tips:

  • Ventilate well. No matter how cold it is outside, you need to ventilate your tent in order to keep it warm. Every time you breathe out, you breathe out damp. In combination with your body temperature, this causes moist in your tent, which makes it cold. You can avoid this by ventilating well, so the air in your tent stays fresh and dry.
  • Tea lights. Besides creating a nice ambiance in the tent, tea lights are an excellent hack to avoid moist and damp in your tent. The little flames extract moisture. Just make sure you light them where they can’t fire up anything else. We used to put them in an enamel mug.
  • Newspaper. If you have walked a lot during the day and your feet have sweat, your shoes are probably a bit wet on the inside. Putting some newspapers inside your shoes during the night will not only dry them but also avoid the damp getting into the tent!
  • Keep as much as possible wet stuff outside your inner compartment of the tent. Use your vestibules to store this stuff.

Hack #6: Choose a good sleeping mattress

You will find sleeping mattresses in all sizes and shapes. Different colors and materials, big and small, self-inflatable or with an automatic pump, etc. Which one is right for camping in winter?

  • Air mattress. This kind of mattresses are filled with air, which will most probably be very cold air during your specific cold weather camping trip. That for not the most suitable sleeping gear, unless they have a very high isolation value (R-value). The higher the R-value, the better the air mattress is insulated, the better it keeps you away from the cold air in it.
  • Foam mattress. This kind of mattresses are filled with foam, so there is no space for cold air. They are often not as comfortable as air mattresses and take a lot more space in your backpack. Closed-cell foam are normally the best foam mattresses you can get.

Hack #7: Get the most out of your sleeping pad

The hack to stay warm during a cold-weather camping trip, is to combine these two. Stay comfortable with an air mattress and add a foam mattress on top. Yes, on top, as the foam mattress adds an extra layer between you and the cold air in the air mattress.

Also, never ever inflate your air mattress with your mouth! You will fill it up with moist, which is bad for your air mattress as it can mold, but it also makes it extra cold! So, either get a mattress with a built-in pump or get a pump bag.

Hack #8: Burn calories!

You probably think now, how am I supposed to burn calories when I sleep? It’s easier than you might expect!

When you give your body something to digest, it needs to work. To work it needs to burn calories. By burning calories, it warms up your body. So, have a midnight snack and your body does the rest! The best snacks are rich in fat, as this takes the body longer to process. Think of chocolate, cheese, nuts or an energy bar.

It also helps to burn some calories before you get into your sleeping bag. Do some push-ups or run around your camp. Always make sure that you exercise just enough to be warm, but don’t get sweaty! Getting warm into your sleeping bag warms up the air between you and your bag, which will keep you warm for a long time. Getting sweat-wet into your sleeping bag has the opposite effect!

snack to keep your body warm at night

Roasting marshmallows over fire

Hack #9: Don’t underestimate your water bottle

You need to stay hydrated as your body uses fluids to regulate your body temperature. So, always make sure you are able to drink. But there is more you need to know about your water bottle!

  • Make a hot water bottle. Boil some water and put it in a water bottle. Let it cool off a bit and place it in your sleeping bag. Just make sure the lid is closed properly!
  • Keep your bottle upside down. Are you expecting a freezing cold night? Keep your water bottle upside down. This way the bottom will freeze first, allowing you to drink the water at the top as long as possible!
  • Bring an insulated water bottle. This will help you to avoid your water from getting frozen. As said before staying hydrated is very important.
  • Bring a thermos flask. Add hot water in it in the evening and you will have a wonderful cup of tea in the morning. Also very welcome when you wake up at night feeling cold!

Hack #10: Pie when you need to pie!

In addition to staying hydrated, you should really get out your warm and cozy sleeping bag if you need to pie. The fluids in your body will only cool you off. So, if you need to go at night, don’t wait, but just go. It will prevent the rest of your body from cooling more and more and you will sleep better during the rest of the night. I promise!

We used a small container to pie. Then we didn’t need to go all the way out of the tent in the dark. Once pied, we put the container in the vestibule of the tent, so it wouldn’t add moist or damp to our tent. The next morning we threw it out.

Hack #11: Bring a thermal blanket

A thermal blanket or a so-called emergency blanket can add a lot of warmth during your cold-weather camping trip! These blankets always have 2 sides and you need to use it the right way to have the profit from it.

The shiniest silver side will reflect the heat back. Some blankets have different colors on both sides. The silver one will be the one you should have around you.

Below you’ll find some ways to use the thermal blanket:

  • On the floor. Cover your tent floor with an emergency blanket, so the heat won’t disappear into the ground.
  • On the ceiling. Tape an emergency blanket to the ceiling of your tent, this way it will reflect back the heat from your body. Just make sure you keep your ventilation parts free!
  • Around you. In extreme circumstances, when you just can’t get warm, or when you suffer from hypothermia, roll yourself into a blanket before you go into your sleeping bag. The blanket uses your own body heat to warm you up.

Hack #12: Bring hand and foot warmers

Having warm hands and feet will most likely give you a warm sensation in the rest of your body as well. So, these warmers are ideal if you feel cold. Warm-up your hand and feet and the rest of your body will follow soon.

Depending on what kind of warmers you have, you can also use them to pre-heat your sleeping bag. If they become warm without you having to hold them or move them constantly, you can throw them in your sleeping bag before you get in there yourself. Almost like an electric blanket!

Cold weather camping in tent

Cold weather camping cooking in tent

Hack #13: Camping together? Sleep together!

Besides more fun and looking after each other on a cold weather camping trip, sleeping together will save you carrying some extra weight for an extra tent. And it is simply just warmer to share a tent! The more bodies, the more warmth! Lay close to each other, so one side doesn’t catch any cold air.

Just always sleep in your own sleeping bag. No matter how much you love each other, sleep in your own bag. Sharing a sleeping bag has the opposite effects. By zipping two bags together you create extra empty space, which is harder to warm up.

And also, a good winter-proof sleeping bag allows you to occlude the bag around your neck, to avoid cool air coming in. When you share a sleeping bag, there will always be space between your heads, allowing a continuous stream of cool air coming into the sleeping bags.

Hack #14: Build a safe campfire

Campfires are symbolic of camping. During summer it is just a nice addition to the ambiance when having a chat with a beer and some marshmallows. During a winter camping trip, it can be beneficial to actually stay warm.

Here are some tips for creating a good and safe campfire:

  • Close, but not too close. To take advantage of your campfire, it should be close to your tent. This way it will warm you up, even when you are inside the tent. Just always keep the distance safe! I probably don’t need to explain this any further…
  • Firestarters. Wood can be wet or frozen. Make sure you have proper fire starters that will light long enough to first dry the wood before it starts to burn. A good one is to soak cotton balls in petroleum. Also, make sure you keep your matches dry! Soak them in candle wax to make them waterproof.
  • Build it as tall as wide. If you build your campfire this way, it has a maximum oxygen flow, which produces more heat.

Oh and by the way, although building a campfire during a winter camping trip is probably with the intention to create some warmth, don’t forget the marshmallows! Believe me, they taste even better than on a summer campfire!

Making roasted marshmallows

We love to hear from you

Thanks a lot for reading this post. Hopefully, it has provided you a lot of new information on how to stay warm during a cold-weather camping trip! If you have camped in cold circumstances, or if you have a question, please leave a comment below.

Nanet Moesman
Nanet is a full time world traveler ever since May 2017. She writes with passion about the destinations where she has been. You'll always find a personal touch in her blog posts when she talks about her own experiences. A pleasure to read!

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