I remember the first time I went camping during the early spring season. It was late April, and the mountains were still partially covered with snow. I was carrying my usual summer season gear (tent, light sleeping bag, no liners). As the night stretched on, I started feeling the brutal cold.
That’s when I realized it was too cold for camping with my light summer gear. You are here reading this because you have never been on cold weather camping trip and wondering how cold is too cold for camping.
So, how cold is too cold for camping? According to pro campers, a temperature below 32°F is considered too cold for camping without specialized gear. So if you don’t have the right gears to protect you against the cold, especially during the late-night and early morning, it is not advisable to camp below that temperature.
Every temperature range requires a new set of preparations and precautions. When you plan to go beyond your tolerance limit, even if it is a bit, things can get worse. This blog will tell you why camping below 30°F is not for beginners and how you can better prepare yourself for the cold.
Challanges of cold weather camping
Higher temperature gradients during cold winter weather cause extreme winds. High winds are quite common at temperatures below 40°F. Because of these high winds, the “feels like” temperature can be lower than the actual temperature, due to which, even at 40°F, you will feel like you’re camping below 30°F.
In winds like these, you avoid being exposed to cold air for long because it may cause hypothermia or frostbite if you are not adequately covered.
If it’s windy outside, you need to check your tent and vestibule rigging now and then. So, one of the most difficult challenges is getting out of the warm sleeping gear and check the rigging to ensure safety.
Rains are pretty unpredictable and happen quite often in the low 30s °F. Dealing with the rain can make your trip 10x more difficult because the temperature tends to fall to a much lower degree which worsens everything.
To avoid getting drenched in the rain, you have to check the weather forecast before your cold weather camping trip and carry with you additional gear (raincoat, tent tarp, waterproof tent, etc.).
During the cold night, the inside of your tent gets warm due to your presence inside (and due to any other heating source i-e heater). Due to this temperature difference between the inside and outside, vapors condense on the inside of the tent wall. This condensation then freezes and turns to ice, and when you wake up in the morning, you find yourself sleeping inside an icicle.
This condensation and subsequent freezing of water vapors on the inside of the tent wall further decrease your tent temperature causing another challenge for your cold weather camping.
Extra weight due to winter gear
If you are going to cold camping, you will be carrying a lot of additional gear like warm clothing layers, sleeping bags, pads, liners, etc. Your backpack might also include additional heating equipment like a propane tank and a space heater.
All this additional gear makes your trip quite heavy but they are necessary. Without the proper gear, it is extremely risky to camp below the freezing point.
Loneliness at campsite
Some campers might appreciate the loneliness that comes with camping in the off-season, but it comes with its own risk. Humans are evolved as social animals, and we rely on companionship and community to survive.
If you are going to camp alone, away from people, you might soon be feeling the loneliness of the wild. Also, in case of emergency, you cannot depend on help from people around you because there are fewer or none.
How cold can weather get during camping at night?
There is a substantial difference between the daytime temperature and nighttime temperature. During the daytime, the sun is out, and you are getting constant heat from the radiation. When the sun goes down and the night hits, the temperature declines further and reaches the lowest just before dawn.
|Zion National Park
As you can see in the above table, even if the temperature is comfortable during the day, it can get quite chilly during the night. On average, the temperature can drop by 20 – 25 °F during the night, which is huge and requires caution if you are a beginner camping in the cold for the first time.
Tips for comfortable cold weather camping (below 40°F)
To be on the safe side, let’s consider a temperature below 40°F to be cold for camping. For most people, 40°F is quite bearable with layered dressing. You will feel quite warm wearing a polyester baseliner, a woolen sweatshirt, and a windbreaker on top of it (Read: How to dress for winter camping).
But remember that the temperature will drop well below 30°F during the nighttime, so you have to be extra cautious, especially if you are going for cold weather camping for the first time. You have to know how to dress for 40 degree weather or below and carry appropriate gear, and have adequate camping knowledge.
Below are few tips to make your camping in cold weather comfortable and cozy.
#1 Choose the campsite wisely
- Prefer managed campsites over wilderness if you are going cold camping for the first time. You might have a company of other campers in case of an unforeseen emergency. Once you gain experience and are more confident, you can wander off site.
- Choose an area with restricted airflow so that you don’t get the extra chill the wind will bring with it during late night. This can be an area with trees around but make sure you are aware of the widowmakers.
- Chose an area where the morning sunlight can reach first. After dealing with the chilly night, you will be craving the warm rays of the morning sun.
#2 Select suitable cold weather camping gear
Apart from the three-layered clothing that is usually advised for cold weather, the sleeping gear also plays a significant role in keeping you warm all night.
Your tent is your first line of defense against the cold outside. Tents don’t play a direct role in keeping you warm (like your sleeping bag), but they do make sure you are protected from chilly winds and snow/rain during the cold night. In retrospect, they do all the heavy lifting, and your fancy sleeping bag gets all the credit for it.
Make sure you get a sturdy tent that has been properly waterproofed. You don’t really need a 4 season tent unless you are camping in extreme conditions so any sturdy tent will do just fine.
One of the biggest problems during cold weather camping is condensation inside the tent. To avoid that, leave a corner of your tent open for ventilation so that you don’t wake up inside an icicle in the morning.
Your sleeping bag is the most important gear in your backpack during your cold camping. Make sure you bring the right one along and not just any other sleeping bag.
How to select the right sleeping bag? There are three main factors to selecting the right sleeping bag for your cold camping:
- Sleeping bag rating: The rating denotes the temperature to which the bag will be effective in keeping you warm. Make sure you select a sleeping bag with a temperature rating according to EN 13537. Always select a sleeping bag that has a temperature rating of well below your anticipated temperature. If you are expecting 30 F, your sleeping bag should be rated for 15 F or below.
- Fill material: Another important factor is the fill material of your bag. Down sleeping bags are the warmest and lightest compared to polyesters, but they are costly and prone to moisture. Synthetic fill is better for absorbing moisture.
- Shape: Shape of the sleeping bag is also important. Traditionally, sleeping bags come in two shapes. The mummy-shaped bags are slimmer at the bottom and wider at the top and rectangular-shaped bags. Mummy-shaped bags are warmer, but they restrict body movement. Rectangular-shaped bags are easier to sleep in but are not very warm, especially around the feet.
I would suggest Coleman 0°F Mummy Sleeping Bag because it is designed to work well even at 10F.
A sleeping pad has two purposes; It provides a soft and plan area for your body to lie down and it creates insulation between your body and the cold ground surface.
Like sleeping bags, the pads also have a rating system called R-value. A higher R-value means high insulation. You can also stake two sleeping pads to increase the R-value as they are cumulative.
If you are camping in moderately cold temperatures (above 20 F) you can get away with an R-2 sleeping pad. Thermarest makes great sleeping pads for all seasons. Their Therm-a-Rest Z Lite is perfect for temperatures above 20 F.
Sleeping bag liner
Vapor barrier liners are my favorite. I highly recommend the use of these because these liners provide warmth to your body by creating a barrier between your skin and the insulating layer. A good liner can add 5 – 10 degrees to your sleeping bag temperature rating.
Liner also has a secondary purpose. Since they are cheaper and more disposable than the expensive sleeping bag, using one can keep your sleeping bag clean for a long time. When your liner gets dirty, you can easily wash it compared to your sleeping bag.
Mylar or space blankets can do wonders in such temperatures. They are not only used as blankets but can also be used to add an insulating layer to the tent. If you have one of these blankets, you should know that these metalized blankets trap the radiated body heat and keep you toasty warm. It can also be used to wrap your sleeping pad or foam to keep them warm.
Appropriate dressing for cold weather camping
Apart from your sleeping gear, dressing appropriately for the cold will go a long way to ensure you are comfortable during your trip. I have written a comprehensive post on winter dressing and what to wear in 30 degree weather or below but the following table summarizes the necessary clothing checklist.
If you want to know more about winter camping dressing, do read the full blog (link above)
|Base Layer – top
|Base Layer – bottom
|Arc’teryx Delta Fleece
|Outer Layer – top
|Wind & rain protection
|Wind & rain protection
|Block wind & cold
|Block wind & cold
|281Z Military Warm
|Keep hands warm
|Arc’teryx Alpha SV
#3 Light up campfire or heater
Cold weather camping and campfire go hand in hand. If you are out in the woods camping in the cold, a warm blazing fire is the best thing.
If you’re camping near woods, it is always a good option to build a campfire to warm up your tent.
Build a log-cabin campfire at a distance of 10-12 feet from the tent and allow the fire to warm up the tent. Log-cabin-shaped campfire is not only long-lasting but is quite safe for winter camping. All you need is a base layer of coal, with tinder and kindling surrounded by logs of oak or any other long-lasting wood.
Keep one side of your tent open to face the fire so that the inside of your tent receives enough radiation to warm it up. You can spread your mylar blanket on the opposite wall to reflect the radiation make heat up your tent further.
Propane gas heater (Mr. Heater)
If you are camping in an area with a fire ban or don’t know how to make a campfire safely, the next best thing is to use a propane gas heater. Although you can use any propane-powered space heater, I would recommend getting a heater designed for camping and indoors with one essential component – the oxygen sensor. It is necessary to avoid potential Carbon monoxide intoxication inside closed tents.
The one brand that is unanimously famous among campers is Mr. Heater. It is not only the safest but the most reliable heater for camping. It produces heat of 10,000 – 15,000 BTU and has oxygen sensors that turn the heater off if oxygen levels are low. This is why it is so popular amongst campers.
Although the heater has an Oxygen sensor, the risk of COO poisoning is still there, so make sure you turn the heater off before you go to sleep. Alternatively, you can also use battery powered heater for camping tents to minimize the risk of COO poisoning.
#4 Eat high calorie food
We may have a couple of awesome heating methods, but this one is my favorite. We all love midnight munchies; what if I tell you, they keep you warm as well?
When your stomach is full, your body keeps working to digest the food, which keeps you warm. So, it is a pretty decent idea to consume high-calorie food, like your favorite chocolates, high-calorie snacks, and cheesy food before bed.
Apart from snacks, hot cocoa, chamomile tea, and other hot drinks may also be beneficial in keeping you warm and active.
#4 Keep your water close
Dehydration is pretty common during cold weather camping, so it is better to keep a bottle full of water with you at all times so that you can keep yourself hydrated.
However, there is one particular problem with carrying water in the cold. If the temperature goes below the freezing point, the water tends to freeze in the bottles. So, if you keep your bottled water outside or even inside your tent, you will wake up to an ice cube.
To solve this, keep your water buried under clothes or even warm it over the campfire and throw it inside your sleeping bag. It will remain liquid as well as provide heat during the night. I have written a comprehensive blog on how to keep water from freezing during winter camping.
Why is it not okay to camp below 20°F?
20°F or lower is no joke. Things start to get pretty uncomfortable at these temperatures, hence without proper knowledge and the perfect gear, there are chances you might end up with frostbite or worse.
Even the best of the best mountaineers and campers go through the process of Acclimatization (which is the method in which an individual adjusts to a change in its environment – such as a change in altitude, temperature, humidity, etc.), allowing the body to maintain performance across a range of environmental situations.
Hence do not be hasty when planning a camping trip in below 20°F temperatures, practice camping at lower temperatures first so that you can take full advantage of a camping trip very few campers plan.
Winter camping is safe and fun and is best for people who are adventurous and ready to go far beyond their limits for new experiences. Though, stretching the adventure a bit too far can cause damages beyond repair! It is best to be partner up with someone experienced or avoid camping with kids in such extreme temperature conditions. Happy camping.
Recommended Camping Gears: I have compiled a list of my favourite camping gear in one place. The selection is based on my own personal experience using them for many years camping as well as feedback from fellow campers. Check them out on my Recommended Camping Gears page