I have been asking my friend Ben to go winter camping with me, but he seems to be a little afraid of sleeping in the cold, which is totally un-American in my opinion. So in order to convince him and help him stay warm, I wrote this short article about sleeping in the cold while winter camping.
Of course, cold is in many cases subjective. I was born and live in a relatively warm climate, so to me a cold winter’s night is 10C (50F) and below. I know that Americans might find this ridiculous, but I live in Sardinia where today, December 15, the lowest is 7C (45F) during the night. And just for reference, I consider the temperature “freezing” at 0C (0F) and below (when water actually freezes).
When you’re camping in cold temperatures during the winter, it’s important that you organize your sleeping environment; remember that it’s not fun or comfortable getting in and out of your sleeping bag in the cold, especially if the temperatures are freezing. So here are some tips which will improve your sleep while winter camping.
What to sleep in during winter camping
Tents and bags
If you’re lucky enough to have a tent that can be heated with a stove, you’re good for the first hours. Here’s a video of an amazing modification to the dirt-cheap USGI pup tent, which allows you to add a stove on the inside. Just make sure you don’t die of monoxide poisoning.
Whether or not your tent is heated, insulate it by blocking all holes with stuff sacks or clothes. The hot air inside should not be able to escape.
First and foremost, you need to make sure your sleeping bag is rated for the temperature you will be expecting. Don’t be daft, check the temperatures beforehand and pack accordingly. If you have a military Modular Sleep System (MSS) like me, get both bags. Better carry a bit more than freeze to death. Remember that the MSS temperature rating is not a comfort rating but a survival rating.
Sleeping pads and air mattresses
Opinions differ on what’s better to use. Some say you’re fine with an air mattress with a high R value, others disagree. The fact is that a good closed-cell foam (CCF) insulated sleeping pad can insulate better in the freezing cold, as it has no frozen air inside, which will affect it’s insulating properties. So if it’s that freezing, pack an insulating pad with you as well.
If you’re sleeping in the same tent with someone else, join your sleeping pads together. This is the most effective way to combine your body heat and not lose it through the cracks.
Note: Douglas very correctly wrote to me that some air mattresses have a higher R value than CCF pads, which is true, but in extremely freezing conditions it would be wiser to combine both, since the temperature of the actual air in the mattress plays a big role on its insulating ability. In any case, here’s a list of sleeping pads and their R values for reference, the higher the value, the better the pad insulates and the warmer you stay.
If your sleeping bag and pad are not enough, get (or better make) a fleece sleeping bag liner. Or just get an old military poncho liner. People swear by those things. I don’t have one yet but I have a jacket with a liner made from the same material (ripstop nylon and polyester) and it’s my warmest jacket, so yeah, they should work well.
What to wear while sleeping
There are people who say it’s better to sleep naked, but that’s plain weird if you ask me. I have a pair of Rothco long johns which work fine combined with the sleep pad and MSS. Thermal underwear of the kind is strongly suggested.
Wear a balaclava while sleeping. I have a cheap Chinese fleece balaclava which does the job well enough and doubles as a hood and / or scarf during the day. Obviously there are better materials than Chinese fleece, but this works for the temperatures we have here. If you want something better, you can’t go wrong with good quality wool. If you don’t like to spend for secondary equipment like the balaclava, many militaries from northern / eastern European countries have excellent wool balaclavas which can be found unissued or in great condition for very cheap.
My hands and feet get extremely cold during the night (Raynaud’s disease), so I use warm mittens and socks, made of wool or fleece. Keeping a separate pair of sleep socks is very wise because you might have an emergency and need to use them during the day, so make sure that your sleep socks are good enough to be your daily backup socks.
Oddbjørn says he prefers down socks, which look funny as hell. There are down socks that come with water-proof overboots so that you can easily move around your campsite without switching back to your regular boots. Not bad if the extra weight doesn’t add up.
Avoid getting up in the middle of the night
Keep a water and a pee bottle near you, in case you get thirsty or need to pee during the night. For obvious reasons, make sure that the pee bottle is a little harder to reach. You really don’t want to wake up drowsy like a zombie in the middle of the night and grab the pee bottle to drink from. This would be unpleasant at the least. I use a flattened plastic water bottle as a pee-bottle and a hydration bladder to drink. If you’re using a water bottle instead of a bladder,
Keep some high calorie snacks near you. Chocolate, trail mix and energy bars are ideal. It’s much harder to fall asleep if you’re hungry and also eating makes you warmer.
Take good care of your gear
If your boots / shoes freeze during the night, they’re gonna be a bitch to put on next morning. Stick ’em in a bag and put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag.
As a rule of thumb, important items which you don’t want freezing should be stuck in your sleeping bag. This includes fuel canisters, batteries, cell phones, GPS devices.
If it’s very windy, try to sleep in shifts. You will need to check your tent or shelter every few hours, or you might wake up without a tent. If stuff gets loose, tighten it before it gets damaged.
Finally, condensation will probably mess up your tent or bivy bag. Use a tent brush and brush ice crystals off your tent before packing it up, so that it doesn’t get any holes.
Stay comfortable in the cold
If it’s snowing or if it has snowed, make sure you flatten the surface where you will sleep, before setting up camp (if you’re a side sleeper, remember the hip and arm holes). That’s because your body heat will melt and then refreeze the snow, hardening it too much to handle easily.
Don’t dig your face deep inside your sleeping bag. Your breath will cause condensation inside your bag and moisture is bad. Keep your face outside the bag and use a fleece or wool balaclava, as advised above.
Also, if your skin and lips get dry like mine, use some moisturizing cream and chapstick before you go to bed. Vaseline will work fine for the lips and the nose as well.
If your water bottle is safe to use with hot liquids, boil some water (or even better camomile tea) and stick it inside your sleeping bag. This will heat up your bag and keep you nice and toasty. Make a DIY bottle cosy to keep it warm longer. If not, you can keep your stove and cook kit nearby, but that’s going to be more trouble in the middle of the night.
Travis suggests adding some Maltodextrin in your water in extreme situations, as it has a caloric value and will keep you warmer.
If the temperatures are freezing, make sure you have an insulated container for your drinking water (I use the ILBE hydration carrier which insulates the bladder). If not, just stick your water inside the sleeping bag and your body heat should keep it from freezing.
Have your own winter camping tips to share? Join the discussion below!
I got some tips from backpacking.com, others from all around the web. Big thanks to Oddbjørn, Travis and Douglas from my backpacking group on Facebook for their tips! Also, special thanks to reddit’s cwcoleman, who after some constructive cursing gave me a ton of great tips.