Never be chilly again: top tips for cold-weather camping
People often don’t believe us when in the winter months they ask what we’re doing at the weekend and our answer is ‘going camping’. But winter wild camps are one of our favourite ways to spend time in the great outdoors. With the right kit and a few tips and tricks, it’s easy to enjoy a wild night out, even when the temperature drops way below freezing.
#1 Get a decent sleeping mat
This is our number one tip for staying warm – it’s as important as your sleeping bag, because without a good mat, you lose so much body heat to the ground beneath you. Sleeping mats are usually rated with a R-value – for winter camping, look for a mat with a rating of at least 3. The warmest option that is still light and packable enough to take wild camping will be a self-inflating mattress, ideally with an inflated thickness of at least 4mm. The best mats are insulated with synthetic or even down fills that loft out as you inflate the mat. Our pick is the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm, which has the highest R-value around (5.7). They’re not cheap, but well worth the investment if you plan to do a lot of cold-weather camping. Having said that, you can boost the warmth of a less expensive mat by adding extra layers underneath and on top as you sleep.
#2 Take a warm sleeping bag
For cold-weather camping, you’ll need a three or ideally a four-season bag. The warmest and lightest option is a down bag. Traditionally, these were very expensive, but recently a couple of brands have produced much more affordable options, like the Summiteer Glow Worm series and the Alpkit SkyeHigh series. Again, if you get cold, it’s worth investing in a good down bag with a fill power of at least 600. The close-fitting mummy shape is the warmest option for boosting body heat. Look for a bag with a drawcord hood closure and ideally a shoulder baffle too, as well as a thick baffle behind the main zip. These are all features that effectively maximise heat retention. But if a down bag is out of your price range, don’t worry – just get the warmest bag you can practicably afford (when comparing bags, look at the ‘comfort’ temperature rating, rather than the ‘extreme’ rating). Then just use these other tips and tricks to boost body warmth. One is to use a liner inside your sleeping bag, which is a good idea anyway, as it helps to keep the inside of your bag clean and prevent the build-up of dirt and moisture that can a) make your bag smell and b) stop it working so well.
#3 Add layers underneath
There’s an old Scout saying, ‘a layer underneath is worth two on top’. Well, the Scouts know one or two things about camping, and this bit of sage advice is spot on. Use a footprint underneath the groundsheet of your tent. This will not only protect your tent from dirt and damage, but will also insulate you from the cold ground. You can buy custom footprints for most higher-spec tents, or alternatively buy a cheap tarp from a hardware or DIY shop and just trim it to fit the footprint of your tent, leaving an extra couple of inches around each edge. Inside the tent, you can also place a blanket underneath your sleeping mat to provide extra insulation. This is usually more effective than sleeping with an extra blanket on top.
#4 Take a lightweight quilt
Alpkit make some great kit, and their Cloud Cover has been a bit of a game changer for wild camping. This is basically a super-packable lightweight quilt, with stitch-through baffles stuffed with hydrophobic 750-fill goose down. The outer is DWR-treated polyester, which makes it fairly water-resistant too. It has an integrated stuff sack and packs down to 27 x 19.5cm (about the size of a small lunchbox). It also has poppers down the sides and draw-cords at each end, so you can attach it to itself and use it as an extra sleeping bag. At £99, it’s not cheap, but has already proven to be super useful – it’s handy not just for cold nights, but also to wrap around your shoulders when you’re sitting out underneath the stars.
#5 Invest in a down jacket
In terms of warmth for weight, a good-quality down jacket is the warmest piece of clothing you’re likely to have in your pack, and is an invaluable layer for cold-weather camping. Look for a jacket with a fill power of 700 or higher, with a good hood, hand warmer pockets, a hem drawcord and elastic-bound or Velcro-adjustable cuffs – those are the features that will really lock in warmth. A jacket with chunky baffles is likely to be warmer than one with skinny micro-baffles, and since you’re likely to be sitting and standing around when camping, it doesn’t really matter if you look a bit like the Michelin Man. Ellie gets really cold, so I got her a Berghaus Ramche, an expedition-quality 850-fill jacket (which was actually a bit of a bargain from SportPursuit), but any number of outdoor brands make good down jackets. If you’re on a budget, go bargain-hunting in spring, as insulated jackets usually have massive mark-downs as soon as winter is over. If it’s super cold, you can even sleep in your jacket, which will massively boost the warmth of your bag.
#6 Wear thermals
Sleeping in thermal layers is another tip to stay toasty. As well as a long-sleeved baselayer, wear tights, leggings or long-johns in your sleeping bag – in my experience, there’s almost nothing worse than being warm up top but having really cold legs.
#7 Hat and socks
Winter-weight socks and a cosy beanie hat are worth their weight in gold for cold-weather camping. Toes will usually start to suffer first, so being able to put on a warm pair of socks can make all the difference. Similarly, you lose a lot of body heat through your head, so a beanie (pom-pom optional) is a valuable extra that you can sleep in if necessary.
#8 Make a wild camping ‘hottie’
Here’s a little trick to make your own wild camp hot-water bottle. Boil a litre of water on your camping stove before bed and carefully pour it in a metal flask (a Sigg bottle or similar). Screw the cap on tightly, then put the bottle inside a thick walking sock and stick it in your sleeping bag. It will give out heat for hours – I’ve often done this and it’s still been warm in the morning.
#9 Go to bed warm
Although it’s tempting to crawl into your sleeping bag as night falls, raising your body temperature before you go to sleep will ensure you start warm and hopefully stay warm throughout the night. So jump around a bit – do some star jumps, windmills, whatever – before you get inside your tent and settle down to sleep. Alternatively, if you’ve had a big day and are feeling a bit too tired for that sort of thing, fire up the stove and make a warm drink before you hunker down for the night – a hot chocolate is good, or even better, a hot toddy.
#10 Snuggle hard
If all else fails, sharing body warmth is one of the best ways to keep warm. It’s a classic survival strategy from pretty much every SAS manual ever written, and you also find it in nature (think of all those emperor penguins huddled together). So, unless you’re solo camping, stay close and snuggle hard (or spoon, if you’re really good friends).