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Cold Weather Camping

The key to enjoying camping in the cold weather is to do everything you can to be comfortable. What are the factors affecting comfort? Those factors are cold temperatures, precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, etc) and wind. If you are prepared to handle all three factors, you will be comfortable even if the weather turns ugly. 

Remember the Scout Motto: “Be Prepared!
Handling cold weather comfortably depends on the level of activity. The human body generates heat according to how active you are. The more active you are the more heat your body will generate as it burns fuel (calories) to provide energy. When you are less active (stationary, sitting, resting, etc), you need more clothing than you do when you are active. The following are some ideas on how to keep warm:

  1. Upon arrival at camp:
    1. Set up tent and unfold sleeping pad. A sleeping pad is essential to providing insulation between your body and the ground. A sleeping bag does not provide sufficient insulation!
    2. Lay out sleeping bag so that it will expand while you enjoy the evening. Otherwise, the fill will not have enough time to regain the loft it needs to provide insulation.
    3. You lose 75% of heat loss during sleeping in the downward direction and 25% upward. Therefore, you need three times the insulation underneath you than you need above you. That is why a sleeping pad or mattress is so important.
    4. Position your tent so that it is protected from the wind. Position the front of your tent down wind.
  2. Before going to bed:
    1. Remove all clothing including underwear. Your clothing absorbs perspiration during the day. Perspiration absorbs heat the same way as rain does.
    2. Save your body heat – change clothes inside your sleeping bag.
    3. Put on clean, dry underwear as well as thermal underwear. Thermal underwear should be made of synthetic material such as polypropylene. Synthetic thermal underwear can be inexpensive. Do not wear Cotton! Cotton absorbs and retains perspiration and moisture.
    4. Wear socks, made of wool or polyester fleece (such as Polartec 300). It is natural for your feet and hands to get cold faster than any other part of your body because there is less blood flow to these areas. In addition, the body will reduce the flow of blood to the extremities in order to maintain the temperature of your trunk.
    5. Wear a warm hat made of wool or fleece. You can lose huge amounts of heat from your head if it remains exposed.
    6. Disposable hand warmers are a great way to stay warm. They are available in different sizes according to the task (toes, hands, sleeping bag). Bring several. You never know how cold it will get!
    7. Tighten the entrance to your sleeping bag so that it is snug around your head but your face is exposed. Do not breathe into your sleeping bag to keep warm! Although it may appear that your warm breath will warm your sleeping bag, the water vapor in your breath will cool and will make you MUCH colder.
    8. Ventilate your tent! Otherwise, water vapor will condense on the walls of your tent. A window does not need to be wide open to provide sufficient ventilation. You do not need to do this if your tent is a double walled tent with built in vents.
    9. Fuel up! Eat a bedtime snack that is high in calories. Avoid caffeine including chocolate! These calories will help the body produce the required heat. Avoid candy that is mostly sugar. Sugar provides only a short burst of energy. Starches, fats and proteins would be better choices.
    10. For a bed warmer, try filling your canteen or water bottle with piping hot water. After making sure that the lid is tight, slip it in your sleeping bag.
  3. During the Day:
    1. Wear layers of clothing and adjust those layers as needed. Often, one starts out the day wearing all the layers. As the day passes, one takes off layers to keep from overheating. After the warmest part of the day (usually 12:00 to 2:00 pm), one begins to add back layers until nightfall when all the layers are worn.
    2. Layering clothing is also very useful to accommodate various levels of activity. The clothing you need to wear while playing football is considerably less than when you are standing in line, waiting to enter a building.
    3. Disposable hand warmers help to take the edge off cold weather when standing still.
    4. Never let yourself become hot. If you become hot, your body will perspire. The perspiration will be absorbed by your clothing, causing a chill once your level of activity returns to normal. If you are hot, take off layers of clothing until your body temperature returns to normal.
    5. Eat well! Your body needs fuel to produce energy and heat. High calorie foods that include fats, carbohydrates and protein are perfect. Bring energy bars and other energy foods to provide a boost during the day.
    6. Drink plenty of water to keep your system running well. During the cold months, the air is often dry, which could lead to dehydration.
    7. Dry your sleeping bag in the sun if it is damp or wet.
    8. Gather wood early in the afternoon for the evening. Everything takes longer during cold weather camping. In addition, you will need much more wood than normal.
    9. Always use the buddy system. Make sure that you and your buddy are warm throughout the day. Look for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.
  4. During the evening:
    1. Add layers of clothes as the temperature cools.
    2. Make sure that your sleeping bag is dry and expanded. You need the loft of your fill to be as high as possible. A squashed bag will not provide as much insulation as a high loft bag.
    3. Eat a hot supper that is high in calories. Do not forget your bedtime snack!

Wind can easily drive through fleece and clothing, robbing your body of precious heat. Always bring a windbreaker layer. It is preferable that your outer layer (windbreaker and rain protection) be able to “breathe.” This means that the fabric allows perspiration to pass through the layer while wind and rain is kept out. Wind chill can kill!

Rain saps heat because water absorbs heat. The combination of cold temperatures and being wet can result in miserable experience. Bring adequate rain gear. During cold weather camping, a poncho is fair choice. If possible, bring a rain suit to provide more protection during windy conditions. Inexpensive rain gear is now available and is well worth the investment. Once you have a hooded jacket, add rain pants and gaiters for full protection.

Clothing should be loose fitting and perform well even when wet. Of the natural fibers, only wool will keep you warm even when it is wet. Of the synthetic fibers, polyester fleece will keep you warm when wet and will dry quickly. Nylon will not keep you very warm, but it will dry quickly. Avoid cotton! Cotton absorbs water, making you colder and takes a long time to dry.

The following are clothes suitable for cold weather camping:
  1. Long johns (thermal underwear) should be made of synthetic material. They should fit loosely, not tightly!
  2. Long sleeve shirt made of wool, flannel or fleece.
  3. Fleece vest (for layering)
  4. Wool or fleece sweater (for layering)
  5. Nylon pants lined with fleece are super. Wool pants are very good and have been the traditional cold weather camping pants. Do not wear blue jeans! Blue jeans are made of cotton. When they are wet, they are heavy and cold to wear.
  6. Wear mittens for warmth. Bring gloves when you need the dexterity. Both should have a waterproof shell.
  7. Heavy, waterproof boots are far better than light sneakers. Sneakers or running shoes will not keep you warm. Leather boots should be water repellant; otherwise, they will absorb water and heat. Rubber/Leather “Bean Boots” are great when worn with wool socks and a felt or fleece liner. Make sure that your boots are not too tight. Winter boots should be one size larger than are summer boots to allow room for heavy wool socks and liners.
  8. For sleeping, a sweatshirt with a hood and sweat pants will keep you warm.
  9. Wet feet will make you feel cold and miserable. If your feet become moist or wet, change your boots and socks as soon as possible! Bring an extra pair of socks and boots/shoes just in case!
  10. Wear a wool cap. Much heat is lost through your head because your head does not come equipped with a heat management system like the rest of your body.
  11. Wear a scarf or a parka with a hood. A considerable amount of heat is lost around the neck.
  12. Bring an emergency blanket just in case. These “space blankets” are relatively inexpensive, but can save the day when you cannot keep warm.
  13. Light jacket for layering. This can be made of fleece or some other warm material (except cotton!).
  14. Warm, windproof and waterproof jacket or parka for the outer layer.