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How to Stay Warm on a Winter Campout

by MightyCamper John

Winter camping requires some special considerations. Yes, it will likely be cold out there. That tends to happen in the winter. This does not, however, mean you are going to freeze to death in your sleep or as you wait for your food to cook, or as you talk with friends around the campfire. In fact, in all of my years as both a participant and an organizer of dozens of winter campouts, we have not had a single reported freezing to death. (I don't even recall any unreported freezings.) I am continually amazed by the vast quantities of people who are willing to get up at the crack of dawn to hurtle themselves through the frigid air of their favorite ski slope, and, then, only a few days later, I hear them complain that it is too cold out there to camp in the winter. This need not be the case.

I'm pleased to report that you won't freeze if you properly plan for the occasion. The key to staying warm in the winter is to think about your clothing in terms of a heating "system." Each of us is much like the heating system found in your house, with a furnace to generate heat, insulation to trap that heat inside, and outer walls to keep out water and wind. When you are outside during the winter, you are your own furnace. Your responsibility then, is to find the types of gear you need to help you retain your self-generated heat close to your body by insulating you and by keeping out wind and water.

An exercise that I have performed mostly unconsciously throughout my life to to ask myself, what do I need in my clothing system in terms of waterproof, windproof, insulated, layers to keep me warm today? Just like each of us requires a different temperature within our houses to keep us comfortable, we must each decide which combinations of layering are appropriate for our personal heating systems. The beauty of using layers to keep us warm during the winter is that we can adjust them (i.e. take them on or off, unzip, or zip them) according to our internal temperatures throughout the day to maintain an appropriate level of personal comfort. This same principle applies whether you are talking about your clothing, your boots, gloves, hats, or your sleeping gear.

Top Problem Leading to Cold Winter Camping:

The top culprit for cold winter camping occurs when we get wet. One of the most effective and thoroughly miserable ways to get wet is to throw on your heaviest coat with the assumption that because it is heavy, it will keep you warm. From years of active outdoor winter experiences in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Canada, and Alaska, I assure you that this theory is seriously flawed, particularly when you plan on going for a hike, working outside, or some other activity which requires physical exertion. Even on a cold day, these activities will cause our bodies to perspire.

For example, you go for a brisk hike and soon your body is covered with perspiration. You then stop to take a break and what do you know, this layer of perspiration is now becoming cold and uncomfortable as it cools off against your skin. To make matters worse, add in a cotton shirt (AKA, a sponge) on top of that sweat and you've got all of the ingredients for a very cold, uncomfortable hike or a miserable night's sleep.


By wearing layers, you can more effectively adjust your body's internal temperature. This helps decrease the possibility of sweat forming against your skin. This is the cheap, Montana-boy solution my dad taught me when I was a mere lad. We would spend hours working outside feeding the cattle and chopping wood--strenuous, good for the soul work--or child labor, however you look at it. Anyway, we were too poor to afford all of this fancy synthetic winter gear you can buy to keep you warm now days, that, and the fact that most of it hadn't yet been invented. Our fabric of choice was wool. Even if wet, it will keep you warm. I'm a real fan of it. It is generally cheap and readily available at most sporting goods and army-navy surplus stores. I still wear wool shirts and socks during my winter excursions, only now, I augment my winter gear with synthetic fabrics found in fleece, moisture wicking socks, gloves, hats, and coats. I try to stay away from cottons, especially in the layers that will touch my skin.

Keep the Follow Winter Camping Tips in Mind:

  • Your winter gear doesn't need to be exorbitantly expensive, nor look fashionable, it just needs to work.

  • Remember, layering with the proper types of materials is the key to a pleasant time in the outdoors during the winter.

  • Start with an insulating, moisture wicking layer, then cover it with a waterproof, windproof layer. This will keep you warm and happy so the rest of us don't have to hear you complain.

  • A -20 degree sleeping bag is nice during the winter, but you can create the same level of comfort by wrapping yourself, burrito style, in a few extra blankets. Sleeping in the same tent close to other people also helps retain heat. My bag is only a 15 degree bag, but if I wear synthetic underwear, socks, and add a few extra blankets, I can easily stay warm for the night.

  • Wear warm, dry layers of extra clothing when you sleep. This helps add to the heat efficiency of your sleeping bag. If you are already dry when you get into your sleeping bag, climb inside and add layers while under the covers, this helps retain heat to warm up your bag.

  • Change cold, wet clothes before you get into your sleeping bag.

  • Throw a few handwarmers into a sock placed in the foot of your bag, or make your own by filling a watertight bottle with boiling hot water, carefully wrap the bottle in a towel, and then place it in the foot of your sleeping bag to keep your tootsies warm at night.

  • Have a tent with a good rainfly and a waterproof ground cloth to keep you from getting wet.

  • A lot of heat is lost through the ground as you sleep. Get ahold of a good "closed-cell" sleeping pad. These pads help insulate you from the ground. They are around $12 at Wal-Mart and at other sporting goods stores--a cheap investment you won't regret.

  • Be sure to eat a good meal before you hit the sack. This extra fuel provides the energy needed by your body to stay warm throughout the night. Plus, it gives you an excuse to eat that chocolate bar you have been carrying.

    For other camping tips, refer to Recommended Backpacking Gear.