Posted 17 October 2021

Cold Camping

Winter camping can be one of life’s most simple pleasures, as you enjoy the contrast of being snug and warm against the chill night air. It can also be bloody miserable. Seeing as any fool can suffer, below we offer some top tips to ensure you experience the former, rather than the latter.

1 - Invest in a good mat. There is no point in having a -20C sleeping bag if you then have only 5mm of foam between you and the freezing ground. Down or synthetic insulated, inflatable mats are the best option (see Exped or Thermarest). If you do use an inflatable mat and plan to camp in a remote area, back it up with something along the lines of the Thermarest Z Lite Sol so that a puncture in your main mat won’t lead to a survival situation.

2 - Eat well. If your body doesn’t have any fuel, it won’t create much heat. Eat a big evening meal with plenty of protein and good fats (olive oil, nuts, etc.) as they take a long time for the body to break down and will help keep you warm well into the night. Andy Kirkpatrick drinks olive oil when bivouacking on winter Alpine routes… Each to their own.

3 - Get warm first. Sleeping bags do not generate heat; they simply slow its movement. If you get into a sleeping bag tired and cold, it could be hours until you warm up to a comfortable temperature. Do press-ups, burpees, or just jump around like an idiot before getting into your bag and that way you’ll be warm from the start.

Photo by Torkel Pettersson: Instagram: @torkettilphotography

4 - Look after your kit. If you’re out all day in sleet and snow and get into your tent with a damp/wet sleeping bag and no dry clothes, you’ll have a long night ahead of you. Dry-bags are cheap, light and effective. Use them

5 - If nature calls, answer. Going to the loo in the middle of a freezing night is rarely fun, but not as miserable as lying in bed for hours thinking about going to the loo. Go when you need to and then get back to sleep. A pee bottle is always an option, but not always a pleasant one.

6 - Be careful what you wear. The old myth of ‘wearing clothes in a sleeping bag stops it from working well’, does have a little truth to it. Bulky, poorly-insulating layers like cotton hoodies will offer little extra warmth and a lot more mass that your body has to keep warm, but fleece and down jackets will obviously help insulate you. Choose wisely, but wear what you need to keep warm. A dry set of baselayers just for sleeping is common good practice.

7 - Buy the right sleeping bag for you. High-end manufacturers tend to be pretty realistic when quoting comfort temperatures for sleeping bags. Budget manufacturers often seem to take solace from the fact that their ‘4 season bags’ are unlikely to be tested in extreme cold and are therefore often happy for their marketing folk to make outrageous claims on behalf of their equipment. Do not get caught out. You don’t need to spend many nights outdoors to know if you are a warm or cold sleeper and this is crucial when buying the right bag. The comfort temperature is the coldest at which the average woman, wearing full base-layers, can sleep for eight hours. The comfort limit temperature relates to the average man. The extreme temperature is utterly irrelevant as it states the temperature at which you should survive, albeit with risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

8 - Vent the tent. Condensation is a major pain in cold tents, so make sure you open vents or leave the door zips opn a few inches (weather permitting). Pack your clothes away so that they don’t get damp overnight and then pull them into the bag with you for 5 mins in the morning to warm up. Squeeze the damp air out of your sleeping bag the moment you get out of it and then allow it to air dry before packing it. Take it out to dry during the day if you have to, just don’t let it reach your evening stop damp.

9 - Don’t breathe into your bag. As tempting as it might be to snuggle down as far as possible, your breath will pump moisture into your bag and quickly compromise the insulation. A merino wool buff can be pulled over your face if needed, but a beanie and the sleeping bag’s hood usually keep your head warm enough to cope with a cooler face.

10 - Make a hot water bottle. A Nalgene bottle full of hot water and pushed into a sock (to prevent skin burns) makes for a long-lasting hot water bottle and a great start to the night.

Alex Bergin

Photo by Torkel Pettersson: Instagram: @torkettilphotography