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Cold Weather Camping 101 (+Everything You Need To Know)

Posted by Jamie Canterbury on December 27, 2021   •   cold weather, survival

For those who truly enjoy the outdoors, camping isn't just a warm-weather hobby. With proper preparation, it can be easy, and even thrilling, to camp safely in winter weather. 

But with cold weather camping comes significant risks, such as running out of resources, like food, fire sources, and water, or suffering from dangerous cold-related health conditions, like frostbite and hypothermia.

However, if you know what you’re doing, the cold isn’t a threat. By preparing with the National Park Service's Ten Essentials and survival expert Dave Canterbury's Five C's of Survivability, you're well on your way to an adventure you'll remember forever. 

With that being said, here's everything you need to know about cold-weather camping. This guide will cover what temperature is too cold for camping, how to identify dangerous situations like frostbite and hypothermia, and what to pack before you embark on your cold-weather camping trip. 

How Cold Is Too Cold for Winter Camping?

Since everybody can tolerate a different range of temperatures, there is no specific temperature that defines "too cold."

Still, most people aren’t comfortable below a certain threshold. According to one survey, 19.5°Fahrenheit is the average temperature that campers believe is too cold. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said there is no temperature that’s too cold as long as you have the essential gear.

For most people, anything under 40 degrees Fahrenheit—a near-freezing temperature—is considered cold-weather camping. Once you hit this temperature, you want to make sure you have the right warm camping clothes and survival gear for freezing weather.

"It's all about staying warm," said Harding Bush at Global Rescue, an organization that specializes in rescuing people from dangerous situations. "Negative consequences for mistakes are dire in the winter. Everything is darker, colder, and less accessible."

Cold-weather camping can be extremely dangerous as the biggest threats to your health are frostbite and hypothermia. Without the proper education on recognizing the symptoms and prevention plans, you could set yourself up for a disaster next time you're out on the field. 

The Stages and Symptoms of Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin is exposed to extreme cold for too long, causing the tissue below the skin to freeze and die. Frostbite typically affects smaller parts of exposed skin, like the fingers and toes, as well as the face around the ears and nose. 

Most Common Frostbite Locations Infographic

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Cold-weather camping increases your risk of frostbite since you're exposed to cold temperatures for long periods at a time. Those at higher altitudes are exposed to even colder air, which also heightens the risk. 

Additionally, being without the proper resources like warm clothing, fire, and shelter causes exposure to harsh elements, which can lead to frostbite.

Prevention is the best antidote to frostbite. Use these tips for camping in the cold to make sure you are ready:

  • Check the weather forecast. Look at the weather forecast before you leave for your journey. Knowing what to expect—like rain or snow, for example—can help you pack smarter. 
  • Dress appropriately for cold weather. Never forgo essential outer garments like hats, gloves, and thick, weather-resistant jackets. Always change out of wet clothes immediately.
  • Stay hydrated and eat calorie-dense foods. Drink plenty of water and eat snacks and foods high in fat so that your body burns more calories, which can heat your body. 
  • Recognize the signs of frostbite. Knowing the signs of frostbite can save you a lot of pain in the long run. Frostnip, for example, is the precursor to frostbite. If you notice frostnip, you should quickly seek warmth.

Frostbite prevention and symptom acknowledgment are essential when out on the field. Here's what you need to know about identifying frostbite while cold-weather camping. 

What Frostbite Looks Like

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Stage #1: First-Degree Frostbite: Frostnip 

First-degree frostbite, or frostnip, is the first symptom you should watch out for. Frostnip is mild frostbite that irritates the skin and causes redness, coldness, or a numb feeling. 

You can treat frostnip and prevent damage by rewarming the affected area in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes. Avoid heat packs and hot water, as they can burn the skin. 

As the skin begins to warm up, it's normal to feel slight pain or tingling in the affected area. You can take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen to keep any discomfort at bay. 

Stage #2: Second-Degree Frostbite: Superficial Frostbite

When second-degree frostbite, also called superficial frostbite, starts to set in, damage to your skin tissue begins. Ice crystals may start to form on your skin. You may also notice swelling, blisters, and a numb or stiff feeling when you touch something. 

You can rewarm the same way as you would with frostnip by dipping the affected area in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes. 

Many people fully recover from superficial frostbite, although the healing process may be unpleasant. It's not uncommon to experience fluid-filled blisters 24 to 36 hours after rewarming, but new skin should grow underneath. Very few people experience permanent problems. 

Stage #3: Third-Degree Frostbite: Deep Frostbite

Third-degree frostbite, or deep frostbite, is the final and most severe version of frostbite. Your affected areas may experience numbness, your joints and muscles may no longer work, and you may begin noticing that your skin is turning black. At this point, you must seek immediate emergency medical attention. 

The doctor will rewarm the area in an attempt to liven any existing tissue. They will prescribe pain medication and a clot-buster medication, which helps improve blood flow to the affected area. In some cases, the doctor you see may recommend surgery to remove the dead tissue. 

Frostbite turns the skin blue or black because of gangrene or deep tissue death. This causes the injured part of your skin to deteriorate enough to trigger skin death in the affected area. When tissue dies, blood is no longer pumping, and thus, the skin turns a blue or blackish color. 

The Stages and Symptoms of Hypothermia

Hypothermia, otherwise known as low body temperature, is a medical condition caused by extra cold exposure. It occurs when the body's temperature falls below a specific temperature and can't rewarm itself naturally.

The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees, and hypothermia is considered anything below 95 degrees. If left untreated, hypothermia could worsen and become fatal.

Hypothermia can be very dangerous because it affects the way the mind functions as well as the physical body. It causes changes in consciousness, which can lead to confusion, delirium, and poor decisions, such as paradoxical undressing.

Paradoxical undressing is a unique phenomenon in which people who are freezing remove their clothes despite the apparent cold, which causes them to lose more body heat. Around 20 to 50% of hypothermia-related deaths are due to paradoxical undressing. 

As with frostbite, to prevent hypothermia, both preparation and knowledge are vital. Always pack an emergency kit with plenty of nonperishable food, blankets, a first aid kit, and water.

Avoid overexerting yourself, but try to do simple movements like jumping jacks or pushups to stay warm. Using clothing and blankets that protect your body from the cold, like wool blankets and hats, is one of the most effective ways to avoid hypothermia. 

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Stage #1: Mild Hypothermia

Mild hypothermia occurs when the body temperature is between 90°F and 95°F. Common symptoms include shivering, rapid breathing, fatigue, impaired judgment, dizziness, difficulty speaking, and lack of coordination. 

Stage #2: Moderate Hypothermia

Moderate hypothermia occurs when the body temperature is between 82.4°F and 90°F. Symptoms might be an irregular heartbeat, a lower level of consciousness, dilated pupils, slurred speech, confusion, and apathy.

Stage #3: Severe Hypothermia

Severe hypothermia occurs when the body temperature is below 82.4°F. Common symptoms include labored breathing, nonreactive pupils, cardiac arrest, confusion, apathy, weak pulse, and fatigue. 

While hypothermia and frostbite are serious, as long as you know how to camp in cold weather, you can prevent problems from occurring and camp safely.

Cold Weather Camping Tips: How to Stay Warm On Your Winter Camping Trip

As you might guess, simply sitting inside of your tent on a cold day or night won't protect you from feeling cold or facing dangerous emergencies like hypothermia and frostbite. That's because the human body loses heat in different ways: radiation, conduction, convection, and evaporation.

  • Radiation: The body loses heat due to the external temperature. For example, if it is cold outside, your body will also drop in temperature if not appropriately protected.
  • Conduction: The body loses heat through direct contact with an object. For example, water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than air because it has a greater density. That's why staying dry is essential in cold weather situations.
  • Convection: The body loses heat due to movement and the loss of molecules. For example, walking through cold winds will cause you to lose body heat. 
  • Evaporation: The body loses heat from converting water from liquid to gas. For example, you may lose body heat through perspiration, sweating, and respiration. 

To address all the different types of heat loss, you need to be thorough when it comes to packing the right gear for the weather. You can also retain body heat while out on the field by staying prepared. Here's what you can do to stay warm on your next cold-weather camping trip. 

Tip #1: Pick a Spot That's Sheltered from the Wind, Rain, and Snow

Checking the weather conditions is the golden rule for any outdoor activity. It's best to know what kind of weather to expect during your winter camping trip so you can pitch your tent in just the right spot. 

Choose an area naturally sheltered from the wind and cold air, such as next to bushes, trees, and caves. You'll also want to pick a spot that's dry and flat since you'll be doing your sleeping, prepping, and cooking here. 

Tip #2: Choose the Right Sleeping Bag — and Use It Correctly

Nothing keeps you warm on a cold night like a good-quality sleeping bag. Be sure to select a comfortable bag that fits your entire body and has a soft, insulated material like wool. And when setting up your sleeping bag: 

  • Don't let the sleeping bag touch the tent or the cold ground. Instead, you should have a cot or a sleeping closed-cell foam pad to prevent the loss of body heat through conduction on the cold ground. 
  • Avoid putting your head in the sleeping bag. While this might seem like a good idea if you're feeling a little chilly, it's easier to keep your head warm by wearing a beanie or a scarf. Or, better yet, opt for a mummy-style sleeping bag that has a hood. 
  • Bring a sleeping bag liner. This will keep your sleeping bag free of dirt and body oils so that it stays fresh and clean during the entire trip. Most sleeping liners are easily washable so that you can refresh yours every couple of days. 
  • Zip up your jacket with your clothes inside and put it at the foot of your sleeping bag. This will keep your feet warm all night and ensure that your clothes are warmed up in the morning when you have to change. 

You'll also want to choose a sleeping bag with a high R-value, which refers to the insulating material's ability to resist the conductive flow of heat.

R Cold Rating

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The higher the R-value rating, the thicker the insulation padding is. In cold conditions, opt for a sleeping bag or pad that has an R-value of R5 or R6. 

Tip #3: Select the Right Tent

When camping in cold weather, you need to choose a winter or four-season tent. These tents are small and waterproof but are designed to withstand high winds and cold temperatures. They also should have plenty of vestibule space where you can store extra items.

The tent should also have the option to ventilate.

You might not think you need ventilation in such cold conditions, but here's why you do: Every time you breathe out, you breathe out damp air. Combined with your body temperature, this creates moisture around the tent, which then, in turn, makes it cold. Ventilating your tent keeps the tent fresh and dry.

Tip #4: Layer Up and Accessorize

It may be a lot to pack, but ensure that you have all of these items for your cold-weather camping trip:

  • Thermal blankets, wool blankets, and/or emergency blanket
  • Hand and foot warmers
  • Fire Starters that can work on wet and dry wood
  • Temperature-regulating merino wool sweaters, socks, and blankets
  • Outdoor hats as well as water-resistant caps you can wear inside and outside to keep your head warm
  • Waterproof outer layers, including a rain poncho that’s light and easy to carry

Tip #5: Building a Safe Campfire 

Fire is one of the keys to survival in freezing conditions, but the last thing you want is to bring your fire too close to the tent. When you build your fire, it should be close enough to the tent to warm you up even when you're inside, but a safe enough distance away to avoid sparking.

Another useful piece of advice is to build your campfire as tall as it is wide. This provides maximum oxygen flow.

Building Better Fires

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"Humans from all eras have been relying on this design," says Adrian Bejan, a mechanical engineer at Duke University. "The reason is that this shape is the most efficient for air and heat flow.”

The Ultimate Camping-in-Winter Gear Checklist 

Before you begin packing the gear you'll need for cold-weather camping, start with the wilderness essentials. First, let's take a look at survival expert Dave Canterbury's 5 C's for Survivability:

  1. Cutting Tool: Your cutting tool should be handy at all times and wearable. An ideal cutting tool should have a 5 or 6" blade with a full tang.
  2. Combustion Device: You can use a combustion device like a ferrocerium rod to start a fire or light up damp wood, which is essential while cold-weather camping. 
  3. Cover: Your shelter should be light and compact but serve its purpose as a place to stay warm, store your belongings, sleep, and keep dry. Gear that provides cover and shelter also includes your sleeping bag or pad.
  4. Container: Because of its high-grade material and thick walls, you can use stainless steel containers in the hottest of fires, making disinfecting drinking water effortless. 
  5. Cordage: A multi-ply cord like the 550 parachute cord can help you in dozens of survival situations. Use it as a fishing line or clothing line, for suspending food from animals, making a trap trigger, tying supports for your shelter, and more. 

You'll also want to combine the above survivability tools with the National Park Service's List of Ten Essentials

  1. Navigation: It's easy to get turned around in the woods. Taking a wrong turn and misjudging distances are common reasons why people get lost. Have a map of the location you're staying (plus some map tools), a compass, and a GPS handy anytime you are looking to set up camp or are leaving camp. You can also go old-school with primitive ranger pace beads.  
  2. Sun Protection: While you might be out in the cold weather, you should always protect your skin from the harsh UV rays, which can cause sunburns and skin cancer. Even when you're not camping in cold weather, it's always a good idea to pack sunglasses, sunscreen, and a sunhat to stay comfortable. 
  3. Insulation: Your clothes should act as a layer of insulation from the harshest conditions. Pack plenty of layers like jackets, hats, gloves, warm socks, rain shells, thermal underwear, long-sleeve shirts, and long pants. Waterproof boots are a must as well. Always pack an extra layer of clothing (even if you don't think you need it) just in case an unexpected situation arises, and you need to take off and dry your clothes. 
  4. Illumination: In the colder months, it gets dark fast and early, so you'll be relying on your light devices like lanterns, candles, and headlamps quite a bit. Headlamps are especially ideal since they're hands-free, but be sure to bring plenty of extra batteries. 
  5. First-Aid Supplies: Any good outdoorsman knows that anything can happen while on the field, which is why you must pack your first aid kit and be ready for use at all times. Pack your gear according to what you'll need, like hand and foot warmers, an emergency blanket, bandages, and even stitching equipment in case of an unforeseen injury. It could also help to have an emergency guide in case you're unfamiliar with medical emergencies. 
  6. Fire: To start a fire, you'll need waterproof matches, tinder, and plenty of fire starters. Combustion devices like Ferro rods, fire-starting kits, flint and steel, and infernos can help guarantee a healthy fire even in the coldest or dampest conditions. 
  7. Repair Kit and Tools: Simple yet essential tools like duct tape, a knife, a multi-tool, and cordage can help you repair things quickly in emergencies, like a hole in your tent.
  8. Nutrition: Cooking while out on the field in cold or freezing temperatures is no easy task, so you want to choose ready-to-eat snacks and foods that are available whenever you need them.
  9. Hydration: Humans can survive for up to three days without water, but long before then, the body begins to feel the dangerous repercussions of dehydration. Not only do you need a large enough stainless steel water bottle to stay hydrated, but you also need water treatment supplies so you can safely obtain water from any source. 
  10. Emergency Shelter: Your shelter is what protects you from any weather-related emergencies. It should keep you warm and safe from the elements so you don't have to be exposed to high winds, rain, snow, or freezing temperatures.

Once you've covered these basics, you can move on to making a more extensive list that will include smaller products or packable items that you might otherwise forget. The list created by America's State Parks covers what you need by category. 

  • Campsite: Chairs, tables, pillows, clothesline, hammock, headlamp, tent stakes, tarp, sleeping bag, sleeping pads, or mattresses
  • Camping Tools: Duct tape, axe, mallet, multi-tool, saw, tent repair kit, air mattress repair kit
  • Cooking: Biodegradable soap, wash tube, cooler, pots and pans, large water jug, can opener, charcoal, fire starter, dutch oven, plates and cups, trash bags, scrubber, coffee, stove fuel, matches
  • Protection: Insect repellant, SPF lip balm, SPF sunscreen, warm hat, protective glasses, ski mask 
  • Clothes: Fleece pants, rain jacket, insulated jacket, poncho, gloves, long underwear, warm hat with flaps, fleece pullover, vest, long sleeve shirts, long sleepwear, rain boots, hiking boots 
  • Extras and Miscellaneous: Radio, binoculars, camera, fishing gear, hunting equipment like traps and snares, GPS, alarm clock, bungee cord, compass, solar charger, games 
  • Personal: Medications, toiletries, soap, biodegradable toilet paper, tissues, or paper towels

You can find plenty of extensively detailed camping checklists (like this one from Life Hack) just about anywhere, or you can even make your own. Whatever you do, don't forget the essentials so you can stay warm no matter how cold it gets while you’re camping. 

Conclusion

True outdoors people don't want to wait several months until the weather warms up to get out on the field again, which is why cold-weather camping is so appealing. 

Unfortunately, camping in the cold to freezing temperatures can be extremely dangerous—especially if you're not thoroughly prepared. Without the appropriate tools and knowledge, you can face hazardous situations like frostbite and hypothermia. 

If you're looking forward to setting out in the cold weather, make a comprehensive list of extreme cold weather camping gear and other essentials and head out 100% prepared. Luckily, you can get just about everything you need from Self Reliance Outfitters.

Self-Reliance Outfitters specializes in all-things bushcraft, survivability, and outdoor living. You can find all types of equipment for camping outdoors, ranging from cookware to fire starters to several-ply cordage, and everything in between.


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