Camping in the Cold
Winter doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to give way to spring’s milder weather this year. From raging snow storms to torrential rains, especially here in California, winter’s grip has been fierce and relentless. Naturally, rather than venturing out into the cold, most people choose to stay inside where it’s warm and dry—a perfectly normal thing to do.
I mean, the average person doesn’t look at a weather report forecasting a low of 31ºF and think, “this is perfect weather for camping!”
An overlander, however, isn’t the average person. They’re intrepid souls with a love of adventure and the outdoors. And this passion regularly leads them to brave all kinds of weather to go off-grid in search of epic experiences.
You might think these folks are a little crazy, but that’s not true (not entirely, anyways). What they are is prepared. Because with the right gear, equipment, and clothing, cold weather doesn’t have to make anyone’s overland adventures come to a screeching halt.
So, if you’re tired of waiting for spring to finally make an appearance and you’re itching for your next off-road adventure, I’ve got a few ideas about how you can conquer the cold instead of letting it conquer you.
I'd like to mention that I am by no means an expert in cold weather camping...I'm just someone who really, really hates being cold and I've done a lot of research, and a lot of trial and error (aka, learning the hard way), about what works when it comes to staying warm when I'm outside in wintry weather.
And what I've learned is that all you need is the right clothing, shelter, and gear, and you’ll be heading out into the frozen tundra faster than you can say “Jack Frost.”
What Clothes Are Essential for Cold Weather Camping?
Brad's heated vest keeping him warm enough that he removed his outer layer (a down jacket).
Whether you’re planning an off-road day trip or a week-long overland journey when it’s cold outside, having the right clothes is essential if you want to be warm and comfortable, and actually have fun on your adventure rather than just suffer through it.
Dressing for cold weather is all about the layers—base layers, mid-layers, and outer layers. A base layer will help wick moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry and helping regulate your body temperature. A mid-layer will retain your body heat and provide insulation. An outer layer not only completes your ensemble, it provides protection against rain and wind, keeping you dry and adding extra warmth.
Here’s what to look for in your different layers.
The purpose of a base layer is to keep moisture away from your skin because being wet or damp in the cold can lead to hypothermia and, aside from life-threatening complications, being wet and cold just isn't very comfortable. In fact, it kind of sucks.
That’s why the layer closest to your skin should be made from moisture-wicking materials, such as merino wool or synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon because damp is the enemy of warmth. You also want to avoid cotton as it retains moisture.
Base layers should fit snugly, like a second skin, so they’re effective at pulling moisture away. You don’t want them too tight, though, because they need to allow air to circulate for insulation. I used to think my dad was silly for wearing long johns on our trips up to the Sierra Nevadas when I was kid but I guess he knew what he was doing.
Your mid-layers provide insulation, helping you retain the heat your body generates. It’s important this layer isn’t too tight or too loose—the goal is to allow the warmth to circulate without have too much extra space to heat up or for that warmth to escape.
Clothing that typically function as mid-layers include fleece jackets, pullovers, and vests; wool sweaters; and down and synthetic jackets.
One material that makes for a cozy mid-layer is polyester fleece, which comes in several weights (light, mid, and heavy), stays warm even if it gets wet, and is fast-drying. One caveat is that fleece is very breathable, which means if you’re going to be in the wind, cold air is going to blow right through it unless you have an additional layer on top of it.
Wool is also another material that makes for a good-middle layer because it's great at resisting odors. It is, however, typically heavier and more expensive than fleece, which is something to keep in mind.
When it comes to jackets for your middle layer, your best bet are those made from either down or synthetic materials.
Down jackets are one of the best choices for staying warm when overlanding in cold weather. You’ll want to choose a down jacket with a high fill power, which indicates the quality of the down. The higher the fill power, the warmer and more compressible (lighter) the jacket will be.
A synthetic jacket will keep you warm too, and they’re a great choice for wet conditions since they dry fast and, unlike most down jackets, retain their insulation even if when wet.
Whether you go with down or synthetic, it's a good idea to choose a jacket with a hood for added protection from the elements.
An outer layer consists of a shell, jacket, or raincoat and is meant to provide added protection from windy and wet conditions. You’ll want this layer made from materials that are durable and water-repellent, such as Goretex, nylon, or polyester.
Your outerwear should be roomy enough to accommodate your base and middle layers comfortably, without being so big that it defeats its purpose and allows wind and rain to seep through.
Additional Clothes to Keep You Warm in the Cold
Pants. When it comes to keeping warm, your comfy jeans are not the best choice for winter wear because if they get wet, they’ll hang on to that moisture and make you cold. Look for pants made from heavy-duty fabrics, such as nylon or polyester, which are durable and water-resistant. Fleece-lined pants are a bonus as they provide excellent insulation and an added layer for warmth. I recently bought a pair of pants made from a synthetic material and lined with fleece for our trip to New Mexico and they kept me so warm and toasty I ended up buying another pair for future trips.
Socks and Footwear. Keeping your feet warm and dry are key to comfort in cold weather. Look for socks made from wool or synthetic materials (notice a trend here?), which provide great insulation and keep your feet dry. You should also avoid tight socks, which can restrict circulation and make your feet cold. Footwear, such as hiking boots or snow boots, should be waterproof and insulated, and have good traction to keep you from slipping and falling on icy or snowy terrain. And the former Navy Corpsman in me urges you to bring more than one pair of socks because if they get wet, you’ll need to change them.
Sleepwear. If you want to stay warm and comfortable at night, don’t forget to bring the right sleepwear. “Sleepwear” doesn’t necessarily mean pajamas, just the clothes you’ll wear for sleeping. I recommend bringing dedicated sleepwear because the clothes you wore all day are likely to be damp from your perspiration, it hard to get warm (they probably won’t smell the best either). Like base layers, sleepwear should be made from moisture-wicking materials that fit snugly but not too tightly. In fact, base layers make excellent sleepwear—just bring an extra pair dedicated to snoozing. And if you tend to get colder than the average overlander, consider bringing some extra mid-layers for sleeping in—I like to bring a fleece or heavy sweatshirt and some big fuzzy socks.
Heated Clothing. We didn’t know heated clothing was a thing until fairly recently. And boy am I glad we discovered it! Last Christmas, I got Brad a heated vest, and it might be his new favorite piece of camping gear. And heated vests are just the beginning! Search online and you’ll discover heated socks, gloves, jackets, shoe insoles, and more!
And don’t forget a hat, some gloves, and a scarf! Keeping your head, hands, and neck warm will make a huge difference in your comfort level when camping in cold weather.
What's the Best Shelter for Camping in Cold Weather?
Left: A Shiftpod 4-season ground tent. Upper right: Our Patriot Campers off-road trailer tent. Bottom right: Rooftop tents.
When it comes to winter overlanding, picking the right shelter—one that works best for your needs and your budget—might be one of the most critical decisions you make. And it will have a big impact on whether you love (or hate) your cold-weather camping experience.
To keep things simple, I'm going to focus on the pros and cons of the three most popular types of shelters used by overlanders and ones that I've personally used over the years: ground tents, rooftop tents, and off-road trailers.
Ground tents are a classic and reliable choice for winter camping, and they’re relatively lightweight, easy to set up, and affordable, particularly when compared to the cost of rooftop tents and off-road trailers. For those new to overlanding and off-grid camping, ground tents are the perfect entry point into this activity, no matter the weather.
Ground tents come in a variety of sizes, which means you’ll have plenty of choices when it comes to finding one that best suits your needs. Whether you’re a solo camper, you like to bring a friend or two, or you always bring the whole family, there’s a tent for you. Depending on the size of your ground tent, it could be the perfect retreat from the elements, allowing you and your companions to huddle together for warmth. Just keep in mind that larger tents are harder to heat with all that extra space and smaller tents are easier to keep warm with your body heat.
One important factor to consider when choosing a ground tent is the material. Look for tents made from durable, waterproof materials with reinforced seems that will prevent water from seeping in and can withstand harsh winter weather conditions. Waterproof ratings for tents range from 1,000 mm to 10,000 mm—the higher the number the more waterproof your tent will be.
Something else to think about when picking a tent for winter camping is its shape. A dome or geodesic shaped tent will offer better stability in strong winds and their shape allows rain and snow to slide off instead of pooling on top of your tent.
You may also want to consider a tent that’s specifically designed for cold weather camping. This type of tent is referred to as a “4-season” tent, and they are built with harsher weather in mind. They usually have thicker walls, minimal mesh, and are more rugged than the average tent so they can stand up to wind, rain, and snow (literally). Of course, these added features come with a larger price tag, making 4-season tents more expensive than 3-season tents—if you'll be camping in the cold often, you may want to splurge on one.
Rooftop tents can be a great choice for camping in the cold as they offer better insulation and protection from the elements than ground tents. And, whether you have a soft or hard shell rooftop tent, they’re quick and easy to set up, which means less time fumbling around in the cold.
One of best features of a rooftop tent is that it’s off the ground. With your sleeping space elevated, you don’t have to worry about the terrain being wet or covered with snow and having the ground sap away your warmth. The elevation provides added insulation, which will keep you much warmer than you would be sleeping on the ground.
Additionally, the construction of rooftop tents helps keep the cold at bay. The majority of them come with a high density foam mattress that makes sleeping more comfy and cozy since this is yet another layer of insulation to help preserve your warmth. The walls of rooftop tents also tend to be thicker than those of ground tents and some even have a double layer of insulation, keeping the cold wind from biting through the tent.
A final consideration if you’re thinking about a rooftop tent for your winter camping adventures is the price. They are more expensive than ground tents—often a LOT more expensive—but if you plan on heading out into the wild frequently, a rooftop tent may be worth the investment.
Off-road trailers provide an unbeatable combination of comfort, convenience, and durability that make them perfect for off-grid camping any time of the year, but especially in cold weather.
The majority of off-road trailers either have a rooftop tent or an interior space for sleeping but beyond that, many of them have added features, like heaters and hot water, that will elevate your winter camping experience.
Here are just a few of the reasons you may want an overland trailer for cold weather camping:
- Comfort. One of the best things about an off-road trailer is a place to sleep that’s off the ground and out of the elements, either in a rooftop tent or a compartment within the trailer. Both options allow for a comfy mattress, which provides insulation, and plenty of space for sleeping bags, pillows, and added layers like camping quilts or extra blankets. In a pinch, your trailer’s rooftop tent or interior can provide a retreat when you need a break from the cold.
- Warmth. Many off-road trailers come with diesel heaters that will keep you toasty when it’s time for bed. And having hot water is a total game-changer for any cold weather camping experience, especially when it comes to doing the dishes (dish duty with cold water when it's chilly is not a fun experience). And while heaters and hot water can be added to any overland setup, having them built into your trailer means you can enjoy them without much fuss.
- Convenience. When you’re traveling with an off-road trailer, setup and break down is lightning fast, which minimizes the time you’re struggling with gear and equipment in frigid temperatures.
- Storage. Off-road trailers will add to your storage space, which means you can keep your gear and equipment dry and protected from the elements. It also means you can bring all the extras you need to keep warm—fire pits, extra blankets, and more.
An off-road trailer can definitely make your winter adventure a whole lot more enjoyable, but buying one is a big decision and they aren’t for everyone. If you want to learn more about all the pros and cons of owning an off-road trailer and what to look for if you're ready to buy one, you can check out our blog, “Everything You Need to Know Before Buying an Off-Road Trailer,” to learn more.
What Sleeping Gear Is Best for Winter Camping?
The bed inside of our Patriot Campers off-road trailer tent, topped with a Vector Offroad down blanket for additional warmth.
When it comes to sleeping gear, investing in a high-quality sleeping bag and pad that are designed for cold weather is essential, especially if you’re using a ground tent for shelter. Because nothing ruins a fun trip faster than a restless night spent shivering in the cold.
Sleeping bags come in a mind-boggling array of choices these days, which can make picking the right one a challenge. But there are three main features you should consider when choosing the best sleeping bag for your cold weather camping expedition: temperature rating, material, and shape.
Temperature rating. There are a lot of factors that go into a sleeping bag’s temperature rating but to keep things simple, it’s a general indiction of the lowest temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep an average person warm. But you aren’t an average person, are you? So, you should also factor in whether your internal furnace tends to run hot or cold and choose your temperature rating accordingly.
Material. When it comes to the stuff sleeping bags are made of, your choices of filling material are down and synthetic. You can find quality sleeping bags with either type of filling, and there are pros and cons to each.
Down sleeping bags off excellent insulation, they’re lightweight, and they’re very compressible. When looking for a down bag, you’ll want to pay attention to the fill power because the higher the fill power, the more warmth you get in a lighter bag that takes up less space. The downside to down is that when wet, these sleeping bags lose their power to insulate. If you’ll be doing your winter camping where it’s dry, and space and weight are a concern, a down sleeping bag is the way to go.
Synthetic sleeping bags are also a great option not only because they’re more affordable than down bags, but also because they retain their insulation even when wet. While synthetic bags will be bigger and heavier than down, if your cold weather camping plans will be taking you to a damp, rainy, or otherwise wet environment, a synthetic bag is going to be your best bet for warmth.
Shape. As far as the shape of your sleeping bag goes, a mummy bag is best for keeping you warm. Unlike the traditional, rectangle-shaped sleeping bag, a mummy bag conforms to the average body shape, being wider at the top and tapering towards the feet. This design minimizes excess space making it easier for your body heat to keep you warm. But not everyone feels comfortable in a mummy bag and some folks get downright claustrophobic. If that’s the case, a semi-rectangular bag is a good compromise between mummy and rectangular bags—they won’t provide quite as much warmth as a mummy bag, but will keep you toastier than a rectangular one.
If you’re using a ground tent and sleeping bag for your winter camping adventures, a sleeping pad is vital. The primary purpose of a sleeping pad is to provide insulation between you and the ground, preventing heat loss. The most important factor when choosing a sleeping pad is the R-value. This is a measure of thermal resistance and the higher the R-value, the more resistant your pad will be to heat flow through the pad's material (and away from you). For cold weather camping, a pad with an R-value of 5 or higher is best.
When going solo, Brad often sleeps in a ground tent with a sleeping bag and his trusty Thermarest MondoKing sleeping pad with an R-value of 7 (he says adding this piece of kit to his sleeping system was life changing!).
If good sleep is a priority for your winter camping expedition, and being warm and cozy is how you define good sleep, then you’ll probably want to include a few extras with your gear.
- Camp Quilt. Most folks use a camp quilt, which is essentially half a sleeping bag, because they tend to get too hot in a sleeping bag. But in the winter, when used as an extra layer on top of your sleeping bag, a quilt can add extra comfort and warmth. While not technically a camp quilt, we use our Vector Offroad down blanket as a top layer over our bedding and it has done an incredible job of keeping us very warm on some very cold nights.
- Electric Blanket. If you happen to have a power source (and if you’ve been overlanding for more than a minute, you probably do), then consider bringing an electric blanket. Just make sure you follow the manufacturer's recommended safety guidelines.
- Pillows. This is more about comfort than warmth, but a good pillow will not only support your head and neck, it will also provide added insulation between you and the ground.
- Regular Bedding. If you have a rooftop or trailer tent, there’s usually enough space for regular bedding if that's your preference. Just make sure to bring plenty of layers and ensure they're made from extra thick materials because standard bedding isn’t really designed for keeping you warm in cold, outdoor temperatures.
Extra Gear & Equipment for Warmth and Comfort
Our portable Kovea Cupid heater in the corner of our tent, warming the space up before bedtime.
Everything I’ve already mentioned—clothing, shelter, and sleeping gear—are mission essential for cold weather camping because not freezing to death and not being miserable are likely among your top priorities. I don’t know about you, but when I’m out on an adventure, I want to do more than just survive…I want to actually enjoy myself.
And that’s where bringing a few additional pieces of gear and equipment can make the difference between enduring your trip or having the time of your life. So, in no particular order, here are a few extra items we bring to level up our comfort when heading to colder climes.
Portable heaters come in a wide range of sizes, features, power options, and price points—there is truly something for everyone. But no matter which heater you choose, having one is a great way to warm up your tent or trailer when it’s cold outside. The most important thing about portable heaters is to use them safely by always following the manufacturer’s instructions. Currently, we’re using a Kovea Cupid Portable Heater heater to warm up our trailer tent before bedtime and first thing in the morning. This little heater packs a punch when it comes to keeping us warm, and it’s small enough to make packing easy. We also make sure we have adequate ventilation and always turn it off before going to sleep.
Hand and Toe Warmers
Hand and toe warmers are small, disposable pouches that you activate by either shaking or squeezing them. You can put them in your jacket pockets, toss them into your shoes, or even place them in your camp chair and sit on them (don’t knock it till you try it!), to keep your hands and feet (or your tush) warm. You can even put a few in your sleeping bag to warm it up before bedtime. We always bring plenty of Ignik Outdoors compostable hand and toe warmers on our trips when we know it’s going to be cold.
We have a few small down throw blankets to use on cold nights when we’re sitting around the campfire. We’ve had them for years and having that extra layer makes a huge difference when it comes to staying warm while sitting around a campfire on a chilly night.
Heated Seat Warmer
If you don’t want to use your hand and toe warmers to keep your tush warm when relaxing in your camp chair, you can add a heated seat warmer to your repertoire of camping equipment. I recently bought an Ignik Outdoors Heated Seat Pad, which is perfect for keeping my backside warm because most camp chairs have zero insulation (and hand warmers aren’t the most comfortable thing to sit on).
Be Prepared and Know Your Limits for the Best Winter Adventures
Brad bundled up in his layers with his morning coffee, going over our route for the day.
There’s no doubt that overlanding in wintry weather presents unique challenges when it comes to staying warm and comfortable, which is why it’s crucial to be prepared. With the right gear and a bit of planning, there’s no reason you have to miss out on exhilarating off-road adventures just because it’s cold outside.
And just as important as it is to be prepared, it’s equally important to be flexible and to know your limits. Because sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, the weather can have a mind of its own. And ultimately, the goal is to enjoy your journey, not spend your time being miserable.
On a recent trip to New Mexico’s back roads, we knew the temperatures were going to dip into the low-30s and high-20s, and we were ready for the cold. But when Mother Nature decided to throw in a snow storm with 40-mile an hour winds and gusts up to 60-miles one night, we decided to call it and seek shelter in a hotel.
It was absolutely the right decision because we wanted to enjoy our trip, not endure it. Thankfully, the winds were manageable for the rest of our time in the Land of Enchantment and we were able to continue our cold-weather adventure, and it was truly an enchanting experience. The sight of snow glistening on the sides of the trails with desert shrubs and red rocks peeking through was absolutely magical.
If you’ve never ventured out to overland or off-road in the cold, you should definitely give it a try...you just might have the adventure of a lifetime!
If you have some creative ways of keeping warm in cold weather that I didn't mention, please share them in the comments below!