COLD WEATHER BACKPACKING

Backpacking and Camping in cold weather is nothing new to many outdoor enthusiasts. They take it in stride. But more than likely learned by trial and error over some multiple trips, or “backyard” test conditions.

“Backyard” test conditions could be simply that. In your own backyard. It can also refer to testing gear via car camping close to home. Using a relatively safe environment in case there is an epic fail. If things go wrong, you can simply pack up and turn the heater on. Take a go at it another day.


For some, such as those doing this trip for the first time. Or new to backpacking. it is recommended you perform “backyard” test conditions with all of your gear. Even if your trip is scheduled for the most pleasant time of the year.

Adirondack winter camping – Western Pennsylvania, USA – Image courtesy of: Dustin Beach

The bulk of this article is written as a precaution to those new to cold camping, or inexperienced at cold camping. For those that know the possibility of cold camping, will be part of their adventure …. and they need more answers.

Many backpacking in the cold for the first time may have never even backpacked before. They may have only car camped, or trekked short distances. Adding Cold weather to the mix takes things to another level.

You have to also bear in mind you want to maintain your ideal pack weight.  Cold weather camping creates a bigger challenge.  But don’t do this trip with too much pack weight.  You don’t want to have a miserable hike out.

Many may dispute this and throw out that they went with 50lbs and it was a breeze.  Remember our information is written for true backpackers.  Those strapping their gear on their back, and packing it all in.  Then packing it all out again.  Our info is an accumulation of recommendations from many seasoned backpackers. 

For the majority of you true backpackers out there.  Most realize inflated claims are just plain BS. 

If you are asking this question because you truly don’t have experience?  Then you follow the directions of some people that must have extraordinary abilities. Most with no experience will wish they had listened to different voices.

By cold, we are talking night time lows below freezing. Above that temperature, you can misjudge, and pretty much survive it. Perhaps with some discomfort only. If night time lows are going to be above 30°F much of this info may not apply.

Getting rain soaked can really play another big factor. Even at higher temperatures than what we are talking about. We aren’t covering getting wet here. We assume you have prepared for staying dry as well.

Also see our page on HYPOTHERMIA Dealing with the Cold

One of the most irresponsible posts or comments we see on social media is people saying things like “conditions are normal”, “its no big deal”, etc. That is great for the experienced and well prepared. To the inexperienced this may cause them to not properly prepare.

The lower the temperatures drop below freezing, the more concerned you should be. The better prepared you should be. Better prepared with knowledge, your preparation, your gear, and your food.

By well prepared, we mean you have tested the clothing and gear you are going to take. You have actually used them in the temperatures you are expecting to face. Tested at a location you could easily get away from if you underestimated things. Tested for entire nights, not just 30 minutes or so.

There is a vast difference sleeping in 30°F temperatures, verses 20°F. Even more so, if it might dip to something like 15°F or lower. Add some rain/snow in there and things really get entertaining.

To the inexperienced, first timers facing a “cold’ camping adventure. Ask yourself. Did I actually test my gear in conditions I will encounter…and for an entire night? Or am I just going off a bunch of opinions of others? The later could well be flawed judgement that may get you in trouble.

Many that cold camp on purpose, do so because they live in a climate that is cold. Commonly cold many times of the year. Rather than staying cooped up in the house they venture off in the snow, the cold, and the rain. But many of these people have the advantage of pitching their tent in the backyard on a nasty night. Then sleeping in their tent & sleeping bag, and adjusting their gear to make this type of situation comfortable. I have used that method myself. Gear often doesn’t hold up to claims some people, and even manufacturers, make.

If for some reason a person running a “backyard test” gets too cold in the night, they can simply go in the house. Then tweak gear accordingly. Then have a “do over” another night. This all happens before they trek into some area miles away, with hours of hiking involved.

Don’t end up at a remote location to realize you made a serious misjudgement.

If you are going during a cold spell, are inexperienced, (don’t even care if you are traveling with experienced), and have not actually used your clothing and sleeping gear in the conditions you face. You need to do so.

We have a huge suggestion we hope you take us up on.
If you are backpacking during a cold spell. At a minimum we suggest you car camp the night before, at a continent location right near your vehicle. The sole purpose of making sure you, and your gear, are ready for the cold. You need a shake down before you backpack in for miles.

Set up your sleeping gear. Spend the entire evening outdoors. Prep food, eat, sleep, all outdoors. No cheating even once. You can’t hop in the car and run the heater or even sit in there out of the wind.

That goes for the whole night. Get in your tent and sleeping bag if need be.

Get up early in the morning. Make breakfast (outdoors), break camp. Are your ready for it? If so, head the final hour to the trail head.

You can even have a campfire. Whatever the situation will be at your destination.

If you made it through that night near your vehicle , you are probably ready unless the weather is predicted to get worse.

If you had issues staying warm while set up near your vehicle. Had to cheat to get warm. Found you need something additional. I would seriously consider not proceeding at this time.

Or perhaps you now know this trip is not for you, at this time, with the gear you have? It is better to find out here, than after you do miles on foot. No way to get warm unless you turn around and head back to your vehicle.

Without getting into the specifics of sleeping bags. You will find; as the quality and warmth factor, including while wet, goes up….. So does the price tag!

Many first timers to this trip don’t want to make the investment, go cheaper, and end up sleeping cold. Not wise if you are hitting it during a “cold” spell.

The flips side of that someone goes cheap on a warmer bag. Then the thing feels like you hauled a boat anchor along!

I have used many different sleeping bags over many years. Regardless of price, quality, material, style, brand, etc. I find the temperature rating of the bag to be kind of misleading. At least from what I experience as comfort. By about 20°F.

I have tried sleeping any conceivable way someone recommends. With thermals, with socks, no clothes, etc. I sleep solo. Those sleeping double, and can share body heat, may find this to be different for them?

Once I get the temperature rating I want. I start comparing weight, and the ability to keep you warm if the bag gets wet.

My recommendation for gear is to invest your money in a high quality sleeping bag & footwear.. Regardless if you invest in anything else of quality or not. Invest in a bag that contains materials that will keep you warm even if wet. Bear in mind there is not a catch all bag that covers all ranges of outside air temperatures. A cold weather bag may be too warm in other conditions.

I buy at least 20°F rated less then the lowest weather temperatures I will face. Meaning if the low was predicted at 20°F, I would be taking a 0°F rated bag.

I have multiple bags and take the bag rated as I suggest, based on the low temps I will face. Through the years that has been a good formula for staying comfortably warm.

You also want a thermal barrier between you and the ground. The best bet is some type of self inflating sleeping pad. Preferably full length. Expect Ultra-light versions to be expensive. But well worth the investment.

In cold conditions you need the ability to have warm/hot drinks. But high energy/high calories foods and snacks may suffice if you need to eliminate stove and fuel weight to help meet your ideal pack weight limit.

In cold conditions you need adequate layers of clothing. Including insulating under layers depend on how cold it is. Materials that breath and don’t retain moisture. Back up dry socks and clothing that is packed in water tight bags. Stocking caps that cover the ears and face if need be. Gloves. And by all means rain gear. High top waterproof footwear to keep water out. Many that backpack in rain or snow feel gaiters are a “must have” to keep your footwear dry.

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