I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the night. I was stone cold and the temperature was dropping. It was mid-December in the Brecon Beacons and I was cooped up, solo, in a tent. I had several more winter months to go on my hike through Britain, providing of course, I survived.
Thankfully I did, despite nightly temperatures of -12 C because I used these little tricks. (Tried and tested by none other than me!) So if you’re foolhardy enough to go winter camping yourself, or you’re a cold sleeper during summer months, check out these surprising winter camping tips.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Use Hand Warmers
I slapped these on everywhere – in my socks, on my abs, in my hands. Sometimes my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel the handwarmers but they always warmed my midrift up, occassionally to the point of feeling hot. Imagine!
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Do Sit Ups
Not exactly what you want to hear after a day on the hills, but not only will you have abs of steel (or at least hard jelly), you’ll be toasty warm. In your sleeping bag, raise your legs at the same time as you lift your torso off the ground. Do these sit ups as quickly as possible for as many times as it takes for you to get warm, keeping your arms inside your sleeping bag. For extra contortion movements, see if you can wiggle your feet/toes simultaneously. You’ll be the next Houdini in no time.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Bottle the Warmth
Make sure your metal water bottle can take boiling water and also that the rubber seal on the top won’t be damaged by it. (Try using an MSR fuel bottle top with a SIGG metal bottle.) Then wrap it in a spare sock (if one is damp, you can dry it out this way) so the bottle won’t burn you, and voila, you have a hot water bottle. Obviously don’t use a vacuum flask!
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Put a Sock in It
My tootsies need to sleep in three to four pairs of merino wool socks when winter camping. Remove any socks that are damp and put them, along with all other wet clothes, in the porch area of your tent. That will help reduce condensation. Or if they’re not soaking, you can put them under your sleeping bag to see if your body heat can dry them out.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Bags of Warmth
Get into your sleeping bag ASAP, and by that I mean as soon as you’re inside your tent. No faffing. Take your boots off, slap your extra layers on and huddle inside your cosy sleeping bag. If you don’t, you’ll be a lump of ice in no time.
Pay no attention to sleeping bag ‘extreme levels’, these are the ridiculous temperatures that manufacturers claim a man can stay inside for eight hours before getting hypothermia. They are, in a word, preposterous. Look at the comfort level instead and even then take that with a pinch of salt. Take off 3-5 degrees for a more accurate comfort temperature rating, especially for females who seem to be a million times colder than men. Alternatively, find a sweet-smelling male hiker to keep you warm*.
*Cannot guarantee these actually exist.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Layer Up
Yep, I know the theory of ‘wear as few layers as possible to allow the hot air to reach your body’. I also know the theory of ‘don’t eat all your chocolate in one go or you’ll feel sick’, and that isn’t true either. If you’re already freezing, you need to layer up. Not once did I wear just my merino base layers camping in winter because rigor mortis would have set in in about three seconds, even in a sleeping bag claiming a comfort level of -10 (which was the temperature I endured several times).
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Forget Hygiene
There’s no point changing out of your hiking gear into separate sleeping gear when it’s freezing, unless of course it’s wet. All you’re doing is allowing the little body heat that you have retained to escape in the process of showing your bare skin to the elements. Instead, keep the same clothes on and simply hand out smelling salts to any passersby the next day, and Bob’s your uncle. Although Bob may disown you because of your bad hygiene habits.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Down or Synthetics?
I used a down sleeping bag which is much warmer than synthetic for the same weight. The disadvantage was it always got damp from condensation in the tent, even when wrapped in a bivvy bag. And when wet, down won’t perform unlike synthetic. To be honest, it’s a personal choice, and it will depend on the temperatures you’re expecting to sleep in. The colder the temps, the warmer the bag you’ll need (and that will go in the direction of down).
When it comes to down jackets, sleeping in one might result in you sweating in it, making it damp. That’s why I use synthetic Primaloft insulation or Icebreaker merino wool jackets to sleep and hike in.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Use a Down Sleeping Mat
Most of the cold comes from the ground so you need a toasty inflatable roll mat. The Exped DownMat Lite 5 was my mat of choice (600g plus the pump 45g) and will get you to -12 C. I loved it. Unless you end up sleeping in a puddle, in which case you’re in serious trouble anyway, there’s no need to worry about this getting damp like a down sleeping bag would.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Get Grounded
Ensure you pop a groundsheet under your tent to help stave off some of the cold from beneath you. It will help with condensation, too.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Pop your Bag in a Bag
Take everything out of your backpack and pop it over your legs and, ta-da! You’ve got an extra layer. It’ll probably only reach your knees and not allow you to move in the slightest, but you’ll be a pro at playing dead in no time. Just make sure you’ve been to the loo before all the layering up shinanigans begin.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Use a Sleeping Bag Liner
Silk is the lightest (but most expensive), while fleece ones are bulky. They will typically add 2-3 degrees’ warmth as well as keep your sleeping bag smelling much fresher.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – In the Buff
Pop a Buff over your face, otherwise your nose might fall off in the cold. Alright, so that might be a slight exaggeration in Britain, but it will feel true enough if your conk is left uncovered. Place the Buff so it only goes over the bridge of your nose so you’re not breathing on it or you’ll create condensation which in turn can easily transform into ice. It’s great fun this winter camping malarkey.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Camp under a Canopy
The forest canopy will retain more heat than if you’re exposed on a hill/mountain/windy cliff. Except if it’s ultra wet and the damp will seem like it’s clawing at your tent. On the plus side, though, the canopy can reduce the amount of rain hitting your tent, meaning it doesn’t sound like you’re being pelted by a machine gun right through the night.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Pitch with Shelter
Sounds simple enough but not everyone does it. I always camped with wind protection when I could, even in summer (the wind is fierce in the Scottish islands). Use a dip in a hill, a wall, an old house, anything to stop the harsh, winter wind biting through your tent.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Use a 4-Season Tent
One designed for winter, but ensure it has enough ventilation (not like my MSR Access 1 – read the review here) to try and combat as much condensation as possible.
❄ Winter Camping Tips – Go Piping Hot
Eat hot food, drink hot drinks. NEVER skip eating at night and always ensure you have enough water for a piping hot meal and drink. You’ll have lost most of your body heat by the time you’ve pitched and climbed into your sleeping bag and you’ll need to build it back up. Eating chilli seeds can also help create a rush of inward heat, providing you’re not a food wimp.
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Do your bit for homeless people this winter
Meteorologists are predicting winter 2018/2019 to be the coldest in Britain for 70 years.
I chose to camp out in winter with gear designed for freezing temperatures.
But thousands of homeless people on our streets aren’t so lucky.
You can donate clean, warm socks, gloves, fleeces, hats, hand warmers, sleeping bag liners, sleeping bags, hot drinks, water and hot food, toiletries and sanitary towels/tampons to homeless people directly (ask if they need any of your items, don’t simply presume) or take items along to a homeless charity. You might want to look at Crisis, Shelter, Centre Point, The Salvation Army, too, but check the items that they will accept first.
Jane Batchelor spent a year hiking and camping through Britain and she survived to tell the tale, one blog post at a time.