Mom Goes Camping

How Cold Is Too Cold for Tent Camping?

how cold is too cold for tent camping

There are people who go winter camping in the snow.  People like climate researchers have been known to camp in the antarctic.  For these extreme adventurers, it is never too cold to go camping…

But what about the rest of us- How cold is too cold to go tent camping? And what about if you have small children or a baby?

The quick answer is this:

Nighttime temperatures in the high 30s/low 40s Fahrenheit is too cold to go tent camping for inexperienced campers with amateur gear.  Nighttime temperatures of about 50°F to 75°F are most comfortable for camping.

However, there are a lot of variables to consider when determine how cold is too cold to go camping.  If you aren’t sure whether you’ll be able to safely and comfortably camp, please read this entire guide.

Contents:

  1. Camping Gear and Temperature
  2. Daytime vs. Nighttime Temperature
  3. The Rain Factor
  4. Tips for Camping Comfortably in Cool Weather

 

Camping Gear and Temperature

camping in extreme cold

With the right gear, you can camp in extreme cold comfortably.

Those people who go camping in the arctic have insane gear which is suited to extreme cold temperatures.  They also have the knowhow to use it.  But, again, I’m talking about normal people and their gear.

By “normal,” I mean people who have a bit of camping experience.  They have decent gear such as a mummy sleeping bag and 3-season tent, but didn’t spend a fortune on it.  And let’s assume that we want to know the temperature for sleeping comfortably while camping – not just surviving!

Understanding Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings

The biggest mistake that newbie campers make is using their sleeping bag rating to determine what temperature they can handle.

Those sleeping bag ratings can be very misleading! You can have a sleeping bag rated for 32F and it still be too cold for camping at that temperature. It has to do with how the sleeping bag is rated.

As of 2005, most good sleeping bags use the EN 13537 rating system.  This rating is determined by putting a heated manikin into the sleeping bag.  There are sensors on the manikin which determine temperature.  Using this information, the temperature range of the bag is determined.

EN 13537 sleeping bag ratings

These temperature ranges are made under the assumption that the person is using a thin closed-cell foam pad, is in a tent, and has one base layer of thermal underwear.

If, for example, your sleeping pad is inadequate, then at bag with a comfort range of 15-29F might feel very cold at 40F.

You’ve got to consider the ENTIRE sleep system, not just the sleeping bag temperature rating!!!


 

Silk Sleeping Bag Liners

One of the best investments you can make for camping comfortably is a silk liner for your sleeping bag.  These are basically silk bags that you sleep inside of within your sleeping bag.

A silk liner can add 10+ degrees F to your sleeping bag rating.  It is also soft to sleep on and keeps your sleeping bag clean.   They are cheap to buy and will give your sleeping bag a lot more range. (They are also great to take to hostels to avoid bedbugs!)

sea to summit reactor thermolite

The Reactor Thermolite silk sleeping bag liner by Sea to Summit weighs just 9oz and can add 14F to your bag – turning a cold bag into a warm one. You can buy it here.

 

Friendly Swede sleeping bag liner

This silk sleeping bag by The Friendly Swede adds about 5 degrees F to your sleeping bag. It is an affordable option. You can buy it here.


 

Sleeping Bag Mistakes

Any of these mistakes could also make it too cold to go camping, despite having a bag rated for cold weather.

  • Not fluffing a down sleeping bag: Down sleeping bags are usually rated for very cold weather. However, they only provide insulation if the down feathers are fluffy. If you use a down bag straight from the compression sack, the feathers will be scrunched together and won’t provide insulation. Thus, you have to fluff a down bag before using.
  • Inadequate insulation below you: When you lie on a sleeping bag, the weight of your body compresses the insulation, making it ineffective at warming you. The sleeping pad not only provides insulation from the cold ground (more on this below), but also helps keep the bottom of your sleeping bag fluffy so you don’t lose heat from below.
  • Sleeping with your head in the sleeping bag: If it is cold while camping, your first reaction might be to put your head inside the sleeping bag. But, as David Freeman points out here, this will cause vapor from your breath to get into the bag.  Even a slight amount of moisture will cause you to feel cold! If your head is cold, put on a hat instead.
  • Choosing a sleeping bag which is too warm: While it is smart to err on the side of caution when choosing a sleeping bag, you don’t want to use a winter sleeping bag in summer. You will end up sweating a lot at night. The sweat will cause you to get very cold while sleeping. Likewise, don’t over-bundle your children when putting them to bed!!!
  • Going to bed with wet clothes: They may feel dry but your daytime clothes probably have some moisture in them from sweat. It only takes slight amounts of moisture to make you feel cold, so be sure to have clean, dry sleepwear to put on before getting into your sleeping bag.
  • Using an adult sleeping bag for children: The extra room means that the sleeping bag won’t trap warmth as well.  Buy a child-sized sleeping bag for your kids.  If you really can’t afford one, then tie off the bottom of the adult sleeping bag so it fits your kid better.


 

The Sleeping Pad Matters More than You Think

As mentioned above, it is your ENTIRE sleep system which matters for determining how cold of weather you can go camping in – not just the sleeping bag temperature rating.

But, if you have to choose between a good sleeping bag and a good sleeping mat, I’d invest in the mat.

I only learned how important a sleeping pad is after spending a very cold night camping in a cave.  It was warm inside the tent, and the top of my body was warm.  But the cold ground below me was sucking heat out – even through the sleeping mat!

A warmer sleeping bag would have just made me sweat.  What I needed was something better than the crappy foam mat I was using.

camping setup

These cheap foam pads are usually fine for summer camping, but were completely inadequate for camping on the cold floor of a cave!

 

Here are tips for getting the right sleeping pad:

  • Choose the highest R-value: Sleeping pads are rated in R-value. Choose the highest R-value you reasonably can. If you are backpacking, you’ll be limited because high R-value pads are heavier.  But it is worth carrying a few more ounces to get extra comfort!!!
  • R-value is accumulative: High R-value sleeping pads can be very expensive. If you are on a limited budget, you can use multiple sleeping pads. The R-value will be accumulative.  For example, pads with an R-value of 3 and 4 will give an accumulative insulation of R-7.
  • Do NOT use a pump-type air mattress: Air mattresses might be comfortable, but they are heat sinks (the exception is the Therm-a-Rest MondoKing with an R-value of 11.4) You need a sleeping pad which is closed-cell or self-inflating.  If you do want to use an air mattress, then put an emergency blanket underneath you to help trap some heat.

 

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite is one of the best backpacking sleeping pads.  It has an R-value of 3.2 and only weighs 12 ounces.  It’s a bit pricy though :(.  If you want something cheaper but nearly as good, check out these affordable Therm-a-Rest alternatives.

Thermarest NeoAir Xlite

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite is one of the best lightweight sleeping pads for 3 season weather. Buy it here.


 

Choose the Appropriate Camp Sleepwear

Your sleeping clothes can add considerable amount of warmth while camping.  But don’t go too crazy.

It is better to wear lighter clothes than end up sweating – which would make you feel cold very quickly.

  • Change into clean sleeping clothes before getting into your bag. Even if they feel dry, your daytime clothes contain moisture.
  • Choose breathable sleepwear for camping.
  • Merino wool is great for sleeping. It is warm but won’t make you sweat.
  • If you can’t afford Merino wool, fleece is also good for cold weather camping.
  • Bring gloves. Having cold hands can make your entire body feel cold. So have gloves to put on just in case you’re feeling cold.
  • Wear a hat. You lose a lot of body heat through your head!


 

Your Tent

I saved this gear topic for last because your tent doesn’t matter nearly as much as your sleeping bag and pad.

I’ve slept in cheap $50 tents and pricy $500+ tents and had the same level of comfort in each.  However, there are some cases where your tent will affect how warm or cold you sleep.

  • Windproof level: I have a two-layer tent and it doesn’t let much wind get through. One-layer tents tent to let more wind through, which could cause you to get very cold while camping.
  • Tent Size: Small tents will trap some of your body heat, making it warmer in the tent. Very large tents take longer to warm up and aren’t as good for cold weather camping.
  • Condensation: If your tent is single-layer, it better have some good ventilation. Otherwise, condensation will build up inside the tent and drip down on you.  You’ll wake up in the middle of the night wet and cold!  The tradeoff is that ventilation will let some of the body heat escape.  Professional campers vent their tents even during winter camping, so don’t make the mistake of closing all the vent windows!

 

summer family camp setup

The setup above looks good, but it is only suitable for camping in very warm temperatures.

  • The tent is too big to retain body heat.
  • The sleeping bags aren’t mummy and won’t retain heat well.  They are too big for children.
  • The sleeping pads are thin so heat will be lost to the ground.
  • The inflatable mattress is a heat sink.
  • An elevated crib is better than sleeping on the ground, but cold air still circulates underneath. There needs to be an insulated pad inside the crib!


 

Daytime vs. Nighttime Temperature

If you are going camping at low elevations, then the temperature won’t drop too much at night.  However, in the mountains, it can be scorching hot during the day and freezing cold at night.  This is because of the lower air pressure.

If you can’t find mountaintop temperatures for where you are going, you can use this formula (source):

  • When there is no snow or rain, temperature decreases approximately 5.4°F for every 1000 feet in elevation. Or 9.8°C for every 1000 meters in elevation.
  • If there is snow, rain, or you are in a cloud, temperature decreases approximately 3.3°F for every 1000 feet or 6°C for every 1000 meters.

This formula isn’t foolproof though.  Temperatures can drop a lot more at night on a mountaintop than they do at its base.

Here are some temperature ranges to give you an idea of how much temperature can drop at night:

  • Rocky Mountains: During the summer, temperatures are in the high 90s during the day and 60s and 70s and night
  • Yellowstone National Park: During the summer, temperatures are in the 70s during the day and drop to below freezing at night in higher elevations. In spring and fall, temperatures are in the 30s to 60s during the day and drop to teens or single digits at night.
  • Zion National Park: During the spring and fall, temperatures are up to 90F. At night, the temperature can differ by over 30 degrees.
  • Grand Canyon, South Rim: Summer temperatures are usually in the 80s during the day and 40s/50s at night.
  • Yosemite National Park: In summer, daytime temperatures are in the high 80s and drop to the 50s at night. In fall, daytime temperatures are in the 50s to 70s and drop to the 30s/40s at night. (source – nps)

 

It isn’t just in the mountains that temperature fluctuations can occur though. During springtime in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, for example, it is not unheard of for temperature swings of 50F to occur in a single day. (source)

temperature fluctuations during camping

Morning frost by Lyell River in Yosemite.  During the day, it was t-shirt weather!


 

The Rain Factor

If you don’t have adequate gear for hiking and camping in the rain, it can be a miserable experience.  I talk about that in this post about what to do if it rains while camping.

The main risk is that you can get wet.  Even if it is relatively warm outside, the wetness will reduce your body temperature. You might end up with hypothermia!

bad camping setup for rain

This tent was set up incorrectly and became flooded in the rain!

 

Tips:

  • Make sure you know how to set up your tent for rain. Otherwise you will end up with puddles on your floor and damp walls.
  • Invest in good rain gear: At the very least, you’ll need a rain jacket or poncho. If you are camping in spring, you’ll want to get waterproof pants.
  • Consider your level of camping experience. If you are new to camping, it is probably best to start in summer. Even if it rains in summer, the showers don’t usually last very long.  If you are new to camping and want to go during the rainy season, make sure you have an exit plan – like being able to get to a hotel to dry off if necessary.

 

 

Tips for Camping Comfortably in Cool Weather

  • Start with somewhere warm. Ideally, newbies to camping should go in summer. Even if you make a mistake, the nighttime temperatures probably aren’t cold enough to cause hypothermia.
  • Have an exit plan. If camping at a campground, then your exit plan might be “sleep in the car.” If you had to backpack to the campsite, then think about what you’d do in the worst case scenario.  Can you hike out at night? Is there a ranger you can call for emergency help?
  • Test your gear before going. Especially make sure you know how to pitch the tent so rain doesn’t get into it.
  • Check forecasts with park rangers. Forecasts you find online don’t always account for temperature fluctuations. If in doubt, call the ranger and ask about weather conditions and whether your gear is adequate.
  • Wear breathable, quick-drying layers. Layering your clothes makes it possible to adjust to temperature fluctuations. Breathable materials will prevent you from sweating (and getting cold).  Wool and synthetics are better than cotton because they dry faster.

 

What’s the coldest you’ve ever gone tent camping in? How did it go? Let us know in the comments! 


Image credits:

Thejaswi I Our tent CC BY SA 2.0,
Mt. Olympos” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by teo de pap,
Mt. Ichankoppe ski touring and winter ca” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Robert Thomson,
Frosted Tent” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by bartt,
inside of the tent” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by freeformkatia

Resources:

https://www.outdoorindustry.org/pdf/EN13537Mccullough062209.pdf,
https://www.quora.com/Is-14-degrees-Celsius-a-good-temperature-for-camping

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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, beetle lover, sometimes sculptress, couchsurfer, and loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 6-year old daughter. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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