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 don’t have good gear?
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 cheap gear. Nighttime temperatures of about 50°F to 65°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. This guide will go over them and give you advice for camping comfortably even in the cold.
- Gear Requirements for Camping in the Cold
- How Cold Can It Get Camping?
- Camping in 20, 30 and 40 Degree Temperatures
- Tips for Camping in Cold Weather
Gear Requirements for Camping in the Cold
Tents for Cold Weather
Surprisingly, you tent doesn’t matter as much as much as your sleeping bag or pad. Tents actually don’t trap that much heat. What they do is block wind and snow (which is important for warmth).
However, the type of tent can make a big difference when it comes to condensation. When the weather gets cold, condensation can build up inside the tent, accumulate on the roof and start dripping on your head. This means you might get wet, and thus cold.
Single wall tents are particularly bad in terms of condensation. For this reason, only use a double-wall tent when camping in the cold. If you must use a single-wall tent, then leave the door a bit open (even if it seems counterintuitive) so condensation doesn’t build up.
Sleeping Bags for Cold Weather
Sleeping bag ratings are very misleading. The number you see listed is actually the lower limit. Thus, a sleeping bag rated for 30 degrees F is not suitable for 30F weather. The bag will keep you alive at that temperature, but you probably won’t feel warm. Instead, you need to make sure the comfort rating of the sleeping bag matches the temperature of where you will be camping.
It can get colder than anticipated, especially in springtime or fall where the weather changes quickly. To make sure you don’t end up cold at night, choose a sleeping bag which has a comfort rating less than what you think the temperature will be.
For example: If you expect the nighttime temperature to be 50F, then choose a bag with a comfort rating of 30-40F.
Sleeping Bag Liners
Sleeping bag liners are basically silk or nylon bags that you put inside your sleeping bag. A sleeping bag liner can add over 10 degrees F to your sleeping bag rating. How much it will add will depend on your bags initial rating: The higher the bag rating, the more the liner will add to it.
In addition to keeping you warm, liners are soft to sleep on and keep your sleeping bag clean. They are cheap to buy (at least cheaper than a new sleeping bag) and will give your sleeping bag a lot more range. Some travelers take to hostels to avoid bedbugs.
If you don’t have a good sleeping pad, the ground will literally suck the heat out of your body (for us science nerds, this is referred to as conductive heat loss). Even if you have a warm sleeping bag, you will still end up cold at night.
Sleeping pads are rated in R-value, which refers how much the pad can Resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better the pad will insulate you from the ground. As a general rule, you need an R-value of 2-3 for cold weather camping.
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 one pad on top of another to make it warmer. For example, a pad with an R-value of 1 on a pad with an R-value of 2.5 will give an accumulative insulation of R-3.5.
- Do NOT use a pump-type air mattress: Air mattresses might be comfortable, but they are heat sinks. The exception is if the air mattress is insulated, such as these options.
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.
Your sleeping clothes can add considerable amount of warmth while camping. But be careful about wearing too many clothes to bed. If you end up sweating, you will start to feel cold very quickly because of evaporative heat loss.
To make sure you stay dry and warm at night, invest in some good Merino wool base layers. These wick moisture away from your body so you don’t end up wet. If it’s very cold, wear fleece pajamas on top of those.
*Don’t forget a hat. You lose a lot of body heat through your head!
When you get wet, the water will start evaporating off of your skin. Evaporation causes evaporative heat loss, which is why you get so cold when wet. Even in mild temperatures in the 40s or 50s, wetness can make you dangerously cold: hypothermia can and does happen at as high as 60 degrees F.
For this reason, it is incredibly important that you have adequate rain gear whenever camping in colder weather. Make sure you know or have:
- A rain jacket and rain pants: It’s rather pointless to bring a rain jacket if you don’t have pants as well. These are my top picks for rain pants for women and kids.
- Tarp and rope: You can use this to create a rain shelter so you have somewhere dry to hang out.
- Know how to set up a tent for rain: You’ll need to completely peg your tent out so water doesn’t enter from the sides or bottom.
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.
For more, read post about what to do when it rains while camping.
A Way to Stay Warm Around Camp
You probably won’t have a problem staying warm during the daytime when camping, especially if you are hiking or staying active. However, the temperatures start dropping quickly at nighttime. Unless you want to crawl into your sleeping bag right away or run laps around the campsite, you need to have a way to stay warm until bedtime.
- Campfire: If you will be tent camping in cold weather, try to choose somewhere that allows campfires. Some campgrounds don’t allow campfires at all and others require you to use a portable campfire pit.
- Insulation and shell layers: Once you stop moving, your body stops producing heat. You’ll need to immediately put on an insulation layer (like a puffy jacket and fleece pants) and a shell layer to trap that heat (like a softshell jacket and pants) over your base layer.
- Portable heaters: There are portable gas heaters which you can bring camping in cold weather. Some (like these) can even be used inside your tent.
How Cold Can It Get Camping?
Figuring how cold it will be on your camping trip can actually be complicated. You’ll need to factor in elevation, find an accurate forecast, and plan for daytime and nighttime temperatures. Even then, you’ll still need to be prepared for sudden big temperature drops.
Temperature and Elevation
There is less air at higher elevation, which means that the air can’t trap as much heat. As a result, the temperature will be a lot colder at the top of the mountain than at its base.
For example, look at the screenshot below. It shows daytime temperatures of Yosemite’s Grizzly Peak in November. There is a 20F temperature difference between the high and low elevations.
Finding the Forecast of a Campground
When you search for the forecast of where you are going camping, it might not be accurate: the weather station might not be located at the same elevation as your campground.
For example, most forecasts for the Smoky Mountains are based on Gatlinburg, TN which is only 1,200 feet in elevation. The highest campground in the Smoky Mountains is at over 5,000 feet. That’s a huge difference in elevation and thus a big temperature difference.
To get a more accurate forecast, look for a weather station located near the campground and on a similar elevation. There’s a really cool website called Mountain-forecast.com which gives you live temperatures at different elevations of mountains. The NOAA also has an option for “zone weather forecasts”. Just click on the map where you are going and it will give you a forecast for that specific area.
If you can’t find a forecast at the elevation of where you are going camping:
- Get the forecast for the nearest weather station.
- Find the elevation of the weather station and your campground. Then calculate the difference between the two.
- 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. (source)
Daytime vs. Nighttime Temperatures
At low elevations, the difference between highs/lows isn’t too much. But, at high elevations, there can be a huge difference. It can be scorching hot during the day and freezing cold at night.
For example, at Grant Village Campground (7,800 feet) in Yellowstone, summertime temperatures are usually in the 70s/80s but can drop to 30s/40s at night. It’s even snowed on July 4th there!
Here are some temperature ranges to give you an idea of how much temperature can drop at night:
- Rocky Mountains: Summer temperatures in the high 90s during the day and 60s and 70s and night
- Yellowstone National Park: 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)
Weather When Camping in Spring and Fall
Weather in fall and spring can be unpredictable, especially at higher elevations. It can be very warm one day only to drop to frigid temperatures the next.
Take a look at the screenshot below from Wunderground. Colorado Springs (elevation 6,000 ft). It went from a low of 57F on Sept 7th to a literal freezing 31 degrees F on the next day. This could create a miserable – or even dangerous – camping experience for anyone who wasn’t prepared.
Because of these drastic temperature changes in spring an fall, you’ll need to plan for summer and winter. You’ll need things like UV protection and warm-weather clothes, but also a good mid-layer and outer shell in case it gets colder than expected.
Camping in 20, 30 and 40 Degree Weather
Camping at nighttime temperatures in the 40s can actually be very pleasant. It is cold, but not dangerously cold. You can even still get away with having mediocre gear and clothes. That’s not to say I recommend it, but you’ll survive with a cheap sleeping bag and pad.
Note that some people “sleep warmer” than others. Once I even stuck my daughter into my sleeping bag to keep myself warm. She was toasty but I was shivering!
When temperatures get into the 30s, you’ll want to invest in better gear. Or, if you don’t mind lugging around a lot of extra gear, you can double up: use two sleeping pads and two sleeping bags.
The main issue with camping at nighttime temperatures of 30 or below is that there’s a good chance that it will rain during some point of your trip. Likewise, everything can end up wet when nighttime frosts melt at daybreak. If you don’t have experience staying dry when camping, at least bring some extra warm clothes as backups.
When camping at 20 degree weather, things start to get very uncomfortable. If you don’t have the right gear or knowledge, you can end up with frostbite – or worse!
I wouldn’t want to take young kids camping in this cold (especially my daughter who complains about having to wear her “dorky” clothes, but that’s another issue…).
On the flip side, there are a lot fewer campers out when the weather gets this cold. You’ll have popular campsites all to yourself and the snow-covered peaks can be beautiful.
But don’t rush it: Practice camping at warmer temperatures first before you test your gear (and endurance) at 20 degrees.
Tips for Camping in the Cold
Sleep in Two Sleeping Bags
Another solution what works well when camping in very cold weather (think below freezing weather) is to use two sleeping bags. It’s a bit tricky to figure out how warm two sleeping bags will be when cocooned together though.
David Freeman, for example, uses a 15 degree down bag with a 40 degree synthetic bag when camping at -30 degrees F. By contrast, his wife needs the 15 degree bag with a -10 bag.
Another camper said that 15F + 35F = comfortable at zero degrees. As you can see, it really varies depending on the two sleeping bags being used together.
If you sleep in two sleeping bags, follow these guidelines:
- Make sure the sleeping bags actually fit inside each other. Check this before you go.
- Check how compressed the bags get when put inside each other. Compressing the loft means the bag won’t insulate as well.
- It’s usually best to put the thinner-profile bag inside; this will cause the least compression.
- However, down bags should be inside a synthetic bag. The reasoning is that moisture from your body will travel outwards towards the synthetic bag (which can handle wetness better than down).
Avoid 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.
- Sleeping with your head inside the sleeping bag: If it is cold while camping, your first reaction might be to put your head inside the sleeping bag. But 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, don’t go crazy and use a 0F bag in 40F weather. You will end up sweating a lot at night. The sweat will cause you to get very cold while sleeping.
- 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. See this list of the best toddler sleeping bags.
Layer Your Clothes the Right Way
The key to staying warm is to wear layers of clothes. You can get away with wearing cheap fleeces or wool sweaters for your mid layer, but invest in a good quality base layer that can wick moisture away from your body. Never wear cotton; it absorbs moisture and will make you cold from wetness.
The Hot Water Bottle Trick
A lot of websites recommend filling an un-insulated water bottle with hot water, then putting it in your sleeping bag.
This will heat up your sleeping bag, but it is also dangerous. What if the water bottle leaks? Your sleeping bag – which is supposed to keep you alive – is not wet!
If you are going to try this, then be extra cautious. Make sure the bottle won’t leak and still wrap it in a towel in case it does.
Choose a Campground that Allows Fires
In spring and fall, the days are short. What the heck are you going to do at camp in the frigid cold when the sun goes down at 5pm? Sitting around a campfire gives you something to do (I call it “caveman TV”) and goes a long way to keeping you warm.
Cooking At Below Freezing Weather
Bear in mind that isobutane camping stoves don’t work well in below freezing weather. You’ll want to switch to liquid white gas, which performs better in the cold.
No matter how cold it gets, NEVER COOK IN YOUR TENT. You can end up dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Bring Extra Calories
Make sure you pack a lot more food than you normally would camping when it’s cold. You can use this calculator to get an idea of how many calories to bring.
Use a Pad for Sitting On
If you don’t have camp chairs, sitting on the cold ground will suck the heat from your body. A close-cell foam pad is great to sit on and will also keep your butt dry.
Orient Tent towards Sun
When setting up camp, pay attention to which direction the sun will rise. Make sure your tent will get the morning sun. It goes a long way to thawing frost and warming you up in the cold morning.
Go to the Bathroom before Sleeping
There is a myth that a full bladder will make you warmer. There’s no truth to this! Make sure you go to the bathroom before bed. Otherwise you’ll have to crawl out of your warm sleeping bag in the cold night.
Beware of Condensation
Even if you vent your tent, condensation can still form inside on very cold nights camping. The condensation can soak your gear. Keep all your gear covered with garbage bags or your backpack cover so it doesn’t get wet.
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