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?

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.  This guide will go over them and give you advice for camping comfortably even in the cold.


Contents:

 

Camping in 40 vs. 30 vs. 20 Degree Weather

camping in extreme cold

40 Degree Weather

When the nighttime low is in the 40s, it’s cold – but not dangerously cold.  You can still get away with having mediocre gear and clothes.  That’s not to say I recommend it, but you’ll survive.

Some small investments can go a long way to improving your experience camping at 40 degree weather.  Instead of getting a new sleeping bag, you can get a sleeping bag liner (more on this below).  Double up on cheap foam sleeping pads.  And snuggle close to your camping buddies for extra warmth.

Once I even stuck my daughter into my sleeping bag to keep me warm in 40F weather.  She was toasty but I was freezing from all the energy I lost hauling our gear up the mountain.

 

30 Degree Weather

Camping at 30 degree weather is where it can start to get dangerous.  Not only are you near or below freezing nighttime temps, but there’s a good chance that it will rain during some point of your trip.

Don’t skimp on the quality of your gear.  You’ll also want to invest in a good base layer and mid layer (it will be warmer during the day so you can get by with a crappier jacket).  A quality base and mid will keep you from getting all sweaty and ending up wet at night.

 

20 Degree Weather

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 kid who complains about having to wear 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.

If you have cabin fever and really need to get outdoors during the cold months, consider doing what my family does: Travel somewhere warm.  It was a blast trekking in the jungles of Peru and deserts of Egypt in February while our friends were freezing their butts off in zero degree weather!

 

Sleeping Bags for Cold Weather Camping

A sleeping bag with a 30 degree rating should be good for 30 degree temperatures – right? Actually, no.  This is because of the misleading way that sleeping bags are rated.

 

Understanding Sleeping Bag Ratings

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.

Many brands misleadingly list the Lower Limit Rating of their sleeping bag.  You might survive at this temperature, but you will not feel warm.  What you really need to look at is the Comfort Rating.

EN 13537 sleeping bag ratings

Play It Safe:

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 temperature to be 20F, then choose a bag with a comfort rating of 10F or 15F

 

What if you don’t want to buy a new sleeping bag for cold weather?

Winter sleeping bags can be really expensive.  It might not make sense to buy one for occasional use. Plus, they are bulky and too warm to be used for summer camping.  If you don’t want to shell out the cash for a new sleeping bag, here are two solutions.

Sleeping Bag Liners

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

A sleeping bag liner can add 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.

Liners are 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!)

Tough Outdoors Sleeping Bag Liner

This sleeping bag liner by Tough Outdoors adds 5-10 degrees F to your sleeping bag. It is a very affordable option. You can buy it here.

Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme

This sleeping bag liner is a bit heavier (14oz) and pricier, but adds up to 25F to your sleeping bag rating. Buy it here.

 

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.  By contrast, his wife needs the 15 degree bag with a -10 bag.

Another camper said that 15 + 35 = 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 together.
  • 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 inside a synthetic bag. The reasoning is that moisture from your body will travel outwards towards the sytnethic bag (which can handle wetness better than down).

 

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.

 

The Importance of a Good Sleeping Pad

As mentioned above, it is your ENTIRE sleep system which matters for determining how cold of weather you can go camping in.

If you don’t have a good sleeping pad, the ground will literally suck the heat out of your body (for your science nerds, this is referred to as conductive heat loss).

 

R-Values of Sleeping Pads

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 multiple sleeping pads. The R-value will be accumulative.  For example, pads with an R-value of 1 and 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 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.

 

Sleepwear for Cold Weather Camping

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.
  • Wear layers: Just like during the day, you’ll stay more comfortable if you wear layers of pajamas. Choose a Merino wool base and an insulating mid-layer.
  • Choose breathable sleepwear for camping. You don’t want to get sweaty and wet, which will make you cold.
  • 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

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).

I’ve slept in cheap $50 tents and pricy $500+ tents and had the same level of comfort in each.  So there’s no need to rush out and buy a 4-season tent for the shoulder seasons.

However, there are some cases where your tent will affect how warm or cold you sleep.

Windproof level:

If wind is getting into your tent, it will carry heat away and cause you to freeze your butt off.  Not to mention it’s annoying to listen to your tent flapping around all night.

Two-Layer vs. One-Layer Tents

One-layer tents are OK for warm summer nights, but not at all adequate for cold weather camping.  The main issue is that there isn’t any ventilation in one-layer tents.  Condensation will form on the top of the tent and drip down on your all night.

As I’ve said a zillion times already, wetness is your enemy in cold weather.  Even some two-layer tents have to be ventilated to prevent condensation!

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.

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.

 

The Rain Factor

If you are camping in the cold, that probably means it is spring or fall. And that almost inevitably means rain.

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.  Yes, hypothermia can and does happen at as high as 60 degrees F!

I can’t stress how important it is that you keep yourself dry when camping in colder weather.

Below are some tips.  Or read this post about what to do when it rains while camping.

  • Always pack for rain, even the forecast calls for good weather.  That means bringing rain gear like a hardshell or rain jacket and waterproof pants too.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bring a tarp to make a rain shelter: This will give you a dry to cook dinner, hang out, and cook dinner.
bad camping setup for rain

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

 

Finding the (Real) Temperature of Where You’ll Be Camping

Obviously, you will want to check the forecast of where you are going camping when planning your trip.  But figuring out the weather of where you are camping isn’t actually so straightforward.

 

Weather Forecasts Don’t List Elevation!

Going camping in October? You can quickly to a search to find the average highs and lows for that period.  But the forecast doesn’t list where the weather station taking the reading is. The weather station might be located at a lower elevation than where you are going.

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 Smokys is at over 5,000 feet.  That’s a huge difference in elevation and thus a big temperature difference.

There’s a really cool website called Mountain-forecast.com which gives you live temperatures at different elevations of the mountains.  Unfortunately, they don’t have an option to see past averages, but you can use it to get the name of the weather station nearest to your campground.

Below is a screenshot of Yosemite’s Grizzly Peak in November. Notice the 20F temperature difference between the high and low elevations!

weather forecast yosemite by elevation

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.

 

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.

If you can’t find a forecast at the elevation of where you are going camping, find the forecast and elevation for the nearest place.  Then 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.

 

Daytime vs. Nighttime Temperatures

At low elevations, the difference between highs/lows isn’t too much.  But, at high elevations, there can e a huge difference. It can be scorching hot during the day and freezing cold at night.

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)

 

Spring and Fall Weather is Unpredictable

The transition months of fall and spring can be particularly unpredictable.  A beautiful day with 60 degree temperatures can quickly turn into a frigid thunderstorm.  Or the forecast might call for lows in the mid 40s, but then actually drop down to the 20s.

As Grant Village Campground said about spring and fall camping, 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.

temperature fluctuations during camping

Morning frost by Lyell River in Yosemite.  During the day, it was t-shirt weather!e sure you know how to set up your tent for rain. Otherwise you will end up with puddles on your floor and damp walls.

 

Other Tips for Camping in the Cold

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 uninsulated 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.

 

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.


Not sure what to eat while camping? 

I’ve written an eBook with over 50 dehydrator backpacking recipes. They pack down to lightweight and you just add water to rehydrate. Plus, there’s tons of info on meal planning and nutrition for backpacking.  Learn more here.

camping meals

These are the types of meals I’m eating when I backpack. They pack in over 130 calories per ounce dry weight. Just add water to rehydrate!

 

dehydrated backpacking food

These meals have 13,700 calories and only weigh 6.9lbs dry. Just add water to rehydrate!

 

Ready to step up your trail food? Buy the ebook. I’ll even give you 50% off!


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

Tagged with:     ,

About the author /


Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

Related Articles

Post your comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *