Does the thought of camping in cold weather give you the chills (pun intended)? You’re not alone. Many people cringe at the thought of sleeping in a tent in less than 40-degree weather, let alone bringing their family along for the ride. However, we’re here to convince you that it’s not as hard as it seems. With a little extra preparation and the right gear, your family can reap the benefits of cold-weather camping this season. Read on to discover how you can make it happen along with the benefits of doing so.
Benefits of Camping in Cold Weather
Once you get past the lower temperatures, there are a surprising number of benefits for camping in colder weather:
Roughing it in chillier weather isn’t for everyone, so you will likely notice that popular camping spots are far less crowded in colder months. That means you won’t be fighting the hoards for the elite camping spots, and you can book your trip at shorter notice.
This applies to both the small and large critter varieties. There are far fewer insects flying and crawling about, which means less need for insect repellent and candles. Also, bigger creatures (such as bears) are tucking in for a long nap, so there is less chance of an unwanted campsite invasion.
Fewer Bedtime Battles
While I love the long days of summer, it can be an epic battle to get my boys to settle in for the night while camping. As the nights get longer, they are much more willing to tuck in since it gets dark earlier in the day.
Allowing your kiddos (and yourself) to experience and prepare for less ideal weather conditions can build up their resilience to not only variable temperatures but also variable situations in life. It teaches them to be prepared for obstacles (such as very chilly weather or snowy, wet conditions) and problem-solve to stay comfortable (such as layering up or filling space in a sleeping bag with blankets to conserve body heat).
Witness Nature’s Seasonal Changes
Between changing leaf colors and frozen ponds, there is something so special about being immersed in nature in different seasons. We love visiting our favorite campgrounds (like Moreau Lake State Park in the images below) in different seasons to observe and discuss the changes we see. We then take photos and compare them once we return home.
Tips for Making it Happen
Now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that camping in cold weather is pretty awesome, here are some tips for making it work for your family:
Flexibility is Key
When camping in cold months (especially with kids), it’s important to be flexible regarding plans and expectations. When first starting out, consider choosing a site that’s closer to home. This allows you to bail out in case the cold becomes too much. However, even if you have to bail early, try to use it as a learning experience, tweak your equipment or setup, and try again.
If you’re further from home, have a backup plan in mind in case the weather proves difficult to handle. Research hotels nearby in case you need a late-night check-in. No hotels nearby? Think of ways you can use your vehicle for shelter or reconfigure your sleeping arrangements to maximize family warmth.
The Location Can Make All the Difference
As stated previously, consider a campground close to home or nearby lodging while you get used to camping in colder weather. Also, some campgrounds offer warming huts (like the one shown in the photo below) and indoor activity facilities that can come in handy when you need a break from the chill. Check out this post for tips and advice for choosing a campsite for your family.
Choose Your Shelter Wisely
The shelter you choose is largely based on personal preference and your family’s specific needs. For example, you may want to consider an option with heating if you have a very young baby in tow. Here are some shelter options to consider for cold-weather camping.
- Tent – Not all tents are created equal, and while many may suffice in warm weather, you’ll want the insulation of a 3-season tent in the chillier months. If you plan to regularly camp in below-freezing temperatures with variable weather, a 4-season tent (also called a “winter” tent) may be a better choice. Either way, be sure to use a ground tarp under the tent for an added layer of insulation from the cold ground.
- Cabin – Cabins are a great option if you aren’t sure what Mother Nature has in store, but you still want to immerse yourself in nature. Many National and State Parks along with established campgrounds have cabins to rent with variable levels of technology included (some are fully loaded with heat and electricity while others are “dry cabins” like the one in the photo below with a wood stove and bare bunks).
- Yurt – These soft-sided structures are similar to dry cabins in that they offer sturdy protection and some insulation from the elements, but they generally have no electricity or running water. Their popularity is increasing, and you can find them at more and more state and local parks nowadays.
- RV – Who says you can’t have the comforts of home while camping? With some preparation and the right insulation, you can take your RV camping year-round. You can also rent an RV if you aren’t sure it’s right for you yet.
Layers Are Your Friend
Layering up is key to staying warm and cozy while camping in chilly conditions. Just be sure you choose the right layers, or you may be left shivering no matter how many layers you have on! My biggest piece of advice here is to STAY AWAY FROM COTTON! It soaks up and holds onto moisture, causing you to get chilled quickly. This can be especially dangerous for little ones, potentially causing a drop in body temperature.
Here are the basics for layering up in cold weather. For more details, see our post on How to Dress for Cold Weather Activities.
This is the layer right next to your skin, and functions to wick away moisture and keep you warm and dry. Merino Wool is, in my opinion, the best material option for this layer since it has superior moisture-wicking capabilities, and lasts forever. However, it also comes with a heftier price tag. Wool blends and synthetic materials (such as polyester and nylon) are also good options at a more affordable price. Just be sure they fit snugly to prevent cold air from sneaking in to chill the skin.
The mid-layer goes right over the base layer and is all about insulation. It’s generally fluffier to keep you warm, and it’s the first layer to shed if you start overheating. Some good materials to look for in a mid-layer are polyester fleece, insulated down, and thick-knit wool.
Top off your layers with a weather-resistant outer layer to protect against the elements (such as wind, rain, snow, etc.). The level of weather resistance will depend on the expected weather. For example, you will definitely want a waterproof shell if you are expecting rain or wet snow, while a “weather-resistant” option works just fine if you are expecting dry or breezy conditions.
Don’t forget to include wool or synthetic scarves, hats, and socks to wick away moisture while keeping warm. Water-resistant or waterproof gloves (depending on conditions) are a must for curious kids and their adults, and warm, comfortable boots finish out the cold-weather outfit. We generally stick with waterproof everything since our boys have an affinity for finding any and all puddles and bodies of water, but there are some quality weather-resistant options on the market as well. When it’s extra cold, we also like to add in some hand and foot warmers to prevent chilly fingers and toes (preferably re-usable ones like these from Aurora Heat).
Keeping Warm at Night
By far the biggest concern I’ve heard about camping in colder months is keeping everyone warm through the night. Temperatures can plummet quickly once the sun goes down, and without the right protection, you may end up with miserable kids and frozen toes. Here are a few ways to combat the cold and keep everyone cozy through the night.
Choose the Right Sleeping Bag
Temperature ratings are your friend when choosing the right sleeping bags for your family. These handy numbers indicate the lowest temperature at which the sleeping bag will keep the average person warm. Therefore, if the low temperature is expected to be around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll want a bag with a rating of 30 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to stay comfortable.
If you have little ones who like to wiggle and stretch in their sleep, it can be tricky to find a bag that is comfortable, warm, and not likely to get kicked off in the middle of the night. Thankfully, the Morrison Sleeping Bags were invented with wiggle worms in mind. They’re guaranteed to not get kicked off in the middle of the night and the adjustable sleeves give kids the freedom to move their arms and use their hands.
With three kid sizes (Little Mo, Big Mo, and Mighty Mo) and two temperature ratings (20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit) to choose from, your littlest campers are sure to stay cozy through the night! Want to get in on the fun? There is an adult version, the Mega Mo, available in two sizes with a temperature rating of 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Photo Credit: The Mordak Family @Mor.Wild
Insulation From the Cold Ground
Even with the right sleeping bag, sleeping directly on the tent floor can result in a chilly night. Sleeping pads and/or blankets spread on the floor of the tent can provide some insulation from the freezing ground. For the littlest campers, consider bringing along a portable crib to elevate them off the ground of the tent, keeping them warmer. Ground tarps can also provide some insulation, so be sure to lay one down even if you aren’t expecting any precipitation through the night.
Warm From the Inside Out
A great (and delicious) way to stay warm while camping is to enjoy warm beverages throughout the day. Anything from a good herbal tea to hot chocolate or cider helps keep my boys happy and warm while hanging around camp or hiking nearby. A hearty soup, stew, or chili is also a great way to keep up the calories while warming the insides at the same time. You can even prep these meals at home to help minimize the preparation time at camp.
What Are You Waiting For?
Camping in the chillier months can lead to some pretty amazing and unforgettable family memories. You can even start some fun traditions, like Halloween or Thanksgiving campouts. We hope this post convinces you that camping in the cold is totally doable with a little extra preparation and the right gear. You may just find that fall and winter are your family’s new favorite camping seasons!
Cover Photo Credit: The Mordak Family @Mor.Wild
Rebecca is a transplant Coloradoan living in Virginia with her husband (Derek) and their two boys. She’s a teacher turned freelance writer/ homeschool mom working towards exploring as much of the east coast as possible before the next move takes her family elsewhere. You can follow her family hiking, kayaking, SUPing, geocaching, camping, and all things outdoor adventuring on Instagram @frazzlednaturemom.