If you are a petite female like me or generally carry an extra jacket at all times simply for entering air-conditioned buildings, the idea of winter camping may sound miserable. But don’t rule out the winter months just yet, because with proper gear and a few exercises, a cozy winter camping trip could be the highlight of your holidays.
The first and most important step to cold weather adventures is proper layering with a non-cotton base layer close to your skin. This can wick away any moisture if you do sweat and will dry quickly unlike cotton. A second fleece-insulating layer should follow your base layer, and a wind/water-resistant insulating jacket to face the elements. Typically, I may skip the fleece while I am active and hiking, but I pull on all my layers as soon as I stop moving and before I get cold. Be careful if you are sitting around a campfire with all these layers. I have definitely melted a shoe that was too close to the heat when I was too insulated to notice. If you find yourself in the cold and unprepared, be creative. In an emergency the cardboard box your oatmeal came in or the stuff sack for your sleeping bag can add a little extra insulation if stuffed to protect your core or even down a sleeve.
When its time to wind down and crawl into your sleeping bag, make sure you have packed a sleeping pad and not a yoga mat. Camping sleeping pads are designed to insulate, while a yoga mat won’t feel much better than the cold ground. If you are a ‘cold sleeper’ never take your sleeping bag below the comfort level temperature rating specific to your bag. A ‘warm sleeper’ may be willing to test the boundaries of the lower limits listed in this rating, but I always add a liner if I expect to breach the cold end of my scale. Finally, keep your feet warm and make your sleeping bag cozy by filling your water bottle with bottling water and slipping it into your bag. Make sure the bottle is properly sealed because a wet sleeping bag is a sure way to find yourself freezing later in the night.
Here’s a question: if you need to pee in the middle of the night should you try to hold it until morning or brave the cold outdoors for the relief that will follow? Always get up and pee! While the cold may be foreboding, the act of getting up and moving around helps to get your blood flowing and warms you up. Secondly, it takes energy for your body to warm all of the liquid in your full bladder. You are much better off emptying your bladder so your body can devote that energy to warming yourself versus your urine. Finally, you will sleep much better without that constant urge tormenting you.
Waking up warm and cozy after a night winter camping is my favorite part! When you can feel the chill of cold on your nose and face and even see your breath, but your entire body is enveloped in a warm, cozy sleeping bag. On the other hand, emerging from this cocoon may be my least favorite part. How can you make getting up as painless as possible? The first trick is sleeping bag exercises. My favorites are leg raises (with your back flat on the ground lift your legs to 6in, 12in, and 2ft alternating between these three), toe touches (lay flat on your back, lift your legs to 90 degrees and try to touch your toes in a series of crunches, supermans (roll over onto your stomach and try to lift your legs and arms as high off the ground as possible as if you are superman flying, lift up and down for a dynamic exercise.
Secondly, I like to stuff my sleeping bag with my clothes for the next day. If I plan on rock climbing, my climbing shoes also get stashed into my sleeping bag. Then you can gear up for the next day from the comfort of your cocoon. And when you do finally emerge, you are dressed and energized for another winter adventure. One final thought: convince your warm-blooded buddy to wake up first in the morning and start boiling water. Then you can enjoy a hot drink, immediately upon exiting your tent. Mmmmh hot tea to warm your fingers and your soul!