Everyone should be out camping at least until snow flies. But camping in the late fall requires some changes from your summer regimen to keep you, safe, comfortable, and having fun.
One of most important changes you can make for fall is lighting to make long evenings in a tent more fun. The other is comfort after the lights go out. Fear of being too cold or uncomfortable to sleep keeps a lot of folks confined within four walls with central heat after Labor Day. But with modern camping gear, sleeping cozy, even in bitter cold, is not difficult. In fact, it’s fun.
I’ve just come in from three night in a tent, the coldest around 26 F. with a wind, certainly chilly enough. Yet all three nights I slept warm and comfortable. Over the years, and thousands of nights in tents, I’ve developed a system that seems to work well. Here’s how:
Step 1: Pick a good site. Of course, you want a smooth, nearly-level spot, but especially at this time of year it should be sheltered from the wind (which can cause a tent to sound like the inside of a base drum . . .). Morning sun is nice if you can get it.
Step 2: Prepare a spot to sleep. Before you pitch your tent, remove sticks and stones, or, if you are on snow, pack it down. Then roll out your ground sheet or closed–cell pad and lie down on it. If there’s any slope you want your head uphill. If you can find or make a slight depression that your hip will fit into, that’s perfect. Then pitch your tent right on top of the spot you’ve chosen to sleep.
Step 3: Make your bed. What goes under you is as important for warmth as what goes around you, especially when the ground is cold or frozen. My favorite cold-weather tent has no floor, so start with a ground cloth.
Next comes insulation in the form of a full-length closed-cell foam pad (which doesn’t absorb water ). You can buy these for under $10 at a discount store, or pay a little more and get more comfort with a RidgeRest (some are aluminized to reflect heat back at you) or Z-lite from Thermarest. Or you can go all the way and get a Hyper Lite from Pacific Outdoor Equipment which has a thick closed-cell pad with an integrated air-mattress insert.
Above the insulation pad I add a foam-filled air mattress from either Thermarest or Pacific Outdoors. That’s for comfort—which one I use depends on how much weight I want to carry. Generally speaking, the more padding, the more comfort, the more it weighs.
Finally I lay out my sleeping bag and let the fill fluff up. Choosing the right bag can help. Mummy-style sleeping bags are always warmer and lighter than rectangular bags. Down or synthetic fill? I generally prefer synthetic; it’s cheaper and easier to maintain, but both work. You should be more concerned about the loft (thickness) which is what conserves body heat
I can generally trust manufacturer’s temperature ratings. If you sleep cold (most women do . . .), you might want something rated for lower temps than you are likely to encounter. A bag rated to 0-degrees is adequate for most people all winter. Here’s a hint: If you don’t have a cold-weather bag, put one summer bag inside another. Heavy, but it works.
The trick is not to let the fear of cold keep you penned up inside your house at night. Sleeping out in a tent is always an adventure, especially at this time of year. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out, sleep warm, and enjoy!
More Warm Tips
You know how you’ve been told to dress in layers for comfort when you are outdoors? The same applies to sleeping. Layers mean comfort. Whoever first propounded the myth that it’s warmer to sleep naked inside a sleeping bag should be forced to do so as punishment.
I always carry an extra pair of “silkweight” long underwear tops and bottoms (my current favorites are from Marmot), a clean pair of socks and a fleece beanie to have something dry and clean to wear to bed which significantly boost the efficiency of your sleeping bag, it also keeps you warm for a quick trip outside in the middle of the night. The stuff you wore during the day is probably clammy and sweat soaked—which is how the myth of “sleeping naked is warmer,” probably got started.
If necessary, I’ll add more layers—up to and including several layers of sock, fleece pants and a “puffy” jacket. I’ll also throw a couple of disposable handwarmers into the bottom of the sleeping bag in really cold weather. It all helps. With these extras, you can easily add 20 degrees to the rating of any bag.
Be sure to eat hearty and drink often when you are camping out. You need to d fuel the internal furnace to keep you warm all night. If you’re dehydrated, you are going to be cold, so sip water right up until bedtime.
Keep a snack and some water within easy reach (If it’s really cold, you may need to keep a water bottle in the bag with you) so you can refuel and re-hydrate as necessary.
If You Don’t Like Mummy Bags
Mummy sleeping bags are by far the most efficient for cold-weather camping. The built-in hood and (usually) draft collar, work wonders for keeping you warm.
But if you just can’t stand being that confined, get a good 20-degree semi-rectangular bag, follow the “dressing in layers” guidelines, and bring along the detachable hood from an insulated parka. Put on the hood, cinch down the collar, and voila!, you’ve got a roomy bag that will keep you warm all night.