What You Need to Actually Have Fun Camping in Cold Weather
From the right clothes & gear to the best distractions, here's a handy guide to making sure your cold weather camping trip goes off without a hitch.
Camping in cold weather is like the classic Sly Stallone vehicle Over the Top: tremendously underrated. However, like Over the Top, many find camping in cold weather to be intolerable. As someone who's camped in almost every condition (save for freezing cold temps), I'm going to do my best to set you up with everything you'll need to truly make your fall & winter camping trips fun, memorable, and something you'll want to do again and again.
For all intents and purposes, I'm going to assume you'll be driving to the campsite rather than hiking. If that's the case, you'll want to check out our Car Camping Checklist™. It's loaded with a bunch of stuff you'll want to bring with you no matter the season (tent, chairs, etc).
Now for the good stuff. Here's everything you'll want to bring with you to make camping the cold way more fun than you ever thought possible.
The right clothes
I'm not sure I can stress this enough: Spend the money to get the right clothes. For cold weather camping, there are a few key items you're going to need.
A warm hat. When your ears get cold, you get cold. You could go all out and grab a trapper hat -- as long as you don't mind looking like a Russian bond villain hiding out in Siberia. Or stick with the classic beanie. But definitely do not forget a hat.
Wool socks. Bring a few pairs just in case. I love my Smartwool socks. They keep my feet dry and warm, and that's all you can really ask for.
Gloves. Keeping your ears, feet, and fingers warm is about 80% of the battle. If you have the right gear to cover up your extremities, you'll be significantly warmer and happier. I like Carhartt gloves the best. They're insulated, don't really impede your dexterity, and can take a beating. Plus, they have a solid grip if you need to chop some wood. Another thing you might want to think about when keeping your hands/fingers warm is a hand warmer. I've had this Zippo Hand Warmer for years now and love that it's refillable and toasty.
Long underwear. Once I started wearing long underwear to camp in chilly weather, the whole game changed. Get ones made from wool -- they'll be moisture wicking and keep you smelling fresh for the weekend.
Boots. Get good boots for the outdoors. Don't get Chelsea boots. Even if you don't plan on hiking or going anywhere, they'll keep your feet warm, safe, and cozy. My go-to boots for almost every trip I take are my Danner 600s. I also love my new Ember Commutes from Teva that I've been breaking in. I haven't given them the campsite test yet, but I have no doubt they'll hold up just fine (they're waterproof & warm... I can't ask for much more!).
A down jacket. You could pile on layers of cotton and pray it doesn't rain or get damp outside, or you could just shell out a few extra bucks and get a down jacket that's lightweight and toasty as hell -- like something from one of my favorite brands, Cotopaxi. And if you happen to get chilly, throw on a hoodie under it.
Of course you can also pack things like a scarf, extra base layers, and even a poncho. But the the temperatures and your location should be what dictate those decisions.
The right bedding
Sleeping bags can start at $20 and go as high as $1,000. But for a solid cold weather, 3-season bag you should be looking to spend about $100-$200 (depending on how much you plan on using it). REI's Trailbreak 30 is an excellent bag that's rated to 30º. This basically means you'll be most comfortable sleeping in it when the temp hovers around 40º, but if it takes a dip to the 30ºs, you'll be a-okay.
If you're unsure about exactly how cold it's going to be, I'd suggest bringing along a wool blanket like this Pendleton Yakima Camp Blanket. There are two advantages here: You can wear it outside as an extra layer and you can stuff it inside your sleeping bag for extra insulation (especially over your feet if you're prone to that).
Lastly, you'll want some sort of mattress to keep your body off the cold ground. I usually employ an inflatable sleeping pad -- like this one from Sleepingo I bought in a pinch when I realized my other one had punctured. It's been great. For a more luxurious experience, grab a quality air mattress with a built-in pump or even a Coleman cot if you have the room.
The right wood & hatchet
When you're camping in the cold, you can expect damp conditions in the morning and at night. The wood you pick up in the forest will likely be a little wet. This isn't the end of the world. You'll just want to be sure you have some dry wood with you to start the fire. I like to stop and grab a few of these little Duraflame firestarters. They cost less than a dollar and they're great for getting a small flame going and creating a warm coal bed.
I'd also recommend picking up dry bundled wood if you see it -- and when you're camping in the fall/winter, there's a very good chance you'll see dry wood for sale everywhere -- usually along the roadside or at convenience stores.
Bring along a hatchet as well. Chopping the wood into small pieces will help it dry quicker, thus helping it burn quicker. I love this Adler hatchet which'll make quick work of chopping wood. There are also some good finds on Amazon, but heed this advice: spend a little extra money and you'll get a sharper hatchet that'll keep its blade for longer (and chop wood much faster).
The right attitude
Camping is a test in mental fortitude and it certainly isn't for everyone. You'll encounter bugs, dirt, your own stank, changes in weather, changes in attitudes, etc. You definitely have to go into it ready to expect the unexpected, and this goes double for cold weather camping.
The biggest pro-tip I can offer here is this: Go to a diner and get a hot meal on the ride home. You'll likely be tired and dirty, but a hot meal and cup of coffee will do wonders for your mental health and mood. Plus, you can commiserate with everyone and recount the weekend in a positive way. And there's nothing better than that.