What You Need to Actually Have Fun Camping in Cold Weather
From what to wear to how to get that pesky fire started, here's what you need in order to enjoy camping in the fall or winter.
Camping in chillier weather can sometimes feel like the classic Sly Stallone film Over the Top: tremendously underrated. However, like Over the Top, there are those who find camping in cold weather to be worth doing again and again. As someone who's camped in almost every condition shy of literally freezing, I'm going to do my best to set you up to enjoy camping in the fall and winter as much as I do—and yes, if you do it right, you'll want a repeat trip.
For all intents and purposes, I'm going to assume you'll be driving to the campsite rather than hiking in. A cold weather backpacking trip is a whole different ball game—as is sleeping in your car, which I'll assume you're also not planning to do. But for good ol' car camping at a campsite, you'll need the same camping essentials that you'd need any time of year... plus a bunch of extra stuff to make sure you get warm and stay that way.
Now for the good stuff. Here's all the cold weather camping gear you'll want to bring with you to make fall or winter camping legitimately fun.
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.
When your ears get cold, the rest of you will get cold, too. Remedy this by wearing any type of cold weather hat you'd like—just so long as it's warm. Carharrt's classic logo beanie is popular for a reason; it's simple, easy to wear, and the acrylic wool construction will keep your ears warm even in chilly weather.
Bring a few pairs of warm socks, just in case. I love Smartwool socks. The brand's Classic Mountaineer socks are its thickest, warmest options, perfect for sleeping outside when the weather's cold, or sitting around the campsite on a chilly morning.
It's all well and good to keep your hands and feet toasty warm, but you'll still be miserable if you don't give your hands similar protection from the cold. 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. The gloves are available in men's sizing (linked above), as well as women-oriented sizing with pink plaid details.
For extra warmth, add a hand warmer; I like this Zippo one, which is refillable.
Once I started wearing long underwear to camp in chilly weather, the whole game changed. Get ones made with merino wool for the perfect balance between warmth and moisture-wicking properties. These Icebreaker base layer pants are surprisingly lightweight, so they'll fit nicely under your other camping clothes while adding extra insulation. Get them in women's (linked above) or men's sizes.
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 (available in men's and women's sizes). The waterproof suede uppers will keep your feet dry in rain or snow (wet feet = cold feet), and they offer support, cushioning, and traction when you're walking around.
If you want an outdoorsy boot that isn't strictly designed for hiking, I also love my Ember Commutes from Teva. The brand's reEmber Commutes (available in women's sizing, and linked above) are essentially the same boot, but constructed with webbing made from recycled plastic. Fully waterproof and lined with warm microfiber, these bad boys are great for cold, wet weather, in or out of the woods.
You could pile on layers of cotton and pray it doesn't rain or get damp outside, or you could just shell out some extra cash and get a down jacket that's lightweight and toasty as hell. This hooded down jacket comes from one of my favorite brands, Cotopaxi, in men's and women's sizing. The retro design comes in a range of colors (classic Cotopaxi!), but it's just as functional as it is stylish. The ripstop nylon shell is water resistant, as is the jacket's down insulation. The hood adds warmth and waterproofing to your head, too. The jacket is relatively lightweight for year-round versatility, so feel free to add another layer when the weather gets really cold.
The right bedding
When you're sleeping, you're not moving around—so you're going to need to make sure your bedding will keep you warm.
You can bundle up for sleeping in a tent on a cold night, but you'll still need a warm sleeping bag for optimum comfort and safety. REI's Trailbreak 30 is an excellent bag that's rated to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This basically means you'll be most comfortable inside the sleeping bag when the temp hovers around 40 degrees, but if it takes a dip to the 30s, you'll be a-okay, too.
If you're unsure about exactly how cold it's going to be, or just don't want to take your chances with the cold, I'd suggest bringing along an insulated blanket like this Rumpl puffy blanket. There are two advantages here: You can wear it outside as an extra layer (it even has a clip to wear it as a cape hands-free), and you can stuff it inside your sleeping bag for extra warmth (especially over your feet if you're prone to that). The blanket is water-resistant and comes in a water-resistant stuff sack so you can be sure to keep it dry.
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. For those who really don't want an inkling that they're basically sleeping on the ground, a quality air mattress with a built-in pump, or even a Coleman cot, might be preferable.
Supplies for your fire
It's a cruel irony that in cold weather, when you need the warmth of your fire the most, it's also harder to actually get the thing started. Wet, cold conditions and bulky gloves or mittens just aren't conducive to getting your fire going... so here are some important items that'll make the task easier.
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. These Duraflame firelogs are quick to catch, and three logs will burn for about 3 hours. They're designed specifically for cooking campfire foods, and they product less smoke than a regular log. In other words, you don't need these, but boy are they nice to have in a pinch.
Bring along a hatchet as well for any real logs (i.e. not Duraflame). Chopping the wood into small pieces will help it dry quicker, and thefore burn quicker. This 17-inch option from Fiskars is relatively inexpensive and designed for easy one-handed use. It's well-balanced, not too heavy, and features a sharp, durable head—perfect for splitting small amounts of wood while camping.
Smoky fires just aren't everyone's cup of tea. If you don't enjoy getting a billow of smoke to the eyes every time the wind shifts your direction, you'll love the double-walled design of this portable fire pit, which has increased airflow and decreased smoke. It's relatively compact but not too tiny, so you can throw it in the car and bring it to a car camping site.
The right attitude
Camping is a test in mental fortitude and it certainly isn't for everyone. It's not just about the bugs, dirt, potential bad weather, potential bad personal hygiene, or even potential bad gear (though stick with us on this one and you'll be fine). You really have to go into the experience with the attitude that the unexpected might occur, and you may have to adapt. This is especially true with cold weather camping, when the conditions are simply harsher and less forgiving.
The biggest tip I can offer here is this: plan to stop at a diner for 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, and it's something to look forward to even when the going gets tough outdoors. Plus, you can commiserate with everyone and recount the weekend in a positive way. And there's nothing better than that.