Camping might just have been the saving grace for getaway-starved travelers throughout the long spring and summer of 2020.
Luckily, the outdoor excursions don’t have to come to an end during the late fall and winter. With a little preplanning and a few common-sense techniques, cooler-weather camping is a possibility. In fact, the outdoor booking website Pitchup.com has reported seeing a 117 percent increase in bookings from September through December 2020 as compared to 2019.
The website founder recently shared a few tips with me for comfortable fall and early winter tent camping. On a recent trip to southern Utah, I decided to put some of the tips to the test, and I learned a few things along the way.
Here are nine tips for extending camping into the fall and winter.
1. Choose Your Destination Carefully
One of the easiest and most obvious ways of extending the camping season past summer is to research the weather at your destination and choose a spot where nighttime temperatures stay fairly mild well into the winter months, and where days are warm and sunny.
I’ve camped comfortably in December along Mexico’s Sea of Cortez in Puerto Penasco, as well as in Phoenix-area campgrounds in February. And on my recent October trip to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, tent camping offered an easy, scenic, and comfortable experience.
Options are plentiful and varied throughout the southwestern United States. Well into November, for instance, Phoenix-area campgrounds, such as Lost Dutchman State Park, offer warm, sunny days and nights with average low temperatures in the 50-degree range. In December, January, and February, campers can expect nights in the mid-to-high 40s -- all within the range of comfortable, if slightly chilly, tent camping.
Southern Utah, Nevada, and Southern California are also good options. The Las Vegas-area Valley of Fire State Park experiences lows in the 43-to-47-degree range in November and February.
Southern California state parks such as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park have autumn lows in the 50s and 60s and winter lows in the mid-40s, and beachside Morro Bay State Park has average lows in the 50s in October and the 40s in December, January, and February.
Still, if a southern climate is not a possibility for you, there are plenty of tips for making the most of the cold autumn weather.
2. Cold Weather Gear Is Crucial
Pitchup.com founder Dan Yates recommends investing in the best sleeping bag you can manage, as well as a sturdy four-season tent with double walls that will help to keep condensation and extreme weather at bay.
Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings, so it’s best to research the average lows in your destination and plan accordingly. Most online guides suggest adding 10 to 15 degrees to the temperature for which the sleeping bag is rated. For instance, if a sleeping bag is rated for 20 degrees, you can expect to be comfortable to about 30 to 35 degrees. A rule of thumb is that sleeping bags rated in the 20-degree-to-32-degree range are considered three-season bags (spring, summer, and fall), while cold-weather/winter sleeping bags are 20 degrees and below.
3. Avoid Temperatures Under 30 Degrees
Yates recommends that casual campers avoid temperatures lower than 30 degrees.
“For extreme adventurers, it is never too cold to go camping, but for the rest of us, we’d recommend only camping in temperatures above 30 degrees,” Yates said. “Any lower than this, and it becomes riskier, especially for inexperienced campers.”
When I camped at about 5,400 feet elevation at the Calf Creek Recreation Area in southern Utah in October, the nighttime temperature dipped slightly below 40 degrees. When I awoke, the air in the tent was definitely brisk, but still tolerable.
4. Bring Plenty Of Warm Clothing
With lows in the 30-degree range, campers should remember to layer up before hitting the sleeping bag. Not bringing enough warm clothing is one of the biggest mistakes people make when heading out for cool-weather camping, Yates said.
He suggests wearing double socks and a sweater while sleeping. Being prepared for rain is also important, because once your clothes are wet, it’s hard to dry them.
I found that adding a jacket to my sleeping attire of fleece pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt kept me warm throughout the night, despite the chilly temperatures.
5. Consider The Wind
When pitching your tent, take a moment to determine the direction of the wind, and try to position your tent behind a tree or hedge to block the wind. Or, if you’re car camping, your vehicle could do the trick as well.
The last thing you want is a cold draft whistling through your tent, so also consider the location of the tent’s doors and windows.
6. Go Low-Tech With A Hot Water Bottle
A hot water bottle at the foot of your sleeping bag can stay warm for hours, and it can really help keep you comfortable throughout the night.
Although I didn’t feel the need for a hot water bottle on my Utah trip, it sounds like a lovely idea for cooler climes.
7. Know How To Build A Fire
For me, one of the true pleasures of camping is sitting around a roaring campfire, preferably with supplies for s’mores. But to get there, it’s critical to remember a few things.
First, campers should check to make sure that fires are allowed. In the Southwest, open fires are often banned during dry months because of the danger of forest fires. Always research for any local bans before you set out, and inquire when you arrive at your campground.
If fires are allowed, make sure you’re in an area with a natural windbreak, away from trees and bushes. Then, Yates said, “You’ll need three kinds of fuel: tinder, such as paper, dry leaves, bark, twigs, or wood shavings; kindling, such as small sticks; and firewood, bigger pieces that will keep the fire going once it’s lit.”
Campers should first light the tinder from the bottom and let it and the kindling catch before placing the firewood in a crisscross style. If the firewood isn’t catching, keep trying by adding more kindling.
It’s more than worth the effort, both for the wonderful atmosphere and for the heat. I’ve found that it doesn’t really feel like camping without the warm glow of a campfire.
Also, it goes without saying that campers should always completely douse a campfire with water before leaving the campsite. Stir the ashes to make sure, and add more water.
8. Don’t Skimp On The Food
Don’t be surprised if spending time in cold weather heightens your appetite. Yates recommends indulging a bit during fall and winter camping trips.
“Winter camping is really not the time for a diet,” he said. He cautioned against underestimating the amount of food you’ll need, noting, “Since cold weather makes your body temperature drop, you’ll probably feel the urge to eat more than you usually do to warm up.”
This is the time to stock up on stews, chili, and soups. A portable propane burner or stove will make heating up easy. And don’t forget the fixings for a hearty breakfast. Nothing beats pancakes, bacon, and a cup of hot coffee on a chilly morning at the campsite.
9. Opt For A Yurt Or Cabin
For an experience that is still close to nature but with some built-in warmth, fall and winter campers might want to check out the many yurts and cabins available.
I’ve found that most areas around national or state parks have great choices of cabins or yurts. On my recent trip to southern Utah, for instance, the Kodachrome Basin State Park had two beautiful bunkhouse cabins that butted right up to the park’s stunning rock formations.
The Utah State Parks website lists nearly a dozen parks that offer cabins, and Arizona State Parks & Trails has a number of options as well. The cabins will be pricier than campsites, but they usually accommodate larger groups.
Other Pro Tips
Experts caution that cold-weather camping should not be a solo venture. Along with offering safety in numbers, Yates points out that having another person in a tent helps to warm things up through body heat.
For people who like a warm place to sit outside the tent, there are heated camping chairs available on the market. An internet search will yield a variety of options.
On especially cool nights, remember to take the clothing you plan to wear the next day into the sleeping bag with you. That way, your clothes will be warm when you put them on the next morning. It will also help add some insulation to your sleeping bag.