The peak season for for camping typically falls in between the months of April and October in the Northern hemisphere for a good reason. Camping is an inherently outdoor activity, and cold, inclement weather leaves most people longing for a hot cup of cocoa in front of a warm fireplace — not a damp, dreary campsite, a rain-soaked tent, and a bunch of kindling that’s too wet to light. The great outdoors don’t just go away during the colder months, though, and those who dismiss the idea of winter camping out of hand are closing the door on a lot of great experiences. With the right gear, and a sunny attitude, winter camping can provide an experience that, while entirely different from summer camping, is no less enjoyable.
Cold Weather Camping
While most people are content to pack up their camping gear, and even stow away their RVs, during winter camping season, there are those who don’t seem to mind the cold quite so much. You know the type. Maybe some of your friends even fit the bill. These cold-weather survivalists and hardcore winter recreation enthusiasts would take snowmachines and skiing, hands down, over water skiing and jet skis–any day of the week. Far from packing up their camping gear during winter camping season, some of these folks will head out and spend a weekend in a snow cave of their own making. Even during the warm summer months, when most of us are beating the heat with water sports, or even retreating into our air-conditioned homes and RVs, a lot of these folks head off to a place like Timberline–which offers skiing 10 months a year–or Beartooth Basin–which is only open during the summer months.
We can’t all be hardcore dyed-in-the-wool cold weather campers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get out there during the fall and winter months and enjoy ourselves. And to that end, the first thing that you need to think about is staying warm. Sure a snow cave can keep a winter survivalist alive in the harshest of conditions–but most of us aren’t interested in slightly-above-freezing snow cave accommodations. So what are the best options to stay warm when you go winter camping?
Winter Camping in a Tent
If you enjoy camping in a tent or pop up camper, how to stay warm is a huge question that demands to be answered. I’ll confess that my last cold weather tent camping trip ended in a decision to get myself a small motorhome, but that isn’t the only solution. If you really want to stick to tenting it, there are tents that are specifically engineered for cold weather. If you head out into sub-zero weather in your summer tent, like I did a few years back, you’re going to be in for some pretty miserable nights, but a cold weather tent can actually leave you somewhat comfortable.
Most tents are designed primarily for summer use. They’re made out of a breathable material that makes them relatively comfortable in a range of warm-to-cool temperatures, and most of them have zippered vents and windows that exist primarily to increase ventilation and air crossflow. If you’ve ever had bad weather roll in during a camping trip, then you’re probably familiar with the first major failing point of these tents. Since they’re so breathable, they don’t do a great job of keeping moisture out. Sure they’ll keep the rain from actually falling on you, but so much as touch the sidewall or roof, and moisture will immediately seep through and get your hand wet. Restless sleeper? Then you’re probably familiar with rolling into the damp sidewall of a tent during the night and waking up to a wet sleeping bag.
Cold weather tents are made from materials that are specifically designed for inclement weather. The best cold weather tents are made from materials that, while still breathable, are also extremely water repellent. That means they won’t transfer moisture–whether from rain, snow, or even just dew–from the outside to the inside, and you won’t have to deal with condensation.
Some cold weather tents have features like vestibules–or separately enclosed entry areas. These vestibules can be used as covered storage, but the main purpose is to prevent all of the warm air inside the tent from escaping every time you zip open the fly. Of course, that requires the air to be warm in the first place, which is why some cold weather tents include a stove jack that’s made from silicone fabric. Tents that include this feature are also made out of flame retardant materials, which means you can actually use a stove to warm up the interior.
Winter Camping in a Pop up Camper
Winter camping in a tent definitely isn’t for the faint of heart, so it’s a good thing there are a lot of other options out there. If you’re looking at pop up campers–or if you already own one–then you’re well on your way to (relatively) comfortable winter camping. Regardless of the specific design of your pop up, it’s going to have a couple things going for it that tents just don’t: it’s raised up off the (cold, wet) ground, and it (probably) has a solid roof. Even if you have one of Lifetime’s ultralight tent-on-trailers, you’re still up off the ground. However, the lack of a solid roof and walls means that you’ll lose a lot of heat when the sun goes down (if it ever even warms up inside at all.) In that way, cold weather tents are better suited to winter camping than some tent-on-trailer campers.
A-Frame Campers: Perfect for Cold Weather?
Of all the various pop up camper designs, a-frames probably have the most unique appearance. These campers fold down into roughly the same footprint as tent trailers, but they fold up into a shape that looks a lot like a small a-frame house. Since the roof and walls are all solid and can provide insulation against the elements, this design makes a-frames well-suited to both summer and winter camping. A pop up camper air conditioner can make it ice cold inside during the summer, and a propane heater can make it toasty warm in the winter, without heat leeching in or out through tent canvas.
A-frame campers are also excellent at keeping the elements out–whether it’s raining or snowing outside, this type of of camper will keep you bone dry, or give you the perfect place to dry off and warm up after a fun day of whatever winter recreation activities you enjoy.
Tent Trailers and Pop up Truck Campers
Tent trailers and pop up truck campers get you up off the ground and have solid roofs (and partially solid walls), but the tent canvas that makes up the rest of the walls (and the pop-out bunks) renders them vulnerable to cold weather and rain. That doesn’t mean you have to store your tent trailer when the weather turns–and a good propane heater can keep it toasty warm inside in everything but the coldest weather–but there are ways to make a tent trailer or pop up truck camper better suited to winter camping.
Some pop up campers, like the truck campers made by Northstar, have optional insulation packages. These packages typically consist of insulated sidewall sections that you can temporarily install after setting up your camper. That takes care of the heat transfer issue–and the potential for moisture transfer through the canvas sidewalls–which makes these campers great for cold weather winter camping. You can also rig up your own insulation solution for an existing tent trailer, although your results may vary.
Leaving Tents Behind
If you aren’t married the idea of “roughing it” during the colder months, then a small travel trailer or motorhome can provide an unparalleled level of comfort during a winter camping trip. As I confessed above, my own days of winter tent camping came to an abrupt close a few years back after I made the dubious decision to go for a long weekend on the Washington coast in late November. The weather was as beautiful as you could hope for that time of year on the Washington coast, but trying to sleep in a tent when the temperature has fallen far below freezing outside–even bundled up in three or four extra layers of clothing and tucked into a warm sleeping bag–just isn’t for me. Before that trip was over, I had already made the decision that my next winter camping trip would be in something with solid, insulated walls.
I thought about an a-frame or even a hybrid for a while, but I ultimately ended up getting a small motorhome, and for some people that’s going to be the right way to go. It’s a completely different experience from camping in a tent or a pop up, but it’s also a lot warmer and drier.