Camping in 10-degree weather: How to handle the extreme cold

by | Oct 4, 2022 | Weather

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There’s cold camping… and then there’s extreme cold camping! If you’re considering going camping in 10-degree weather, or any temperature below freezing for that matter, you’re in the extreme cold zone.

Is 10 degrees too cold for camping?

This is a tricky question to answer. For most people, the answer is probably yes—10°F (-12°C) is too cold for them to go camping. But this isn’t the case for everybody.

The answer to this question depends mostly on your ability access the right gear.

Extreme cold camping requires very specialized gear—much more so than the typical summer or three-season gear that most of us already have.

A thermometer in the snow showing a temperature of just below 10F.

You simply shouldn’t camp in these temperatures with three-season gear. It’s just not safe. In this case, yes, 10°F is just too cold to go camping.

Now, if you’ve bought (or are able to rent or borrow) everything you need to go camping in 10°F— which includes a hot tent or a four-season tent and a winter sleeping bag at the very least—then camping is totally doable.

Second in importance to gear is your level of knowledge and experience with camping in the extreme cold. Even if you have the right stuff, camping in these temperatures can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

You need to do research. You need to talk to other camping enthusiasts who’ve gone winter camping. And ideally, you need to work your way down the thermometer readings by first camping in 60, 50, 40, 30, and 20°F weather rather than jumping straight into some of the coldest temperatures your region gets on a yearly basis.

We’ve gone camping in -31°F (-35°C) and it’s not what you might expect

Chairs on our snowy campsite in the winter.

Here in Ontario, Canada, the mercury drops well below 10°F in the dead of winter—especially up north, which is where we like to camp.

We’d camped in 30°F (-1°C) temperatures before, but -31°F (-35°C) was a whole new level of frozen. Although we’d spent months researching, acquiring gear, and carefully planning our first trip, we still weren’t fully prepared for what camping in these temperatures would actually be like.

Here are a few of the things that caught us by surprise:

Dehydration is real. The water in our Nalgene bottles frozen in under an hour since they were exposed to the cold air and wind. Once we were at camp, we had to cut a hole in the frozen lake with an ice auger, scoop out water with our pot, and boil it before we could drink it.

Keep in mind that the cold air is very dry, which means that with every breath you take, you’re losing a lot of moisture. This is why it’s important to stay hydrated in cold weather—even if you’re not thirsty.

Snow doesn’t work well as a water source. As soon as you pack it down in your pot and get it melting on the stove or fire, it’s shrunk to about one-tenth in liquid form.

You also shouldn’t eat snow—it can be contaminated with animal urine, feces, and other nasty things (even if it looks white and clean).

Your food will freeze if it’s not insulated properly. We ate frozen tomatoes, eggs, chocolate, and all sorts of other things. Check out our guide on how to keep food from freezing in the winter.

Your hair freezes if you breathe on it. I have long hair and a section that was close to my face ended up frozen with icicles because of my breath. This isn’t ideal, because it can make you very wet and cold once it melts.

You better have darn warm boots and mitts. Your hands and feet will be the first to feel the cold if it’s not protected well enough. Both Ross and I have Arctic expedition-level mittens made out of moose hide and insulated mukluks with wool liners.

Loose clothing is best. The tighter your layers are on you, the worse it is at trapping heat next to your body. They don’t have to be super loose, but they shouldn’t be form-fitting. Same goes for boots and mitts too.

Snow-blindness is a thing. The sun reflects off the snow and can cause serious damage to your eyes if you’re not careful. We had to constantly keep our sunglasses on, even when it was cloudy.

Your nose might get really cold at night. Having a cold nose can make it really hard to get to sleep. I had to improvise by putting my merino wool buff over my nose (but not over my mouth) while I slept to keep it warm.

Is 10 degrees too cold to be outside?

Ross winter camping

It’s only too cold if you’re not dressed properly. You can certainly stay outside if you have the proper layers on in 10°F—and even colder temperatures than that.

When you’re camping in cold weather, you absolutely must have a solid understanding of how to dress for the weather and for your activity level. If you don’t, you automatically put yourself at risk of hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is when your body can’t generate enough heat to keep itself warm and it starts to shut down. It’s a medical emergency and can happen even in air temperatures as high as 60 to 70°F (16 to 21°C).

Your biggest risk of hypothermia in 10°F weather comes from getting wet and chilled. This is most likely to happen from:

  • Sweating due to being active
  • Being snowed on and having it melt through your clothes
  • Falling through a partially frozen body of water (a pond, swamp, lake, or river)

Frostbite is when your skin and tissue freezes. It usually happens on extremities like your toes, fingers, nose, and ears. Frostnip is a milder form of frostbite that’s when your skin turns red and feels cold but isn’t yet frozen.

Your biggest risk of frostbite comes from the wind chill. That’s when 10°F weather can feel more like temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) or even colder. And when the wind chill is that low, frostbite can happen in as little as a few minutes.

You’re at risk of frostbite in 10°F weather if you:

  • Expose your bare skin to the elements (especially extremities like your toes, fingers, nose, and ears)
  • Stay outside for long periods without proper protection
  • Are not dressed properly for the cold weather
  • Have wet clothes or are sweating
  • Have poor circulation due to tight clothing or boots

Minimizing your risk of hypothermia and frostbite comes down to knowing how to dress for cold weather and managing your body moisture level.

How to dress for cold weather camping

A woman dressed in layers while camping in the winter.

In cold weather, it’s all about the layers. Layers are critical because each layer serves a unique purpose and can be removed or added depending on your activity level and the temperature.

The three main types of layers are:

The base layer is your first line of defence against the cold and should be made of a material that wicks moisture away from your skin—like merino wool or synthetic fabric. This layer helps to keep you dry and prevents sweat from turning into chill.

The insulation layer (or mid layer) traps heat next to your body and is typically made of materials like wool, down, synthetic down, or fleece. This layer should be loose fitting to trap the most heat possible.

The outer layer (or weather protection layer) protects you from the wind, rain, and snow. In 10-degree weather, that would be snow. This layer is typically made of materials like Gore-tex or nylon.

These are the three basic layers, but in extreme cold, you can add or remove a layer to adjust for your activity level and temperature. We’ve been know to put on 4 or 5 layers when we’re just sitting around, or strip down to just two layers when we’re working hard.

For example, if you’re camping in extremely cold weather and plan to be relatively inactive, you might wear:

  • A heavyweight base layer of merino wool long underwear
  • An insulation layer of a wool sweater and fleece-lined pants
  • A second top insulation layer of a down puffy jacket
  • An outer layer of a waterproof/windproof jacket and pants

For camping in extremely cold weather and being relatively active, you might wear:

  • A mid-weight base layer of merino wool long underwear
  • An insulation layer of a wool sweater and fleece-lined pants
  • An outer layer of waterproof/windproof pants

And if you’re camping in extremely cold weather and plan to be extremely active, you might only need:

  • A heavyweight base layer of merino wool long underwear
  • An outer layer of a waterproof/windproof jacket and pants

These are just some common examples of how you could combine your layers to match the weather and your activity level, but you will have to experiment to find what works best for you.

You’ll also need extra cold weather clothing items like:

  • A warm hat like a beanie/toque or trapper hat
  • A scarf, buff, or baclava (ideally made from fleece, wool, or merino wool)
  • Extreme cold weather mittens and a second pair of cold weather mitts or gloves (for working with your hands)
  • A merino wool liner sock and a thicker wool sock (at least two pairs each)

How to manage your body moisture level when cold weather camping

A woman dressed for winter weather walking through a snowstorm with a backpack and a camera.

It’s very dangerous to sweat in cold weather. You may not think it is, but once you cool down, that sweat can quickly turn into chill and put you at serious risk of hypothermia.

For this reason, you absolutely must stay aware of your body moisture level at all times, and plan your clothing layers according to what you’re going to do and what the weather is like.

Here are some things you don’t want to do:

Don’t wear a big parka or down jacket during high physical activity. These don’t breathe very well and are more appropriate for resting or doing low-level activities around your campsite. You need layers that are breathable, like wool, when you’re physically active.

Don’t wear cotton as your base layer. Cotton is a death trap in cold weather because it absorbs sweat and then doesn’t dry out quickly.

Don’t wait until you’re already sweating before you layer down. As soon as you start to feel the slightest bit warm, either stop to take a break to cool down or take a layer off so you can keep going.

Now that we’ve gone over what not to do, here are some things you should do:

Do invest in quality, breathable layers. These will wick moisture away from your skin and help to regulate your body temperature, trap heat without making you sweat, and protect you from the snow without being overly restrictive.

Do keep an eye on the forecast and be prepared for changes in the weather. If you’re camping in extremely cold weather and the forecast is predicted to drop, you’ll need plan to adjust your clothing accordingly.

Do dress in layers that you can easily add or remove as needed. This way, you can stay comfortable no matter how active you are or how the temperature changes.

Do be sure to carry extra clothing with you in case you get wet or need to change for any reason. It’s always better to have too much than too little when camping in cold weather.

Do check in with yourself regularly to take note of your body moisture level. If you start to feel sweaty, take a break and cool down or remove a layer of clothing.

What tent and gear you need to safely go camping in 10-degree temperatures

A hot tent surrounded by trees and snow.

We’re big on hot tent camping, which means that we bring a large canvas tent that we set up and then heat with a wood stove. This is our favorite way to camp in cold weather because we get heat inside our tent, but it’s not the only way to do it.

In any case, here’s a brief list of the bare essential items you’ll need for a good winter camping trip in extreme cold temperatures:

A hot tent or a four-season tent. Check out our guide on hot tent camping to learn more about this style of camping, or instead go for a four-season tent, which is designed to withstand high winds and heavy snowfall.

A winter sleeping bag. You’ll want a sleeping bag that’s rated for temperatures of -22°F (-30°C).

An insulated air mattress. Get one with an R-vale of at least 4 to 5, which will work hand in hand with your sleeping bag to keep you warm.

A closed-cell foam sleeping pad. We’re big fans of the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol, which we place on top of our mattresses for extra warmth.

A stove for cooking. If you’re hot tenting then you already have one, but if you’re cold camping, then you’ll probably want a canister fuel stove or a twig and alcohol stove like the Bushbox XL titanium stove.

Wood processing tools. Unless you don’t plan on making a fire, you’re going to need an axe, a hatchet, a folding saw, or a combination of these.

Extra fuel and fire starting items. This might include fuel canisters, alcohol, matches, lighters, a farro rod, and tinder or kindling.

Headlamps. It’s dark in the winter. Make sure your headlamps are charged up or you bring extra batteries for them.

First aid kit. This one is important no matter what time of year you’re camping, but it’s especially vital in the winter when help might be far away and conditions are more extreme.

An optional portable propane-powered heater. This isn’t necessary for hot tent camping, but it’s a nice addition if you’re base camping in the winter and have a big tent for everyone to hang out in.

How do you stay warm when camping in the extreme cold?

Staying warm comes down to three things we just covered, plus one more thing:

  • Wearing the right layers
  • Managing your body warm and moisture level according to weather and activity level
  • Having the right gear for extreme cold conditions
  • Having a heat source

Your heat source might be an outdoor fire in a fire pit, a stove in your hot tent, a portable heater, or something else like a heated vest or hot water bottle in your sleeping bag.

Tip: Check out our guide on how to stay warm in a tent for more ideas and download our cold weather camping checklist for a comprehensive list of gear items to bring.

Here’s a brief list of some of the other things that we like to bring when we go hot tent camping in extreme cold winter weather:

  • snowshoes and snow trekking poles
  • Sleds and body harnesses for pulling gear
  • A small shovel
  • An ice auger
  • A cast iron Dutch oven
  • Pot cozies for keeping hot water and food warm
  • Lots of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate
  • Electrolyte mixes
  • Hearty dehydrated meals made with lots of warming spices
  • Ski/snowboard goggles
  • A few packs of travel tissues (for runny noses)
  • Down booties for hanging out in our tent

You can go camping in extreme cold weather, but you better prepare yourself

The view of a wintery landscape outside the doorway of a 4-season tent.

Camping in these temperatures isn’t anything to mess around with. You need winter gear, you need the right layers, you need to understand how to manage your body moisture level, and you need to spend some time planning for the worst case scenario.

But if you take the time to prepare, camping in 10°F can be a fun and unique experience. Just make sure you’re aware of the risks and have a backup plan (or two or three) before you head out into the cold.

We love winter camping, and the good news is that you only get better with experience—even in some of the coldest temperatures. If you’re new to this, we highly recommend going out and camping in the shoulder seasons first (spring and fall) before you shock yourself with such cold temperatures.

Good luck, and as always, happy camping!

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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