Camping in 20-degree weather: How to stay warm in cold weather

by | Sep 23, 2022 | Weather

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Camping in 20-degree weather isn’t for the faint of heart. At 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7°C), the temperature is well below freezing, and with the windchill, it can feel a lot colder.

Yes, you can go camping in winter

If you’re camping in these cold weather temperatures, it’s probably late fall, winter, or early spring. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, that would include November, December, January, February, and March. In some places, like here in Ontario, Canada, it can also include October and April.

This is generally the off-season for camping. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re interested in all-season camping like we are, you can enjoy the activity no matter what time of year it is. You just need to be prepared.

Is 20 degrees too cold for camping?

20°F is definitely too cold to be camping with three-season gear. You need four-season or winter gear to withstand these temperatures (including the windchill factor).

A thermometer in the snow showing a temperature just below 20F.

Three-season gear typically includes your tent and sleep system (sleeping bag, air mattress, sleeping pad, and accessories). A three-season tent can handle high winds and heavy rain, but it doesn’t insulate well and isn’t designed to be snowed on.

Likewise, three-season sleep gear is typically limited to be used to about freezing (or just above freezing). But at 20°F, you need gear that’s specifically designed to keep you warm in much colder temperatures.

As long as you have the right gear that’s rated for 20-degree weather (or lower), you can safely camp in these temperatures.

Tips for staying warm when camping in 20-degree weather

A woman setting up her campsite in winter.

Now that you know what to expect and how to stay safe, let’s go over some tips on how to prepare for camping in 20-degree weather.

Choose the right campsite

When you’re picking a campsite, look for an area that’s sheltered from the wind—especially if there’s snow on the ground. A thick tree canopy can provide wind protection, as can a rocky outcropping or hill.

Use a 4-season tent

A four-season is basically a winter tent. A three-season tent won’t be warm enough if you’re camping in 20 degrees. Make sure your four-season or winter tent is properly ventilated to prevent condensation from building up inside.

Stay dry by setting up a tarp

A tarp can be used as an emergency shelter or to create wind protection around your campsite. It can also be helpful for keeping your gear dry if it’s snowing.

Use a sleeping bag liner

A sleeping bag liner is a piece of fabric shaped like your sleeping bag that’s designed to insulate your bag even more than it already does. It’s a great way to beef up the insulation of an existing bag if its temperature rating is right on the edge.

Double check that your sleeping bag is rated for 20 degree weather

Don’t rely on a liner to keep you warm. If you’re a cold sleeper, you’re safer to go with a bag that’s rated for even lower temperatures.

Get a mattress or sleeping pad with an appropriate R-value

R-value is a measure of insulation. For three-season camping, you’re going to want an R-value of 3 or 4. For winter, camping you’ll want one that’s 5+. If choosing a pad, make sure it’s a closed-cell foam pad, which will have greater insulation.

Insulate yourself from the cold ground

You can easily do this with good quality sleep gear, but an even better way to keep the cold from seeping up from the ground and stealing your body heat is by using a camping cot.

Bring an actual heater

Consider getting a portable propane-powered heater to help take the chill out of your tent on a cold morning or night. Just be sure to use it safely and never leave it unattended or on at night.

If backpacking, try a hot water bottle instead

A portable heater isn’t practical if you’re backpacking and need to save on weight and space. A hot water bottle is lightweight and cheap alternative, which you place in your sleeping bag to stay warm on cold nights.

Fuel your body

Plan to chow down on hearty foods to help warm you up. We’re a big fan of dehydrated meals like chilli, curry, and shepherd’s pie—all of which include warming spices and filling ingredients.

Stay hydrated

Pack some electrolyte drink mixes to help yourself rehydrate after exerting lots of energy. Dehydration is a real risk in cold weather because the air is dryer and body moisture is lost more easily through your breathing.

Rethink your first aid kit and safety gear when camping in 20 degrees

Make sure you have extra fire starting supplies including lighters, matches, perhaps a farro rod, and of course tinder and kindling. You may even want to consider bringing along an alcohol stove and extra fuel to avoid having to get a fire started everything you want to cook or boil water.

Invest in a GPS satellite messenger like the SPOT Gen4 if you plan on camping in the backcountry in case of emergency, and always tell someone where you’re going (and when you’ll be back).

Don’t forget to keep your electronics warm

You can do this by keeping them tucked inside your sleeping bag at night (using body heat), insulating them from the cold air by wrapping them in clothing, or even using chemical hand/foot warming packs.

Want more tips? Check out our guide on how to stay warm in a tent.

Winter camping and cold weather risks

Without gear designed for these temperatures, your risk of hypothermia and frostbite increases dramatically.

Health risk: Hypothermia

A pine tree with droplets on it in the winter.

Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so you don’t want to mess with it. It occurs when the body is exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods—often after getting wet from rain, sleet, melting snow, sweat, or falling in water.

The first signs of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, confusion, and poor coordination. As the condition progresses, a person may become increasingly agitated and irrational. They may even claim that they’re “fine” when in reality, they’re not. If they can’t get warm or access medical care, they may fall unconscious and die

The temperature of the air doesn’t need to be below freezing for hypothermia to occur.

Most cases occur in air temperatures of 30°F to 50°F (-1°C to 10°C). It can even happen in air temperatures of 60 to 70°F (16°C to 21°C)—especially if it’s windy or you’ve gotten wet.

Although hypothermia is most likely to happen from being chilled after getting wet, it can also happen in dry conditions when the body loses heat faster than it can generate it. An example would be at night when you’re trying to sleep in a sleeping bag that isn’t warm enough.

Preventing hypothermia when camping in cold weather

To prevent hypothermia, make sure you:

Be extremely careful around frozen ice or open bodies of water. Don’t attempt to walk on frozen ice in early or late season when it’s just starting to freeze or break up. Watch for thin ice and if in doubt, avoid the area entirely.

Always be aware of your body moisture levels. As soon as you start getting heated, stop to take a break and cool down before you sweat. Of course, make sure you don’t get cold either, and layer up when you do.

Dress in layers. You can take off or add clothing as needed to regulate your body temperature. We always recommend wearing a base layer made of merino wool, which retains heat ad dries quick even if it does get wet, plus an insulating mid layer made of wool, fleece, or down.

Get an outer layer that’s windproof, waterproof, and breathable. Gore-tex is a good option especially in wet weather, but in extreme cold when snow is more likely than rain, we prefer canvas or nylon.

Always pack a change of clothes. You should have at least one extra pair of each layer in case the one you’re wearing gets wet. A set of dry clothes can make a world of difference in your comfort level, even if they’re not as warm as your wet clothes.

Sleep on an insulated air mattress to shield you from the cold ground and help you stay warm at night. Look for a pad with an R-value of 4 or higher.

Get a winter sleeping bag. You’ll need a sleeping bag that’s rated for 20-degree weather, or lower. Down is the best insulation for a cold-weather sleeping bag because it has a high warmth-to-weight ratio.

Health risk: Frostbite

A woman's hands exposed to the cold temperatures.

Frostbite is another medical emergency that can occur in cold weather. It happens when the skin and tissues freeze—typically on exposed body parts like the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes.

Frostbite can occur even when the air temperature is above freezing if the wind chill is low enough. The first signs of frostbite include red, white, or pale skin and a prickling or tingling sensation. As it progresses, the skin may become numb and hard to the touch.

At a temperature of 20°F (-7°C) and a windspeed of 35 miles per hour, frostbite is possible within two hours. We used Wolfram Alpha’s frostbite calculator to estimate this

Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It’s a mild form of frostbite that affects the skin but not the tissues below. The skin may become red and feel cold, prickly, or numb. Luckily, it doesn’t permanently damage the skin and usually heals within minutes or hours once you’re out of the cold.

As soon as you start to experience any of these symptoms, get out of the cold and gently warm the affected area using your hands or warm (not hot) water. Be careful not to rub the skin or use a heating pad in case your frostnip is actually frostbite, which can cause further damage.

If you can’t get the affected area warm on your own, seek medical help as soon as possible. Untreated frostbite can lead to amputation of the affected body part.

Preventing frostbite when camping in cold weather

To prevent frostbite, make sure you:

Have warm enough footwear. Your shoes or boots should be insulated and waterproof to protect your feet from the cold and wet. You can wear wool socks to further insulate your feet and toes. Just be sure that your shoes or boots don’t fit too tight or else they won’t insulate as well and could potentially cut off circulation.

Cover any exposed skin around your head, neck, and face. Wear a face covering like a baclava, buff, scarf, or other protective clothing to cover your nose, mouth, and ears. Wool and fleece are good materials to look for.

Wear proper gloves or mittens. Choose gloves or mittens that are insulated and waterproof. Look for materials like wool, fleece, or down. We prefer mittens because they keep your fingers together and generate more warmth than gloves.

Take shelter from the wind. The windchill can increase your risk of frostbite—especially if you pull your face covering down a lot or take your hands out of your gloves or mittens frequently.

When choosing a tent for winter camping, consider a hot tent

A hot tent surrounded by trees and snow.

As Canadians, we personally don’t even bother with a four-season tent in the winter. Hot tenting beats cold camping any day, and besides, it gets way colder than 20°F where we live!

A hot tent is basically a large tent made out of canvas material and is meant to be used with a wood stove inside. The tent also has an opening at the top for the stove’s chimney so smoke can escape.

If you want to learn more, check out our guide to hot tent camping. It’s a completely different experience compared to traditional camping inside your tent, and it’s certainly a lot more expensive too, but if you’re serious about getting out in the winter weather and enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer, it could be a worthwhile investment.

Should you go tent camping when it’s this cold?

Not everyone loves the cold, but you can’t deny that there’s something magical about a winter camping trip. With the right preparation and gear, you can stay warm and comfortable while enjoying all that nature has to offer.

Just be sure to pack your sense of adventure!

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About Us

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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