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.
If you’re camping in these 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).
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. Without gear designed for these temperatures, your risk of hypothermia and frostbite increases dramatically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to prepare for camping in 20-degree weather
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 four-season or winter tent. A three-season tent won’t be warm enough in 20-degree weather. Make sure your four-season or winter tent is properly ventilated to prevent condensation from building up inside.
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.
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.
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).
Want more tips? Check out our guide on how to stay warm in a tent.
20-degree weather is great weather for hot tent camping
As Canadians, we personally don’t even bother with a four-season tent in the winter. Hot tent camping 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 tent camping, 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.
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!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).