Shoulder season camping is our favourite type of camping. Unlike peak season (a.k.a. summer), the spring and fall shoulder seasons are cooler and less crowded—making for a more enjoyable, relaxed experience.
But shoulder season camping comes with its own set of challenges—namely, the weather. Depending on where you’re camping and when, you may have to plan for the potential of:
- Cold temperatures that can drop below the freezing mark
- Partially frozen lakes, rivers, ground, etc.
This makes planning a camping trip tricky, because even if the forecast shows nothing but sunshine and warm temperatures, the reality is that during the shoulder seasons, weather conditions can change for the worse—and temperatures can plummet (especially at night).
Pros of shoulder season camping:
- Potential for really nice weather
- No sweltering 100-degree temperatures
- Opportunity to see changes of season (spring blooms or fall colours)
- Few or no bugs
- Few or no crowds
Cons of shoulder season camping:
- Potential for unpredictable weather
- Temperatures can still be very cold (possibly below freezing)
- Specialized clothing and gear may be required
- Conditions may be treacherous (partially frozen, slippery, muddy, flooded, etc.)
- Swimming is probably out of the question
- Risk of hypothermia is higher
Your biggest risk during shoulder season camping comes from exposure to the elements if or when the temperatures drop—specifically, hypothermia and potentially also frostbite. One of the biggest mistakes campers make is assuming that just because the weather forecast looks to be nice and warm that they won’t need to pack any extra warm gear or clothing.
This, of course, is a big mistake—and one that far too many campers have to learn the hard way. Don’t let this be you, too.
As a couple of seasoned Canadian campers who often camp in Northern Ontario during both the spring and fall, we know just how important it is to be prepared. Here’s our advice on how you can stay safe—and enjoy your time camping—during the shoulder seasons.
Planning a shoulder season camping trip
Your shoulder season camping trip starts with having a solid plan. Besides planning the basics of a camping trip, there are a few additional considerations you’ll need to take into account to ensure your trip is both safe and enjoyable.
Avoid areas where ice or flooding could be a problem
If you’re planning on camping near a lake, river, stream, swamp, marsh, or boggy area, make sure to check for local advisories regarding conditions. Rain and/or ice melt can cause these areas to flood—and during the shoulder seasons, conditions can change rapidly.
In spring, there can still be ice on lakes and other bodies of water, which means it may not be thick enough to support the weight of a person or vehicle. Even if there’s no official advisory in place, use your best judgement and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Pick a campsite that has shelter from the wind
When shoulder season camping, you’ll want to make sure your campsite has some form of windbreak. For instance, choosing a campsite with lots of trees, or hidden in a cove rather than on the tip of a peninsula will help protect you from strong winds and make your campsite more comfortable.
Check nighttime temperatures
Even if daytime shoulder season temperatures are balmy, nighttime temperatures can drop quickly and significantly. Depending on the location of your campsite, nighttime temperatures in spring and fall can get down to below freezing.
Clothing to take on a shoulder season camping trip
It can be tricky to decide what kind of clothing to take shoulder season camping. The best approach is to dress in layers. This way, you can easily adjust your clothing depending on the temperature—and your level of activity.
Bring at least two pairs of base layers
Having two pairs of base layers—that’s two tops and two bottoms—is important in case you sweat or get wet. You’ll want to have a dry pair to change into. Merino wool is a great fabric choice for base layers because it’s warm, breathable, and doesn’t hold onto smells the way synthetic fabrics do.
Pack extra (warm) socks
Depending on where you’re camping, what you’re doing, and the conditions of the terrain, chances are your feet might get soaked. That’s why it’s important to pack extra socks—preferably ones that are made from a warm, insulating material like wool.
Pack your puffy jacket, even if you don’t think you’ll need it
If you don’t have a puffy jacket, now is the time to get one. Puffy jackets, which are usually down-filled but can also be made with synthetic materials, are a great piece of clothing to bring because they’re warm, lightweight, and packable.
We bring our puffy jackets with us even in the summer months—and have used them. The highest quality puffy jackets are made with down, but there are also synthetic options available that are almost as good.
Bring a warm hat and gloves
Don’t assume all you’ll need is a jacket to stay warm. Wind, rain, and snow can quickly make the current temperature feel colder than it really is. We recommend bringing a hat that covers your ears—like a toque or beanie—and gloves that will keep your hands warm and dry.
Bring rain gear
This might include a rain jacket, poncho, rain pants, and rain boots. Even if the forecast doesn’t call for rain, shoulder season weather can be unpredictable so it’s always best to be prepared.
Choose your footwear wisely
You’re going to want to bring at least one pair of footwear that keeps your feet warm and dry—but remember to tailor it to the activity you’re doing. For instance, if you plan on hiking, you might want to bring a pair of waterproof hiking boots in addition to a pair of shoes you can wear around camp.
Consider waterproof socks
As canoe campers, we always wear a pair of neoprene socks during the shoulder seasons to protect us from the freezing cold water during portages. In addition to being waterproof, neoprene socks are also insulating and will help keep your feet warm even if they do get wet.
Wear a dry suit if you plan to be on the water
Again, as canoe campers, we face a greater risk of hypothermia due to the cold temperatures of the lakes and rivers we paddle through during the shoulder seasons. If we plan on running rapids or paddling through big, open lakes where it can get wavy, we don’t want to take any chances.
We both wear full-body dry suits made from a waterproof and breathable fabric (like Gore-Tex) to keep us dry if we ever end up flipping the canoe.
Gear for shoulder season camping
On some of our shoulder season camping trips, we’ve brought our canvas hot tent and stove (meant for winter camping) if we knew it was going to be cold enough. We know that not everybody has this luxury if they don’t do winter camping, so getting warm isn’t quite as easy.
Still, there are many gear adjustments and choices you can make to make shoulder season camping safe and more comfortable.
Bring a three-season or winter sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of gear for shoulder season camping. If you don’t have a three-season or winter sleeping bag, now is the time to invest in one.
A three-season sleeping bag is rated to keep you warm in temperatures as low as -10°C (15°F), while a winter sleeping bag is typically rated to keep you warm in temperatures that drop to -30°C (-22°F) or lower.
Not sure about your sleeping bag? Find out how to choose the right sleeping bag based on its temperature rating.
Use an air mattress or sleeping pad designed for cold weather
Air mattresses and sleeping pads help insulate your body from the cold ground and also provide some cushioning. We recommend bringing a sleeping pad that’s rated for cold weather—preferably one with an R-value of 4 or higher. R-values range from 1 (not very insulating) to 9 (very insulating), so the higher the R-value, the warmer the sleeping pad will be.
Find out how to insulate your air mattress or sleeping pad to make it warmer.
Add a sleeping bag liner to add extra warmth
A sleeping bag liner is an additional layer of insulation that you can use to increase the warmth of your sleeping bag. Sleeping bag liners come in a variety of materials, but we recommend one made from silk, down, or synthetic material. You can increase the warmth of your sleeping bag by as much as 5 to 10°C (40 to 50°F) just by adding a liner.
Make sure you have the right tent
The shoulder seasons are a good time to invest in a four-season tent if you don’t have one already. Four-season tents are designed to withstand strong winds and heavy snowfall, so they’ll be better equipped to handle shoulder season weather conditions compared to three-season tents. If you don’t have a four-season tent, make sure your three-season tent is in good condition and that all the seams are properly sealed.
Want to add extra warmth to your tent? Consider investing in a portable propane heater.
Bring extra tent stakes
Strong winds are common during the shoulder seasons, so it’s important to make sure your tent is properly secured. Use extra tent stakes to make sure your tent doesn’t blow away in the middle of the night. You might even need heavier duty stakes if the ground is already or still frozen.
Bring extra fuel for your camp stove
Cooking meals is one of the best ways to warm up during the shoulder seasons. It’s best to be prepared by bringing extra fuel for your camp stove to make sure you can cook all your meals. If you’re using a liquid fuel stove, bring extra fuel cans so you don’t run out. If you’re using a canister stove, bring extra canisters so you can continue cooking even if one runs out.
We use our Bushbox titanium XL, which is compatible with a Trangia alcohol stove. In addition to filling up the Trangia before we head out, we bring a leak-proof plastic bottle of clean burning bioethanol fuel so we always have enough to cook with.
Bring extra matches and/or lighters
You can never be too prepared when it comes to starting a fire. Make sure you have extra matches and/or lighters in case your primary fire-starting method fails.
Bring your own kindling if You plan to have a campfire
In the shoulder seasons, it can be more difficult to find dry kindling to start a fire. If you plan to have a campfire, bring your own kindling so you can be sure you’ll be able to get the fire going. Here’s what you can use for kindling.
Bring a tarp (or two)
When it rains, it pours—especially in the spring and fall. In addition to having a tarp you can set up to sit under and keep all your gear dry, you might want to consider a secondary tarp to set up over your tent for extra rain protection.
Food and drink
You may or may not need to adjust your meal planning according to the shoulder seasons. In general, when the weather is cold, you’ll want to focus on foods that are high in calories and fat to help your body generate heat.
Favour hot beverages
There’s nothing like a hot cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to warm you up from the inside out. They can also help keep you hydrated as long as you don’t overdo it on the caffeine.
Plan to eat warm, hearty meals
Meals that need to be cooked and that contain a good mix of protein, fat, and complex carbs will help you stay warm and energized during the shoulder seasons. Consider making a pot of chilli, soup, or stew to enjoy around the campfire. You can also make one-pot meals on your camp stove like this one-pot pasta dish. Check out some of our favourite dehydrated meals to try.
Bring some extra spices
Not only do spices add flavour to your meals, but they can also help keep you warm. Spicy foods increase blood flow and make you sweat, which can help you stay warm in cold weather.
Bring extra snacks
Eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can help keep your metabolism up, which will in turn help you stay warm. Pack plenty of snacks to keep your energy levels up throughout the day. So, in addition to your regular meals, bring along some extra snacks like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and energy bars.
Protect your food from bears
Don’t assume that just because it’s spring or fall, there won’t be any bears around. Many bears wake up from hibernation early and start searching for food. They’re also known to go into hibernation late into the fall if the weather is mild.
Treat the situation the same way you would in the summer. Either hang your food in a tree at night or bring a smell-proof container like a canoe food barrel and haul it farther away from your campsite.
A few extra tips for shoulder season camping
We’ve gone through everything you need to consider for planning, gear, and food. We’re almost at the end, but here are a few extra tips to help you stay safe and have a great time shoulder season camping.
It’s even more important to stay hydrated in the shoulder seasons because the air is drier and your body is working harder to regulate its temperature. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
Bring and apply sunscreen regularly
It may be cool, windy, or overcast, but the sun’s UV rays can still penetrate the atmosphere and damage your skin. Bring sunscreen and apply it regularly, even on cloudy days.
Be careful of sweating too much
Les Stroud (a.k.a. Survivorman) said it best: “You sweat, you die.” When you sweat in cold conditions, your clothing gets wet. And when your clothing gets wet, it loses its insulating properties and you put yourself at risk of hypothermia. So, if you start to sweat, take a break and remove some layers so your clothing can dry out.
Have something to do if it’s rainy
You’re almost guaranteed to see some rain in the shoulder seasons. If you’re lucky, it will only last a bit.
If not, it can last for the whole day and into the night. Bring along something to keep you occupied while you wait it out at camp—like a good book, a card game, a colouring book, a journal, or a downloaded movie to watch on your mobile device.
Here are some other ideas of what to do when you’re camping in the rain.
Be flexible with your itinerary
The shoulder seasons are notorious for being unpredictable, so it’s important to have a Plan B or C in place for your route and main activities. If it’s too windy, don’t force yourself to get to that next campsite down the lake.
If conditions are extremely slippery and muddy, don’t plan on hiking up a big mountain. Always have a backup plan and be willing to change your itinerary if necessary.
Shoulder season camping can be a blast
The more you get out there and camp during the shoulder seasons, the more you’ll learn what works best for you and what doesn’t. And remember, it’s always better to be overprepared rather than underprepared.
Don’t let the cooler temperatures or chance of rain deter you from getting outside and enjoying nature. You might just find it’s your favourite time of year to get out there!
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).