This was freezing cold!
The outdoors is something I really enjoy, so when some few weekends ago a friend of mine mentioned the idea of going hiking and camping, I immediately said yes. The night before, my wife and I packed our gear, got the hiking boots ready and were anxious for the next day. Our day started with heading over to Shenandoah’s Old Rag Hiking Trail with a group of friends.
This is a nice 9-mile loop hike that includes great views of the Shenandoah Skyline and with some good rock scrambling areas. We took a few stops to enjoy the scenery and take pictures, and once at the summit we had lunch. The temperature range was around 40F, but the strong winds were very chilly, making anyone without gloves regret the decision to go explore the outdoors.
Being the first time I go camping in below freezing weather, I underestimated the cold winds and didn’t bring any windproof jacket. The weather forecast predicted a low of 20F at night in the campgrounds. For preparations, we packed:
- 1 sleeping bag
- 4 throws
- Thermal padding to put between the tent floor and mattress
- Futon mattress (we have a futon sofa and the removable flexible mattress fits perfect in out tent)
- Pillow and mattress covers
- Thermal undergarments and warm pajamas
We only have 1 sleeping bag and it’s rated for 55F, but we thought the extra throws along with all the thermal stuff would be enough.
So how did the night go?
By the time we hiked down the mountain and got to the camping area, the sun had already set so we had to use our flashlights to set up camp. The temperature had already dropped to the mid 20s F. The campground we stayed in didn’t expect so many people and ran out of firewood. This meant we had to go fetch and cut wood with an ax. We found a couple big branches already on the ground and chopped them into manageable pieces to carry down a hill using our head lamps for visibility. Back at camp, some other friends in our group were preparing food with some other wood we already had burning. The night quickly got colder and everyone changed into their “warmer” night clothes. This is where I didn’t prepare enough. I should have brought a wind resistant jacket and some winter socks instead of one lousy layer of ankle cotton socks. I couldn’t feel those toes!
Once all the chattering died down and marshmallows were eaten, we downed the fire, stored all the food in the cars (bears), and headed for the shelter of the tents. Obviously the tents were freezing inside. If you put them too close to the fire, it’s a risk and it will stink to smoke. When wrapped in all the throws and the 50F rated sleeping bag, everything was nice and warm. Ice crystals formed in the inside walls of the tent due to condensation, even though vents were left open to prevent that. The coldest it got during the night was 16F, but inside the tent covered in the blankets, it stayed warm.
So my suggestions to someone trying out camping in below-freezing temperatures for the first time:
- Good gloves
- Good winter socks
- Sleeping bag rated for freezing temperature weather, or 5 – 10 blankets like I did
- Layers of warm cloth
- Wind-proof jacket
- Have dry backup wood, the fire is a must
- Don’t drink too much liquids before going to bed. You do NOT want to exit your warm comfort zone to do business in freezing weather
- A neat trick I learned… take some old water bottles and place them near the fire a few minutes before bed time. These warm bottles will help you keep warm in the 10-15 minutes it takes the sleeping bag to warm up. The sleeping bag will do a good job in keeping you warm and insulating your body temperature, but initially when you get in at first it will be at ground temperature… freezing
- Bring back-up propane tanks in case fire wood is wet
- Prepare food back at home as much as you can before, so all you have to do at the camp site is cook
I know camping isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy the outdoors and a good story to tell, take the challenge and go camping in the winter. It actually feels very good once the fire gets going and you are relaxing by it with hot cocoa in one hand, and freezing wine in the other. We didn’t get any snow, but I’m sure the snow would have made the experience more unforgettable!