How to beat the chill when camping
There's quite a lot to think about when you're planning a wee camping trip in the winter. Despite the season and conditions it's still a holiday break not an expedition. If it all gets too much on site, you can just throw all the gear in the car and head for home. That would be a shame and a wasted opportunity. ‘Beating the chill’ rather makes it sound like a battle. In a way, it is, of course, but it's one you can load the dice in favour of winning. While camping in snow is the image conjured up by battling the elements, the reality of camping out of the main season usually means coping with rain, wind and frost.
Falling temperatures and long nights will affect the style of camping and may prompt a re-think on what tent suits you best. In spring and summer, tent doors stay open, the barbecue smokes away merrily and the long evening light makes for sociable sites. When the weather turns chilly and the nights draw in, there aren't many people lounging around outside the tent at 8pm.
It pays to think not only about where you're going but what you plan to do when you get there. Sounds obvious but sitting in a tent zipped up tight against the weather may lose its novelty value and dramatic appeal after a couple of nights. Happily, there's nothing like the first lungful of crisp, dry, cold air as the tent door is unzipped in the morning; it can be a welcome reality check away from central heating and double glazing. Having said that, I know a couple who love to camp in the winter as it gives them a chance to hide away and catch up on the reading they have no time for most of the year - or so they say.
Thinking about what you plan to do and the resources available may well result in a shift in perception about campsites. Many more are open longer these days and Christmas-themed camping packages are growing. On a simpler level, a campers’ lounge may be enough or a good local pub. Out of season sites are likely to be fairly empty and more facilities can be enjoyed, at lower prices, without feeling hemmed in by other campers. On a cold, wet evening in December, the option to cook a meal in a heated kitchen and eat it at a table in the warm may have an appeal that was rejected in August. Similarly, unlimited hot water in the showers and access to a tumble dryer have a higher priority when the cold wind blows. With more useful facilities, it’s easier to consider walking, cycling and other activities during the day as the whole family can get stuck in and be washed, dried out and fed in comfort without tears - hopefully.
More so than in summer, your tent becomes a real base in colder weather and it’s likely you'll spend more time inside it. Living space becomes more important as do practical matters for comfort like a carpet and an extended groundsheet in the porch/awning area. Keeping mud and moisture outside the heart of the tent are more important so footwear that's easy to kick off and somewhere to hang raincoats make tent life easier. You'll soon learn your own tricks to get in and out without getting wet or dripping water and stomping mud inside. On frosty mornings, you'll discover how much moisture accumulates inside a tent if it’s not ventilated, as ice crystals from the flysheet shower you if you’re not careful. As a first step to staying on site in chilly weather, you might consider a camping pod. With insulated walls, heating and lighting taken care of, you only need to bring your cooking and sleeping gear.
Plenty of insulation from the ground, a warmer sleeping bag and thermals are the basics, possibly supplemented by a bedtime fleece top (mine cost only £5 and was a great investment) and certainly by a hat kept handy to pull on when the temperature plummets. Burying your head inside will ensure the sleeping bag gets damp through your breath so a neck tube or scarf pulled over your nose when it gets nippy avoids the problem. Spreading out a fleece or fibre pile offcut as a bedroom carpet means you don't have to kneel or roll on to an icy groundsheet. If you don't want to buy a warmer bag, use yours with a cheap fleece blanket or even a light duvet thrown over.
It's a brave soul who stands out in the open preparing a meal exposed to the elements and a foolish one who cooks inside the tent on a family camping trip in cold weather. The discomfort of the former and risks of the latter mean that you really have to sort a safe, sheltered area to feed the tribe. Or rely on takeaways for meals and only use your stove for hot drinks and breakfast porridge. Better for convenience and on the pocket to explore cooking options and sort recipes for simple, quick, hot food. Wildlife has a tough time in the winter so pack food away unless you’re happy to be woken by small locals raiding your larder.
With an electric hook-up, tent heating is available at the flick of a switch. All is not lost without one as a gas heater will do the job with a cosy glow (keep your tent ventilated). Whichever you opt for, never leave the heaters on all night for safety reasons - fire is obvious but carbon monoxide poisoning is an insidious, invisible killer.
You don't need an electric hook-up to enjoy plenty of light in the tent. There are loads of gas, liquid fuel and electric lanterns to choose from with all sorts of clever features and a wide range of price tags. They're getting more and more ingenious each year with LEDs and rechargable options extending practical use. Regardless of how the tent is lit, a head torch for each person allows them their own control of light for reading and night-time excursions as well as being a security blanket against strange noises through the night.
- Wearing layers of light clothing rather than one chunky jacket allows you to adjust warmth easily. If your clothes get wet, let them air in the car - pop the windows a fraction - rather than drenching your tent in condensation as they dry.
- A mummy-style bag is warmer than a rectangular style as there is less space for your body to heat and it wraps neatly around your head and shoulders.
- Try to air out your sleeping bag and tent whenever you can; perspiration and warm breath condense in the tent at night and the moisture will reduce warmth.
- Make a loose fitting bag from an old blanket or fleece to put your feet in when in your sleeping bag. I've also got a huge piece of fibre pile fabric for wrapping around myself when sitting around; friends call it the buffalo robe.
- A sleeping bag liner will improve a sleeping bag's warmth significantly.
- Insulate yourself from the ground as much as you can to avoid the cold drawing heat away; use a closed cell foam mat on top if you normally use an air mattress. A rough guide is that you want two to three times the insulation below you as over you.
- Put a hand warmer inside the foot of your sleeping bag a while before turning in.
- Store sleeping bags loosely between trips so the filling will not be compress for long periods and lose its insulating properties over time.
- Before you get up, pull the clothes you plan to wear inside your bag and warm them up a little.
- It usually takes longer to cook food in cold weather, so plan accordingly.
- Torch batteries are affected by cold; you can often revive an apparently dead battery by warming it up in your hands or a pocket.