The complete guide to camping all-year-round
Winter doesn’t have to mean the end of the camping season. With good preparation and the right gear there’s no reason why you can’t camp all year round with your family
Camping out of season can provide some wonderful memories. Imagine sitting outside the tent on a crisp sunny morning, with frost on the ground, enjoying a steaming mug of coffee and a bacon butty. Or opening the front door as dawn breaks and seeing the ground covered with a blanket of pure, white snow.
Just because winter is here, there’s no need to stop camping and it’s not just for hardy wild campers. Many family-friendly sites stay open all year round, even if some of their facilities might be limited off-season. Who needs that outdoor pool in December anyway?
But the whole experience could be ruined if you don’t prepare properly for the cold temperatures and inclement weather.
Preparation is the key to successful winter camping. The Scandinavians say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, and that applies equally to sleeping in a tent. If your tent is up to the job and is pitched properly it should be able to stand up to most weather conditions. And if you take the right gear you’ll be warm and cosy no matter how low the mercury drops.
WHAT GEAR SHOULD YOU TAKE?
Deciding what to take is top of the to-do list. Pack your three or four-season sleeping bags, duvets and fleece blankets from home. Take more than you think you’ll need and you’ll be fine. Hot water bottles, bed socks and woolly hats will all help keep you and your family cosy at night. Start off with a fleece on top of a long-sleeved shirt with a t-shirt underneath and you can gradually peel off the layers if it gets warmer.
A tent carpet is considered a must-have accessory by many family campers these days, especially out of season. They offer real protection from the cold ground, and you can get tent-specific carpets or simply lay a blanket or fleece out on the floor. Pack your wellies and waterproofs as well. Rainfall is generally higher than through the summer months. Bring a folding plastic box in which you can leave your boots next to the door – it will stop mud getting into the tent.
Make sure you’ve got a good lantern and spare batteries – the nights can be long in winter and you’ll need to keep the lights burning for longer than usual. Even better, try to get a site with electric hook-ups so you can have unlimited electric heating and lighting. A heater makes a huge difference to comfort levels before you get into bed. It doesn’t take long to heat a tent.
WHERE SHOULD YOU PITCH?
A decent-sized windbreak will block chill winds from howling through the tent. Alternatively pitch in the shelter of a wall or building if there is one. Definitely try to avoid pitching at the bottom of a slope and avoid other areas that look as though they might get waterlogged when it rains.
Choosing the right site is important. Check out what indoor activities are on hand for the kids before you head off. A games room or an indoor pool will keep them occupied no matter the weather. And a nearby family-friendly pub, preferably with open fires, is a definite asset come the evening.
Remember that it gets dark early, so don’t leave it too late to set off from home or you’ll be putting your tent up by torchlight. Finally, go local. If it turns too cold and wet, you can always go home…
KEEP WARM IN BED
- Before getting into bed, give your sleeping bag a good shake to maximise the loft of the insulation.
- Go to bed on a full stomach as the food will generate body heat. But don’t be tempted to have a hot drink or you’ll need to get up to go to the loo in the cold!
- A sleeping bag liner will improve the bag's warmth significantly.
- Insulate yourself from the ground as much as you can to avoid the cold drawing heat away. A sleeping mat of closed cell foam or an old duvet on top of an air mattress will add to warmth and comfort.
- Sleep on a thick self-inflating mat or a campbed, rather than an airbed. The air inside an inflatable bed will get cold quickly and stay cold throughout the night as the temperature drops.
- Sleeping bags will lose insulation values when damp so try not to sleep with your head under the covers breathing out moisture.
- A mummy-shaped bag has less internal space to warm than a rectangular bag and wraps snugly around your head and shoulders. On the other hand, the latter's simpler design and features might mean that, pound for pound, the fill means it is warmer.
- Wear base layers or thermals and a woolly hat to bed instead of normal pyjamas.
- A light fleece blanket is useful to pull over shoulders through the night and a cheap duvet adds substantially to a sleeping bag's performance when tucked around.
- A small hand warmer wrapped in a sock and slipped down to the foot of your sleeping bag a couple of hours before getting into it will help to keep you warm.
WHAT KIND OF TENT HEATER SHOULD YOU USE?
A heater is the best way to keep your tent warm in the evening but what is the best type and how do you use them? Naked flames are a definite no-no when it comes to heating, with the double threat of carbon monoxide poisoning and fire. The safest option is sticking to electric – a hook-up will allow you a whole world of heating choices, including fan, halogen and radiant options. A small unit like the Katla by Outwell is perfect for heating a tent living area. You can also get catalytic and radiant butane and propane gas models.
USING A HEATER
Don’t wait until the temperature is unbearably cold before putting your heater on. Once your body is cold it can be difficult to heat up again so try to avoid that happening by flicking the switch as soon as it starts to get chilly.
After the initial blast of heat it’s better to keep the heater on at a low steady level, rather than constantly switching off when it gets too warm then back on again when you start to get cold again. Even in the coldest weather it won’t take long to get your tent to a nice temperature.
Leave plenty of space in front of your heater and don’t drape wet clothes over it.
A woodburning stove with a heat-radiating chimney pipe is a marvellous, alternative way to heat a traditional canvas bell tent.
Whatever your source of heat, it’s not a good idea to leave a heater running unattended or through the night. Switch off when not needed.
HOW TO BUILD A CAMPFIRE
Sitting round a campfire in the evening is lovely in the winter – but there are lots of things to consider.
1 Before deciding on your campsite, make sure fires are allowed. Some sites will supply fireboxes, in which you can have a fire without damaging the grass of the field.
2 Sites that do allow fires often sell logs and kindling to prevent campers chopping down the surrounding trees and bushes. As these can be pricey, it might be better to buy a net of logs from a local garage or garden centre.
3 Try to avoid sites that attract rowdy groups. Thankfully most sites that allow fires control large groups.
4 If you are going to collect firewood, it should be done sensibly. Only use windfall under trees on land you are allowed to be on. Don’t trespass and definitely don’t take a saw or axe to tree.
5 Children usually love open fires but be careful with them and supervise them strictly.
6 Take a few old newspapers and a pack of firelighters to get the fire going but don’t be tempted to use petrol or any other liquid accelerant.
7 Start small with twisted bits of newspaper, kindling and possibly a few firelighters if everything is damp.
8 Build the whole thing up gradually adding slightly bigger logs as the whole thing gets going. Try to let it have plenty of air by building in a wigwam fashion.
9 Try to resist the temptation to keep adding bigger logs for a huge blaze. A great roaring fire may seem a good idea but in reality it burns your fuel quicker, gets too hot and can be dangerous.
10 Using charcoal briquettes will give a steady heat for cooking.
11 Take into account wind direction. There’s nothing worse than smoke getting in your tent and sparks could cause serious damage.