Winter Camping 101: Hot Tenting vs Cold Camping

By Camper Christina

Winter camping is on the rise in growth and popularity and rightly so. It is a wonderful activity that gets people outdoors, when many are normally at home hibernating and hiding from the cold.  As mentioned in our last article Winter Camping 101: Introduction to Beginners, there are many ways to winter camp.  In this article, we are going to discuss Hot Tenting versus Cold Camping, and which one might be the best option for you.

Cold Camping

Cold camping is basically exactly what it sounds like.  You are winter camping with no major source of heat and are relying on your clothing and sleep system to keep you warm.  There are many ways to cold camp. Some people cold camp in tents, some in hammocks, I have seen people cold camp by digging a trench in the snow, making a quinzee, camping under a tarp, or a handmade shelter.

When cold camping you need to ensure that your clothing is dry when you go to bed and it is preferable that it is made of a moisture wicking material. This means that the garment next to your skin helps to keep your skin dry.  When you are winter camping and not being active, it is imperative that your clothing, especially the clothing next to your skin, stays moisture free and dry, as this is one of the main reasons for feeling the cold.  You also want to avoid cotton materials as they hold the moisture in and will not dry as quickly as dry wicking material and therefore will make you feel colder. 

When cold camping, you should dress in layers wearing either wool or synthetic materials that will keep you dry and comfortable. Layers should be added or removed based on your activity level to keep from sweating. It is also recommended to have a good quality sleep system. For most this will consist of a quality sleeping bag, rated for winter temperatures, as well as, a sleeping pad, also rated for winter temperatures, and underneath the sleeping pad, a layer to insulate you from the cold ground. Some people recommend the bottom two layers are reversed for optimal warmth; this depends on personal preference.

The bottom layer can be made up of several things, a foam pad or something similar to a yoga mat, or a reflective insulation layer such as a Thermarest Ridgerest or something similar. When I first started cold camping, I used a reflective sun shade from Canadian tire, and that worked well also. Combining all of these items, the insulation layer, winter rated sleeping pad and a winter rated sleeping bag, with you inside in your dry moisture wicking layers, should ensure you stay warm and comfortable throughout the night and get a good rest. I would also suggest a nice warm fur hat to keep your head warm, as this is important to retain heat inside your body.

If you happen to be an extremely cold sleeper, like myself, you can add a hot water bottle into your sleeping bag, or fill a Nalgene bottle with hot water and place it inside your sleeping bag for extra warmth. Other options include hot pockets, or a hot rock from the campfire. If using a rock, just be extra careful with how hot the rock is, and wrap it in a spare item of clothing, or towel to ensure it doesn’t burn you or your gear.  I did not do this, and ended up burning a hole right through the bottom of my tent once.

Hot Tenting

Hot tenting is camping in a tent that has a significant heat source.  Generally this heat source is a wood burning stove, but some people use white gas heaters, propane heaters and even electric heat when camping at a campground on a hydro site. Some people would technically call anything without a wood stove, cold tenting. I have slept in a tent using many of the other options mentioned, however, and most keep you very warm, so in my opinion this should also be called hot tenting.

It can be extremely dangerous to camp in a tent with propane or gas heaters in them. The tent must be very well ventilated and I highly recommend a carbon monoxide detector to ensure you do not find yourself in a bad situation. Of the options listed, I recommend using a tent with a wood stove in it, or camping on a campsite with electricity and using a space heater. Even with either of those options, a carbon monoxide detector should always be used. Ninety percent of the winter camping I have done has been with a hot tent with a wood stove, or a tent with an electric heater inside of it on a hydro site. I have never had any issues with either of these setups and my carbon monoxide detector has never gone off, however, I still use it every single time, just to be safe and that is what is suggested to you as well.

The most important thing to focus on, regardless of how you camp, is that you are safe while doing it and enjoy yourself.  If you are not prepared, winter camping can have some serious repercussions. You need to do your research, check your gear several times and ensure you have everything you could possibly need, and then some.  Also, as suggested in the Introduction to Winter Camping article, do a test run, or even a few of them in a safe place like your backyard so that you know your system will work for you when you are away from the comforts of home.  Start out with people who are experienced, or take a course with a reputable outfitter such as Algonquin Basecamp or Lure of the North.  Both have excellent reputations for teaching people how to winter camp and you will learn a lot and feel more confident when it is time for you to go out on your first winter camping trip.

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