Because camping isn’t fun if you’re wet and freezing.
As the climate continues to go all topsy-turvy, shifting suddenly between warm and cold, especially in the southern states, one needs to be prepared for leaving on a fall-like day and arriving in the heart of winter.
You need to be most careful when planning your camping trip and overnight hikes. In the south, the warm weather can suddenly drop below freezing every night. In the north, careless campers may find themselves in the first winter snow of the season. The list below isn’t exhaustive, but it should get you thinking about the importance of food, shelter and safety in late fall camping.
- Prepare for Bad Weather
Who would go camping in a storm? Even if the weather reports tell you it’s going to be nothing but sunshine, prepare for the worst. Think of the extra baggage as part of your workout routine. We’re talking extra food, extra water, and extra layers. As you go down you’re checklist, imagine every item in a bad storm. Waking up to high winds and freezing rain in the middle of night gives adventure a whole new name.
- Test Your Equipment
This goes without saying but we felt we should throw it in anyway. Go through your tent, sleeping bags, clothing and look for flaws. Think: how is this going to do in a storm? Pull on things, visually inspect every inch, especially if, as we suspect, it’s been in the attic or a closet for months or years. You’re looking for holes, wear and tear, broken zippers, etc…
- Don’t Skimp on the Backpack.
Make sure you have a good backpack with a rain cover. DO NOT drag out the backpack that you used hiking through Europe 20 years ago! Also, line your backpacks with plastic garbage bags to keep out moisture. In fact, make sure you bring extra plastic garbage bags and plastic baggies for protecting other items, like your smartphone and any electronics. Bring water tight-containers.
- Layering, Layering, Layering
Start at the top. If your head is cold, take a face shield that can be used as a balaclava, scarf or hood to retain body heat. It will warm your both your head and your body. A human body puts out between 70 and 500 BTU/hr of heat. That’s why layers of clothing are essential. It gives you the ability to adjust your thermostat in any condition.
- If It’s Wet, Get It Off
If any of your clothing gets wet, get it off ASAP. Wet clothing does not insulate well, though wool, silk and many synthetic materials still provide insulation value when wet. (Note that the human body also exhales about 8 ounces of water each day.) Avoid cotton. It’s a heat conductor and will not insulate you when wet. It also takes a long time to dry. Repeat after me: I need to stay warm, dry, hydrated and well-fed.
- Know Your Base Layers
Base layers are essential to dressing for this trip. Have an extra set of everything for each day you’re on the trail. Here are the basic layers:
- On-Skin – underwear, tops and bottoms.
- Base Layer – long johns.
- Outer Layer – think to thin, depending on activity conditions.
- Wind and Rain shells
- Shield Your Face
Make sure you have a face shield , balaclava or hat. Or better yet, a face shield that works as both a balaclava and a hat. Think top-down whenever you’re thinking of your body. If the head goes, nothing else is going to be of much use. Put on that winter face shield! About 30 percent of your body heat escapes through your head. Wearing a face shield is one of your best defenses against that, not to mention the sun, rain or snow that could be pelting your face in a high wind.
- Think About Your Quest for Fire
Don’t just assume you’re going to come across some place with firewood within reach just as night is setting in. That never happens. Some experts actually recommend that you pack your own firewood. The logic here is that dry firewood can become scarce in autumn, late fall and early winter. But check first to make sure there are no burn restrictions in your campsite area.
- Beware of Heaters
If you must bring a small propane heater, be sure it has various safety shut-offs and is labeled for indoor use. Heaters can be very dangerous, and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure that you’re following safety precautions carefully. If additional heat is needed you can fill water bottles with hot water, wrap in extra clothing and stuff them inside your sleeping bag. These will only last about 4 hours. You can also use chemical hand warmers that will last 8 to 12 hours.
- Drink and Be Merry
Alcohol may warm the soul, but it doesn’t warm the body. This is a myth. In fact, it does the opposite. Obviously, be ready to partake. But be careful. More camp outings than you can possibly imagine have gone terribly awry because of too much alcohol too far out on the trail. Drink, drink, drink but only the right kind of fluids. Warm fluids are best. Avoid sweetened and caffeinated beverages. Once your body is dehydrated, your personal thermostat goes to hell. Warm beverages help keep your body core temperature high without consuming calories.
- Eat and Be Merry
Eat. Eat. Eat. The trail is no place for dieting. You need to eat, especially fats. Think of it as unleaded fuel. You’re going to need to those calories to generate heat and motion. Fat provides the ideal fuel for your internal engine. At night, it’s your furnace. You want to eat a hot, high fat meal close to bedtime – all those carbs help your central heating system overnight. Good fats like fish, nuts and avocados are also helpful as you burn calories on the trail. Remember you’re eating more because you’re moving a lot more. So worry about the diet when you’re back in civilization. This is the Wild. It’s called the Wild for a reason.
- Inside the Tent
A decent tent will trap some of this heat, to take some of the edge off the cold, but not enough to substitute for the insulation provided by clothing and/or a sleeping bag. Make sure you have a sleeping bag rated appropriately for the lowest temperature expected. Then give yourself an extra 20*F margin. (If you expect 20*F, take a bag that’s rated for 0*F. If you have an old bag and you’re not sure of the rating, you can improve a bag’s cold weather performance by using a thermal sleeping bag liner. Or you can put one old sleeping bag inside another. Finally, there’s always additional blankets but this is starting to get complicated, right? Don’t rule out simply buying a new generation of bag with a respected rating. In addition to the sleeping bag you will need a foam or insulating air/self-inflating mattress to protect you from the cold, hard ground. Look for a high “R-value” mattress. It’s a measure of thermal resistance – the higher the R-Value, the more thermally-resistant the material is.
- Location, location, location
Finally, always know where you are. Bring a GPS device, compass and/or map. If you visit a backcountry area, be sure to notify friends and park officials where you plan to go and when you plan to return. Choose a sheltered spot to pitch your tent. Know your north, south, east and west. (Your GPS device should basically be a compass). Think about where the sun is likely to shine in the morning and pitch your tent there.