Eight essentials for staying warm while cold-weather camping


1. Toes cold? Put on a hat. Your body loses up to half of its total heat in 40-degree temperatures. So, when it’s below freezing and your head is uncovered, you could be radiating more than three-fourths of your overall body heat from your head.

2. Get off your rear end. If you’re sitting on a snow bank or a cold rock, you’re conducting the heat from your body into the surface of the object beneath you. Often, Northern Tier cold-weather campers stand and sit atop thin foam pads.

3. Beware of frosty fuel. Pouring fuel into a stove? Put on a pair of thick rubber gloves. If it’s sub-zero outside, so is the fuel (since it doesn’t freeze like water). Spill it on your hands and you will have instant frostbite.

4. Baggy clothes are back in style — at least in the freezing-cold wilderness. Your body heats itself most efficiently when it’s enveloped in a layer of warm air. If your clothes are too tight, you’re strangling the cold right out of your body. Dressing in loose layers helps aid this convection layer of air. Tight clothes or too-tight boots can also restrict blood-flow.

5. The three W’s: Every cold-weather camper needs to dress for the occasion. You’ll need a wicking layer (long underwear), a “warm” layer (fleece) and a “wind” layer (waterproof shell).

6. Bundle up! It might be a phrase often heard from your mother, but mom is right about this one. If you’re moving around outdoors in the cold and suddenly stop to eat lunch or take a break, put your warmer layers on — even if you’re not cold. This change in activity will cause your body heat to plummet. Preempt the cold with an extra layer.

7. Fuel the fire. Feeling cold? Eat a snack. Staying warm is just like keeping a fire burning; every fire needs a steady supply of slow-burning fuel. Unlike a fire, you’re body will also need lots of water to help digest food and stay hydrated.

8. Wet feet? Grab a bag — a bread bag, that is. The long plastic bag can stretch over your foot and serve as a liner between your sock and your boot.



  1. Don’t know how well fleece keeps you warm when it is wet. I do know that wool keeps you warm wet or dry (but cost some bucks). Second had stores are a good place to look for wool clothing at a good deal.

    • Fleece is a most excellent insulating layer. As alluded to previously, do not use it if there is any chance of it getting wet. And it’s best not to use it as a base layer next to the skin.
      I do not like being cold. So I don’t do it.
      I like Merino Wool or silk longies first. Both are expensive but worth every penny. If really cold, polypropylene is next. Couple warm bulky layers (often fleece) and I’m ready. Top layer must be water resistant.
      Heavy wool socks – I like Thorlos, but other good brands out there.
      Balaclava. Polypropylene or wool topped by a good watch cap.
      Keep the neck warm and sealed.
      I use my head coverings to regulate my comfort. Quickest way to cool off is take your hat off. Warm up, put it back on.

      • Ahhh good choice in keeping warm. Also a wicking layer of socks under your wool socks is great. Do NOT sleep with damp socks. I also wear a hat to bed when cool weather camping. LOL it keeps my feet warm.

      • As a suggestion, if you have your reflective blanket with you,cut pieces large enough for your feet.Then wrap them.Put your boots back on for warm and toasty feet.Don’t forget to replace your reflective blanket for next time.

    • Since fleece is synthetic it works like wool in that it doesn’t absorb water and hold it as cotton does. Water will pass to the bottom and drain out. It fleece gets soaked (or wool) wring it out and put it on. Your body heat will start drying it from the inside out due to air trapped in the fine fibers.

    • Fleece doesn’t absorb water well and the little it does can be shaken out and the rest dries fast against your body heat.

  2. Before getting the foot wet – when the high for the day is below 14 deg F (dry cold), put the plastic bread bag on the foot (under the sock) as a vapor barrier.

    • If you’re hiking or extremely active, put liners or another thin wicking material in between the plastic bag and the foot to absorb sweat.

    • I’ve always been taught, and experience has borne it out, that plastic bags on the feet is a bad idea because they do not allow your foot to breathe. Trapped perspired moisture is simply a short cut to blisters. You may wear the bags over your wick and sock, but it still results in wet socks–how quickly just depends on your level of activity. Maybe hiking in -40 conditions–something I have admittedly yet to do–changes things, but it doesn’t seem likely to me.

      • Plastic on the feet is a bad idea because that traps the moisture and it can freeze on your feet. I know this because my mom did that when I was a kid and I nearly got frostbite on my toes. As it is I still have circulation issues in my feet because of it.

  3. After putting something on your head put something around your neck. It’s a great way to regulate your body temperature as you move and rest.

  4. My wife would say to stay inside by the fireplace. One tip that I use, is to wear two pair of socks with a plastic bag inbetween the socks. You can use Walmart/Kroger bags, produce bags, ice bags (without the ice of course). They are thin but hold in body heat pretty well.

  5. All the above are good effective techniques. I’ll add an addendum to the baggy clothes and bundle up techniques: Dress in several layers of wool, polyester, down and nylon. I love having Merino wool as my first layer; it’s soft and very warm and transfers moisture to my next layer (fleece) very well. When it’s really cold and I’m just standing around I use down as my top insulator, and just to emphasize the 3rd W: ya gotta have wind protection and nylon is the best. This includes your legs!

  6. Keep feet from sweating by using antiperspirant on feet every day weather gets cold. Only use silk, wool or layers that transport moisture away and out . Stay dry, hydrated well fed and warm. Use hats, balaclavas, mittens as needed. Just be prepared.

  7. Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves as the shared finger warmth is not dissipated by the air space between gloved fingers. There are glove/mitten combos available that cover the wrist/palm/lower fingers and have a flap that can cover the tips of the fingers or leave them open to manipulate items. Mine have come in handy (no pun intended) on several frosty trips here in Virginia.

  8. Can’t have fun if you’re cold and you will be cold if you are wet. Brush loose snow off your buddy. Change into NEW dry clothes at night (everything especially socks underwire).

  9. In addition to the suggestions already made remember the golden rule: sweat will chill you faster than the wind. Pace yourself so that your movement doesn’t cause you to sweat profusely. If you feel the drip down your back, it’s too late. The faster you walk the more you must vent. Up Zipping: un-zipping your shell from the belly up is a vastly overlooked way to vent, yet is very effective.

  10. C -O -L -D
    CLEAN: Start with clean body and clothing. Don’t let them get too dirty. It matts down the warming effect.

    OVERHEAT: Avoid it! If you sweat you’ll get cold!

    LAYERS: Loose Layers! Trap the warmth but don’t strangle your body. It has to pump blood to all your parts.

    DRY: Stay that way! Water on your skin takes heat away.

  11. Avoid campfires on snowy campouts. Reason: (a) Scouts get too close to it fully clothed, which tricks the body into thinking it’s inside and you perspire in your bundle. (b) You open your coat near the fire, and get your front warm but back is still cool. Body becomes out of blalance, you walk away from fire and freeze. (c) The fire creates water, which dampens everything around it and creates ice afterwards. Answer is to stay dry (change socks and damp clothes frequently, especially at bedtime), stay dressed in layers and don’t forget to DE-layer when working hard so you don’t perspire too much. Stay hydrated… dehydration promotes hypothermic conditions. Eat a TON of calories to make body heat. Hot soup is the best crackerbarrel snack… raman noodle soup is a Troop favorite on snow campouts. – Scoutmaster Mike.

  12. Before turning in, remove the clothes you wore during the day and put on a dry t-shirt and dry sox, then a dry sweat shirt and dry sweat pants. Moisture (water vapor) from your body will be in the clothes that you wore during the day and will get cold and clammy at night. Put the clothes you wore during the day (not the outer garments) inside of your sleeping bag so that they get warm and partially dry while you’re asleep

    • Don’t forget the stocking hat. We tell the kids to change clothes and wear a hat. The chimney part of this story is true while sleeping too. Heat goes out the head.

    • To add to this, my husband used to be a long line trapper. When he was trapping at 30 below, he would sleep with his boots off his feet, of course but under his shoulders inside his sleeping bag. Never had a problem with frozen boots…….

      • Yes! I was looking for this tip, which is the best winter camping tip I have ever received. I got it from an Assistant Scoutmaster who had Army winter survival training: Brush the snow and mud off of your boots and place them in the foot of your sleeping bag (put them in a plastic bag if they are really wet). In the morning, instead of putting your feet into the equivalent of frozen concrete blocks, you have your nice warm (and more dry) boots to keep your feet warm. Otherwise, it might take hours to warm up your feet.

        Secondly (and this might be even more important for us old Scoutmasters), always have a dedicated urine bottle close at hand to avoid getting out of your sleeping bag on those super-cold nights (and early mornings). Mark it with a big “X” on top to avoid any confusion. Don’t try this with an narrow-mouth bottle – too risky.

        Keeping your next-day clothes (at least the base layers) in your bag will also help. Happy camping!

    • I’ll add to that by suggesting putting your footwear into a bag (keeps sleeping bag clean) and putting inside the bottom of your sleeping bag. Prevents having to put your feet into footwear that is the same as the outside temperature. Learned that on a hardship tour to Korea in the Army.

  13. I always change my socks and t-shirt before going to sleep – perspiration from the days activities can make you cold overnight. Also, I put the clothes I plan to wear the next day in my sleeping bag with me at night. Your body will warm them so when you get dressed in the morning you are not putting on cold garments.

    • Putting the next days clothes in the sleeping bag may get you damp clothes in the morning. Instead put them between the sleeping bag and sleeping pad. The will still be warmer than your pack and less likely to be damp.

  14. Next days’ clothes can go in your sleeping bag at night to keep warm.
    I have had a friend also keep his MSR fuel bottle in his bag to keep his fuel warm.
    Great tips!

    • Only need to do this if it’s not a liquid fuel. Best stoves for cold are either a gas stove that lets you invert the canister, or a liquid fuel like white gas. I wouldn’t put that stuff any where near my bag. But it is the best for cold weather. Just wear gloves when handling the fuel bottle as it can get very cold. We used light cloth gloves for handling the stove and cooking.
      The reason for an inverting canister is that there are either two or three types of gas in the can. N-butane vaporizes down to 31F, isobutane to 11F, and propane to -44f.

      Quote from “Adventures in Stoving” website, Gas Stoves in Cold Weather:

      Propane is going to vaporize all the way down to -42 C (-44 F). Propane is your best cold weather fuel. However, in normal right side up canister use, the propane vaporizes more readily and is drawn out of the blend at a faster rate. This is referred to as “preferential vaporization” or “preferential separation.” Since you’re pulling the propane out at a faster rate, you’re burning it at a faster rate. This is referred to as “preferential burning.” They’re two sides of the same coin, and both are to be avoided.

      For example, if one starts out with a good cold weather mix, say 20% propane and 80% isobutane, by the end of the life of the canister, the propane will be all but gone. Your blend instead 20/80 will be more something like 1/99. Whereas your blend started with a nice percentage of propane (which will vaporize all the way down to -42 C / -44 F), you will finish with almost all isobutane (which only vaporizes down to -12 C / +11 F). You’ll have lost that part of your fuel which was serving, in effect, as a propellent. Recall also that the fuel has to be about 10 Celsius degrees (about 20 Fahrenheit degrees) above its vaporization point in order for there to be decent canister pressure with most stoves. You cannot use a fuel just barely above its vaporization point and expect decent pressure.

      • The above is correct, but you can solve the “preferential vaporization” problem by placing your upright mixed-gas canister in a shallow dish of water (cold water is fine). A simple top-burner stove, such as the MSR PocketRocket, will completely use up its canister this way, even at -40 C / -40 F when a straight-propane burner won’t light (unless you treat its canister similarly).

  15. I chose to wear gators over my boots.
    I also put on a cotton sock base layer then wool socks.
    I have allways put foot warmers directly on skin instead ob between layers

    • hand and toe warmers right against skin can cause burns. A gal in our group did this and she regretted it. It was close to blistering.

  16. Lots of good advice in this thread. And if it works for you, don’t stop doing it.
    Here are some of my other experiences:
    If snowy, the previously mentioned gaiters are priceless. Good, cheap ones are available.
    I used to use the cotton socks/plastic bag base layer on my feet. Worked. Have moved to a dedicated liner wicking sock (synthetic material) under a heavy wool ‘mountain or hunting’ style sock.
    Waterproofness and warm air retention is accomplished by a pair of good insulated (usually kind of expensive) L.L. Bean style boots. A full size larger than what I normally wear.
    I pack a pair of bulky warm mittens too. And, since I have Scouts to worry about, I buy the little hand warmers in bulk.
    Keep toes and fingers comfortable by sealing your neck area and using warm headgear. I promise it works.
    I am not enamored by ‘down’ filled stuff. Unquestionably warm, but too much maintenance and a real problem when it gets wet. Man-made synthetics are getting really, really close to equalling down’s performance with much less hassle.
    My most uncomfortable minutes are getting re-dressed after I wake up in the mornings. Brrrrrr……

  17. Couple of things: I don’t really agree with the plastic bag over the socks and under a boot. The bag doesn’t breath, so even in cold weather, moisture leaving the body through the skin will accumulate, making your feet damp and cold FROM THE INSIDE. A loose fitting extra layer of wool or a boot with a flannel liner will do much better. Re: fleece — cotton fleece will absorb moisture, chilling the body, but properly processed polypropylene wicks similar to wool and is a less expensive alternative. Love the three w’s acronym.

  18. Thanks for the comments… I’ve not tried the plastic bag as I was always taught that it would only store moisture and make the feet cold.
    What I’ve learned snow camping (last years Okpik was -20 w/o wind chill… BTW, Eagle Scout Paul Siple created that term!)
    +No campfire for the reasons stated.
    +Calories…must fuel the “fire” inside.
    +Lots of layers, 3Ws.
    +Mittens are better than gloves. Can also use heavy socks over your gloves as an extra insulator.
    +Exercise some before getting in your bag. Gets the blood pumping.
    +Don’t go to bed with cold feet. They’ll rarely warm up in the bag. I always have cold feet so use a Nalgene filled with hot water, tightly sealed and covered by a sock to warm the toes. Keeps the toes warm, gives me a warm liquid to drink in the a.m or when needed. When empty, it can save a trip outside… 🙂

    Always more to add… SM Dan

  19. In 2010 i shivered through 3 weeks in bridgport USMC survival school. Talking with a sniper there there is something called the 5 Vs. the left and right side of the neck, under each armpit. and the crotch. i would heat up rocks and put one in each V. this helped greatly sleeping in a blizzard with no sleeping bag.

  20. wool is the best….cover yor body with wool from top to bottom before you have vind/rain-safe clouths on the out. There is also socks made of camelhair that are 3times warmer then wool(they are realy very hot on your feet,I only use them when it is very very cold (about minus 20-30c).

  21. Another thing to do to stay warmer is to pee frequently…..if your bladder is full of urine, your body is wasting energy to keep it warm…..if you have to pee, then pee a lot…..holding it in does not make you warmer, it makes you colder…..this comes from people that live near the Artic Circle in Alaska….

  22. The bags on your feet are not a good idea because they wont allow moisture or sweat the be wicked by you socks. Eventually your foot will be soaked and you could get blisters on a long hike. If your feef are wet it might be time to get new boots

  23. Plastic bags over the feet is a bad idea. Not sure why that is on there, but every time I have seen scouts try it to keep feet dry there have been blisters and chaffing from all the body moisture the bag traps next to your skin. Even when the bag is outside the liner; all the bag does is let the moisture build up in the liner itself instead of allowing it to do its job of wicking it away from the skin to be absorbed in the thicker socks. No matter if the day is hot or cold, that just adds up to miserable feet. Let them breathe! Sprinkle some Goldbond powder in wicking liners to help keep your feet dry, pull on some merino wool or good synthetic socks–always avoid cotton socks for these sort of things–and drop a little more Goldbond in your boots to reduce friction. Never had a problem.

  24. To keep your head and face warm at night I suggest using a face blanket. It has a special breathing hole that lets you breathe outside air but keep your nose warm. I won’t go cold weather camping without.

  25. When you get in your sleeping put on a pair of shorts to sleep in put your clothes your going to wear the next day in bottom of your sleeping bag if you sleep in shorts your body can release body heat in your sleeping bag and create a heater in your bag sounds crazy but I learned this in the marines and trust me it works

  26. To take a smart step outside your body, remember the value of the dry clothes you’ve bothered to put in your pack. Line the entire pack, or its sections, with plastic garbage bags, and be sure to roll ’em under the openings (the pack’s access points) so a hard rain, or even dropping the pack in the creek will not ruin your trip. Likewise, every single item with liquid – creams, soaps, or whatever, need to be in a sealed plastic bag. Don’t let spills waste your dry clothes.

  27. I always tell my scouts to change everything they wear…especially under garments when they hit the sleeping bag for the night. Dry clothes = warm nights.

  28. “…you could be radiating more than three-fourths of your overall body heat from your head.”

    Scientists have debunked this legend. You pretty much lose just as much heat from your uncovered head as any other uncovered body part. Yes, put a hat on, but that is just as effective as covering any other exposed body part.

  29. You do NOT lose half your body heat through your head! You lose just as much heat through an uncovered hand, foot, shoulder, or any orher body part as you do through a bare head.

  30. During the Battle of the Bulge in Europe near the end of WWII, the US Army neglected to consider the 20 degree and below weather, leaving us with desperately inappropriate clothing.
    Thanks to my experience winter camping with the Scouts I knew to take off my socks and put on the dry ones I carried during the day under my coat; I learned to keep my head covered, often with a wool cap sent by the Red Cross; fox holes are cold and wick away body heat, so we removed overcoats from our dead buddies to put underneath us as insulation; we learned to keep hydrated by keeping our canteens against out bodies at night to keep them from freezing. For days at a time we had no rations and the civilians were starving, so we learned to self-ration so there wasn’t a “feast or a famine.”

    • A Lieutenat of mine in Europe during the 1970’s wore panty hose to stay warm in the winter months. We thought he was nuts, then we tried it once. Sure worked well especially when you wear cotton pants, keeps the legs and feet warm.

  31. #1 is an old wives tail. Your body looses no more heat through its head than any other part of your body. However, any time you are cold, your circulatory system will reduce blood flow to your extremities to keep your head and core warm.

    #8 is ridiculous. Assuming you have proper footwear, then most of the moisture on your feet comes from sweat and a bag will make it worse.

    This article misses several key points also:

    -Stay hydrated. Drinking ample amounts of water is even more important than eating food in order to stay warm.

    -The key to staying warm is not overheating and causing excess sweat when moving. Have an accessible puffy layer that you can put on when sitting and take off when moving.

  32. Read through to see if there were comments about gaiters and the head myth. Glad to see that those were hit.

    Something not mentioned is expeditionary behavior. The Leader should be demonstrating good behavior. And all members should be watching out for each other. Otherwise known as Teamwork and Citizenship. But, in this case very directed, conscious teamwork. Scouts will need to be told and shown what this looks like. Older Scouts might need to be reminded of their duties to the group.

    • Something the Okpik instructors always emphasize is that if the warmth of a fire can warm you, you’re not dressed properly for a cold weather adventure. I agree that campfires are nice, but they don’t do much except add to the ambiance for cold weather camping. IMHO…

  33. I really appreciate your tip to wear long underwear as a “wicking layer” to keep your body warm! My wife and I are thinking of taking a camping trip soon, and I know that my wife can get really cold in the winter. If we go camping when it is really cold, I will make sure that we wear long underwear!

    • I was going to publish this to my Troop–but maybe not.
      #3: I thought BSA prohibited liquid fuel stoves???
      #8: The plastic bag recommendation seems unsupported.

      • Liquid fuel stoves are perfectly fine per BSA policy. The only requirement is that the stove must be commercially made. No homemade alcohol stoves allowed.

      • The liquid fuel stoves are a standard for winter camping. They can be a bit difficult to cook with due to high heat output. But that makes them perfect for melting snow. Just make sure there is a bit of water in the bottom of the pot. You can actually scorch the pot with just snow in it.
        I was trained that on a snow camp the group needs at least one liquid fuel stove simply for the water generating abiliity.

  34. The old theoryof most heat loss through your head is believed to be incorrect. A lot of references all say heat loss through head is no greater than any other parts of your body. Maybe the biggest thing here is few people would go outside in the winter without a shirt or coat than would without a hat.

  35. With all that being said about warm clothing and staying dry, don’t get into your sleeping bag with all that clothing on… put your clean clothes that you want to wear in the morning down at your feet so that you don’t perspire on it and so that it’s warm when you go to put it on in the morning.. perspiring in your clothes in a sleeping bag will cause you to be damp when you get out in the morning resulting in an unnecessary chill.

  36. One great discovery: good-quality wool clothes (such as Merino or even cashmere) or even silk can be VERY inexpensive if you buy them at a secondhand store such as Goodwill or Salvation Army. Check the “shirts” section. A hole may make a merino sweater unfit for city wear, but nobody in the woods will care. DO be aware that secondhand clothes often have holes and need to be carefully inspected; also, be aware that prior owners may have shrunk them drastically by washing improperly. But with a little practice, you can run your hand down a rack of sweaters and tell by feel what’s merino–and it may be quite soft and non-scratchy, even next to your skin. You’ll want to hand-wash such clothes, of course, and it’s always good to learn how to do basic hole repair–but, for outdoor use, it doesn’t have to be pretty, especially if you’ve got other clothes on over them.

  37. Avoid the Scouts having the “all day snow ball fight”. Our younger guys would frequently “be boys” with snow throwing at each other throughout the daily activities of every Klondike, winter hike, etc. The result would be overly damp Scouts by evening and cold Scouts by night, which could be problematic.

    • Tell them to change their clothes before going to bed. *Any* activity will make them damp and cold. Changing to dry clothing for sleeping is always a good idea.

  38. Didn’t see any mention of boots and lining. In heavy winter conditions frost plugs and relectix can make a world of difference. Put a plastic mesh or heavy felt liner in the bottom of your boot (the plug) to catch the moisture as is condenses. The reflectix then serves as a vapor and insulating layer from the plug. Your insulation has to effectively manage the entire temperature gradient and moisture range. At some point if your layering is too thick or retains moisture, warm moist air will cool, condense, and freeze. If that happens inside your primary insulating layer, nothing you can do will keep you warm. The trick is to pass that warm moist air through a membrane layer and back into the environment before it can condenses and defeat you insulating layer. That is why wool works better than synthetics. It pushes that moisture to the surface so the hollow fibers can stay dry and keep insulating. It’s also why a breathable waterproof shell is a key element of the system as a whole. It lets the moisture escape before it can saturate your insulation.

  39. Try this cold weather sleeping hack!! Fill two nalgene bottles with almost boiling water and put them in your sleeping back right before bed. Wrap one with tomorrow’s cloths and put at your feet and let the other one float around your core area. You will be surprised that the heat seems to last all night!

    • The hat thing is overrated and has been debunked. You lose heat in direct proportion to the amount of body area exposed. Head is maybe 10% at most.
      Cold toes? Rethink your footwear.

  40. As important as dry clothing are for staying warm during the day, it’s just as important to have a dry sleeping bag to crawl into at the end of the day to stay warm at night.

    First, keep excess moisture out by making sure to change all of your clothing before bed.

    Second, make sure your mouth and nose are exposed so you aren’t breathing inside your bag.

    Avoid overheating. If you feel too warm before you fall asleep then remove clothing and/or partially unzip your bag. If you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself sweating or your clothes feel damp then change into dry clothes before going back to sleep.

    Finally, leave your sleeping bag open during the day so it has a chance to air out. Better yet, lay it out on top of your tent or hang it on a line. It may seem counterintuitive but it is possible to dry your bag and clothing in below freezing temps through the process of sublimation (aka freeze drying). The more sun there is the faster the drying, but often enough solar radiation will get through the clouds on overcast days for drying to occur.

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