Winter Camping: Tips For A Great Nights Sleep
A good night’s sleep does the world of good to any trip, and perhaps even more so at winter.
We get a lot of questions here at AKHQ, but some of the most common are:
“How warm is the PipeDream 600?”, or
“How warm is the SkyeHigh 900?”, or
“Will X sleeping bag be warm enough my trip to X mountain range?”
These are all excellent question; unfortunately, excellent questions rarely have a simply answer.
“Yes but, which sleeping bag will give me a good night’s sleep in winter conditions?”
A myriad of factors influence how you sleep when camping out in winter conditions, so we’ve devised an acronym to remember them by: SLEEP (neat huh?)
S = Surface:what are you going to sleep on?
L = Layers:what will you wear inside your sleeping bag?
E = Eat and drink: have you got enough fuel to keep warm?
E = Extremities:are you feet and hands going to stay warm?
P = Protection:how are you going to stay dry?
Surface: what are you going to sleep on?
Never underestimate how much precious heat can be lost through the ground; some research even claims heat loss through the ground to be three times heat loss through air. This makes your sleeping mat vital to a good night’s sleep when camping out.
Your sleeping mat is pivotal. A good mat can boost your sleeping bag’s rating and smooth out those uncomfortable lumps and bumps on uneven terrains. On the other end of the scale, a poor matwill reduce even an excellent sleeping bag’s efficacy, and you’ll feel tuft or pebble below. In brief, it’s important to get this one right.
When you lie on your sleeping bag (which is inevitable unless you have levitation mastered), the lofty down is compressed and becomes less insulating. This means that your sleeping mat should be a good insulator, all the while providing a comfortable surface to sleep on. Here, you may need to compromise… Airbeds are oh so comfortable, but the large uninsulated air chambers increase heat loss from beneath. On the other hand, your firmer closed-cell roll mat may be an excellent insulator, but isn’t the most comfortable of surfaces.
The middle-ground is a self-inflating mat, such as the Airo 180. Self-inflating mats offer both insulation and comfort, however they are susceptible to compression at the hips and shoulder, creating cold spots. The ultimate solution in cold conditions is to pair a self-inflating mat with a closed cell roll mat, providing coverage for the cold spots whilst maintaining comfort.
Layers: what will you wear inside your sleeping bag?
Getting a good grasp on how you are going to regulate your temperature in the night may not seem exciting, but you’ll be glad to have given it some thought when you’re tucked up in your sleeping bag.
We tend to worry about becoming too cold when camping out at winter. Granted, staying warm is number one priority, but overheating and perspiring will result in a buildup of moisture in your sleeping bag’s filling, making it less effective and causing it to freeze when temperatures really drop.
Extra layers are a must for helping to regulate your temperature at night as the damp or sweaty clothes that you’ve been wearing all day will cause you to cool faster (a damp garment can cause you to lose heat as much as 25 times faster than dry). Plus, any moisture will be absorbed into your sleeping bag’s filling.
Wearing extra layers, such as thermals, will not only protect your sleeping bag, but will soften the blow when you need to crawl out of your tent for a call of nature.
In addition to extra layers, a sleeping bag liner protect your sleeping bag whilst adding comfort to your bag. It may not make it much warmer, but it will help you to regulate your temperature a little better. Silk sleeping bag liners, such as the Mantua, have thermal properties and are especially good for temperature regulation.
For a lighter setup, consider how you can use kit that you’re already taking with you. For example, an insulated jacket or fleece might be used as a mini-blanket inside your sleeping bag to keep your core insulated whilst using a lighter weight bag.
Good practice when using your sleeping will do wonders for your comfort. Ensure you use the hood and neck baffles to stop any "bellows action" and create a good seal around the sleeping bag openings to prevent your natural movements from pumping warm air out of the bag and sucking cold air in. Finally, don’t breathe into your sleeping bag: all that moisture you exhale will go straight into the filling.
Eat & Drink: do you have enough fuel to keep warm?
Think of food as fuel. Without it, you’re not getting anywhere.
We sort our winter camping food into three general categories: the quick hit sugary foods, the slow release complex carbohydrates, and the long-lasting proteins that will keep you full all night. Each has a role to play in getting a good night’s sleep.
What to eat for a good night’s sleep
That quick hit of sugar comes from chocolate, energy bars, and carbonated drinks (basically all the good stuff). It’s excellent for giving you an immediate energy boost, but it doesn’t last very long. That Mars Bar you had for dinner won’t keep you warm through the night.
That’s where those slow release complex carbohydrates, such as pasta and rice, come in. These slow burners keep you going a little longer, continuing to give you energy when the sugar rush has subsided.
That said, unless you are frequently refueling, you’ll need something to keep you going for even longer. Proteins, such as meat, fish, cheese, nuts fill you up for the night, keeping the hunger and cold at bay a little longer and preventing you from waking up in the early hours with a chill.
Struggling to refine your winter camping menu? Head over to our Winter Chef spotlight for more on cooking in the cold, and a video of Nick making a cheese fondue in the carpark.
Your body needs water to convert all that food into energy.
Take care to stay hydrated when out in winter conditions, as the cold weather can numb your thirst mechanism, preventing you from feeling thirsty when you need water. Your body also needs to warm and humidify the cold air that you’re breathing, causing you to lose a significant amount of water when exhaling.
We’re not ones to say no to a little tippling, especially around the campfire. However, alcohol dilates the blood levels and increases heat loss, making us more susceptible to heat loss: fine and dandy when you’re sitting by the warm glow of a fire, less dandy and less fine in winter conditions. When out in the cold, hot water and tea our drinks of choice!
Extremities: will your feet and hands stay warm?
There’s nothing worse than having cold feet and hands, but they always seem to take so long to warm up!
Your head, hands and feet are packed full of blood vessels, this means that they are the first parts of the body to feel the cold.
If your extremities are cold, the rest of your body will soon follow suit and you’ll struggle to fall asleep. Simply donning a dry hat, gloves, and socks will help to keep your extremities nice and toasty. Just like the layers of your layering system, you can add more or take them away depending on the conditions.
Protection: how will you stay dry?
How are you going to keep you and your sleeping bag dry and out of the wind? Are you sleeping in a bothy, a tent, a snow hole, an Alpine hut? These factors will affect your sleep.
Staying dry is a priority when it comes to winter camping, but sometimes accidents happen, so it’s worth having a plan for drying your gear and sleeping bag during the day if the worst does happen (for example, by draping it over your tent). Staying dry doesn’t just mean protecting yourself from precipitation, but managing and reducing the condensation in your tent.
Read our Winter Camping spotlight for more on managing condensation (including a retro video by AlpCol!).
Keep out the draughts
Draughts in your sleeping area will cause you to lose more heat as you sleep, especially when using a thinner sleeping bag. Building windshields or staking out the extra peg-out points on your tent should help to keep the wind out.
Using bivvy bags
It’s commonly supposed that bivvy bags like the Hunka will not only keep your sleeping bag dry, but boost your sleeping bag’s rating. This isn't strictly true as it depends a lot on the conditions and temperatures you’ll be sleeping in. In warmer conditions, a bivvy bag can cause pools of moisture to collect, making your sleeping bag damp. However, in colder conditions it will act like a vapour barrier system, reducing the moisture intake into the sleeping system.