How to stay warm on a winter campout

Shenango Recreation Area Campground
Sunset over a campsite at Shenango Recreation Area Campground. Dustin Wendel photo.

Winter camping has many benefits. It’s quiet and peaceful. It’s a way to enjoy the outdoors during months when we don’t spend as much time outside. Campgrounds are relatively empty. There’s less competition for highly sought-after campsites.

Over the last couple of winters, my daughter has enjoyed winter camping with her scout troop. They’ve slept in tents comfortably, cooked their own meals and returned from weekend campouts with plenty of tales to tell. It seemed like such a good time, I put it on my list, too.

Last weekend, I ventured out to Shenango Recreation Area Campground in Pennsylvania to take advantage of the mild February temperatures and see what winter camping is all about. The trip was an incredible experience with very little difficulty. However, staying warm is definitely the biggest challenge.

Temperatures fluctuated between 38F Saturday during the day and 31F early Sunday morning. I felt comfortable in my regular hiking gear throughout the afternoon when the sun was out. As the sun dipped behind the trees and began to set, it felt colder, and I spent most of my time sitting around the fire. Sleeping in a tent was a little colder than I would have liked, but I did it and I now understand the importance of a zero-degree sleeping bag. I will be upgrading my gear before my next outing.

If you’re considering your own winter camping trip, don’t underestimate the importance of staying warm and dry. Review the tips and packing list below to stay warm on your next winter campout.

3 keys to staying warm

  1. Stay dry. Being wet when it’s cold out can put campers at risk of hypothermia. When you go camping in the winter, always wear a waterproof outer layer, pack extra clothes and change into dry clothes before going to sleep.
  2. Dress in layers. Dressing in layers keeps you warmer and dryer in cold weather. Three layers are ideal. Your base layer should be made of a moisture-wicking material like polyester and fit tightly to keep drafts off your skin. Your middle layer should be made of insulating material like fleece or wool. Your outer layer should be made of water and wind-resistant material like Gore-Tex.
  3. Avoid cotton. Avoid cotton clothes at all costs. Cotton absorbs moisture and dries too slowly. Wet clothes will draw heat away from your body at an alarming rate.

Packing list


  • Zero-degree sleeping bag – many sleeping bag manufacturers will include a comfort temperature range and a limit temperature range with different models of their sleeping bags. The comfort range lets you know the lowest temperature the average person will feel comfortable in the sleeping bag. The limit lets you know the lowest temperature it’s safe for the average person to sleep in the sleeping bag. Pay attention to these recommendations when purchasing a sleeping bag or when preparing for an upcoming campout.
  • Wool or fleece sleeping bag liner – A good sleeping bag liner can improve the comfort and limit temperature ranges of your sleeping bag significantly. The fleece sleeping bag liner my daughter has adds about 25 degrees to the rating of her zero-degree bag. When she sleeps with both in milder temperatures like we had this past weekend, she says she gets too hot.
  • Wool or fleece blankets – Putting wool or fleece blankets over and under your sleeping bag can help add extra insulation. You’ll be about 10-20 degrees warmer.
  • Ground pad – foam pads and other types of pads with dense material are preferred to inflatable sleeping pads. They provide additional insulation as opposed to air, which heat can transfer quickly through.


Clothing should be made of sweat-wicking material, which includes polyester, nylon, polypropylene, Capilene, spandex and lycra. If a clothing item is made of more than 40% cotton, it’s not moisture-wicking material. Your packing list should include both light and heavy-weight clothing to layer during winter campouts. Layers should be removed if you start to overheat or sweat. Below is a packing list for a weekend, including one change of clothes per full day of camping.

  • 3 pairs of polyester underwear
  • 3 pairs of lightweight polyester socks
  • 3 pairs of heavy wool socks to layer over polyester socks
  • 3 polyester base shirts
  • 3 polyester leggings
  • 1-2 long, thermal underwear
  • 1-2 insulating fleece pullovers or wool sweaters
  • Hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants to sleep in, which can be cotton
  • Water-resistant pants (ski and sledding pants work well)
  • Insulated and water-resistant coat
  • Winter stocking cap that covers head and ears
  • 2 pairs of water-resistant gloves or mittens
  • Insulated, waterproof winter boots
  • Extra pair of footwear
  • Rain gear such as a poncho to supplement water-resistant outer layer in rainy conditions


  • Plenty of firewood – summer campfires are mainly used for cooking, while winter campfires are used for heat and cooking. Be prepared to go through more firewood than you usually do.
  • Cold-weather tent – some three-season tents are ok to use in the winter, but more than likely the tent you use for summer camping is not going to hold heat in well. Double-layer tents create insulation and keep heat trapped in cold weather. Many come with snow skirts to offer added protection from the elements. Canvas tents are also are also better at keeping heat inside.
  • Newspaper – layering newspaper under your sleeping mat will add a layer of insulation from the cold ground. Straw can also be used.
  • Cooler – a cooler can help maintain a food-safe temperature for food and water while keeping these items from freezing.
  • Insulated water bottle or thermos – staying hydrated is always important. An insulated water bottle or thermos will keep your water supply from freezing in low temperatures.
  • Garbage bags – Garbage bags are useful for storing your clothing and keeping it dry. They are also good for packing wet things in to take home.
  • Other – don’t forget to pack all the stuff you usually pack — backpack for clothes and gear, wash kit, mess kit, flashlight with extra batteries, compass and first aid kit.

Winter camping in Ohio

Some Ohio State Parks invited campers to enjoy them year-round. You can find a complete list, along with details about accommodations here.

The Ohio Department also has a list of safety guidelines for those who choose to enjoy the outdoors throughout the winter. You can find those here.


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