Winter camping in the backcountry can be one of the greatest outdoor experiences but it can also be one of the worst. In harsh weather conditions, the line between being comfortable and barely surviving is thin. Come ill-prepared and you might find yourself in a life-threatening situation (hypothermia can be a silent killer). However, good planning and the right equipment can make winter camping a cozy affair.
Choosing the right winter tent and a suitable sleeping bag is the obvious way to stay warm on a cold night but many people forget the importance of an appropriate sleeping pad. Blocking your existing body heat from escaping down through your tent floor and into the snow-covered ground can make all the difference.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Sleeping pad R-values
Much like technical clothing, sleeping pad insulation is rated with a numerical value system. The R-system measures how well a sleeping pad can insulate the body from the cold ground by preventing heat flow. Most three-season pads are rated from two to four, while for winter camping a level of at least five is recommended. In the case of backpacking, it is extremely important to also look at the weight of the pad, while camping out of the car means you can simply choose the warmest, softest pad without worrying about the extra pounds.
Types of sleeping pads
The most basic sleeping pad is the humble rollmat: a thin sheet of foam or aluminum. The “alumats” are your lightest, least comfortable, and most compact option, but provide very little insulation so they are not recommended for winter.
Closed cell pads are bulky but hard-wearing and lightweight. The R-rating of these dense foam pads are rarely over four so they’re not the best choice for winter.
Inflatable pads create a layer of air between you and the ground, offering comfort and insulation, but they must be inflated before use either by blowing or using a pump. Punctures are always a threat, but they can be repaired in the field. The highest R-rated pads can contain a reflective layer or even synthetic or down insulation, making them even better suited to freezing conditions. If you are worried about the extra weight of a pump, there are some ingenious solutions available.
The comfiest option is a self-inflating pad, some of which can feel like a real bed. These pads have a layer of compressed foam that sucks in air when the valve is opened.
Pads with the highest R-rating tend to be larger and best suited for when you’re camping out of the back of your car. Expect to feel like you’re at home.
The ultimate winter camping set up
If you want the most effective and safest option, try a closed cell pad underneath a self-inflating pad. The closed cell pad will protect you in case the latter one gets punctured, while R values add up, giving you lots of insulation against the cold to allow you to curl up in your tent and read a book while the snow gently falls around your tent.