By Volunteer Eric Ockerhausen
There’s nothing like going to sleep under the stars and waking up to incredible sunrises over the mountains. In fact, the experience is one reason lots of volunteers join HistoriCorps projects in the mountains or at high elevation sites. However, one of the main complaints from volunteers new to tent camping on HistoriCorps projects is the unexpectedly cold nights at the project site. It can be much colder in the mountains and at high elevations, even in the summer, than you might expect.
When HistoriCorps asked me to research cold weather camping, they did so because HistoriCorps wants their volunteers to have a good experience, and many projects are for tent camping only They realize that cold feet can really put a damper on having a good time on a project!
I volunteer about four times a year with HistoriCorps and researched cold weather tent camping while working on the Miller Ranch Barn project in northern Wyoming, where temperatures got below freezing almost every night.
If you are a tent camping volunteer and you don’t want to get cold at night, you essentially have four options. You can choose one or combine techniques:
- You can buy new equipment that will keep you warm in cold weather.
- You can research and use hot water bottles in your sleeping bag
- You can sleep in two sleeping bags
- You can only sign up for projects where the nighttime temperatures do not drop below 45 degrees
Here is a description of each of the options:
OPTION 1: New or Better Equipment
Most new HistoriCorps volunteers’ first thought when getting ready to tent camp is to just use the old camping equipment that got stored in the basement 20 years ago after the kids left home. If that’s your idea, then you probably need to get a new sleeping bag. Time takes its toll on camping equipment, just like anything else. Even if those old sleeping bags were good 20+ years ago, the materials can deteriorate, and they lose a lot of their warmth.
The good thing is, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the “best,” most lightweight, warmest, sleeping bag that backpackers use. On almost all HistoriCorps projects, you are car camping, not backpacking, so weight and bulk are not as big a concern.
When you are shopping for a new sleeping bag, look for one that is rated to zero (yes, zero!) degrees, and buy from a brand and supplier you trust. In my research I found many zero-degree bags online that are less than $100, but when I looked at the materials, it was hard to find specifications and other important information, which is not a good sign. Bottom line: You should plan to spend about $200-$300 on a new sleeping bag. Additionally, women may prefer to buy women-specific sleeping bags.
While you’re at it, put a sleeping bag liner in your shopping cart. Not only does a liner add about five degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag, it helps keep it clean, is a lot easier to wash than a sleeping bag and helps extend the life of your new bag.
You should also get a good sleeping pad. Sleeping pads help insulate you against the cold ground and make your sleeping surface much more comfortable (no one likes rolling over rocks or twigs at night). I suggest that you get two pads: 1) An inexpensive folding or rolling foam pad, which adds extra warmth and protection from the ground and 2) A nice blow up sleeping pad, which is more comfortable (mine has an R-value of 5).
Lastly, bring warm clothes to sleep in. We lose about 80% of our heat through our extremities: Feet, hands, and head. If you keep these places warm you will feel very comfortable even if it’s cold. Wear a warm, dry, clean pair of good wool socks to bed, and a stocking cap. If it’s very cold, wear some gloves, and maybe even a fleece neck gaiter.
OPTION 2: Hot Water Bottles
Cold weather camping websites talk about how a hot water bottle can keep you warmer at night. I experimented with them at the Miller Ranch Barn project. They do work, but you will probably need two hot water bottles to keep you warm all night.
I have a two-bottle system: the first bottle is a 40-oz., wide-mouth insulated jug, which will hold hot water all night for refill. The second bottle is an uninsulated, 24-oz., stainless steel bottle. You can use two bottles if you like. (If it’s insulated, they won’t let off heat, which defeats the purpose.) The insulated bottle only cost me $20.
Process: Boil your hot water after supper, fill both the insulated and uninsulated bottle(s), seal them tightly, and place each one in a sock. The sock helps temper the heat coming off the uninsulated bottle, so you don’t burn your skin, and keeps both bottles warm for just a bit
longer. Since the worst thing that can happen is waking up in a wet, cold sleeping bag, you should place the uninsulated bottle in a Ziplock bag for extra safety – you can even double-bag it. If you want to cut down on plastic use you can use a reusable waterproof, leakproof bag. Then, put both bottles in your sleeping bag.
The uninsulated bottle will stay warm for about four hours. If you wake up chilly, simply pour out the cold water from your uninsulated bottle and refill it with hot water from the thermos.
I slept through the night in below-freezing temperatures using this method and woke up the next morning with warm feet, ready and well-rested for the workday.
OPTION 3: Two Sleeping Bags
Using two sleeping bags will also help to keep you warm during cold nights. If you buy a better quality zero-degree bag, you should bring along an old sleeping bag as a “backup.” You don’t want to be working at a cold, high-elevation site and have a wet sleeping bag or one that has a broken zipper, so a spare is always a good idea.
I volunteered at a HistoriCorps project in Bodie, CA in 2017. That week, the temperatures dropped every day, and on the last day we woke up to 17-degree temperatures. I used my zero-degree bag, layered inside also my old 20-degree sleeping bag. It may seem hard to believe but I was warm and did not have cold feet.
If you are a tent camping volunteer with HistoriCorps you need to be prepared for cold weather.
If you are on a project and the average low is in the 30’s but the record low is in the teens, then you need to be prepared for temperatures in the teens because the weather is increasingly unpredictable.
Bottom line: The easiest thing to do to be comfortable and warm is to buy better quality equipment and take good care of it.
My zero-degree sleeping bag cost about $250. Even if it only lasts for five years, that’s an investment of only $50 per year to stay warm and wake up well-rested. For me, that is money well-spent.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather wake up warm at quarter to seven because the sun is up and I know the coffee is ready then, rather than wake up before sunrise because my feet are cold!
I hope this report on cold weather tent camping helps other volunteers stay warm during cold nights. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.