Getting the right equipment for fall and winter camping

As the summer draws to an end and the temperature drops, camping is not all aid-back. To protect against the elements and to keep warm at night, a minimum of accessories are necessary. Here are our suggestions.

 

BUYING

Tent

Before choosing your tent, you need to consider how you plan to use it: only on a campground accessible by car (in the fall)? While hiking, snowshoeing, biking, cross country skiing or canoe-camping?

Given that they are easy to transport in the trunk of a car, for the former, you can get a large, voluminous tent in which you can stand.

But if you are looking for a tent to go hiking, biking or canoeing, you need to find the right balance between its size, weight and sturdiness; exerting too much energy carrying it or having to put up with a huge backpack is out of the question.

Unless you are exploring at high altitudes, leaving for several days or expecting extreme drops in temperature, a three-season tent designed for the fall should do the trick for winter camping, when done sporadically once or twice a year.

On the other hand, it would be better to opt for an expedition tent for camping in windy and very snowy areas where precipitation can be abundant and natural shelters are practically non-existent.

Generally speaking, expedition tents are much more resistant to windy conditions and the weight of the snow, and they have sturdier frames with sometimes more numerous poles. To minimize the risk of accumulation, the rainfly does not have a flat section, and the waterproofing is often superior to that of standard tents. In order to keep the heat in, these tents are not as well ventilated as summer tents. However, they must still have ventilation flaps, given that, in cold temperatures, the body produces a lot of humidity…up to three litres of water per camper, each night.

Sleeping Bags

Nowadays, there are excellent sleeping bags made of synthetic materials, which tend to lose less of the heat they accumulate and are less expensive. But to maximize the chances of keeping your body warm, down-filled sleeping bags remain the best option on the market, and they are obviously more expensive. Although they accumulate humidity more easily, they have higher and more effective insulation, and they are more lightweight and compact, making them easier to carry.

Note also that, for the fall, a three-season sleeping bag that keeps campers warm in up to –10 ºC temperatures can be sufficient. But in the winter, to avoid the wraths of Mother Nature, a sleeping bag supporting temperatures as low as –40 ºC is a better choice.

Other accessories

Thanks to their insulating properties, ground pads can make the difference between a cool night and a comfortable one, especially in cold weather. Whether inflatable (best suited for fall) or foam (fall and winter, depending on insulating properties and level of comfort), ground pads stop the transfer of humidity between the ground and the sleeping bag.

For cooking, boiling water for drinking, or melting snow to clean your face, a camp stove is a must-have accessory for fall and winter camping. In the cold season and for high-altitude excursions, choose camp stoves that run on liquid fuel (white gas, methyl alcohol, kerosene, etc.). These perform better in cold than compressed gas models, such as butane, propane and isopropanol camp stoves.

To turn on a camp stove or start a campfire, a lighter is more effective than matches, which can become unusable due to humidity. To make life easier in difficult lighting conditions, you can scrape a block of magnesium with a knife above the wood to be ignited, or drop resin-soaked sticks that ignite even in the rain.

When temperatures drop, camera, phone and headlamp batteries tend to drain more quickly. To increase the level of energy, you can place the batteries in the sleeping bag for the night. We also recommend bringing a recharging kit with a solar collector, which proves to be more practical in the fall and winter months, when trees lose their leaves and allow more light through, although sunlight does not last as long.

USE

Before going camping for several days in cold weather, you should test your equipment, particularly your tent, sleeping bag and ground pad—in your backyard or a neighbourhood park. Should there be a hitch, no one will suffer from hypothermia, a reality when in the forest in winter.

Also during this season, some campers use two ground pads, one on top of the other, for maximum comfort and insulation. It is also a good idea to make sure the pad is easy to carry when attached to a backpack after being rolled up tightly.

In the fall, carefully choose where to set up your tent, ideally in a shaded area to prevent UV rays from damaging the top of the tent and in order not to turn the inside of the tent into a heat chamber if the sun is strong. Opt for a well-drained, slightly sloped lot to make it easier for rainwater to flow out, and look for a site with exposure to light winds to chase away the last of the fall mosquitoes and air out the tent.

When at all possible, find a firm lot to drive stakes into (compact sand, soil or snow). On unstable or snowy surfaces, attach ropes to a tree, rock or bag filled with heavy materials, such as small rocks.

If there is one season during which you do not really feel like cooking outdoors, it has to be winter. Even so, there is now a wide variety of freeze-dried (dehydrated) meals to which you simply add water to create a decent dish, without having to empty your entire food pantry.

To quickly and effectively warm up, there is nothing better than a thermos filled with tea, coffee or steaming hot chocolate. Not only does a hot beverage revive the body, but a thermos can also be used as a heating pad when placed at your feet in your sleeping bag at night.

In the fall and especially in the winter, avoid lingering in the tent wearing light clothing before slipping into your sleeping bag. Spending two hours playing cards or chit chatting can lower your body temperature so much that it may be impossible to warm it back up afterwards, which can lead to hypothermia.

During dinner, only drink the bare minimum to avoid having to get up and relieve yourself in the middle of the night, especially in winter. If you need to slip out of your sleeping bag and step out of the tent in –10 ºC weather, you may not be able to get back to the same body warmth, and the rest of the night will seem endless.

To avoid attracting animals, never leave food, toothpaste or other edible of fragrant substances out inside the tent. Put everything in an airtight container and hang it on a branch, using a rope.

When leaving a campsite, carefully clean your tent and let it dry before folding it. If the tent is wet or snowy and you need to leave, fold it and carry it, but make sure to unfold it and let it dry once you get home.

Always bring extra poles in case one of them breaks due to strong winds or the weight of snow. Finally, before leaving, make sure you have a canvas repair kit (fabric, glue, etc.)


MAINTENANCE

Before the start of the season, check the tightness of your tent’s seams, floor and rainfly, and waterproof everything as needed.

Regularly check the state of zippers and coat them with paraffin as needed.

When you get back home, take your sleeping bag out of its carrier (or compression sack) and place it in its storage bag.

Store sleeping pads unrolled in a dry, well-ventilated place to minimize the effects of humidity and prevent the formation of mildew. Self-inflating pads, for their part, should be stored fully inflated and hanging up, with their valves open.