It was late January or early February. I was leading a small group on a three-day expedition on the Mojave Trail. We planned to explore parts of the trail and nearby sites. Late the first night we turned off and drove about seven miles into Carruthers Canyon, located in the New York Mountains.
It was gorgeous. Dark blue sky, beautiful sunset in the making, and light dusting of snow greeted us as we reached the campsite. We were up about 5,600 feet, where the air is crisp with a hint of pine from the surrounding trees and the Mojave Scrub intermixes with the Pinion Pine Juniper.
At that elevation and time of year, it can easily drop to the 30s, maybe even the 20s. I hadn’t thought much about the temperature, as I’ve camped in the cold many times. (Heck, to me ‘cold’ is when the temp drops well below zero, but that’s me.)
The next day, two of our guys packed up their tent and split. Turns out they hadn’t prepared for such a climate. I imagine when they heard that we’d spend time in the desert, the figured on reasonable temperatures (maybe even beach weather!). Because I’ve camped in the cold many times it did not occur to me that time to say anything in advance.
Now I do!
Strange as it may sound – especially if you’ve never camped in winter — it is a really nice time to be outdoors. Pack properly, and you will enjoy yourself. Of course, that’s subjective. Seasoned campers naturally can withstand inclement better than those with less experience. I fully understand if you’re more sensitive to the cold. Pack properly and those chilly nights won’t seem so bad after all.
Incidentally, winter is the best time to visit the desert. Daytime temps are nice, but the area cools off quickly after sundown. It could potentially get down into the 20s, which can be pretty uncomfortable if you’re not prepared for it.
Staying comfortable in the tent
The right gear and clothing can help ensure you snuggle in and get a good night’s rest.
Tent heater: That blast of warm air heats up a tent in a hurry but those heaters come with risk. The biggest concern is CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning. Some units are susceptible to tipping over, though all incorporate one or more safety features.
Because the heater works so well, you need only about 10 – 15 minutes of burn when you turn in and before you get up. I like to let it blast into my sleeping bag just before I crawl in. Then I snuggle into a warm and cozy environment. Run it again a short while early the next morning to warm up the tent.
Several brands and models of tent heaters are available. I like the Little Buddy heater. It operates with the 1 lb. propane cylinder, and features a wide (8”) base and automatic tip-over shut off. The website claims it puts out 3,800 Btu per hour and heats up to 95 square feet – just right for the average tent.
Sleeping bag: A given, of course. Don’t scrimp here; a comfortable night is too important. The style and rating of the bag make a difference. Get one that’s rated to at least zero degrees. Understand that those ratings are somewhat arbitrary. A sleeping bag with a rating well below the kind of temperatures you’re likely to encounter should ensure a cozy night.
A “mummy” style bag is even better. It covers you like a cocoon. Some people get a little claustrophobic in a mummy bag. Try one at the store before purchasing.
Which type of fill is better? Pound for pound, down is more effective than polyester. But you’ll pay a lot more. Down also loses much of its insulating value when it gets damp.
Buy a thick poly-filled sleeping bag and bring extra wool blankets or a second sleeping bag. It’s better to be overpacked than under packed
Packing blankets: Regardless of how thick your sleeping bag is, the underside gets crushed from your weight on it as you sleep. You need thick material between you and the ground. A packing blanket works great as a first layer in cold weather. Spread one out on the tent floor; you’ll be amazed at what a difference it makes. The blanket smooths out the bumpy ground, too and is a shade more comfortable to put your feet on. Harbor Freight carries a good “enough” packing blankets for just over $5.
Sleeping system: When you put all the elements together you end up with what I call a sleeping system. It starts with a tent that block the wind. The foundation is some thick material (the packing blanket). Then a pad such as a Therm-a-Rest mattress or foam pad. Then comes your sleeping bag. And be prepared to top it off with one or two wool blankets.
A good sleeping system used in conjunction with a short burst from the heater should keep you comfortable throughout the night.
Dry clothes for sleeping. Never sleep in your outdoors clothing. Items could be sweaty, and the buttons, seams, and just the stiffer fabric can be uncomfortable. Any amount of moisture will wick away your body heat. You’ll never dry out, and you’ll never be really warm.
Thick, warm sweat pants and a sweat shirt are great for sleeping, as are long-sleeve t-shirts and long johns. Protect your sleeping wear from the elements so the items are always dry. Pack the clothing in a plastic bag or other waterproof container.
You may also consider electric socks. They can be a bit pricey, but if they keep your feet warm at night – and therefore you stay comfortable – they could be worth it. And remember a knit cap or hoodie. Your head naturally radiates a lot of heat. Keep it covered overnight.
Store hot water in a Nalgene bottle Tuck one at your feet and hold onto snug another to your chest. I’ve heard that water stays warm for at least a half hour. You can buy Nalgene bottles from many outlets.
Staying comfortable around the campfire.
Ah, a warm, crackling campfire. Whether to enjoy in quiet or as the focus of a rowdy night on the range, a campfire really is the centerpiece of any outing. Despite how hot your fire is, the heat can be very localized: Your front side may be toasty warm, but your hinder may be sporting goose bumps. What to do? Try these next time you’re camping.
Block the wind: Set up a large piece of tarp or cardboard behind you. You could also place that cardboard or foam on the inside back of your chair. Your head may still get chilly, but your backside will be warmer.
Hot coals under your chair: Sounds strange, but it’s remarkably effective. Scoop about a half shovelful of hot coals and set it under each chair. Make sure you use the coals and not sticks or logs on fire. The coals will radiate heat for about 15 -20 minutes each time. You’ll be amazed at what a difference this makes.
Sunflower heaters: Nifty heaters designed for outdoor use. The unit clips to a larger (5 to 20 lb.) tank and really throws the heat. Some are rated at more than 10,000 Btu – enough to keep a couple people warm if close by.
Warm clothing: As is the case with sleeping, it helps to bundle up while outside. A thick knit cap, gloves, sweat shirt and other clothing will allow you to enjoy the campfire and camaraderie.
The key with cold-weather camping – as with any excursion – is preparation. If you’re traveling in the desert in winter, or the mountains any time, assume you’ll face chilly weather. How you define chilly only you can decide. Err on the side of caution and pack extra clothing and blankets. Nothing ruins a night like being cold. Bundle up so you can enjoy the great outdoors in lower temps.
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Did you miss the previous article?
- 2017-12-15 The 12 Days of Four-Wheeling
- 2017-11-11 The Perfect Cup of “Camp” Coffee
- 2017-10-11 Convenience of a 4-Door Model in a 2-Door Vehicle
- 2017-09-11 Amateur International 4WD Event – the Penultimate Bucket List
- 2017-08-10 2m Hamming Off-Road
Some Upcoming Events (click on the link for details)
February 03 Women Only Getting Started Off-Road – San Diego area
February 10 Getting Started Off-Road – LA area
February 11 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – LA area
February 17 Getting Started Off-Road – San Diego area
February 18 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – San Diego area
February 24 Beginning Rock Crawling – Johnson Valley
March 02 Winching & Recovery – Borrego Springs, CA
March 04 Self-Recovery – Borrego Spring, CA
March 10 Wilderness First Aid – Gorman CA
March 10 Getting Started Off-Road – LA area
March 11 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – LA area
March 22 San Rafael Swell Adventure
March 24 Getting Started Off-Road – San Diego area
March 25 Day 2 Getting Started Off-Road – San Diego area
March 26 Easter Safari – Moab UT
The Bandana layout follows the “Vehicle Recovery Plan” with pathways to more detail. A unique section of the Bandana, gives the steps for a “Winch Rigging Check: Walk through” so that you verify every element of the rigging before you commit to the pull. Stuff this in your recovery kit and you will always be ready. Warning – the Bandana is not a substitute for proper training and use of quality equipment used within the bounds of their safe working load. We advise you to use the information provided in the Winching Recovery Bandana at your own risk. We cannot control the quality and specifications of the equipment used and the methods actually employed. The original press release with larger graphics is on the website .
I hope to see you on the trails!
Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
4-Wheel Drive School
Make it Fun. Keep it Safe.
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