Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cold Weather Camping

The past seven days of no saddle time is beginning to take it's toll on me. I am a hollow shell of the woman I was a week ago. Ashke is doing fine and his stride has gained ground again. After a terrifying and angst filled conversation with Saiph about groin injuries I performed the groin injury test detailed here. Twice in two days because I wasn't sure of the results the first time. Yes, I am that person. Ashke had no pain response at all, which means it is not the groin, as far as I can tell. According to the article, he should have reacted even with a Grade 1 pull, so I was finally able to draw a deep breath for the first time in two days. Ashke was playful and loose and on the correct lead yesterday in the big round pen. We haven't stretched the past two days, since I was worried it was his groin, but we will go back to that today. I'm hoping this will have completely resolved by the time I am riding again.

In the meantime, inspired by Saiph's post on the Foxcather 25, and an issue I read about over and over again, I thought I would share some tips that J and I have worked out over the past 20 years camping in all types of weather. J is a sleeper that gets cold easily and who only really sleeps well when she is warm, she has some cheap, easy tricks to help get a good nights sleep in sub-freezing temps. One of the biggest issues facing endurance riders is that first night's sleep at ride camp. It's probably the most important sleep cycle of the weekend and so many riders are starting their race not having gotten a good nights rest the night before. So here goes . . .

There are two main concerns when camping (sleeping) in cold weather is concerned. The first is insulating yourself from the cold seeping up from the ground and the second is cold seeping in from the air. There are lots of sleeping bag options out there, many of which would eliminate one or both of these issues, but honestly, who has the money to spend on a sleeping bag that costs $300 to $500. Especially when there is tack and supplies to buy. So my goal is to offer some options that won't cost you two months horse board, but which should help make that first night's sleep a little more efficient and most importantly, warm. Because let's face it, you are so exhausted by the second night, it would take a blizzard to keep you awake.

1) Insulating from the Ground

Option One: Air Mattresses
Air mattresses are awesome, easy to pack, moderately easy to inflate with a foot pump (or automatic inflation), and comfortable. Almost like sleeping in your bed at home. I loved camping with mine when the weather was decent and nighttime temps were barely dipping into the 50's. They are comfortable and feel the closest to how my bed feels, so it was easy to close my eyes and sink into sleep. They are bulky, but when one is pulling a horse trailer it is easy to find room to pack one away. They even have truck bed shaped air mattresses for the truck tents. You can even bring sheets and blankets from home and make them up like your own bed. The price on an air mattress runs from $40 to $150 for a luxury model.

However, they really aren't a good option for sleeping in cold weather. The biggest issue is that the air mattress can actually get colder than the ground and that cold seeps up through the layer of bedding you may be using. Your body loses heat trying to warm the trapped air below it and it is easy to become chilled.You are probably thinking "shit, I just invested supplement money in buying an air mattress. What do I do?" Fear not, there is a solution . . . .

 Queen sized from Walmart, $35

Buy eggfoam bedding or memory foam mattress topper. Eggfoam is definitely cheaper and you can purchase a twin sized pad for less than $20 or a queen sized pad for $35. Place it on top of the air mattress (you can use long bungies to secure it if your air mattress is slick) and under your bedding. It adds a nice insulating cushion between you and the air mattress or you and the ground. It can be used as a sleeping pad on it's own, but in that case I would buy two and double them up for comfort. The foam acts as a barrier to the cold seeping up from the air mattress and helps maintain your body temp during the sleep cycle.

 This emergency blanket was created by NASA. It will last a while and does the job it was intended to do. $20 on Amazon Prime

For extra warmth, place a reflective blanket between the foam pad and your bedding. I would recommend the product shown above. It is called the Space All Weather Blanket and is much sturdier than the thin Mylar blankets you can buy for backpacking. This one is 60 x 72 inches. J recommends that if you are chilled and need to warm up, wrap this around yourself. If you sleep super cold, I would recommend getting one for under your bedding and another on top. Make of yourself a toasty little sandwich.

If I were tent camping still (instead of the luxury of a pop-up camper) I would be using an air mattress. It was super comfortable when we were still tent camping and we added the egg foam mattress when it got cold. It also has the advantage of being off the ground, which is good for those of us who have problems getting up out of bed. It is amazing what a difference that four to six inches makes in hauling a butt out of bed. An air mattress saved our butts the night we camped in Wyoming and woke to two inches of water in the tent (this was after digging a redirect ditch around the outside of the tent and with a ground tarp under us) and ten inches of heavy wet spring snow outside. Being on the air mattress was the only thing that kept us from waking up soaking wet. As it was, everything else in the tent was soaked, but ourselves and our bedding were dry.

There are some drawbacks to air mattresses however. They can lose air and become squishy overnight. They can be punctured by roving tree branches or sharp implements. The second issue is that there is little to no support (if you like a firm mattress) in an air mattress, even if it is super inflated, and they all lose some air over time. In that case, you might opt for doubling up the eggfoam mattress (or investing the money in a memory foam mattress) and use that in lieu of the air mattress. This will increase your bulk, and the weight if you opt for the memory foam mattress - they are incredibly heavy - but if you have the room and the strength, they can be a great option. (We take our memory foam mattress topper in the popup when we camp).

Range in price from $35 to $250
I really like the looks of the Jamboree Military Style cot by Innovative Products. ($60 on sale).

Option Two: Cot
Using a cot has never appealed to me, although my mom used one for camping and loved it. It holds my body in a position that must put pressure on my back, because I wake up stiff and very sore, with shooting pains down my legs. If you are comfortable sleeping on one, then by all means, go for it. My mom loved hers and used it for years.

One of the issues with a cot, is that it has some of the same heat transfer issues that an air mattress does. There is air on all sides of you and air is cold. You have two options: heat the air around the cot or provide additional insulation around your body.

To heat the air around you, a propane heater is a great option for a tent, but there is the issue of monitoring it during the night. And the little buggers are a bit pricey. (I also have a mental issue of expecting them to set the tent on fire, which would disrupt my sleep). I couldn't find one on line that had any kind of temperature control, which would make if difficult to keep a steady temp in the tent. I'm sure a happy medium could be maintained, if you were to experiment with the flaps and vents in your tent. One of the things to consider is that the temps drop the lowest toward dawn and you may have to adjust venting more than once in the night.

There isn't enough room on the cot to add a eggfoam mattress, so I would recommend a reflective blanket between you and the cot. It will help retain body heat and is not going to cost you a lot of money to get. Additionally, the blanket should be big enough to layer both below and above. Most women are of a height that the blanket listed above could be wrapped around the body long ways, keeping the core and legs warm if you needed the extra length. (Using it 72 x 60, in other words.)Or you could get two and double up.

Hammocks run anywhere from $50 to $150 depending on vendor. Tarp is $20. Rope maybe $10.

Option Three: Hammock
Hammocks are wonderous things. We own three made of parachute material and they are the handiest things around. We love to string them up and lay in them for an afternoon siesta. You can sit in them sideways for socializing and I have a double sized one from when T was little and he would nap with me in the afternoons when we were camping. I have used it at the barn when dealing with a colicky horse (much more comfortable than a chair) and it is possible to string it up in a horse trailer (provided you have a slant load) for sleeping. If I was camping by myself, this would be my option.

It has the same issues as the cot, as far as heat transfer, and I would recommend the reflective blanket for keeping the cold air from sapping your heat. The parachute material does provide wind block, which is nice. You will need trees in the area that are fairly close together, if you aren't stringing it up in your trailer. And if camping in the trees, I would recommend running a rope above you and tenting a tarp over the hammock to keep you dry just like the picture above.

For really cold camping, you can add an underquilt (there are several DIY under and over quilt options on the internet). The market price for an underquilt is pretty pricey and I am not going to be camping in temps that low (wuss here). However if it's that cold you shouldn't be riding your horse at an endurance ride any way. The thought on the underquilt is to provide insulation on the outside of the hammock, which helps create the dead air space that truly is the key to insulation. There are also overquilts to go over you. There are lots of articles and information about this on the internet, so have fun researching if you are truly interested in utilizing this option.

You will need to make sure your horse is okay with both the hammock and the tarp. These things can eat hide monsters and eat horses. The only other drawback is if you are getting up and out of the hammock during the night (potty break) it can be more difficult to get back into your bed roll afterwards.

So there are three different options for sleeping that do not involve the ground. There are plenty of others out there, but they can become very pricey pretty quick. Next we are going to review the options for bedding down on your selected sleeping space.

2) Bedding
Bedding is really the second key to this puzzle, of which there are three. Your choice will be based on 1) how warm you want to sleep, 2) how frequently you get up in the night (I average three times a night, most nights, more if the dogs are restless), and 3) how much you want to spend. The first place I would start is a sleeping bag. Know that the rating system on a sleeping bag is the survival rating, not the comfort rating. If you want to be warm, and not just survive the night, you should add 15 degrees to the survival rating and figure that is the temp the bag will be comfortable for you. A bag rated at 20 (survival) will be comfortable and warm at 35 (comfort rating).

Something to think about when purchasing a sleeping bag: most of the expensive ones are that way because they are designed to be both insulating and light weight. Light weight is designed for backpacking, and if you were doing backpacking I would encourage you to spend the extra money, but people, we are driving to our destination, often in large trucks pulling a trailer. What about that situation dictates a light weight sleeping bag? Pick one that is heavy: you have a truck to haul it. They will be less expensive and will keep you warmer.

 Sleeping bags can run anywhere from $40 to $600.

There are two styles of sleeping bag. One is a mummy bag, like the one pictured above. This sleeping bag is designed to conform to your body shape. If you are a woman, buy a bag that is designed for a woman (narrower at the shoulder and wider at the hips). The mummy bag does not unzip to the very bottom, it is snug and shaped to your body, which will minimize heat loss and maximize body temp. They can be down filled or synthetic and are designed to minimize heat loss. You can add a flannel or fleece liner to the inside of the bag, which increases the warmth factor by 8 to 15 degrees. These cost anywhere from $20 (cotton/poly mix) to $90 (silk). They are a simple shape to make and I'm sure could be done by you at home out of any material you choose.

Grizzly Canvas bag. $40. We got one at Costco and it's too warm to sleep in most of the time.

The style of sleeping bag shown above is squared off at the end, has a zipper that runs all the way around it and they can be zipped together with another sleeping bag of the same style if you want/need/must sleep with a spouse/lover/close personal friend. This is the style of bag I use, because it gives me more room to move around in and I can sleep on my side with my legs akimbo. This is also the style of bag I would use to sleep in a hammock. The canvas material on the outside is less slick than that of a nylon mummy bag. I found a couple of square sleeping bags on Amazon in the $70 price range that are rated to 0 (survival) which means 15 (comfortable).

If you are discerning and have the ability to snag a bag when you see one on sale, either a mummy bag or a square bag can be found for $30 to $70. For instance, we have had decent luck with the bags that Costco sells, including our Grizzly we got for $40, normally retails for $130. We also got a mummy bag for $30 at Costco that was rated to 15. Costco typically sells sleeping bags in the spring and early summer with their camping gear (now for those of you who do not visit Costco every week). Even if you end up with a lower end sleeping bag (not rated as well), that can be improved by adding additional bedding.

Once you've picked your sleeping bag, you can layer additional blankets on top to keep you warm. The bag provides a closed system around your body to maximize heat generation and to minimize heat loss. For those of you, like J, who love to be super snuggly and really warm, pack extra blankets and pile them on top of the bag. J recommends wool, but I prefer fleece blankets, since wool makes me itch. You can do this and still sleep warm, even with a less expensive bag. I would also recommend you try out the bag if you can before purchasing. I hate mummy bags because I move a lot at night and the mummy bag gets wrapped around me. It's no fun to wake screaming because you believe you are being eaten by a giant python.

If you want to just bring bedding to make up your air mattress like you make your bed at home, you need to recognize the following issues. First, if you are using the bedding you use at home in your HEATED house, then you are probably not going to have enough bedding to keep you warm in your unheated tent. You will need to add additional layers to keep you as warm in your tent as you are at home. Second, you are wrapping your air mattress in thin sheets, which have very little insulating factor, even if you do have a reflective layer between you and the mattress. You can add additional layers between you and the air mattress, like a big heavy down comforter, if you have one. The amount of layers needed to provide insulation will be less if you are using a eggfoam mattress. The third issue is that there is a lot of room on a queen sized bed (for two) or a twin sized bed (for one) that your body is going to need to keep warm in order for you to be warm. If there are two of you sharing the space, then there will be heat loss around your neck and shoulders, plus heat loss if either of you move.

If you are going to use bedding, what I would recommend is to wrap yourself up in a thick heavy wool blanket like a cocoon. In other words, make your own mummy bag out of the bedding you brought from home. Then, depending on your comfort level, pile on more blankets on top of you. I personally sleep in a fleece blanket wrapped around me with a sleeping bag between me and the mattress (foam, not air) unless it is really cold. In a hammock, I would supplement my fleece blanket with a squared off sleeping bag, that I could unzip to get out of.

You can also purchase double bags if you are camping with a spouse, lover or close friend. However, the snuggly and/or arousing comfort of your spouse's/lover's/close friend's body is going to be off set by the loss of warmth in the double bag. Double bags lose warmth at the neck and shoulders, are not form fitted, so there is a loss of warmth at the edges of the bag, and they are not normally sealed as well against heat loss as a single mummy bag. However, if you are all about the heat generated between the two (or three) of you, then by all means, try a double bag.

To review, the mummy bag offers the best heat retention. The drawstring at the shoulders and around the head (you can cover all but your face) ensures the best optimization of heat retention. The drawbacks include limited amount of moving while sleeping and some struggle to get in and out during the night. The square sleeping bags are designed to be heavier, thicker and hence warmer at night. They are marketed to hunters, who are outside in fall and winter, and are expected to provide heavy warm shelter to cold hunters coming into the tent from spending hours sitting in a deer blind. There are ways to make bedding work better than to put it on the air mattress, and make sure to pack extra blankets to make up for the difference in temps.

3) What to Wear to Bed
Sleeping in three or four season temperatures is not a time for Victoria Secrets pajamas, teddys or skimpy nighties. Those have their place and it is not in ride camp. Additionally, the Urban Legend that sleeping naked with someone is warmer than sleeping in clothing is just that - an Urban Legend (probably thought up by someone who wanted the excuse to get nekkid with their camping buddy.) The key is not what not to wear, but rather what to wear to ensure a delightfully warm sleep through the night without sweating buckets in your bed sheets.

First, evaluate your sleeping situation. Have you maximized, to the best of your ability, your heat retention and minimized your heat loss? Based on past experience and any changes you've made, how many more layers would you need to be warm? How cold is the night expected to be and how insulated is your tent? Do you expect to be up more than once in the night?

Start with a base layer. Some kind of thermal wear typically used under snow gear for long periods of time outside. Most base layers are designed so the seams won't press on pressure points and are made of the fabric that wicks moisture away from your skin to keep you warm in cold weather. They are usually very comfortable to wear and cover from ankles to wrists to neck. Add a pair of nice thick wool socks to your feet and a wool cap on your head and you have a sexy, survive the night in warmth, outfit.

For nights that are expected to dip lower, or for people who struggle to stay warm, there are a couple of options. Fleece pants and sweatshirt over your base layer is a great way to start. Fleece is incredibly warm and soft (not scratchy like wool) and easy to sleep in. I would select a sweatshirt that does not include a hoody, since they can become tangled in the bedding and twist around your neck. Being awoken from a deep sleep in the middle of the night because you can't breathe is not fun. A heavier weight base layer can add additional warmth, or adding a fleece liner inside your bag or bedding can improve your R value fairly significantly.

Hand warmers. These nifty things come in all sizes, including a body warmer.

Cold feet are the bane of many people and if you are a person who suffers from chronic cold feet, there is a simple way to solve this issue. Start with a thin pair of socks, silk is the best because it is incredibly warm, then put a toe warmer on the top of your foot on top of the sock. Finish up with a wool sock over the top of all of that. Foot warmers will stay warm for eight or so hours and can add comfort to your sleep cycle. Costco usually carries a huge box of mixed hand and foot warmers for about $30 (look for them in the fall) and has the best value for the amount you get that I have seen.

If after all of the changes you've made you are still cold, there is one more route you can take. Add mittens with hand warmers in them and then use one of the new body warmers from the same company that makes hand warmers to add heat to your chest or belly. Most of the warmers will last for at least six hours and most should last for close to eight.  also generate heat for the duration of most sleep cycles.

Final Thoughts
Some simple, final things you can do to help stay warm. Empty your bladder and bowels before going to bed. Your body will redirect energy to try and keep the contents warm if you don't potty first. If you have to go during the night, get up as soon as you know you have to (don't lay there and hold it) because you will waste valuable resources trying to keep warm until you don't have a choice. Make sure you are calorie loading during the day. Fuel equals heat and heat will keep you warm. Make sure that none of your clothes is damp or wet before crawling into bed. Moisture will kill you.

I hope if you have struggled with staying warm at night, either on an endurance ride, or simply camping, that now you have some ideas about how to stay warm without shelling out a ton of cash. I hope that our experiences have given you some tools for your tool box and that your next ride will start with a great night's sleep in ride camp.


  1. Since the last thing I wanted to do on arriving in camp was to blow up a mattress, and I don't like the feeling of a cot, I was finally able to find the perfect solution, a tri-fold mat. They used to be available at Costco but I can't seem to find it on their website. Here is a description:

    I like a firm mattress and these are pretty firm but very comfortable, I felt like I was in my bed at home.

    Extra tip: Sleep in your breeches: )

    1. I had completely forgotten about those pads, but they would be perfect for a single sleeper. They are the mats used by climbers when they are bouldering and are about 4 to 6 inches thick. The last time I saw them at Costco (late spring) they ran $60 I think.

      Wearing breeches to bed is a great point. They would make a fine underlayer. If you are like me, however, and sleep mostly in the buff, even when camping in the cold, stuffing your clothes into the bag with you is a great option. That way you can pull them on before crawling out of the bag.

  2. Thank you so much for this write-up Karen! I looked up everything on Amazon and created a shopping list!

    I have the problem where I will go to bed cold, bundle up, and then wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. That was part of the issue our first night at Foxcatcher: I went to bed in my tights (like Lytha suggested, I abide by sleeping in the next day's breeches so it's one less thing to put on in the morning when it's freezing!), a microfiber shirt (doesn't retain moisture) a fleece jacket and a winter cap. i had flannel sheets, a fleece blanket, and a synthetic (non-down) comforter on over all of that. I was warm...until the air in the mattress got cold, which happened surprisingly fast! Thankfully I had winter clothes I could put on, and happened to have some Hot Hands for both hands and feet in my bags: this winter I started slipping a pair between sock liners and wool socks to keep my feet warm, and I did this on that night.

    When using body/hand warmers, people need to be careful about not sleeping with them next to bare skin: there is one other endurance blogger that ended up with a burn on her chest from one of these! Use a thin layer of fabric of some sort between the warmers and your skin.

    I'll add that if anyone out there has Back on Track stuff, do bring it for cold weather camping! I packed Lily's BoT back blanket, which I used on the second night to wrap around my legs and feet. No cold feet/legs that night! :)

    The foam egg crate mattress topper idea is brilliant. I was wondering about doing something like that, but wasn't sure if it would work. We already have a memory foam mattress topper as well. Glad to know this really is an inexpensive option we can try!

    Thank you thank you for all of this wonderful information! I'm bookmarking this post for future reference!

    1. Another key thing to try to do is not go to bed cold. When you go to bed cold, you have a tendency to put on too many clothes, which ends up causing sweat in the middle of the night and the cycle perpetuates. I wouldn't recommend a hot drink (common suggestion) because the last thing you want to do is fill up your bladder, but do recommend going to bed before you get cold. I'm talking the bone deep cold right before you shiver.

      And yes, you should never put the heat paks on skin. Always apply them on top of a shirt or base layer.

      Glad we were able to give you some suggestions that didn't include two dozen rabbits. :)

  3. Great post!! I encountered a new obstacle that robbed warmth this past weekend: air mattress use in tent on a platform. Increased air flow led to more cooling of the air mattress. Eep! For the second night we put mats from the car and uncoiled our 70m climbing rope under the mattress to create a buffer. We also put two lighter sleeping bags and one specialized army sheet under us and slept in wool and synthetic layers with hats on beneath the down comforter. It took doing, but we we definitely warm! Especially once we'd curled up tightly against one another for added warmth.

    1. Nice you had someone to snuggle with. I have such a hard time doing that since I sleep at such a different temp than J does. I would be pouring sweat off me sleeping like she does and she would be frostbit trying to match my conditions.

      Cooling quickly is the one major downfall of air mattresses.

  4. Great post, Karen! After experimenting for a couple of nights, I was able to make a truck tent with a cot and a propane heater work really well, but I think I'll make a few tweaks to the system after reading your post:)

    1. Glad you found the information helpful and I hope whatever tweaks you put into place work for you. I'm really glad the cot worked for you! And it sounds like your second night was better than your first.

      I showed J your truck tent and she liked it but I think she's set on buying a popup truck camper for the bed. I'm ok with that because I really want a shower, but I think for the money the truck tent is an awesome buy.

  5. Found myself nodding along to this. Great tips! Mike and I use memory foam (air mattresses are not great with dogs), a reflective layer, and insulated Alaska-style sleeping bags. We sleep with hats on, and with each other and the dogs in there, it gets downright toasty. Now I just need a bigger car to carry it all!

  6. This hammock looks great!! I have been thinking about getting a hammock and try out hammock camping, would be great for backpacking and love that this one is easy to set up!!Plus holds two, Bonus!!! Would love to get one of these.


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