Autumn is my favourite time to camp, but it’s a hard sell for most people. The cold temperatures, wind, and rain are common concerns. But, once you manage the elements, it’s a great time to get outdoors.
This post is your ultimate fall camping guide, so you can get out and enjoy the beautiful autumn colours, misty mornings, and quiet trails. Below you’ll find tips on staying warm and dry, coping with longer nights, and finding stunning locations visit.
Why Camp in the Fall?
For most people, the camping season ends with summer. Once fall rolls around, you’ll find that many hard to get campsites are readily available and often at discounted rates.
If you like your outdoor experiences without the hustle and bustle of crowds, fall camping is perfect. Everything is quieter in autumn including trails, lakes, and rivers. And while the brisk days take swimming off the table, they are perfect for hiking, biking, and canoeing.
Nights come early in fall, so soak up the starlit sky while roasting marshmallows on the campfire. Fire bans are usually lifted by this time, so you can count on the warmth of a campfire. Plus, you won’t become a nighttime snack for biting insects who have now gone dormant.
Of all the great things about autumn camping, the best may be how the landscape transforms. The fall colours in Canada are stunning. Bright yellows, oranges, and reds paint the forest landscape. In the early morning, the frost covered ground sparkles in the light and the cool air drifting over warm lakes creates a fog that reflects the colours of the sunrise.
Unique Challenges When Fall Camping
Staying warm and dry is made tricky by the drastic changes in fall temperatures combined with heavier than usual precipitation. Daytime temperatures in autumn can be warm, or even hot, while evening and nighttime temperatures can dip below zero. Choosing the right clothes and sleep setup will ensure that you stay warm and comfortable. There are also routines you can do before bed that help you stay cozy.
Choosing the Right Clothing
Layering is key to staying warm in all weather conditions. By layering, you can manage outdoor temperature fluctuations and changes in body heat as you go between physical activity and rest. Often overlooked, overheating and sweating are dangerous in cold weather because you cool quickly after you’ve finished exerting yourself. By adding and removing layers you can help protect yourself from the cold.
Your clothing system should consist of a base layer, mid layer, and shell. The type of fabrics you choose will make a difference in how warm and dry you stay. Let’s take a look at each layer:
Base layers, or thermal underwear, are your first line of defence against the cold. They should sit close to the skin, but not so tight as to cut off circulation. Merino wool and synthetic fabrics (like polyester) are best because they wick moisture away from your body and help you stay dry. While merino wool is more expensive than synthetic fabrics, it has natural anti-microbial properties that are odour-resistant. You’ll find many companies selling cotton base layers. Avoid these at all costs. Cotton absorbs water and takes a long time to dry. There’s an old camping adage that says “cotton kills.”
Base layers with neck zippers can help release heat without having to take off clothing. They are a great option for when you’re active. It’s also a good idea to carry two sets of base layers, one for daytime and another for night. This ensures you don’t carry sweat and moisture into your sleeping bag – more about that later.
Mid layers are your sweaters and vests. They work to keep you warm by trapping and warming air between your clothing. They should fit more loosely than base layers, but not be oversized. Fleece is the fabric of choice for many mid layers. It is warm, breathable, and wicks moisture. The only disadvantage is that it can be heavy and bulky.
Other materials to consider are down and wool. Down packs small and offers a lot of warmth, but it does not provide any insulation if it gets wet. A mid-weight wool sweater will provide lots of warmth and wick moisture, but it is heavy and bulky. Some people also find wool to be itchy. Note that, merino wool is thinner and much softer than coarse wool.
Finally, a shell protects you from wind and rain. You can buy hard shells and soft shells. Hard shells are more stiff and bulky, but perform better in extreme weather conditions. Soft shells are lightweight, comfortable, and breathable, but do not have as robust weather protection.
When choosing a shell, make sure to check its waterproof rating. Waterproof ratings are usually given in millimetres and are determined using a hydrostatic head test. You’ll need +5000mm for light rains, +15,000mm for heavy rains, and +20,000mm should keep you dry in all conditions.
Hands and Feet
Layering will also help keep your hands and feet warm. Like your base and mid layers, gloves and socks should be made from wool or synthetic materials that wick away moisture. On top of this, you’ll need a waterproof and windproof shell.
For your feet, choose a hiking boot that is both waterproof and breathable. Hiking boots should fit a bit loose to accommodate winter weighted socks. For extra warmth, layer a thin moisture wicking sock with a mid-weight wool or synthetic.
The same principles apply to your hands. Thin wool or synthetic liners can be paired with warmer waterproof and windproof gloves or mittens. A lot of people choose leather as their external glove. Leather is warm, durable, and doesn’t hinder dexterity. It makes working with firewood and hot pots easy. That said, leather does not hold heat when wet and it takes a long time to dry. If allowed to freeze, leather stiffens considerably. You can buy waterproof waxes to treat leather and make it more resistant to water while maintaining breathability. Note that synthetic leathers do not perform the same as animal leathers
Don’t forget a warm hat and neck buff. I also recommend insulated camp shoes. Down booties are warm, lightweight, and comfortable to wear around camp after a long day in hiking boots. A rain cover for your backpack is also a good idea.
I’ve written an entire article about dressing for the cold which includes my own fall clothing system. Check it out if you are looking for specific recommendations for women’s clothing.
Sleeping Comfortably in the Cold
Sleeping bags and sleeping pads come with different thermal ratings. Once you understand these ratings, it’s easy to stay warm through cold autumn nights.
Understanding Sleeping Bag Ratings
Sleeping bags come with a “comfort temperature rating” and a “limit temperature rating.” These ratings are determined through third-party lab testing. Lab technicians place a heated mannequin wearing base layers and a hat inside a sleeping bag and on a 1-inch mat. They then expose the mannequin to the cold while monitoring how its body temperature changes.
Comfort temperature ratings are the lowest temperature which will keep a “cold sleeper” warm. Limit temperature ratings are the lowest temperature which will keep a “warm sleeper,” who is curled up, warm. Women are usually considered cold sleepers and men warm sleepers. The difference can be a lot. I use the MEC Talon -10°C bag. The comfort temperature rating is -4°C and the limit temperature rating is -30°C. Notice that the -10°C in the product name is not an accurate representation of the bag’s thermal ratings – it is a number chosen by the manufacturer for marketing purposes.
Sleeping bags with insulated collars (yokes) reduce heat loss around your neck and shoulders. You can add extra warmth to a sleeping bag by using sleeping bag liners. Liners come in different materials and are meant to slip easily into your bag. It’s a cheap way to add several degrees of warmth and it protects your bag from dirt and sweat. Look for a liner made from fleece, silk, synthetic, or merino wool.
Down Versus Synthetic
Another consideration is whether to get a down or synthetic sleeping bag. Down bags are stuffed with the fine plumage of waterfowl. They are exceptionally light, warm, and pack down small. The major disadvantage of down is that it loses its thermal properties when wet. They are also more expensive than synthetic bags.
Synthetic bags are usually made of polyester. In recent years, they’ve gotten much lighter and packable. While their insulating properties will diminish if they are wet, they still offer some degree of protection from the cold.
Understanding R-Values for Sleeping Pads
Even with the best sleeping bag, you will be cold without a sleeping pad. Sleeping pads prevent heat loss through conduction. The higher a sleeping pad’s “r-value,” the more insulated you’ll be from the cold ground. Most outdoor manufacturers use third-party lab tests to confirm r-values, look for ASTM certified ratings.
Generally speaking, the higher the r-value the heavier, bulkier, and more expensive the sleeping pad will be. R-value doesn’t correlate to an exact temperature, but we can break down pads seasonally. For fall camping, a pad with an r-value between 3-4 will suffice. Using a higher r-value pad will not make you too warm, but you probably don’t want to carry the extra weight or pay the extra cost.
A Bedtime Routine to Keep You Warm
There are a few simple things you can do before bed to sleep warmer. Eating a high calorie snack will give your body the energy it needs to stay warm. Emptying your bladder ensures that your body doesn’t expend energy heating up extra liquid. And a few jumping jacks before crawling into your sleeping bag can raise your body temperature – just be sure not to sweat!
Most important is changing out of your daytime clothing and into nighttime base layers. Your clothing has likely accumulated dampness that will cool you while you sleep and affect your sleeping bag’s thermal properties. Some people swear that sleeping naked keeps them warmer, but there’s no evidence this is true. Remember, your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is tested using a mannequin wearing base layers and a hat. So, if your clothes are dry and not cutting off your circulation then base layers will keep you warmer.
If you get too warm during the night, unzip your sleeping bag or take off some clothing. You don’t want to sweat in your bag and add moisture. Another way that moisture makes its way in is when people breath into their sleeping bag.
Prepping for Morning
Should you wake up cold, it’s nice to have some things prepped for the morning. Air activated heat packs are perfect for sliding into clothes. You can slip a few in your boots overnight to help dry out any moisture from the day.
It’s also a good idea to prep firewood the night before. If you wake up really cold, you’ll be happy you did. Fires are troublesome to start when your hands have lost dexterity from the cold. Prep some kindling and logs the night before and bring some sort of firestarter to help get your campfire going. Cotton balls mixed with vaseline are a great choice or check out my diy fire starters made with natural tinders, beeswax, and egg cartons.
Keeping Dry at Camp
If it begins to rain, a tarp is a must have. It provides a place to take shelter so you aren’t stuck inside your tent all day. If you can, set the tarp up over a picnic table to provide a place to cook and hang out.
Tarps come in various sizes and materials. You can get them for cheap at many outdoor stores. You’ll want to look at size, weight, material, and grommet placement. The more people camping with you, the larger your tarp should be. But, if it’s too big, you’ll have trouble finding a place to set it up. I use MEC’s silicone guide’s tarp (2.9m x 3.9m) and it’s the perfect size for 2-4 people.
It’s important to practice setting up a tarp before you are out camping. I use the bowline, trucker’s hitch, and taut-line hitch for all my tarp setups. Here’s a helpful resource for learning those knots.
When setting up your tent, make sure the footprint is not sticking out from under your tent. If it does, rain can collect and start to pool underneath.
If you’ve taken all the above precautions, it’s unlikely you’ll experience any trouble from the weather. But, it’s still important to understand the signs and symptoms of common cold-weather injuries like hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 35 degrees Celsius. Symptoms of mild hypothermia include feeling cold, shivering, impaired coordination, mental confusion, and slurred words. Symptoms of severe hypothermia are weakness, lethargy, irritability and impaired coordination. During severe hypothermia shivering stops, pulse and breathing slow, and the heartbeat is irregular.
It is rare that someone experiencing hypothermia recognizes it in themselves. They may even feel hot and take off clothing. If you or someone else is showing signs or symptoms of hypothermia, it’s important you seek immediate medical attention.
Frostbite happens when body tissue freezes. Symptoms are tingling, stinging, redness, numbness, stiffness, and swelling. The skin might also appear waxy and feel hard. The most common areas affected are fingers, toes, and face. If you are experiencing frostbite, get out of the cold and seek medical attention.
Dealing with Long Nights
Nights come early in autumn, so you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination and set up camp. To deal with the extra darkness, make sure to pack lights and batteries. You can get by with a headlamp alone, but I like to have a light to hang in my tent and use under the tarp. I also bring battery powered tea lights. They are frivolous, but create a nice ambience. When there is no rain, I use them to light the path to my tent and, if there is one, the outhouse.
If you are solo camping, it’s a good idea to bring a book, radio, or podcasts to help you get through the longer nights. I’ve written about some of my favourite outdoor adventure and science and nature podcasts. Make sure to download them to your cellphone in case there is no service where you are camping.
Where to Go?
In my opinion, the best fall camping sites are on a lake surrounded by hardwood trees. This way, you get to experience both the misty mornings and the bright autumn colours. Quebec and Ontario release fall foliage maps to help you predict when autumn colours will be at their best. As for other provinces, you can often find foliage reports on weather networks as the fall unfolds. If you live in or plan on visiting the United States, American Forests puts out a foliage map for the entire country. Take advantage of these tools to plan your hikes and camping trips.
I hope this fall camping guide helps you stay warm and comfortable this autumn. I’d love to hear about your adventures and tips in the comments section bellow. Happy camping!