Camping can be a lot of fun, but if you don’t plan properly, you could end up having a miserable trip – especially in the colder months. Before your next trip, make sure you’ve crossed your T’s and dotted your I’s with this simple guide for how to camp in the fall. We’ve got all the info you need to stay warm and have fun camping during my favorite time of year.
How Should I Dress for Fall Camping?
Before I had been camping myself, I used to laugh at people who discussed their camping wardrobes. Like, you’ll be in the woods. What does it matter what you’re wearing?
And then I went camping for the first time, in November, in the rain, very much unprepared. Now, I care more about what I’m wearing when I go camping than I do when I go out on the town.
When you’re camping in the fall, you want to be prepared for anything. In Tennessee, it’s customary to experience all four seasons in the same day. Yeah, Mother Nature likes to show out around here. So, when I go camping, I wear and pack, something for each weather scenario.
Pick Dual Purpose Items
Don’t go overboard with what you bring. You want items that serve a purpose, like a fleece pullover that can work as a jacket to ward off a chill, or as an extra layer of protection under your parka while it’s raining. It’s okay to wear the same outer layers of clothing more than once. Just bring a change of undergarments and thermals.
Leave your cotton fabric clothing behind. Cotton retains water, which can keep you wet and cold all day, even from nothing but sweat. Instead, look for activewear that has wicking abilities like fleece, polyester, or spandex. These types of material repel moisture so that you can stay dry and warm while camping.
Dress in Layers
If you’re starting your hike early in the morning, it might be chilly. Wearing your clothes in organized layers allows you to shed items with ease as the day gets warmer. When you’re wearing everything, your pack won’t be as heavy to carry, so you’ll have more energy to start with too.
There is a proper way to layer your clothing for maximum efficiency.
- Undergarments – Your first layer should be a pair of thermal underwear or long johns. These undergarments are usually made of fleece or wool and should be snug against your skin. Avoid cotton material, so you don’t sweat.
- Base layer – Your base layer should also be of a wicking material. A long sleeve activewear shirt and a pair of lightweight leggings or bottoms are usually enough to keep you warm in the fall. These should also be a close fit.
- Mid layer – The mid-layer is what you’ll have on the majority of the day as it warms up. You’ll typically have on a sweater, thin jacket, or my personal favorite, a hoodie to keep your upper body warm. And for your legs, whatever type of pants you feel most comfortable wearing for hiking.
- Outer layer – Depending on the weather, you may want to have on a rain suit or a pair of coveralls. Regardless of the forecast, you should always carry a poncho with you on camping trips, just in case.
- Head to toe – You shouldn’t forget to prep your head or your feet before you go out camping. Wear wicking socks to protect your feet from sweat and waterproof boots. Depending on how cold it is when you start, you may want to wear two pairs of socks. For your head, wear a hat or a beanie. Some people like to go even further and wear a face mask, but I usually stop at a beanie with my hood tied over the top. And don’t forget to grab gloves to keep your fingers warm.
Picking the Right Tent
If you want to enjoy your time out in the woods, you want to have all the right gear. Your tent is no exception. Your shelter is one of the most important things you can pack. You want to make sure that your tent is in good condition, with no holes or tears.
Most tents have some waterproofness, but if you’re going to be staying in the woods a lot in colder months, you might want to spring for a completely waterproof tent. Pack a few extra tarps. One can be used as a ground cover to keep your tent floor dry and warm. The second can be hung over your tent, just in case it rains. It never hurts to be too prepared.
Most campers use a three-season tent year-round when they go camping. A three-season tent will keep you warm and protected from bugs, rain, wind, and even a little snow. This type of tent is lightweight and easy to set up. As long as you aren’t facing a blizzard, you should be able to stay warm and comfortable while camping in the fall.
What Kind Do You Want?
There are a ton of different styles of tents out there. The most common type, which is the only one I prefer using, is a simple backpack dome tent. These are lightweight and easy to set up. And they provide plenty of space and shelter. This type of tent usually has a rain fly, or extra fabric over the top of the tent to protect you from the rain.
Geodesic tents are more stable in harsh weather conditions, making them a good pick if you’re going to be doing a lot of severe winter camping. But if you’re hitting up the local campsite for a few days of fun in the fall, a dome tent will work just fine.
Instant tents are easy to put up. You give the whole package a toss, and it comes untwisted, making you an instant shelter. However, most of these tents are better for warmer camping or overnight trips. If you’re spending a whole weekend camping in the fall, you’d be better off sticking with a three-season dome tent that will keep you warm and dry.
Large family tents let you have the entire crew under one tent while still having some privacy due to flaps of fabric that zip up to make separate rooms. If you are using a family tent, remember that these are larger than your traditional tent, so you’ll need more extensive clearing for set up. And although these tents can withstand small storms, you want to anchor them well. The large size does make it easy to blow over if the wind catches it right.
How to Keep Your Tent Warm
The thing I hate most about camping in the fall is that I despise the cold. And when I say cold, I mean anything under 60 degrees. When I was younger, I would take a dozen blankets with me to bundle up under because my dad swore it wasn’t safe to use a heater in your tent.
Back in the 80s, maybe that was true. Things weren’t made with as many safety regulations as they are now. But today, it’s safe to place a heater in your tent before you crawl inside – so long as you do it properly.
Which Heater Should You Use?
When it comes to heating the inside of your tent, you have a few different heater choices. If you have a generator or some power source, you can use a small electric heater. This option can be your safest pick because most electric heaters do have anti-tip safety features, meaning if it falls over, it stops running.
But you might not always have access to electricity. If that’s the case, you can use a small propane buddy heater, such as you would use when you’re hunting. The downside of this type of heater is that it does give off CO2 emissions, which can be dangerous if your tent does not ventilate properly. If you have an older shelter, I would recommend not using propane.
You could also go with a flameless heater called a catalytic, which can make your tent nice and toasty. This type of heater frequently uses a propane fuel source and batteries. But it’s recommended not to use this, or any heater, in your tent while you are sleeping. Turn it on a half hour before you’re ready to crawl into your sleeping bag, so your tent is nice and warm when you’re ready for bed.
Candle lanterns can warm the inside of your tent by 10 to 15° using an open flame protected behind a glass enclosure. You get the added benefit of having extra light. If this type of heating source gets knocked over, there’s less chance of a fire due to the glass protection.
Staying Warm With the Right Sleeping Bag
The sleeping bag you pick will make or ruin your camping trip. I like it cold when I’m sleeping, but I want plenty of covers to snuggle into to keep me warm. If that makes any sense. Camping is no different. You’re already sleeping close to the ground, which can make your bed colder. But there are some things you can do to warm up.
I like to stuff my sleeping bags with chemical heat packs, like Hot Hands, about 20 to 30 minutes before I crawl into my bed. And I’ve learned over the years that if it’s going to be chilly when I wake up, shove the clothing you’ll be wearing the next day down at the foot of your bag. They’ll be nice and warm when you’re ready to change in the morning.
Use a Sleeping Pad Under Your Sleeping Bag
Before you lay out your sleeping bag, put down a sleeping pad. These mats will elevate your sleeping bag off the ground and provide you with cushioned support. If you’re picturing an air mattress, you’ve got the right idea.
There are three different types of sleeping pads:
- Air – you have to inflate them using your breath or an air pump. Not the best for cool temp camping
- Self-inflating – raises by themselves once you open the valve. Offer some insulation against cold temperatures.
- Closed-cell foam – you get a lot of insulation, but not much comfort as they are stiff.
Add Your Sleeping Bag
Once you’ve put your sleeping pad down, now it’s time to add your sleeping bag. For fall camping, you want a sleeping bag that has a cold tolerance between 0 and 30°. You can pick from 1 to 9.5 insulation. The higher the number, the warmer the sleeping bag will be. Look for one that is R3 and above for fall camping.
Different sleeping bags are insulated with different materials. My favorite type is filled with down. To me, this type of fill keeps you the warmest. But if there’s a chance your sleeping bag might get wet while you’re out in nature, you may want to consider using a synthetic fill instead. Imitation fill dries quick and insulates even when wet.
Your sleeping bag should be lightweight and have the right amount of insulation. If you’ve been using the same sleeping bag for the last five years and it’s starting to look a little flat and lumpy, it might be time to replace it with a new model. If you’re attached to the comfort of your current bag, bring along a second one to add an extra layer of warmth and shelter.
You can even use two sleeping bags stacked together instead of using a sleeping pad, although I wouldn’t recommend losing the thicker layer of protection.
There are Different Kinds to Choose From
When picking a sleeping bag for your children, it’s best to get one that fits them snugly. Having too much extra room can allow cold air to get trapped inside, bringing the internal temperature of the sleeping bag down and making your little one miserable. My kids like a mummy-style sleeping bag the best because it keeps them tight and warm.
If you’re wanting to take being warm to the next level, consider using a bivy sack, which can warm you up an extra 10° compared to regular sleeping bags. And they are waterproof, so no moisture from the ground can seep through your bed while you sleep.
Camping Doesn’t Have to Stop in Cooler Weather
As much as I hate the cold, I deal with it each year to take my children camping in the fall. The experience is worth all the misery I may suffer. Wildlife is more active in colder temperatures, especially since most animals are in the middle of their mating seasons. If you want your children to get an up-close and personal experience with wild animals, you should consider camping in the fall.
Now is a great time to bring along your camera if you enjoy taking snapshots of animals in their natural habitats. Another great thing about camping in the fall is that there are fewer bugs. You don’t have to worry about being whisked away by mosquitos or buzzed to death by flies. But you may have visitors from curious animals like bears or raccoons now, so keep all your trash and food out of reach.
But my favorite thing about fall is the view. The leaves have started to change into a thousand different colors, and the sunsets are amazing. The air is crisp and refreshing and fresh. It’s a perfect time of year if you don’t mind the lowering temperatures. Toss together a nice bonfire and some warm soup, and you’ll be warmed up in no time.