There are some big perks to camping in the cold. For one, the cold weeds out fair-weather folks, so you’ll have nature all to yourself.
There’s something about the crisp, cool air that can be refreshing as you’re staring up at the stars. And the best part? No bugs. Or at least a lot less of them.
For all of nature’s beauty, however, nobody likes sleeping in the cold. But sometimes (most of the time?) motorcycle adventures don’t go to plan, and you find yourself setting up camp somewhere you didn’t mean to. Somewhere colder than you were hoping for. Not only is being cold uncomfortable, it can be outright deadly.
As usual, when it comes to adventures – whether on or off the motorcycle – being prepared is the best defense against adverse conditions. In this case, we’re going to highlight five tips for cold weather camping trips. And to up the complexity a little, these tips are designed for adventure riders.
1. Check The Conditions And Tell A Friend
If being prepared is the best defense, then this all starts with having a plan. Plan out your route and share it with friends or family so they know what to do if things go south. Another vital tip: carry a GPS tracker. This is especially important if you’re traveling solo.
Those important to you can track your progress (sometimes in real-time), and depending on the GPS unit, you can use it to call for help no matter where you are.
Before we get to that extreme, start with checking the weather forecast along your route constantly. While there can always be surprises, this will help keep them to a minimum.
2. Pick The Right Tent
Being prepared for cold weather means packing the right amount of equipment. Clearly, if you’re traveling via motorcycle, you have to get very innovative and creative with what you pack and how you pack it.
If you take it to the extreme, you could save space by building an igloo when you get to your site (assuming there’s snow, of course), but we’re not going to get carried away. Let’s stick with tent camping for now.
When picking your tent, you want something small and compact and built to handle winter weather. Be sure to check for this before buying, as some tents are only 3-season tents. Can you guess which season is left out? Winter tents are stronger than summer tents, are built with more durable materials (since they need to stand up to wind and snow), and generally don’t have mesh.
Our MotoTent provides a good solution for your cold-weather camping needs.
3. Set Up Your Tent The Right Way
Once you have your tent, staking it to the ground on a cold night requires a little more prep work. First, pick a flat, dry location and, if possible, one protected from the elements.
Having tree cover, for example, is very helpful. If needed, brush away any snow because you want to put your tent down in the dirt.
But before putting the tent down, flatten the area as best as you can first – trust us, you don't want to sleep on lumpy ground. If you really want to go the extra mile you can even dig out a shallow space where you plan to sleep.
This will limit your cold exposure through conduction while sleeping, especially as the temperature drops in the middle of the night.
4. What Goes Inside Your Tent
This is the point where things get tricky. You want to pack all the things you need to survive and stay warm, but you need to pack smart since you’re on a motorcycle. Only you know the conditions you will face (or at least you should!), so you can decide for yourself which of the items below are applicable for your trip.
You’ll need a cold-weather sleeping bag. Sleeping bags are rated for different temperature levels, so find one rated for conditions lower than you plan to be in (since you did check the weather forecast, right?).
It’s a lot easier to vent a bag if you get warm, but it’s much harder to warm up if you get cold.
Down is a popular sleeping bag insulator, but it also is practically useless when it’s wet. And since you’re traveling on a motorcycle and packing your sleeping bag on top of it, there’s a good chance it’ll get wet during your travels. Instead, choose synthetic materials for your bag.
These dry quicker and/or stay warm even when wet. If you choose a sleeping bag that may not be warm enough for packing purposes, bring a sleeping bag liner. These pack light, help keep the sleeping bag clean, and can add up to 25ºF of warmth.
Place a sleeping pad beneath your sleeping bag. This serves two purposes. First, it adds a soft layer between you and the hard ground. Second, it further insulates you from the cold. Be sure to choose a sleeping pad with an R-value (an insulation rating) of at least 4.
The higher the number, the more it’s insulated, so pick one that suits your needs. If you want to go a step further, you can add an air mattress on top of your pad as additional insulation. These pack small and light when deflated and can be comfortable to sleep on, but can probably stay at home if you’re running out of space on the motorcycle.
Once you’re all set up, the next part of the plan is setting yourself up to stay warm. First, put as much of your gear inside the tent as possible. Covering the floor space makes it harder for cold air to penetrate the tent.
Next, don’t forget the essential camping gear, including a stove. It can be an excellent tool for melting snow and/or boiling water to drink, and you can also put some of that hot water, put it in a bottle, and keep it in your sleeping bag for extra warmth as you’re sleeping.
5. Make Sure YOU Are Ready
The last and most important thing we need to talk about is YOU. Riding, and subsequently camping, in the cold can be a terrible experience made infinitely better if you’re prepared.
You should already know this if you’ve been riding for any length of time, but wearing base layers is crucial when riding in the cold. So it’s not surprising that base layers are also a big benefit when you’re off the bike too.
There’s folklore and chatter out there that says sleeping in the nude when you’re in your (weather appropriate) sleeping bag, even in the cold, is the way to go. This simply isn’t true.
Even if you have the right sleeping bag, retaining your body heat can be difficult in cold weather. So wear your layers. The base layer, or the layer coming in direct contact with your skin, should be close-fitting but not tight.
Whether you get a lightweight, medium weight, or heavyweight layer will depend on your environment, but no matter what you get, stay away from cotton. Cotton retains moisture and will bring your core temperature down – exactly what you don’t want in this case. Synthetic materials like polyester, or materials like Merino wool, are good.
After the base layer comes the mid and/or heavy layer. Fortunately, you’re already wearing those. It’s called your riding jacket. A good cold-weather riding jacket comes equipped with several layers to keep you warm while riding. Those same layers come in handy when you’re in your tent, too.
Generally, it’s nice to have fresh, clean layers to have separate from your riding gear. The same applies here, but in the interest of space on the motorcycle, you can use your riding gear in a pinch. The same goes for glove and boot liners, too.
There are things you can, and should, do outside of wearing the right clothes. Stay hydrated and eat nutrient-dense foods. Like your motorcycle, your body uses up fuel to stay warm, so proper nutrition is critical. Eat as close to bedtime as possible, so your body can immediately start breaking down the meal as you’re sleeping.
Since you’re trying to keep yourself warm overnight, you’re trying to retain as much body heat as possible. One hack you can try is to do some jumping jacks or other light exercises to warm up a little before bed. If you tend to run hot overnight then you can likely skip this.
Like we said before, riding and camping in the cold isn’t so bad if you’re properly prepared. There are even some unique benefits and highlights to cold-weather riding and camping you can’t get elsewhere.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t present some challenges. Preparing for cold weather is tough enough as it is.
Adding the complexity that you get when you throw in a motorcycle and its limited real estate, and you start to get a taste for adventure motorcycling before you ever even spin a wheel. Nonetheless, if you have a plan and pack appropriately, there’s no reason why you can’t do it.