Winter has earned an unfair reputation for serving as the down season for camping. Yet even if you’re living in an area with a relatively frigid winter season, you can get outside and explore the great outdoors rather than succumb to cabin fever.
With the right equipment and some complementary techniques, you can enjoy hammock camping in winter and spring even when temperatures dip below freezing.
4 Reasons to Try Winter Hammock Camping
If you’re a fan of hammock camping, you may already enjoy fall and winter camping in a 3 season or 4 season tent. However, switching to a winter hammock setup could help you pack lighter and spend more time enjoying the beauty of the scenery rather than on setup.
If you’ve never camped in the winter or in a hammock at all, you may need a little more convincing of the benefits of the combination.
1. Avoid the Hordes of Summer
For high-demand camping spots with the best views, traffic levels peak in the summer for most parts of the country. Trying to camp in July or August could result in bumping elbows with your neighbors or missing out on the best locations.
With nearly everyone hiding inside instead in the winter, you’re likely to be all alone in even the most popular spots by simply learning to camp comfortably in all seasons. Make sure your desired camping location is open during the winter months, especially if it’s a private or serviced public campsite, before planning a trip during the off-season.
Primitive camps that are most popular with hammock campers tend to offer year-round access, especially in National Forest and public land locations.
2. See Nature in a New Light
Winter offers a different perspective on familiar and new camping locations alike, especially in areas with plenty of deciduous trees and undergrowth. When leaves drop, new views are revealed that are otherwise hidden during the other three seasons.
In areas with primarily evergreen or tropical growth, views are largely the same in winter with the added benefit of fewer or no insects. Snakes also hibernate or at least seek shelter in the cooler months, resulting in safer camping trips in areas with venomous species.
Some outdoor activities that pair naturally with backpacking and camping, such as ice fishing and snowshoe trekking, can only occur during winter.
3. Done Right, Cold Weather Hammock Camping is Quite Cozy
Winter hammock camping is comfortable with summer and 3 season equipment in many parts of the Southern U.S. If you’re considering a trip to a part of the country with temperatures that fall below freezing during your trip, you only need a few specific pieces of gear to stay warm.
Tailor the gear you choose to the lowest possible temperatures you’ll experience in your area and you’ll never feel cold, even when snow and ice blankets the landscape around you.
4. Lightweight Gear
The cool temperatures and lack of brush offered by the winter landscape make it an ideal time for trekking and backpacking. When weight is of the essence, hammock camping provides a lot of weight savings to free up more space in a pack while reducing the total weight of the gear.
Even quilts and sleeping pads can weigh ounces with plenty of insulating power to trap body heat in cold settings. There’s no need for bulky canvas tents and heavy insulated sleeping bags when trying to go light in the winter.
Staying Warm Sleeping in a Hammock
The number one reason that campers put off a winter trip in a hammock is a fear of getting cold, especially while sleeping. Spending the entire night shivering in a forest or desert setting is unpleasant.
Yet it’s easy to avoid this problem with a little planning, the right site selection, and a complete set of gear designed to work together to keep you warm. Start out by camping in areas with relatively warm winter temperatures or with trips in the fall and early spring.
Once you’re confident in both your abilities and equipment, it’s time to head deeper into the wilderness and camp during colder and snowier conditions with ease.
Take Advantage of Natural Wind Barriers
Regardless of where you choose to start winter hammock camping, choose your hanging location with care. While shade and airflow are the two priorities for a summer location, winter campsites are most comfortable when sheltered by natural windbreaks and barriers.
In areas with evergreen growth, shrubs and trees provide the best shelter. Make sure none of the trees you camp under or near, especially if you hang your hammock from them, are dead or feature dying and hanging branches.
Deserts may feature rock and dune bluffs that block wind, while even bare deciduous trees will still block some wind with their vehicles and branches.
Winter Hammock Camping Gear Necessities
A good hammock and suspension system are the minimum requirements for all hammock camping trips, but winter plans require quite a bit more gear. Even newcomers to the hammock camping experience can still plan a successful winter trip as long as they’re willing to invest in all the right equipment, as outlined below.
- Camping Hammock: Any durable, solid camping hammock you already use will work for winter camping if it can fit a sleeping pad within it. Tarps and quilt sets are available to fit hammocks of all sizes and styles, so as long as you’re avoiding mesh designs and hammocks that you personally find uncomfortable, you can use your existing hammock. If you’re investing in a new one just for winter use, look for attachment points for the various layers of insulation and a thicker material that offers better wind stopping power.
- Suspension System and Carabiners: There’s no major difference in hanging a hammock between winter or summer, so the same straps and carabiners you prefer for year round use will continue to work. If you’re camping in an area that doesn’t allow the use of straps, try a portable hammock stand to camp comfortably without violating any rules. Portable stands are particularly helpful in the winter when icy trunks can make it tricky to get a good grip without damaging the bark.
- Sleeping Pad: In order to stay as warm and comfortable as possible, you’ll need a sleeping pad designed specifically for cold weather. Many pads are heat wicking instead in order to keep you cool in the summer, which will make you feel much colder in the winter. Insulated sleeping pads for camping hammocks prevent heat from escaping through your body and the underside of the hammock. Inflating pads tend to take up the least space in a backpack and offer plenty of insulation when fully expanded.
- Underquilt: If you’re sleeping in conditions that will stay well above freezing, you can likely choose between an insulated sleeping pad and an underquilt. In colder areas, you’ll need both to stay toasty throughout the night. Thermal underquilts attach with stretchy cords to the hammock so that the fabric doesn’t bunch up even when you shift in your sleep. This secondary layer of insulation is essential to staying warm during winter camping, even if you consider it optional during other seasons.
- Top Quilt: Choosing and packing two separate hammock quilts may sound like a lot when you’re backpacking and trying to stay light. However, a top quilt matched with an underquilt will result in a much more comfortable sleeping experience than a sleeping bag. Backpacking sleeping bags are still quite bulky and heavy, and the bag tends to offer less heat trapping power than high-quality hammock quilts. For extremely cold temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. -18 °C) and below, consider pairing a top quilt and underquilt with yet another sleeping bag to ensure you never feel the bite of the wind.
- Rain/Wind Fly: Staying dry is the number one rule to staying warm during winter camping. A well-fitted rain fly not only keeps snow and rain off of you and your bedding, but it also blocks the wind and the heat-sapping effect of humid air. Even though the rain fly isn’t very insulated, it still traps warm air around your body while giving you a comfortable space for breathing. Make sure you hang your rain fly very securely with double or triple lines if there’s a chance of snowfall, either fresh or from nearby trees, to avoid any chance of the fabric collapsing on you under the weight.
- Camp Pillow: Pillows are optional in the summer, but they’re more than just a luxury for winter hammock camping. Lifting your head up and off of the surface of the sleeping pad and underquilt prevents compression that lets heat escape at a crucial point. Inflatable camp pillows don’t just drastically the storage space required, they’re also easy to keep dry and therefore warm by waiting to inflate them until you’re heading to bed.
Dress for Success with Layers
What you wear when slipping into your camping hammock at night during the winter plays just as much of a role in how warm you stay as the equipment you use. Dressing too lightly will leave you shivering, while too much clothing backfires as well by causing you to sweat and struggle to sleep.
Use layers so you can adjust your level of comfort easily without having to climb in and out of the hammock. Concentrate on trapping head on both ends of the body by covering the head and feet well while sleeping outside in cold weather.
- Base Layers: Look for moisture wicking undergarments designed for insulating the body during athletic activities. If you do sweat, these features will keep you from getting chilled from the natural cooling effect. Breathable fabrics are much more comfortable to sleep in, and natural fibers like wool, bamboo, and silk can work well even below freezing. Near 0 degrees F, you’ll want synthetic materials designed for a greater level of heat retention and insulation. Long underwear works well whether you prefer two separate pieces or a single piece jumpsuit.
- Mid Layers: Fleeces and similar insulating pants and jackets are generally worn as the mid layer when winter hammock camping. Make sure the upper jacket or pullover is long enough to overlap the waistband of the pants to keep body heat from escaping. Aim for a lower level of breathability in this layer to make sure body heat isn’t lost through it.
- Outerwear: Unless you’re camping in weather near 0 degrees F or below, you’ll likely need to slip out of your outermost layer of jackets and water-resistant pants before falling asleep in your hammock. If you have room, store this layer of outerwear inside the hammock with you at your feet or head to keep the fabric dry and warm. Getting dressed again in the morning is a lot easier if your outermost layer stays comfortable. Hanging bags can create extra space for this kind of storage in a smaller hammock setup.
- Socks & Boots: You’ll definitely need to keep one to two pairs of thick socks on while camping in the winter, and may want to sleep with your boots on as well. If you aren’t backpacking and have extra storage space, bring along another pair of boots or warm shoes to use just while sleeping so you can keep your quilts and sleeping pad clean. Insulated booties tucked into the bottom of your hammock also work well so you can leave your hiking boots outside.
- Hats & Gloves: Gloves are optional but a good idea in the coldest camping areas to prevent chilly fingers and the threat of frostbite. Hats are essential in even relatively mild winter weather since the majority of lost body heat escapes through your head and neck. Keeping a comfortable hat on during sleep is necessary for warmth all the way down to your toes. Even if you use a mummy bag or a hammock quilt system with a similar wrap around your head, grab a beanie or similar soft and insulated hat to bring along on any winter camping trips.
Planning Your Cold Weather Hammock Trip
Careful planning only requires a few hours ahead of your trip, but it has the potential to determine whether you enjoy your winter hammock trip or not. Understanding the recent and long-term weather history of your chosen camping spot is essential. Build your cold weather camping skills by starting out during cool but not cold seasons and then moving on to trips in the middle of winter.
1. Start with Short Test Trips
Stick to trips of a single night when first testing your equipment for cold weather use. You may discover that your camping pad is simply too small or even too big for comfort, or that your chosen underquilt is too thin for cold weather use.
You don’t want to commit to a long-term stay, especially if weather conditions change or snow looms, with unfamiliar equipment and newly developed skills.
Stick to camping spots near home for the first few trips so you don’t have to invest a lot of travel time and cost into your explorations into cold weather hammock camping.
2. Gradually Test Your Temperature Limits
Everyone has a different metabolism and tolerance for cold weather. Some people feel warm and comfortable with the right clothing right down to the freezing point, while others start to get uncomfortable after a few hours of 50 degrees F and below.
Don’t push yourself to do anything that is uncomfortable or interrupts your general enjoyment of camping and spending time outdoors. Even if you can only enjoy relatively warmer fall and winter days with the right equipment, you’re still adding dozens of valuable camping days to each year. Also, you may find your tolerance for cold weather exposure grows over time.
3. How Cold is Too Cold?
For most people, the freezing point at 32 degrees F is about the coldest they should attempt with basic hammock camping equipment. Even 20 degrees F runs the risk of hypothermia and frostbite if you don’t have the right equipment and clothing to protect you while you sleep.
Don’t push your luck with temperatures as low as 0 degrees F unless you invest in high end or military grade equipment and have extensively tested your equipment to verify it can protect you at those temperatures.
Winter Hammock Camping Safety Tips
No matter where you go or the temperatures you brave, these safety tips will prevent injuries and accidents.
- Understand Your Limits: Underestimate yourself in the winter since the risks of exhaustion and collapse are much higher. If you’re backpacking, stick to established trails and take breaks often.
- Become an Expert with Your Stove: Ultralight backpacking stoves are a winter camper’s best friend. Practice setting up your stove in all conditions and weather so you can prepare hot water for tea, cocoa, soup, or anything else that helps warm your insides before you climb into your hammock at night.
- Never Hang a Hammock from Dead Trees or Limbs: Check all the limbs and trees above and around your campsite before hanging anything. Putting weight on a dead tree will shake loose limbs that can seriously injure you, which can become deadly when you’re far from civilization.
- Carry Hand Warmers: Instant hand warming packs can prevent frostbite and keep you warm for hours when temperatures unexpectedly drop. Tuck them inside your boots and gloves after activating.
- Tell Friends Your Plans: Make sure to inform at least two close friends or family members of your plans, preferably in detail. If you decide to make any last minute changes, notify your contacts before heading to a new spot so you can be located in a hurry if you don’t check in by a specific time.
Ready to Try Hammock Camping in Winter?
Heading out with just a hammock and a few key accessories can be freeing in the beauty of a winter landscape. Don’t let cold temperatures trap you indoors for two to six months out of the year. With the right techniques and a little practice, you too can extend your camping season with the art of cold weather hammock camping!