Fall is in full swing, and if you’re planning a camping trip, there’s a lot more to consider when trying to spend time in nature as the temperatures drop. Whether you’re going backcountry camping or car camping, we asked experts for all their best tips and tricks for fall camping.
“As we progress into the fall, the amount of daylight decreases, and with that comes cooler and longer nights,” says Sarah Sattin, REI Co-op product expert. “The weather can sometimes be variable, often with wind and rain, so being prepared for cooler temperatures and transitional weather is the key to having a successful fall camping and hiking experience.”
Diana Durr, a staff member at Mojave National Preserve and previously a park ranger and climbing guide at Joshua Tree National Park, emphasizes the importance of being prepared and staying safe. “Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Check the weather; it can be very unpredictable, especially as the seasons are changing,” says Durr. “Carry plenty of water and a first aid kit. The ’10 essentials’ are always good items to carry on any hike. If you’re visiting a park, always check with a park ranger for information on local weather, trail conditions, road conditions and rules and regulations.”
So whether it’s ensuring your sleep system is up for the challenge, wearing the right layers or remembering to eat something before you go to sleep, here are the best ways to fight off the cold, according to seasoned campers.
Clothes for cold weather camping
“Being prepared for a variety of temperatures and weather conditions is the key to a successful experience, and dressing in layers is a great way to set yourself up for success,” says Sattin. “Having layers that you can easily add, or remove, will help you stay comfortable with minimal effort. You want to think of your layers in three categories: your base layer, your mid layer and your outer waterproof layer.”
Durr agrees that layering is a key to staying comfortable in the cold. “Layers are the easiest way for me to deal with the changes in temps and keeping warm,” she says. “I like wool blend clothing that is easy to remove and put back on. The wool blends wick sweat away from the body and keep you warm even when wet.”
Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer Crew Top ($100; rei.com)
“Your base layer is your next-to-skin layer that helps wick sweat away from your body and keeps your body temperature consistent,” says Sattin. “Base layers can be made of a few different types of materials, like wool, silk or synthetic fabrics (my preference is wool), but the important thing is to stay away from cotton. Cotton holds moisture directly on your body, so it can make your body temperature take a nosedive in no time.”
This merino wool base layer will keep you warm, and it’s available in eight colors and a men’s style too.
REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket 2.0 (starting at $69.93; rei.com)
“Your mid layer should be an insulating layer, like the REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket, that will give you lots of added warmth when you need it,” says Sattin. “This jacket packs into its own pocket and weighs less than a pound, so it’s the perfect jacket to take with you on your fall adventures.”
Patagonia Down Sweater Jacket (starting at $137.40, originally $229; backcountry.com)
“I try not to hike in a down jacket, as it can be easily torn when walking through tree branches, but for camp, it’s my best friend,” says Durr. This option from Patagonia features a recycled ripstop exterior for some added durability, 800-fill down insulation to keep you warm and even a DWR finish to help protect you from the rain.
Patagonia Nano Puff Hooded Insulated Jacket ($249; backcountry.com)
“If you’re in humid/wet conditions or exercising a lot, your fall jacket should never contain large amounts of cotton,” says Rhett Lundy, a Gearhead at Backcountry. “I seek out insulated jackets with a hood and some water resistance (like a DWR coating) that fit loosely enough to accommodate other layers underneath. Don’t buy something extremely tight-fitting if you want to add layers underneath.”
Lundy recommends this jacket from Patagonia, as it has both a DWR finish and its insulation is also water-repellant.
Arc’teryx Atom SL Hooded Jacket ($229; backcountry.com)
Lundy also suggests this jacket from Arc’teryx, which has all the warmth and water resistance you want but weighs just 9.5 ounces, making it perfect for backpackers or anyone who wants to save on weight.
REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket (starting at $110.93; rei.com)
“Finally, your outer layer should be a waterproof and windproof shell, like the REI Co-op XeroDry Jacket,” says Sattin. “Since fall weather can bring wind and rain, an outer shell is key to staying warm and dry.”
Patagonia Torrentshell 3L ($149; rei.com)
“Wind is also something that becomes much more of a factor during the fall because it strips heat from your body much faster with colder temps,” says Lundy. “Windbreakers, rain jackets and technical shells all have wind-resistant features to keep you protected from the elements.”
This hard-shell jacket from Patagonia was our pick for the best rain jacket of 2021, and its H2No Performance Standard technology keeps you equally safe from the rain and the wind.
REI Co-op Merino 185 Base Layer Top ($79.95; rei.com)
“Having a dedicated set of clean sleeping clothes is a great way to stay warm at night,” says Sattin. “At a minimum, I recommend having a base layer top and bottom as your sleeping clothes.”
This base layer from REI Co-op is a bit cheaper than the other option from Smartwool, but you still get a high-performance layer that can keep you warm at night.
REI Co-op Merino 185 Base Layer Bottoms ($79.95; rei.com)
You’ll be glad you have these matching merino wool bottoms when the temperatures really start to drop. Plus, they’re soft, breathable and odor-resistant, and they have built-in UPF30 sun protection.
REI Co-op Merino Wool Midweight Socks ($18.95; rei.com)
“Sleeping in a pair of clean wool socks, like the REI Co-op Merino Wool Midweight Socks, or a pair of down booties, is another great way to keep yourself comfortable at night,” says Sattin.
Smartwool Trekking Heavy Crew Sock ($14.27, originally $21.95; backcountry.com)
“Make a strong investment into high-quality socks,” says Lundy. “Having cold feet is a miserable experience, and it helps to have a pair of wool socks for sleeping and a few more for activities. Watch out for cotton socks or socks that are too thick — your activities may yield high amounts of sweat and/or friction, which can cause blisters.”
Outdoor Research Tundra Aerogel Booties ($89; rei.com)
“When I’m at my camp, I have a pair of down booties that I wear,” says Durr. “They are lightweight and keep my feet really warm.” This pair of booties comes up over the ankle so your entire foot can stay nice and cozy when you’re at camp.
REI Co-op Lightweight Logo Beanie ($16.95; rei.com)
“And inside my tent, I always have easy access to a warm hat, gloves and jacket so I can be warm when I get out of my tent first thing in the morning, or if I need extra warmth in the middle of the night,” says Sattin.
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Liner Glove ($45; backcountry.com)
These gloves are light but can still keep your hands warm in a pinch. Plus, they have touch-screen-compatible fingers so your hands don’t have to freeze when checking your notifications.
Teva Grandview GTX Hiking Boot ($174.95; backcountry.com)
“Wearing hiking boots with Gore-Tex technology keeps your feet dry in the wettest conditions,” says Lundy. Check out these waterproof boots from Teva which, along with Gore-Tex, feature an adjustable heel lock system.
Rumpl Original Puffy Blanket ($99; rei.com)
“In the fall, I will always bring camping blankets with me, like the Rumpl Original Puffy Blanket or REI Co-op Camp Wrap,” says Sattin. “These blankets add nice warmth when you want to hang out around camp at night, or if you need extra layers when you are sleeping.”
We’ve also tried and loved the Rumpl and can confirm it’s a great, durable blanket to bring on camping trips.
Sleeping bags for cold weather camping
“Temperature ratings on sleeping bags give you a metric for which you can survive, not sleep comfortably,” says Lundy. “You’ll want a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of the temperature low for the area where you’ll be camping, minus 15 to 20 degrees.”
But if you’re a cold sleeper like Durr, you might want to get an even warmer bag. “I prefer to use the warmest sleeping bag I can afford,” she says. “When it’s warm I can just use it like a blanket; when it is cold, I can be all bundled up.”
Big Agnes Lost Dog Sleeping Bag (starting at $189.95; backcountry.com)
Lundy recommends this bag from Big Agnes that’s rated for 15 degrees, which means you should be comfortable in temperature lows around 30 degrees. However, this bag is part of Big Agnes’ sleep system and doesn’t have any insulation on the bottom. So be sure to pair it with an inflatable sleeping pad to stay warm at night.
REI Co-op Magma 15 Sleeping Bag ($389; rei.com)
“Mummy-shaped bags are ideal for staying warm, since a snugger-fitting shape is more efficient when staying warm,” says Sattin. “The REI Co-op Magma 15 is a perfect example of a warm fall sleeping bag.”
Nemo Disco 15 Sleeping Bag (starting at $299.99; rei.com)
Mummy bags can feel restricting for some sleepers, in which case, Sattin recommends this roomier option. “The Nemo Disco 15 or the Nemo Forte 20 [are] great [alternatives],” says Sattin. “These bags give you more room at the hips and feet, so if you like to spread out or do somersaults in your sleep, these options make sure you can sleep comfortably and stay warm too.”
Lundy also recommends the Disco 15, and says that even though it’s pricey, it’s well worth the money.
Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme ($69.95; rei.com)
“If you have a summer sleeping bag, or you’re worried about being cold, a sleeping bag liner is a great way to add warmth to your bag,” says Sattin. “Options like the Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme can even add up to 25 degrees to your sleeping bag.”
Sea To Summit Comfort Plus SI Sleeping Pad ($139.95; backcountry.com)
“In terms of a sleeping pad, you can choose varying levels of warmth and insulation denoted by the R-value,” says Lundy. “The R-value rates the warmth of a given wall of insulation. So the higher the R-value, the greater the performance.”
Lundy recommends this Sea To Summit pad, as its 4.1 R-value and 3-inch thickness is perfect for fall weather.
REI Co-op Camp Bed Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad (starting at $99.95; rei.com)
“A sleeping pad is so important for staying warm, yet most people don’t know that,” says Sattin. “Besides the added comfort level (sleeping on the ground is not very comfortable!), sleeping pads also add insulation to protect you from the cold ground. It doesn’t matter how warm your sleeping bag is -— if you don’t have an insulated pad below you, it will feel like you are sleeping on an ice block.”
This self-inflating pad is perfect if you don’t want to spend time blowing it up yourself.
Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core SLX Sleeping Pad (starting at $129.95; rei.com)
We’ve used this sleeping pad ourselves and have never slept better in the woods. While it’s not self-inflating, it comes with an inflation bag that makes setting up quick and easy. Plus, you can easily adjust the amount of air that’s inside it, allowing you to find the perfect loft for a comfortable night.
Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow (starting at $24.95; backcountry.com)
“A good pillow goes a long way,” says Lundy. “I highly recommend getting some sort of camping pillow that you find to be comfortable for colder nights in the sleeping bag.” Inflatable pillows are quite popular since they pack down so small, but oftentimes they aren’t very comfortable and you lose precious sleep. This compressible pillow from Therm-a-Rest has a soft foam filling that feels a bit more like your pillow at home, but it can still squeeze down to a small size.
Tips for cold weather camping
Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp ($39.95; rei.com)
“Remember that during the fall, the amount of daylight gets shorter, so you should make sure you bring enough lighting with you,” says Sattin. “The Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp is the perfect hands-free way to take your light with you wherever you go.”
Black Diamond ReVolt 350 Headlamp ($64.95; rei.com)
We prefer this Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp because you have the option of using both its rechargeable battery or traditional AAA batteries. That means you can charge it up at home beforehand so you’re not using as many AAAs, but if you run out of juice in the woods, you don’t have to recharge it and can just plop some spare batteries in. It’s pricey for a headlamp, but we love the options it gives us, and we’re saving money on batteries in the long run.
Black Diamond Apollo Lantern ($69.95; rei.com)
“I also like to have a lantern, like the Black Diamond Apollo Lantern, which casts its light a good distance if I want to cook or hang out after dark,” says Sattin. “It also has loops for hanging, along with a low-light setting, so it gently illuminates the inside of my tent when I’m not ready to go to bed.”
Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix, 50-Pack ($12.55; amazon.com)
“Other tips for staying warm are to bring your favorite warm beverages, like hot chocolate, tea or coffee,” says Sattin. “An easy way to warm these beverages up quickly [is with the] Jetboil Flash Cooking System [or] an insulated mug like the Yeti Rambler Tumbler.”
Honey StingerCracker Bars With Protein, 12-Pack ($29.99; backcountry.com)
“Eating and drinking energy-rich foods/liquids is key to staying warm,” says Lundy. “Oftentimes people think that the temperature of what you are eating/drinking matters most, but in fact it’s the caloric density and richness of those foods/liquids. I always carry some form of instant hot chocolate, Kool-aid, etc. for a quick caloric power-up while out in the cold.”
Lundy recommends checking out the brand Honey Stinger, as the brand has caloric-dense snacks like these protein bars perfect for the campsite.
Sportbit Jump Rope ($5.97, originally $10.99; amazon.com)
“Additionally, if you are feeling chilled and need to warm up before bed, a little exercise can get your blood — and warmth — flowing again,” says Sattin. “I’m not talking about 45 minutes of aerobics, but doing some jumping jacks or shaking out your arms and legs for a few minutes can make a big difference. The key is to get your blood flowing to your extremities but to not break a sweat.”
If jumping jacks aren’t your thing, maybe bringing along this lightweight jump rope can help you get your blood pumping to fight off the cold.
Hot Hands Hand Warmers ($23.39; amazon.com)
“Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly chilled, I’ll put hand warmers in the footbox of my sleeping bag before I get in for the night,” says Sattin.
REI Co-op Nalgene Sustain Graphic Wide-Mouth Water Bottle ($15.95; rei.com)
“Or I will heat up some water and put it into a noninsulated water bottle, like a Nalgene water bottle, and put that into my sleeping bag ahead of time,” says Sattin. “Just make sure the lid is on tight and not to burn yourself by touching the water bottle!”
Paisley Orange Bandana, 3-Pack ($6.48; amazon.com)
“Additionally, fall is also the start of hunting season, so if you are hiking in wilderness areas, you should be aware of that,” says Sattin. “Staying on trail and wearing bright colors, like an orange bandana, is an easy way to keep everyone safe, including your kids and pets.”