45 tips for foolproof fall camping

MikeyGibran, flickr
The weather may be cooler, but don't let that dampen your enthusiasm for fall camping.

Camping in the fall is great way to extend your outdoor adventures into the cooler months, while enjoying some gorgeous fall scenery. Too cold, you say? Don't fret. With a little extra preparation, you can secure plenty more star-filled nights well into the autumn season. 

To help you get out there, we’ve put together 45 tips for making your fall camping trips a success. So bundle up, and get out there!

PREP TIME

1. Locate an awesome destination. Whether you live in New England or near other popular camping spots, visit recreation.gov  to find a place near you with all the fall recreation opportunities you are looking for. Many of the great places we’re working to conserve also provide ample opportunity for fall camping adventures.

2. Target reduced fee camp sites.  One advantage of camping in autumn is that public lands like state parks and national forests may have reduced entrance fees after Labor Day. Check with individual forests and campgrounds to find out. 

Photo: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. By Steven Bratman, flickr

3. Plan with peak fall colors in mind. One of the most compelling reasons to camp in fall is the stunning fall foliage. Depending on your latitude, fall foliage is usually most stunning from September through October, but can linger into November. Check out these 15 national parks for fall color.

3. Watch the weather. Fall weather fluctuates quickly. Always check the forecasts ahead of time specific to the parks or campgrounds you plan to visit. Remember that warm weather can quickly turn. Depending on where you’re going, you should always be prepared for the chance of snow, rain, or other severe weather. 

4. Make a check list. As with any camping trip, be sure to make a check list of all the things you’ll need to stay safe and warm, then go through it before walking out the door.

THE RIGHT GEAR

5. Pack a cold-weather sleeping bag. Always bring a sleeping bag that protects against temperatures lower than you expect, for example one labeled for 0-30 degrees F. There's nothing worse than freezing through the night, so bring two sleeping bags if you get cold easily. Mummy sleeping bags are best for keeping warm because they cling closer to your body. Most of them come with a hood that surrounds your head to capture heat that would otherwise escape.

Photo by Stacya, flickr

6. Test your equipment. Set up your tent in the backyard to make sure it’s functioning properly. Be sure to test all the zippers as well. Also test any other gear that you’ll be bringing.

7. Invest in a good tent. Consider buying a good three-season tent. You’ll want one that has a full rain fly to keep moisture out. Always bring a tarp or tent footprint to place underneath your tent to protect from moisture seeping in. Also, consider bringing an extra tarp to set up over the top of your rainfly.

8. Sleeping pads, sleeping pads, sleeping pads.  These are critical to insulating your body from the cold earth. Get a good closed-cell pad and double it up with another foam pad if needed. In terms of heat retention, this is one of the most important things you can do to stay warm at night.

9. Bring a mix of clothing for layering. Layering is the key to staying comfortable while camping in fall. Pack layers of breathable, water-resistant clothing. Wool, fleece and synthetic materials will help keep you warm and dry. Avoid cotton clothing. If you're backpacking, just be aware that extra clothes add additional weight. Some essential items include:

• thermal underwear, or base layers with moisture wicking properties
• fleece jacket, wool shirt/sweater or other synthetic layer for warmth
• wind and water resistant outer jacket
• winter cap -- for daytime use and for sleeping
• gloves/mittens, plus an extra pair in case first pair gets wet
• winter jacket (even if the weather is predicted to be warm)
• sturdy boots, with waterproof membrane
• extra shoes and plenty of extra dry socks
• rain poncho and rain pants
• plenty of changes of clothing so that you can dry out damp clothing when needed

Other items to consider: Balaclava (face stocking) and down booties.

10.  Try mittens instead of gloves. It is often said that mittens will keep your hands warmer than gloves because they give your fingers a chance to keep each other warm.
 

11. Don’t get bit or burned. Don't forget to bring insect repellent and sunscreen for lingering biters and intense sunsets.

12. Stock up on firewood. Dry firewood can become scarce in autumn. As long as there are no burn restrictions in your campsite area, pack your own wood so you don’t have to risk going without a cozy fire.

13. Be prepared for rain. Invest in a good backpack with a rain cover. You can also line your backpacks with plastic garbage bags to keep out moisture. Bring extra plastic garbage bags and plastic baggies for protecting other items, such as electronics. Also bring water tight-containers. And finally, don't forget to bring extra tarps that you can hoist and tie above eating or gathering areas to provide shelter from rain.  

AT THE CAMPSITE

14. Set up your campsite with warmth in mind. Choose a sheltered spot to pitch your tent. Double bonus if you find a place where the sun is likely to shine in the morning!

16. Hang a tarp. Hang a tarp between trees near your tent. The tarp with provide some additional shelter from wind. You can also hang a tarp over your picnic/eating area to provide a dry place to eat in case of rain. 

Photo by Miles Barger, flickr

15. Prepare for wind. When you set up your campsite, secure your tent extra firmly in case of intense winds.

TRICKS TO STAY WARM

17. Layer up. As with any cool weather recreation, layers are essential to keeping warm. You’ll want to start with a base layer, such as a wicking thermal underwear to keep moisture away from your skin. Then add a layer for warmth, and finally a breathable, windproof outer layer to keep heat from escaping.

18. Put on that winter cap! About 30 percent of your body heat escapes through your head. Wearing a cap is one of your best defenses against that.  As the saying goes, if your toes are cold, put on a hat!

Photo by VickyTGAW, flickr

19. Give yourself permission to eat those carbs and fats. Loads of carbs helps your internal furnace burn. Good fats like fish, nuts and avocados are also helpful as you burn calories on the trail. So dig in! Don’t worry about burning it off. All of your extra outdoor activity will do the trick. 

20. Sip on a hot cup o’ something. Bring an insulated cup for everyone in your party and use it for sipping on a hot beverage or hot soup throughout the day. This will help increase your internal temperature.

21. Move around. It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. If you are cold during the day, don’t sit around. Get up and move around. Go for a short hike, walk the campground, start working on the next meal, etc.

22. Invest in down booties. At nighttime, a pair of down-filled booties can keep your feet as warm, if not warmer, than hiking boots and they can be worn in your sleeping bag as well.

23. Take care with heaters. If you must bring a small propane heater, be sure it has various safety shut-offs and is labeled for indoor use. Heaters can be very dangerous, and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Be sure that you’re following safety precautions carefully.

24. Give your body a head start in the a.m. As soon as you awake in the morning, give your body a head start on warming up.  Move around in your sleeping bag for a couple minutes before jumping out into the cold air.

25. Bring your clothes into your sleeping bag. Fall mornings will be crisp. As soon as you awake, pull the clothes you plan to wear for the day into your sleeping bag with you. Hang out for a few minutes so that they can absorb some of the heat trapped in your bag from the night. They’ll be nice a cozy when you put them on!

KEEP TOASTY AT NIGHT

26. Double up on sleeping gear. To stay warm, use two foam pads instead of just one between your sleeping bag and the ground. You can also double up on sleeping bags, or put your bag in a bivvy sack.

27. Use a bivy sack. Put a bivy sack around your sleeping bag for added warmth. This can increase your sleeping bags capacity by up to ten degrees. 

28. Remember, the hot water bottle is your friend. Snuggle up with a warm water bottle in your sleeping bag or place it at your toes to keep your feet warm.

29. Eat a snack just before bed. Your body stays warmer by burning calories, so a snack full of carbs just before bed can help increase body heat. Don’t worry about the calories. You’ll be burning them off with all the moving around you do while camping.

30. Do some jumping jacks. Warm up before getting in your sleeping bag by doing some quick exercise, like sets of jumping jacks, just before bed. This will warm your body and ultimately your sleeping bag. Just be careful not to exercise to the point of perspiration as you do not want to introduce humidity to your bag.

31. Do not breathe into your sleeping bag at night. It may feel good to bury your face, but the condensation from your breath will add humidity to your bag. If your head is cold, wear a balaclava to retain body heat. It will warm your both your head and your body.

32. Force yourself to use the bathroom before bed. Just like mom said, even if you think you don’t have to go, just do it!  The last thing you want to do in the middle of the cold night is crawl out of your tent to empty your bladder.
 

COOL-WEATHER COOKING

33. Leave more time for cooking. Cooking times are longer in low temperatures. Plan to rise early to heat warm liquids to sip for keeping warm throughout the day.

34. Bring extra fuel. Along with longer cooking times, you’ll need extra fuel than you would in summer. 

35. Pack easy dishes. You’ll be grateful to have easy-to-prepare items or one-pot meals in case the weather conditions turn for the worse and food preparation becomes difficult. 

CAMPING WITH LESS LIGHT

Photo: Patrick Gage, flickr

36. Be prepared for shorter days. Be aware of when the sun sets and be sure to allow yourself extra time to arrive at your campsite before dark. And, as always, pitch your tent first thing.

37. Bring a headlamp. Shorter days mean you’ll need to be extra careful about planning for cooking before sundown. A headlamp is particularly useful for managing tasks in the dark.

RESPECT FALL RITUALS

38.  Be aware of autumn wildlife safety. Wildlife are often engaged in fall mating rituals so be careful to respect their space. Some animals can be more aggressive as winter nears, so beware bee hives and be sure to eliminate trash from your campsite to avoid attracting bears and other animals. As always, never leave food in your tent. Use a bear can, hang your food from a tree, or if you’re car camping, put in in the trunk of your car at night.

39. Respect fall lifecycles and leave no trace. Many wildlife species will be engaged in fall mating rituals. This can make for an interesting spectacle, but always be respectful of wildlife rituals and leave plenty of space between yourself and animals. If you want to grab photos, use a zoom lens, but do not approach. Also leave the special places you visit as wild as you found it by observing 'leave no trace' camping practices, and lways pack out everything that you brought in.

Photo: Bugling elk in fall. By RBurtzel, flickr

STAY SAFE

40. Be mindful of hypothermia risks. With lower temperatures, it’s critical to keep yourself warm and dry so not to risk hypothermia. Always change out of wet clothing as quickly as possible. Bring extra clothing, footgear and mittens, so that you always have dry back-ups. Be sure to pack a rain poncho and a pair of rain pants. You might also consider a pair of gaiters to wear around your boots to keep the rain or snow out. Also be sure to keep yourself well hydrated and nourished as this will help your body stay strong against the elements.

41. Go heavy on the H2O. It’s easy to get dehydrated with cooler, dryer temperatures, so be sure you’re drinking plenty of water throughout the day. 

42. Make a survival kit. Here's some survival kit essentials:

• headlamp and/or flashlight
• bandanna (acts as water sifter, breathing mask, makeshift bag, emergency flag, bandage)
• waterproof matches
• tinfoil (doubles as reflector to signal)
• water purification tablets (iodine can also be mixed with water for a sterilizing solution for wounds)
• small roll of duct tape
• toilet paper (doubles as trail marker)
• Vaseline-soaked cotton balls (fire starter and salve)
• a small bag to carry all of these in your pocket (rather than in a backpack you could lose)

Also be sure to bring:

• first aid supplies
• extra water and food
• flashlight
• pocketknife
• a map of the area
• a compass and/or GPS
• sunglasses

43. Be prepared to stay longer than expected. Be sure to bring extra water, food and supplies in case inclement weather forces you to stay longer than planned, or you get lost.

44. Know where you are and let others know. Bring a GPS device, compass and/or map. If you visit a backcountry area, be sure to notify friends and park officials where you plan to go and when you plan to return.

PLAN B

45. Be ready to jump ship. Bring extra money and be prepared to use it to eat out or spend the night in town if absolutely necessary. If you want to be extra cautious, you can always stay in a cabin, which may be available at national and state parks. The main thing is, don’t be afraid to make an emergency retreat if the weather concerns you. The point of fall camping is to have fun, not to be miserable!

See also: 

29 critical leave no trace tips

15 national parks for fall color