Camping – keeping warm in cooler weather

An impromptu trip to Humber Airsoft on a cold March weekend led to some tweaking of the colder weather kit, and an opportunity to try out some new and inexpensive solutions to the age old problem of getting a comfortable nights sleep.

Camping in the UK can be a pain in the arse due to the variations in temperature across the course of a year, from -26 to +39 degrees celsius (yes, google it). If you go camping, you have to have the right kind of insulation to keep you warm regardless. However, it’s not as simple as just buying an arctic rated sleeping bag – if it’s too warm, you sweat which destroys any thermal properties of your bag, can be dangerous, and leaves you waking up wondering if you pissed yourself because you couldn’t be bothered going to the toilet at 02:14am. Generally speaking, you want to be checking out the “comfort” rating of the bag, measured in degrees, and try and get it somewhere close to the expected temperature you’ll be out in. Then there’s a low or extreme rating, which is just enough to keep you alive, so ignore that. In theory anyway…

To that end, I’ve got two sleeping bags. Both Snugpak, because they’re cheap but decent.

(Left) Snugpak Sleeper Expedition (comfort -12, low -7), which is my autumn/winter/spring bag

(Centre) Snugpak TSB (comfort -2, low -7)

(Right) Snugpak Jungle Blanket XL – more details below

Now, that TSB is rated to be comfortable for the average person at -2. Maybe I’m a cold sleeper, but I can’t get away with it below 10 degrees. At all. I have done a campout in March a few years ago at around 7 degrees and couldn’t sleep even with a lot of clothes on. So the natural choice was going to be the Sleeper Expedition.

But this trip to Humber airsoft was with a friend who only had a summer festival sleeping bag and ran cold to begin with, so I donated my winter bag to her and looked for a solution to make my 1 season bag work. The days leading up to the trip were very cold, with morning ground frost. In recent years, I’ve struggled a lot with a bad back, and so I have to sleep on a decent air mat. Not decent as in £150+ insulated, top of the range air mat, just a thick one. The more popular choice at the moment among summer campers is the Trekology UL80 (£40, Amazon). It’s thick, concave so you don’t roll or slip off, and very comfortable, but unfortunately like most air mats it does get cold if not properly insulated. It’s quite a bit cheaper than a lot of mats, and does fold down into a small, light package, which is great when I switch out to backpacking. However, it’s not an insulated mat and the first use was disappointingly cold. I needed to find a way to fix that rather than buy an expensive new mat. Doing that on a cheap was a bit of a challenge, but I did come across a couple of ideas on a superlight camping forum.

Firstly, let me introduce my “crisp packet”, as one team mate labelled it. This is an emergency bivvy bag, mylar lined, which is the thermal foil stuff they give to over exerted marathon runners. The UL80 goes inside so that it has a bit of insulation from the surrounding air. The bivvy bag I picked up from Amazon for £12. It’s not as noisy as a crisp packet, being a softer material, though it can make the odd noise if you move around a lot, though I don’t really notice it as the mat fills the space inside quite well. And I’d certainly take a little noise ahead of being cold.

The next piece of kit is some insulation from the floor itself. In the past, I’ve taken a big picnic blanket (polyester filled, quilted thing) folded in half, and woken up with the mat feeling freezing cold and then me being cold too. I was going to swap to a big bulky foam roll mat, but last minute found something in the house that might work.

This is radiator foil, the stuff that goes behind your radiator to reflect heat back off the walls and into the room. With the heating off, such is the global energy crisis at the moment, I put my hand onto the wall. Cold. On the foil though, which is foam backed, my hand felt warm. Worth a try…

Happy to say, it worked really well overnight. I cut a length a little longer than my mat. It’s only about 1.5-2mm thick, so overall is probably only a quarter the size of s normal roll mat and even lighter, and can be folded flat to fit against the back of a backpack. Come the morning, still no cold had come through the floor. I have no idea what it’s made from, other than to say it’s just radiator foil and is dirt cheap, and it works.

As for the bag itself, it was still only a 1 season (in my eyes) and I needed some warmth. For Christmas, I got another Snugpak gift – the Jungle Blanket. It’s a quilt essentially, big enough to wrap up in like a sleeping bag, but much thinner and packs down very small, although I have the XL version so it’s a little bigger but I need the extra length (224cm x 183cm). It’s rated down to 7 degrees on its own, the idea was the have it inside the sleeping bag to boost warmth and it did the trick very well. Being as big as it was, I had extra to wrap around my head a bit too which made it very comfortable. The longer term plan with the Jungle Blanket is to be able to run it on its own in the summer months because it’s smaller and more versatile (ie, not being zipped up in a bag), but it might have a lot more uses with the two bags that I already own to boost warmth.

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