Stay Warm on Cold Nights in the High Country


Camping in high mountains, it may feel like fall even in July and August.

Camping in high mountains, it may feel like fall even in July and August.

Are you going camping in the mountains this summer? If so, I’ll bet you have a great tent, you have that deluxe air mattress, and you have your sheets and a blanket or two, or maybe some old sleeping bags. You are all set for a few days of tenting it above 7500 feet. Or are you? You set up camp and all of your sleeping gear. When bed time comes, you try to drift off, but the cold seeps into every bit of your body. You wake up every hour on the hour shivering. It’s July! Of course, one or two blankets should have been enough–but it wasn’t. The misery!

I have been camping with members of my family twice in high country, and this has happened to both groups on both camping trips. They brought the tent, they had an air mattress, they had blankets–but it wasn’t enough. The cold was too intense and sleep was not happening. Not even their dog could keep them warm! How can this be avoided?

Knowing Elevations & Air Temperature is Key

Usually in the mountains, the air at night becomes very cold. This disparity between day time temps and night time temps is not familiar to people that haven’t been camping a lot, or maybe have only camped in areas east of the Rocky Mountains that are low and humid. When it’s hot on the plains and in the south, it’s hot all night, too, and of course you won’t need a lot of blankets. When it’s hot in the mountains it still gets cold at night, sometimes dropping 40 degrees from the daytime temps. If it rained, expect it to feel even colder. Doing some advance research about where you are camping before you get there would help out with packing and equipment choices. Heading to Rocky Mountain National Park? Just type in “elevation Rocky Mountain National Park” into a search engine and you will find many answers quickly. The National Park Service has a page that shows elevations at many places within the park. Looking at the page, you see most of the elevations are over 8,000 feet. That means it’s going to be really cold at night even in July and August, and it will feel even colder if it rained during the day. In that case, pack like it’s fall for evening clothing and for tent sleeping–not like it’s summertime in Kansas.

Air Mattresses: Great and Not-So-Great

Ever since air mattresses became available at most department stores, they have made car camping so much more enjoyable. Getting a good night’s sleep in a tent has never been easier. But if it’s a little chilly, or it gets downright cold, something bad happens to all that air inside the mattress. It becomes the same temperature as the air outside, and maybe even a little colder as the ground becomes cooler during the night. That’s right: the air conducts and becomes the same temperature as the outside air, or the cold ground on which it sits. And the next thing you know, you are shivering. What can be done to mitigate this camping nightmare? If people are first-time campers, this problem may scare them off of going camping again if this should happen. And honestly, I’d like to see more people getting into nature and recreating outdoors.

Some Helpful Hints

Down sleeping bags rated for below freezing temps with a foam/air hybrid mattress will keep you warm.

Down sleeping bags rated for below freezing temps with a foam/air hybrid mattress will keep you warm.

I asked Drew Cozby–who has worked as an archaeological field tech and has spent months camping for work–what to do about this issue. He also used an air mattress and camped as late as November and as early as April in high country, breaking camp in sleet and snow more than once. His advice: pack a quality sleeping bag rated for below freezing temps for each camper, and then–

1. Wrap the air mattress completely in a blanket, all the way around. If it’s large, use two blankets and try to cover all sides as best as you can.

2. Place a barrier between the mattress and the tent floor, like an old rug or a thick old blanket or two. And–

3. Place a barrier between you and the mattress, once again, like a thick old blanket (or two), or a foam mattress topper. Or–

4. Buy a foam/air hybrid camping mattress. Therm-A-Rest makes a luxurious camping mattress called the NeoAir Dream Mattress that looks like a night’s sleep would be amazing. And, it rolls up nicely once the air is expelled. But it is not cheap. Or–

4. Don’t use an air mattress; get a super-thick memory foam mattress topper and lie on it with either sheets and lots of blankets, or sleeping bags with an extra blanket or two if your bag is a mid-range temperature bag. The foam will not conduct the cold air temperature and may even be more comfortable than an air mattress. However, it is a bit bulky to haul and stow for traveling.

The ultimate take-away here is two-fold: be aware of cold temps in high mountains and pack accordingly, and bring many more old blankets than you think you will need. Of course, using a sleeping bag rated to freezing (or lower) temps should be enough for high country summer camping. Also, that foam mattress topper–either a cheaper thin one, or the more expensive super-thick memory foam topper–might make all the difference. If you get the super luxurious memory foam topper or the hybrid camping mattress, you may be leaving the common air mattress at home for good for sleep-overs and visiting guests.

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4 Responses to Stay Warm on Cold Nights in the High Country

  1. Heather Blanton July 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I am definitely investing in some foam padding in the near future!

  2. Julia Cozby July 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    I know, right? I had no idea how cold an air mattress could be, but it gets colder than cold. Brr.

  3. Janaki Mead July 25, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    Don’t forget to vent the tent to prevent condensation (which we didn’t do). The drip-drip-drip all night is like Chinese water torture and adds to the misery of a shivering sleepless night.
    At least you will be awake for cool middle of the night life sounds like raccoon’s fighting, bears snorting, and the occasional Sasquatch tree fall. Maybe that last one was just the wind combined with insomnia.

    • Julia Cozby July 26, 2013 at 11:59 am #

      Heed Janaki’s advice about venting the tent–which is, leave one of your window screens open just a little at the top. If it is damp, or rained recently at the camp site, you will collect an insane amount of condensation inside the tent on a cool night if it’s not vented.

      And yes, the raccoon fight was epic!

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