Tips for Your Next Adventure: Backyard Winter Camping

Article by Randy Gaetano

Tips for Your Next Adventure: Backyard Winter Camping

A couple of years back I wrote a post for our Logbook called Why We Go ... Into the Cold, to celebrate activities that defy winter’s wicked embrace and highlight the benefits so many enjoy from these pursuits. As we head into winter with travel restrictions almost certain, finding new adventures close to home will be our savior. The sentiment of that post and all of the benefits I described could not ring any more true than with winter camping in your backyard — it may be just the adventure you and your family needs.

Whether you are looking to level up your family adventures or build upon your own outdoor skills, keep the good vibes flowing this season with winter camping right in your backyard. For the past two winters, my son, Gus, and I have winter camped in our backyard and this year promises more of the same. He is now 9 years old and he’s usually up for any adventure — especially when it comes to sleeping under the stars.

Being close to home offers us a little extra comfort knowing we have an easy escape route should things get too western. We still haven’t had to eject from a wintery mission yet! Last year we pushed it a little further and camped on a night that was forecasted to get down into the teens, and we also added a little twist... we stayed in a friend’s backyard so it wouldn’t be so easy to just crawl back in our cozy beds.

Sleepy-eyed at sunrise after a cozy night's sleep while outside our sleeping bags temps hovered around 14° through the night.

He slept 9 hours straight without stirring through a low of 14° and woke with squinting morning eyes and a big sense of accomplishment.

With many campgrounds closed for the snowy winter months — at least in the northern states — the backyard is an easy access adventure of badass proportions right outside your door. Winter in the U.S. can mean a lot of different things to different people, depending on how far north you live. Think of this opportunity in relative terms.

Whether you call home in the North or South, take this opportunity to sleep outside in conditions colder than what you are used to. There is no need to get too extreme as you get started, pick a temperature range that feels reasonable to you. You'll be surprised to discover how beneficial and fun it can be — opening your perspective to a whole new set of adventures close to home AND and a whole new stretch of months to spend quality time outside.

Crystal clear, starry winter skies are a perfect match for relaxing with a blanket by the fire.

Getting Started: Make It Fun for Everyone

The novelty of this adventure alone is sure to excite even the most reluctant youngster. Here are a few ideas to keep the kiddos engaged and build memories that keep them coming back for more.

  • Bonfires are fun at any time of the year, but winter bonfires are a favorite — especially when you let the kids build it and light it. Seeing the light dance on the snow, feeling the warmth on your frontside and the cold on your backside, and watching bright orange sparks fly up from a fire they built into a cold, starry sky is magical. Grab a couple of Puffin™ blankets for extra warmth.

  • Two words: hot cocoa. Nothing is better than hot cocoa by the fire on a wintry night — filling your belly with warmth before tucking in. We wrote a guide to some delicious hot cocoa recipes for sipping by the winter campfire with great recipes for both the kids and adults.

  • Winter skies are some of the brightest and clearest all year, offering some excellent stargazing opportunities at night. Grab a guide of the constellations, a Stargaze™ recliner, and some good optics from our friends at High Point Scientific and explore the space around us with your children.

  • Start slowly — pick a night that isn't too extreme for the first time, especially if this is going to be a full family adventure. Let the little ones discover how well modern technology and well-designed gear can defy the cold, but no need to go below freezing your first time.

  • Teach your children to enjoy some of the benefits. Explain how cold air is more dense and compact so when you breathe in you get more oxygen, how being in the cold releases endorphins in your body, and how staying out overnight in winter keeps us in tune with the natural world around us year-round.

  • Make dinner outside! Cook over the fire or just on the grill. Try a new recipe or a new style of cooking with fire. Nothing tastes better than food cooked over a primitive fire.

  • Light your shelter up with a different color. Gus and I use the red light on my headlamp for our tent interior light and pretend we're in a submarine. It adds to the uniqueness of the experience and also gives the illusion of a little extra warmth in the tent.

  • Being active outside strengthens your immune system and fights off any seasonal affective disorder — something that will be important this winter as more lockdown restrictions will be implemented.

  • Listen for animals at night. For example, late winter is when owls start to call for mates and you can hear them calling for hours in the crystal clear stillness on a winter night.

Proper gear selection affords a more enjoyable experience, but don't let not having everything stop you from making it happen.

Gear Selection and Setup Tips for Success

Contrary to what we normally think about cold drafts and staying warm, allowing some air to flow freely through the tent is the key to keeping you warmer and drier. Choosing a night with very little wind will help you retain more body warmth, but having some natural air current will also help to keep condensation from your breath flowing out of the tent through the night.

Tents like Chogori™ and award-winning Kunai™ are designed to efficiently mitigate condensation build-up, but keeping the strutted vents sufficiently opened on any of our 3 season tents like Aurora™, Dagger™, etc works great too.

When it comes down to it, the 3 season rating is more about the wind and snow load that a tent can or can’t handle — it is your sleeping bag and pad combination that is designed to help you to retain your body warmth through the night.

Pro tip: keep the breeze direction parallel with the two opposite-sided openings in your tent — having airflow across these openings is key to evacuating moisture from your shelter.

Cold temps offer perfect opportunities for close snuggles with your children by the fire.

Building a proper pad and bag combination will create the foundation you need for greater warmth retention. NEMO is proud to have helped in developing the ASTM standards and testing for a consistent, industry-standard rating. If you want to learn more about R-Value and the details of warmth retention you can read more on our R-Value piece. But for a breakdown of quick tips and tricks, here are some specific ways to make this adventure a little more comfortable which in turn will make it a lot more enjoyable, especially when including the little ones.

For starters, add a barrier to your tent floor — we used Victory™ Blanket. Tent floors are already waterproof, but the thicker, waterproof bottom of this blanket creates a strong barrier from the cold ground or snow. The blanket's soft fabric top is much warmer to the touch and protects against the cold condensation collecting on the floor.

Next, you will want an insulated pad to keep the cold air in your pad from circulating too close to your body. A pad that contains open-cell foam is not only a great way to slow air circulation within your pad, but the foam retains your body heat close to your body where you need it. We use Roamer™, its thick layer of open-cell foam easily stands up to a night of sub-freezing temps. Yep, that’s right — the luxury summer car-camping pad, Roamer™, doubles as the warmest winter pad we make with an R-Value of 6.0.

Choosing a pad with enough insulation to match the expected temperature range and conditions will be crucial in a restful night. Adding a closed-cell foam pad like Switchback™ into the mix will compound the R-Value of your pad setup and can elevate a pad geared for the shoulder seasons into the realm of a 4-season setup in this type of combination. Simply place the closed-cell foam pad under your air pad to create another barrier from the cold.

For sleeping bags, we went with Sonic™ down bags — I went with a 0° and Gus used a -20° — and both of us were extremely comfortable. We laughed as the tips of our noses felt tingly and cold sticking out from our cozy bags, but inside the rest of our limbs and cores were totally protected and warm. Whether you choose down or synthetic, you'll just want to make sure you have bags that are rated down to the lowest temps you expect that evening.

Depending on how warm or cold you sleep, bag temp ratings can be extended in either direction based on the layers you choose to wear inside your bag. Having some lofty wool socks and breathable first layer tops and bottoms add just the right amount of comfort.

Let them participate in all the activities — whether it's building their own little fire or stirring the hot cocoa.

As NEMO’s Creative Content Director, Randy Gaetano is a passionate outdoorsman and advocate for conservation. When not sitting quietly in a treestand — waiting for a deer … or sitting quietly on a longboard — waiting for a wave, he can usually be found taking his children out on any number of wild outdoor adventures.