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When is it to cold to tent camp?

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The coldest camping that I have heard about is from a number of local troops that went to Tomahawk Scout Reservation for their Winter Survival Training and the actual temperature was -43. The staff went out to the various sites to get the boys to come into the lodge and all refused and preferred to stay in their little snow caves they had built for the night. None used tents, so I was probably too cold for tents for these boys.





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It all depends on what you're used to, and whether you have the gear. This weekend has been in the negatives up here in MI and I probably wouldn't take a typical brand new scout on his first-ever campout this weekend. More experienced scouts with proper gear might be fine. You have to know your individual scouts though, and to some extent, trust their parents to know them better than you do.


One former SM I know used to talk new cross-overs into going on their first camp out in early March regardless of weather conditions. Around here early March is still the middle of winter and it can be single digits or worse, 33 and freezing rain. He'd convince the parents he knew what he was talking about and the kids would be just fine. Yeah, all of them came back with their fingers and toes in tact, but a lot of them were so miserable (and ill-prepared) that they never wanted to camp again.



Our troop has a camp out planned for next weekend, by the way, tents (or quinzees) and all. It isn't my cup of tea but the boys are looking forward to it.


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We got back Saturday from our winter Experience in Michigan. Friday never crested zero F and was around -5F overnight. Saturday was actually quite pleasant topping out around 20F. 6 inches of fresh snow fell through the day.


The boys had a blast with no complaints. A couple had cold feet due to cotton socks (hmmmm, did they actually learn their lesson) and one had worn out insulation free gloves.


One of them thought he had polypro official scout socks, but they were the cotton ones.


I woke up around 4am and thought about doing a tent check but couldn't bring myself to get out of my warm bag so I didn't bother. I would have awakened up all the boys.


A couple of us leaders brought a bunch of extras like blankets, socks, gloves and fleeces. Little of it was needed.


We just had fun and spent the day mocking global warming.


It was so cold, one of my windshield wipers cracked off, one of our tent zippers snapped when I tried to adjust it and my 3 year old Rocky boots cracked and broke.

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The District Klondike went great. Thanks for all your helpful comments. We had four Scouts on Friday and a fifth joined us Saturday morning.


The temperature was between -18F and -15F on the overnight on Friday depending on whose thermometer you wanted to believe. The low on Saturday night was +25. The older Scouts did a good job of training the first timers. Everyone was comfy on the overnights. They all reported that they were warm in there sleeping bags.


One Scout needed ... errr ... retraining several times on Saturday that wearing your hat and coat will help to keep your hands and feet warm. Other than that the Scouts did all the right things and were comfortable for the weekend.

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When you can't be prepared for the weather, then it is too cold. If you are prepared, there should be few problems.


There are alternatives to tents, as already mentioned. Many 3 season tents can not handle the weight of a lot of snow on them, or the fiberglass poles break easier in the cold. Often White Gas stoves work better than propane. It's about having the right gear to be prepared.



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My son's troop camped last weekend. Temps were single digits during daytime and fell to about -5 at night. Not especially windy, but very cold. Now my son was ok, if not exactly cozy. But one young scout went home. My son said the boy had packed a lightweight cheap-o sleeping bag, cotton sweatpants, and tennis shoes. Another boy nearly went home. My son said his main issue was being very cold at night. He is a very small (short, skinny) boy and he apparently had an extra-large adult sized sleeping bag, and didn't know/understand that he needed to take some steps to reduce the amount of space he needed to heat up with his limited body heat. One adult went to the emergency room and was treated for hypothermia. She had camped with the troop previously, but not in tents in the middle of winter. Also, given the rules about who can share tents, we women often end up tenting by ourselves, which in this case could have resulted in a much greater problem if her situation hadn't been caught before everybody went to sleep (buddy system isn't in place when you tent alone). Happily, she's fine, and the boy who went home has already gone shopping for a more suitable bag so I think he (and his dad) learned from this without suffering lasting damage, but I've been thinking about whether this was avoidable. There's much to be said for learning from experience, but there are also times when it is dangerous, or when a really bad experience results in boys just quitting instead.


I know the troop does discuss appropriate cold weather gear and packing. I don't know how effectively they teach this, and I haven't been to a lot of troop meetings this fall/winter to see what skill is like these days. Of course, if people don't listen or follow instruction, they can still be in trouble even with excellent instruction. Thankfully this was just car camping in an easily accessible location and everybody is ok. But...what do you do in your troops to ensure that people who go on camp outs in demanding weather conditions are really prepared?

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Unfortunately, cold winter camping doesn't leave much room for mistakes. And like your unit, we train and have shakedowns to weed out the inappropriate gear, but nonetheless, a few always don't bring the right stuff. The problem with these guys, is that they need to experience pain before they learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, the experience might make them never winter camp again. We have a few guys in our unit like that.


I always throw some extra essentials into my truck for just such situations, extra boots, bag liners, snow pants, gloves, socks. They always get used. But I make them suffer a bit before I announce I have them. ;)


I understand the solo adult issue too. I did a night solo at -15F in my two season one man tent. The tent really only keep the frost off me. A good 4 season 2 man tent with two people inside can get quite warm. But if they ain't the same sex and not married, you gotta split up. That's what happened that night. I gave up my nice 4 season to another leader and we couldn't double up. I was ok though. I was double bagged with a liner. A water bottle I stuffed between the bags froze though.

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  • 1 month later...

Some random thoughts.


Short answer: Never too cold with the right preparation. However, in temps below 30degF I strongly prefer to sleep under snow.


It is fun and interesting to read the views from different geographical regions. Wasn't there a recent Scouting magazine article about Scouts in Alaksa taking a Winter dip in water?


We had a district Klondike some time ago, where the organizers canceled the overnight part due to -20degF temps and high winds. I had mixed feelings about that.


For a few reasons (including providing a model camp, and ease of take-down/packing), the adult leaders in our troop have developed a habit of sleeping outside. December normally finds us in a Yurt, January at the Klondike under snow, and February at a local reservoir with boys under snow if there is enough. So, other than Dec and Jan, we adults sleep outside unless the chance of precipitation is high. We sleep on cots, with lots of insulation below our multiple bags, and normally a disposable hand warmer packet thrown in to preheat the toe area. This set-up under the stars provides another teaching tool to show the boys that you can prepare to sleep comfortably in any temperature. It also requires some extra caution or creativity around getting dressed with appropriate privacy (sometimes we use the Scout trailer).


Last April, the boys followed our lead and slept outside with low temperatures around 10degF so that we could quickly break camp at 4:45 a.m. to meet our guide for field observation of Sage Grouse pre-mating dances. All were comfortably warm and safe.


For some reason, the boys have no problem remembering the prescription for eating "greasy, gassy food." Does anyone else use that phrase? Many times during prep, and again when we close the night, everyone must rehearse the basics: Wear clean, dry clothes to bed, have a full stomach and empty bladder, and the standard call, "Steve, I can't get warm." The hardest thing seems to be getting a 12-yr. old to realize and admit that he can't get warm.


We annually pass out a reminder sheet to Scouts and parents about prepping for winter camping and sleeping warmly outside in the winter. You can see the sheet here: http://stevelarsen.com/bsa/winter_camping.pdf Feedback to improve it is welcome.


The Scout trailer has an extra (donated) sleeping bag or two, for guys that decide maybe they need another layer.


We had one set of parents pull their kid from our Yurt trip due to cold temp forecast. I agree with NRP and the others that have indicated that is their prerogative, but I'm still disappointed when it happens.

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I also am a big fan of Gore-tex or other permeable liner Bivy Bags in addition to the sleeping bag in cold weather. Most Tents aren't up to the challenge but with the Bivy you are holding more heat that otherwise would be insufficient to keep the tent warm but still letting out the vapor that might otherwise chill you.

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I take the question at face value - When is it to cold to tent camp?


Obviously, it depends on the equipment and the individuals. There are four season tents and three season tents (and tents for indoor sleepovers only!). Fiberglass poles become brittle in the cold - I've broken some when the temps get below 15F. Also, zippers and the tent material (usually nylon) can change properties when it becomes too cold. One problem many campers have, in trying to stay warm, it not keeping ventilation - i.e. closing up all of the "windows" in the tent in the winter. They then wake up with ice inside their tent!


I once had a Scout show up in canvas tennis shoes with athletic socks to a February outing in the snow. I phoned his father and told him to bring new shoes and socks for his son by Saturday morning or I was sending him home. The Scouts should know - cotton kills - and get them to change their clothes before they go to bed (they contain moisture and that is what is dangerous).


The coldest I ever got was a campout in April. We had the first 70 degree day that Friday afternoon since the fall. How cold can it get I thought. That night it got down to the mid 20s. The next day the highs were in the 40s and Saturday night got down to 19F. It wasn't that it was really cold, it was the fact that I was not as prepared as I should have been.


I've camped in much colder weather. I don't think I've ever gone "negative" but I've tent camped with temperatures in the single digits, highs of 10F, etc. Wind chill does matter, even if we don't go around in bathing suits. I usually get wind burn because I don't like "stuff" on my face or having my mouth or nose covered. My biggest issue with camping in the cold is how to keep our water supply from turning into our ice supply. Yes we have fire and stoves but when your water jug contains a block of ice, thawing it out without melting the container is a tricky thing. I normally do not like metallic water containers.


I always tried to give the Scouts at least one outing a season to winter camp (Jan - March) in tents. Some think it is crazy and never partake and others do it on a regular basis. Yes, parents have the right to decide when it is too cold but many who say "no" have never winter camped and they really "poison the well" with their attitude sometimes.


In ten years of Boy Scout camping I've had to deal with only one case of hypothermia. That was at summer camp! We had about four days of continuous rain, temperatures in the 50s and by the fourth day, some of the Scouts had run out of dry clothes (the ones who stated that they didn't need rain gear and were unprepared or obstinate) had uncontrolled shivering. The nice thing is that when the temps are in the 50s, some dry clothes and stuffing them in a dry sleeping bag is all that is needed.


I teach the boys that the "cure" for hypothermia is simple. The cold Scout removes all clothes and gets into a dry sleeping bag. The keep him warm with body heat, another Scout, naked of course, is placed in the bag with him to provide warmth. This has two effects on the boys - they pay attention to how they prepare for the cold and don't come running to me every five minutes with complaints that they are cold. It works.

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I don't think it woul be a wise idea to have two naked boys in the same sleeping bad. Even if the second scout volunteered. Sounds like a lawsuit ready to happen. Oh I understand the skin on skin contact and agree it is one of the best ways to warm up someone.


I would think a lot of warm liquids to be drank, a warm building close to a stove, and dry clothes or if the boy is not real bad, in his underwear close to the wire or stove.


One polar bear we got woke up about 6 am to a scout that was sitting up in his underwear wearing an Army wool blanket. He was muttering stuff about being a POW and that the Nazi's would not get any information out of him. So he had disrobed, got out of his sleeping bad, and shivered for who knows how long. The boy was more than old enough to be prepared. Anyways at the next CM, the dad was asked to babysit him for any more campouts.


The boy? We set him by the fire and let him warm up along with hot cocoa. We were leaving the camp in two hours, so we packed up as usual and left. By the time the parents showed up, we was still cold, but in good condition. The parents did a shakedown of all the Nazi literature in his bedroom. RD

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