If you love summertime backpacking, it’s only natural that you’ll want to extend your adventures as far into the shoulder seasons as you possibly can. But shoulder season backpacking can expose you to some cold temperatures and harsh conditions that not everyone is ready to handle.
So, just how cold is too cold for backpacking?
There’s no temperature that’s universally agreed to be “too cold” for backpacking because there are some people with the right gear and experience who will go into the mountains regardless of the conditions. However, most people will find that backpacking when the overnight low temperature drops under about 10ºF (-12ºC) and the daytime temperature is below 40ºF (4ºC) isn’t very comfortable.
There’s a lot of nuance to this distinction, however, as every single camper has their own unique opinions on what they feel is too cold for a backpacking trip. While we can’t give you a clear-cut answer as to what’s considered too extreme temperature-wise for backpacking, we can answer some of your most common questions about cold-weather trekking.
Temperatures Too Cold for Backpacking
One of the most common questions campers have is whether it can possibly be too cold to go backpacking. The short answer is that there’s no temperature that everyone would agree is just too chilly for camping. That’s because everyone has their own cold tolerance that depends on their skill and comfort level as well as the quality of the gear that they have available.
As a general rule, most people don’t go backpacking when the overnight low temperature is below about 10ºF (-12ºC) and the daytime temperature is under about 40ºF (4ºC). Temperatures lower than this are typically associated with winter camping, which requires its own skills, techniques, and gear that are beyond the scope of traditional backpacking.
Now, this isn’t at all to say that you can’t go backpacking when it’s colder than 40ºF (4ºC) during the day. In fact, many people backpack in conditions that are much colder than that. But the majority of backpackers simply don’t have the gear necessary to handle these sorts of temperatures.
This is particularly true when it comes to your clothing and your sleeping bag. Staying warm in overnight lows that are below 10ºF (-12ºC) is really challenging, especially if it’s raining or snowing.
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In these conditions, you will likely need to have half a dozen different jackets and upper body layers that you can use to keep yourself warm and dry as well as more niche clothing items like puffy pants and booties.
Furthermore, sleeping in temperatures below 10ºF (-12ºC) usually requires that you have a sleeping bag that’s rated to at least -10ºF (-23ºC) or below. Many people would actually opt to use a -20ºF (-29ºC) sleeping bag in these conditions.
The reality is that most people simply don’t have a sleeping bag that’s appropriately rated for cold weather backpacking since most campers use a model that’s in the 20º to 40ºF (-7 to 4ºC) range. A proper winter backpacking sleeping bag can cost you $500 or more, so it’s not something that’s accessible to everyone. Thus, camping in these sorts of conditions just isn’t possible for every backpacker.
How Do Backpackers Stay Warm in the Winter?
Backpackers use a number of different techniques to stay warm during the winter months, the most important of which is bringing the right gear for the conditions that they’ll face in the mountains. This includes packing a sleeping bag that’s suitable for the forecasted overnight lows and packing plenty of extra warm layers in case they get cold.
There are a handful of other steps that backpackers can take to stay warm. This includes eating more backpacking food than normal so that they have enough energy that their bodies can burn to keep them toasty warm and comfortable.
Additionally, backpackers can do crunches and other light exercises in their sleeping bags to try to increase their body heat at night. Many backpackers also make themselves hot water bottles before they go to bed for the evening so they can use the heat from these bottles to stay warm in their sleeping bags.
Is 40 Degrees at Night Too Cold for Camping?
An overnight temperature of about 40ºF (4ºC) is considered fairly standard for summertime camping in many places, especially at higher elevations. While we can’t tell you if you should camp in these conditions (as it all depends on your comfort level and the quality of your gear), suffice it to say that 40ºF (4ºC) isn’t an abnormally low temperature for camping.
Keep in mind that, if you do opt to camp in 40ºF (4ºC) conditions, you will need a warm sleeping bag. Most people would use a sleeping bag that’s rated to at least 20ºF (-7ºC) in these temperatures, but folks who tend to get cold at night might prefer a 10ºF (-12ºC) model instead.
Can You Hike in 20 Degree Weather?
Yes, you certainly can hike in 20ºF (-7ºC) weather if you’re prepared with the right gear.
For some people, 20ºF (-7ºC) conditions are fairly mild as far as winter weather goes. But it’s important to recognize that these temperatures may be considered very cold for a large portion of the population.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with hiking in 20ºF (-7ºC) weather, but doing so does require that you have the right gear available for your trek. This includes packing and wearing a number of different clothes, including base layers, lots of insulating mid layers, and both rain pants and a rain jacket. You will likely also need gloves, a hat, and other warm clothing in these conditions.
Remember that cold weather hiking is inherently challenging so it’s not something people should do without a lot of pre-planning. If you’re new to hiking in cold weather, it may be worth signing up for a group hiking trip with an experienced trip leader who can help you learn the ins and outs of trekking when the temperatures drop.
Can It Be Too Cold for Backpacking?
While there’s no universally agreed upon standard for when it’s too cold to go backpacking, every camper will have their own opinions on what’s considered uncomfortably cold for their adventures.
For many people, nighttime temperatures below about 10ºF (-12ºC) and daytime temperatures under around 40ºF (4ºC) are too cold for their liking for backpacking. But this will really depend on your own personal cold tolerance and whether you have the gear and skills necessary to backpack in frigid conditions.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.