Whoever said Australia doesn’t have proper seasons was obviously not present during 2017’s Blizzard of Oz. And they’ve probably never been waist deep in icy mud in Tassie’s Western Arthurs. Nor looked at a map and contemplated how close some of us are to Antarctica. In fact, we have a sneaking suspicion this person has never left Darwin.
We’ll admit it is pretty easy to forget that Australia isn’t just a big, flat, sunbaked desert flanked with beaches – because that’s precisely what 70% of our country is. But all it takes is a quick winter camping trip anywhere in the southern states to be reminded we are capable of whipping up the type of weather that’d make a Wildling rethink their layering methods.
For us, our cold weather smackdown occured on a July weekend at a campsite in the Grose Valley, a deep river-filled gorge in the Greater Blue Mountains region of NSW. Now, this is a mild part of our country, where a dusting of snow on its very highest reaches is so uncommon that when it does happen, news outlets tend to go berserk, every Tom, Dick and Harry wants a piece of it, and by the time Tom, Dick and Harry make the two hour drive up there, the ‘snow’ has already melted.
And yet despite (or perhaps because of) the Blue Mountains’ relatively tame climate, we were still woefully unprepared for what a winter night hemmed in by 300m sandstone cliffs might feel like. (Spoiler: a bit like being cryogenically frozen, awake, and in slow motion.)
Lesson 1. location
Being at the bottom of a gorge, our campsite was the first place the sun left in the afternoon, cloaking us in complete darkness by 5.30pm, and the last place the sun reached the following morning (when our bodies were in most need of thawing). So it was for a whopping 13 hours that we were forced to assume the foetal position inside a sleeping bag which, we’ve come to realise, may have been manufactured for the singular purpose of children’s slumber parties. You know, kinda like camping except you’re indoors. On carpet. With central heating.
Don’t get us wrong, the location in the valley was spectacular, however it served as a reminder that in winter, it pays not only to seek out open, sunny campsites, but to think about your tent’s position in relation to the sun. Toasty warm beams drying the frost on your tent are always a good thing on a sub-zero morning.
Cold hands and feet? Put a vest on. A warm core is the first step towards warm extremities!
Lesson 2: the sleeping bag
Guess what? A sleeping bag made for use in the great outdoors usually comes with a nifty temperature rating. In a knee-jerk reaction to our north-of-the-wall experience, we’ve since acquired a sleeping bag with a comfort rating of -5, a lower limit of -11 and an extreme lower limit of -30. And we’ve gotta say, we’ll take the sweats over the freeze-fest any day.
For cold weather camping, a down-filled sleeping bag is ideal (due to its powerful warmth to weight ratio and packability), but not essential. There are plenty of more affordable synthetic alternatives that’ll keep you just as warm, however a synthetic bag with a comparable temperature rating will always be heavier and less compact than its down counterpart. The upshot is that a synthetic bag will still keep you warm if it gets wet, which is certainly worth considering if you’re venturing into predictably damp regions, not to mention the unavoidable morning shower of built-up condensation.
Get a bag with a hood and use its drawstrings to prevent all that toasty body heat from escaping. And don’t assume you’ll fit in any adult-sized bag. Measure it first. Our 6’5’ buddy learned this the hard way.
Lesson 3: the sleeping mat
If you think you’re tough as nails and only need cushioning on the half of your body where your vital organs live, do as we did and sleep on a ¾ mat with your legs dangling off the end. You will probably regret it, as we did.
This is because your sleeping bag rating isn’t worth the tag it’s written on if you don’t also have a decent layer of insulation between your snoring body and the cold, frozen ground. If you’re car camping, you can blow up a nice fat mattress and commence sleeping like a log, or even go the extra step and cocoon yourself in a swag – the cosiest of the lot. But if you’re hiking in, an insulated lightweight inflatable mattress with baffles is your best bet. In extra cold conditions, double-up with a foam roll beneath your inflatable mattress and you’ll be snug as a bug. Or should we say smug as a bug?
If you’re camping with your significant other, use coupling straps to yoke two single mats together, then unzip your sleeping bags and use them like quilts so you can share body heat.
Lesson 4: fire restrictions
Things would’ve been a lot different that night if we’d had the foresight to look into fire permissions. As it happened, we tootled into camp thinking we’d warm our paws round a cracking fire only to be met with year-round fire ban signs, and (had we chosen to ignore said signs) there was a noticeable absence of wood to burn anyway. Winter camping is much more pleasant with a roaring fire, so do your research and choose a site where you’re actually allowed to light one. Drive-in tenters also have the luxury of alternate fire methods. Try a portable heater, and use a lantern to throw light around after dark.
Fill your water bottle with boiling water, wrap it in a spare shirt and take it to bed. River stones warmed in the fire will also work in a pinch.
Lesson 5: short days
When you’re going camping in winter, long gone are the 9pm sunsets that NSW-ers, Tasmanians and Victorians so relish in summer. It’s an easy detail to overlook, and when you also overlook fire-making matters and after-dark entertainment, what you get is a very long, cold, boring night cooped up in your tent alone with the slightly depressing thought that this, your bedtime, is when Family Feud starts.
What we’d have given for a book, a deck of cards or even a journal to kill some time in that tent. Weather permitting, you could also use this time to dabble in a bit of star-gazing, astrophotography or nocturnal animal spotting. Going on a glowworm hunt with the kids doubles as a grand opportunity to
frighten the life out of them teach them about nature.
Avoid cotton and wear breathable moisture-wicking wool base layers as PJs to prevent clamminess (and keep your sleeping bag clean).
Lesson 6: comfort food
While we encourage these inclusions any time of year, camping out in sub-zero temperatures is no time to skimp on high-sugar, high cal, salt-crusted snacks and flagons of hard liquor. (Let it be known that we in no way recommend hitting the bottle in the face of hypothermia, during which getting soused could indeed prove fatal).
Fortunately this isn’t a survival piece, and for all other purposes, a swig of spiced rum or a glass of red wine is a nod to morale – something that we could’ve used more of as we sipped cold, sterilised river water. Add some Baileys to your hot chocolate, or hug a mug of mulled cider and we promise you’ll forget, at least for the moment, your regrettable sleeping bag choice.
Wear a beanie to bed – stacks of body temperature is lost through your head!
Lesson 7: the midnight toilet run
We’re including this not because we’ve learned anything profound from the experience, but because we think we can all agree that groping blindly for your headlamp, fumbling to put your shoes on and trampling your tent-mate to answer the call of nature at 3am – when the night is at its absolute coldest – truly is the pits. We can’t count the number of times we’ve tried to sleep through the urge, hoping that this will be the occasion that mind finally trumps matter.
But alas, the only way to really mitigate the midnight toilet debacle is to not drink anything for a couple of hours before you turn in, which we realise is somewhat at odds with our vehemence for a spiked hot toddy to ring in bedtime. We will say the whole ordeal does become marginally less unpleasant by wearing clothes to bed, and having Crocs or pool slides to easily slip into. And remember: while shotgunning the side nearest the tent door seems like a good idea at the time, you put yourself directly in the path of said trampling.
No facilities nearby? Set up a toilet tent!
Read More: Australia: a camper's wonderland
When you’re well prepared for the plummeting mercury, cold weather camping is seriously satisfying. In winter, waterfalls are often at their most spectacular, you’re more likely to see the forest bathed in early morning mist, and with the summer crowds sitting by the fire at home, you’ve got a greater chance of having the campsite or riverbank all to yourself. Oh yeah, and all the snakes are asleep. Nuff said.
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