Winter camping sleep system: How to camp year round

Apr 05, 2019 BY Mark Pawlak

Many people just camp in the the warmer months. Well, they are missing out. With the right winter camping sleep system you can enjoy the experience year round. To show you how we reached out to UK adventure gear expert Snugpak for some gear. Here’s a look, and some techniques, to help you learn how to camp year round.

Camping sleeping system How to buy a sleeping bag flickr CC image by JesseLeeRoper

Why go winter camping?

Why would you ever want to camp in Winter? Honestly, some of the best days I’ve ever had out walking have been in the colder months.

Waking up to epic wintery views, or fresh and frosty November mornings with a hot brew ready for another day on the hills. It’s one of the best outdoor experiences you can have. That said it does take some preparedness, and you’ll definitely get caught out if you’re inexperienced or have the wrong gear…so:

Winter camping sleep system used by cyclist bikepacking. Credit @hippyswift

What is a winter camping sleep system?

Simply, it’s a combination of items that you’ll need to use to keep warm in your tent or under your tarp. There’s a few ways to put it together and a couple of options to help you increase/ decrease the warmth but fundamentally it consists of :

  • A tent or tarp
  • A 3-season/ 4-season sleeping bag
  • A suitable roll mat
  • And a bivvi bag or sleeping bag liner*

*the last pair are optional and I’ll explain why in a minute

Sleeping bag, roll mat and liners all packed as part of a winter sleeping system

Principles of keeping warm

Heat transfers. Put your hands around a mug of tea and your hands warm up, while the cup cools down. Lie on the ground in the thickest of sleeping bags and the same exchange takes place, it’s just that the earth wins! Being much more dense than you, you’ll exchange your heat through the ground rapidly – unsurprisingly, the earth doesn’t warm up, but you sure get cold.

You’ll always need a roll mat.

Seriously, the biggest mistake I ever made was thinking I wouldn’t need one. It was late Spring and I froze. Even the toastiest sleeping bags will absorb the cold from the earth.

Choosing a roll mat for Winter camping

There’s three types to consider: traditional ‘roll mats’, self inflating mats and air mattresses. The benefit of the traditional ones are that they are cheap, take a huge amount of punishment and weigh very little. On the downside, they have to be packed externally and they commonly aren’t as warm. Tim Moss covers this subject really well in his Best Camping Mats review, worth a look.

Traditional foam roll mats

Self-inflating mats are all the rage. And it’s for good reasons other than the novelty factor. Good quality self-inflating mats are really comfortable and they can be packed in a variety of ways – weirdly, I sometimes deflate mine and fold it up. The downside is that they are more vulnerable to thorns and damage – there’s also an outside chance you’ll have an issue with the valve.

Air mattresses are like smaller versions of the one that you give guests to sleep on, telling them they will be really comfortable when they stay over…Ok, that’s a bit unfair; they can be the warmest and most comfortable option, but for me the puncture risk is too high.

blue self inflating mat used for camping in Winter

Sleeping in a tent on decent ground in winter I’d opt for the self-inflating mat – the only time I’d go for the older design is if I knew the ground could be really difficult.

I’d also recommend going for the full-length versions in a Winter camping sleep system – leave the 3/4 length ones for warmer months. In really cold conditions, you could consider using a foam mat as a base with a self-inflating one on top.

Look for ‘R’ ratings on sleeping mats – one of the only ways to see how they’ll perform in the cold.

Here’s a new self-inflating mat that’s a good balance between price and features.

Snugpak self-inflating maxi mat £54.95

Its design isn’t new, just one that works well. The shaped shoulder and narrowing cut reduce bulk, the valve is decent quality and the fabrics are tough and easy enough to clean. I’ve haven’t found one that’s not a little slippy, and they all need a few blasts of air, but that’s to be expected. It compresses well, just take care how you pack these mats as they eat internal space.

Inflatable roll mat packed up small
  • Length: 183cm x 51cm x 2.5cm
  • Packsize: 28cm x 5cm / 11” x 6”
  • Weight: 740g
  • Outer Fabric: 230T/75D polyester pongee

Choosing a bag for a Winter camping sleep system

There are two ways sleeping bags are rated: by season and by temperature range. Most bag makers include both, still you’ll need to take care if you choose the former as seasons differ depending on where in the world you pitch your tent. If you’re going to learn how to camp year round, maybe take a more detailed look at our guide to buying a sleeping bag here.

In Winter choose the warmest bag you can afford and have space to carry.

Here’s a look at a well priced 4-season sleeping bag with the right features.

Softie Expansion 4 RRP £109.95

Sleeping bag on a roll mat and a bivvi bag ready for camping

I really like how adaptable this bag is, the expansion panel gives optional extra room, you can shorten it, the fit is great around the head, neck and shoulders. Snugpak are innovators with insulation and the price matches the spec and the temperature range. I don’t get the LED Torch – I’d just have a headtorch – and I prefer a right zip, but other than that a great choice.

Snugpak Expansion 4 sleeping bag opened from left showing zip
  • Temperature range: -10˚C to -15˚C (14F to 5F)
  • Pack size: 28cm x 24cm (11” x 9”)
  • Length: 220cm
  • Expansion panel
  • Snugfit Hood
  • Thermal suede foot lining

Go 4-season or add a liner in a winter camping sleep system?

Choosing a bag that’s not quite warm enough and hoping you can top it up is asking for trouble. How many clothes will you need to be wearing to stay warm? How much warmer will you be with a bivy-bag or sleeping bag liner?

Wild camping gear tips items you'll forget to take camping Flickr creative commons image by pjohnkeane

Personally, in a Winter camping sleep system I carry the warmest bag I can! But, as temperatures can quickly drop further than expected, it’s worth having the option to increase warmth. Sleeping bag liners and bivvi bags are two ways to do this.

Types of sleeping bag liner

For me a sleeping bag liner is more about hygiene than warmth. There are materials that will increase the temperature range of your set up, but it’s a gamble. After a long day walking I like to get my day clothes off, have a wash (if poss) and get into a clean layer to sleep – a sleeping bag liner can be that layer. And best of all, it’s way easier to wash your liner than it is to wash your sleeping bag.

A sleeping bag liner and a bivvi backed packed small as part of a winter camping sleep system

Liners come in many fabrics. There’s a choice to be made based on what you want from them, but also how they feel against your skin. Quick guide here, but for more detail, have a look at The Camping Family and their guide to sleeping bag liners.

  • Cotton: cheap but doesn’t add much warmth and takes an age to dry
  • Fleece: good for warmth and comfort but really bulky
  • Silk: feels great, packs small and adds a little warmth and dries quickly, but not cheap.
  • Microfibre: great all-round choice but could get too warm.

We’ve gone for a silk mix liner here as we’re confident the bag is already warm enough – and I don’t like sleeping in fleece. Here’s a closer look at it.

Snugpak Silk Mix Liner: £44.95

Weighs nothing (140g), highly breathable, packs up tiny and you can chuck it into the wash after your weekend – Winter camping sleep systems will get dirty and having a liner really helps. It’s actual only 30% silk but the mix with 70% cotton leaves it comfortable on the skin. I liked how it tied into the sleeping bag with minimal fuss around my neck.

black silk liner for inside sleeping bag in Winter
  • Weight: just 140g
  • Tie-in loops
  • 30%/70% silk/cotton
  • Easy to wash

Bivvi Bag: do I really need one if I’m in a tent?

A bivvi bag is simply an uninsulated waterproof sack that you slide over your sleeping bag. Its main role is to keep you dry. Logic would dictate that you don’t really need one if you’re in a tent, but in Winter I always take one. Why? Well, here’s three reasons to make a bivvi bag part of your Winter camping sleep system.

Sleeping bag with bivvi bag over the top
  • Bivvi bags are a light and an easy way to increase warmth.
  • If your tent gets badly damaged/lost/falls off your rucksack in the dark you’ll still have shelter.
  • They are great pieces of emergency equipment – useful if you need to help someone else on the mountain and provide near instant shelter.

I’d previously carried a military issue bivvi bag but opted for this far lighter and smaller version from Snugpak.

Snugpak Bivvi Bag: £74.95

Packs tiny and considering the benefits of carrying one, should find its way into your gear, year-round. Mummy shape matches most sleeping bags. Seams are neat and fabric is the well established Paratext found across Snugpak gear which has a high moisture/ vapour transmission rate.

Black bivvi bag from Snugpak
  • Weight: 300g
  • Size: tiny
  • Hydro Static Head 5000mm +
  • Three colours and xl available

Last minute advice for colder months

Yes its cold out there but it’s not a reason to stop camping. Providing you’ve the appropriate winter camping sleep system and some experience living outdoors, it’s easy enough to camp through the Winter months. Still before you do, you should check detailed forecasts, and if you’re venturing into areas affected by bad weather you should let friends and the local rescue services know your route and contact details. And take lots of tea!

Thanks to Luke @hippyswift for the photo – if you’re into bikepacking catch up with him on Instagram.

If you’d like to find out more about the products featured here visit:


bike tours, Climbing, Cycletour, cycling, mountain climbing, mountain walking, multi-activity-holidays, outdoor gear, survival, Trekking, Trekking Holidays, Walking kit, Wild Camping
Travel Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Related Articles


Expert traveller hacks: 10 best adventure travel tips

Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, no matter how far away your destination, these expert traveller hacks will save you time and money. So follow...

Activities: Multi Activity
Destinations: N/A
Read Article

Helly Hansen Elevation Infinity Shell review: Eco-friendly ski jacket

Are you environmentally conscious? Want to make responsible purchases for your outdoor gear? Well, if you are in the market for an eco-friendly ski jacket have a...

Destinations: N/A
Read Article

Introducing the Vango Earth Collection: Eco-friendly camping gear

Going camping has the potential to be one of the sustainable holidays there is. And that’s never been truer thanks to the Vango Earth Collection, a range of...

Activities: Camping Multi Activity
Destinations: N/A
Read Article

Newsletter sign up