Short, Cold, & Frugal Camping Tips (plus bonus Gospel of Hammocks)

rhetoricize
9 min readAug 18, 2022

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As a short (4'10"), cold, & frugal backpacker myself, I have spent years hyperoptimizing for this and have finally achieved the envious goal of sleeping as happily outdoors as I do indoors, without spending a bajillion dollars. Let’s go.

Hot people: this article is not for you, be on your way.

Sleeping bag

Get the shortest bag that fits your body

Any empty space in the bottom of your bag is not only wasted space and wasted pack weight, it is actively bad for you because it will turn into a cold air bubble that sucks precious warmth from your iceblock feet.

If unable to find a shorter bag, tuck the excess under your feet.

Get a bag rated to 20F or better

Sleeping bag ratings are “survival ratings”, not comfort ratings. They also assume you will wear all your clothes to sleep.

As a cold person, your bag is likely to perform 20F worse than you expect it to, no matter how many supplemental tactics you try.

Therefore, you want a 20F bag if the coldest you plan to go is 40F fully clothed, or perhaps 50F in lighter base layers. A 40F bag is not very versatile unless you live in the tropics because you will only be able to manage down to 60F, and that with some effort.

I use 20F; it is the most useful all-purpose bag rating for someone who doesn’t live or regularly camp in a temperature extreme. As an iceblock, you may want to get an even warmer bag if possible. Unfortunately, as a short person, you will have trouble finding a bag better than 20F without shelling out over $350.

Off-the-shelf 25F options

To my knowledge, REI makes the best affordable off-the-shelf youth (5'-5'3") sleeping bags, ranging from $70 for a bulky synthetic 25F bag to $150 for a down-filled 25F bag. REI has sadly discontinued my old 20F youth bag for some reason.

(The main functional difference between down and synthetic is that down compresses a lot more. This is helpful for backpacking, but not important if you only ever plan to go car camping. Down is also somewhat lighter weight, but not enough to justify the cost to me alone.)

Your girth may be wider than these bags allow, or these may not work for you for some other reason. In that case, you have a few alternative options.

Other options

  • Bring every blanket you already have at home. Extremely bulky and heavy, but free.
  • Stack together multiple cheap sleeping bags. Bulky, heavy, and affordable.
  • Find a warm secondhand bag on eBay, at an REI used sale, etc. Can often get 20–40% off this way. Wash old down bags with down wash ($10) to restore loft.
  • Get a custom-made bag. Very expensive ($300+), even if you get lucky on a secondhand one ($150+).
  • DIY your own bag. Usually doable at half the MSRP of an equivalently good off-the-shelf bag (plus like, 10 hours of labor). Search “MYOG sleeping bag” for patterns and tips. The best balance of easy/affordable/performant DIY insulation is Apex Climashield, a sheet of super-insulating synthetic material that you can sew into a cover material. However, it does not compress well.

Layering

  • The most straightforward free method is to wear all of your clothes to sleep, although as an iceblock, this will still not get you anywhere near the bag’s warmth rating.
    (NOTE for less-cold-blooded critics: It’s true that anyone who sweats at night should avoid this, because the sweat will result in evaporative cooling. As a true human iceblock, I never get warm enough to sweat at night, so it’s safe for me to layer up inside my sleeping bag.)
  • A sleep sheet will extend your bag by about 5F. Silk ($35) offers excellent weight and wicking, but you can also bring a literal bedsheet from home and wrap it around yourself before sliding into your bag.
  • A blanket or puffy quilt can be stuffed in with you to give you maybe another 5–10F of warmth. (If you don’t already have one, Costco often sells good $25–30 puffy packable quilts.)
  • If you are totally desperate for more warmth, you can also borrow a second sleeping bag and stack it.

Sleeping pad

Its most obvious purpose is for comfort, but it serves another very important purpose: insulating you from the cold ground, which wants to suck away all your body warmth. There are many options, but the short-cold-frugal holy grail options are:

  1. inflatable: Klymit 3/4-size sleeping pad (50" long, $45)
  2. closed-cell foam: Thermarest Z-Lite Sol Small (51" long, $40)

Inflatables tend to be more comfortable, while foam is more durable and reliable. You can also use a foam pad as a chair any time over sharp ground.

Hark! you may say — I am short, yet not 50" short!

I make up the remaining length by putting a $5 foam sitpad under my feet. You can also shove your backpack under your feet, though I find this less comfy. Really anything that fills airspace and lifts your body away from the ground will work.

If this is outside your budget, you can get a $10 closed-cell foam (CCF) pad, which will not keep you as warm or comfortable, or a $30 self-inflating foam pad, which is not as comfortable.

As previously mentioned, if weight and bulk are not concerns for you, you can also always extend crappy gear by bringing more blankets from home.

If your budget is $0 and you have a LOT of cargo capacity, you can bring any kind of cushions you already have that will protect you from direct contact with the ground.

Fun fact: compressed insulation is not effective. If you lie on a sleeping bag directly on the ground, the compressed fluff under you will not adequately protect your body heat from the ground. This is why many backpackers like sleeping quilts, which are open at the bottom! Hot air rises! I personally avoid quilts because a single puff of drafty air would freeze my bones and decimate my entire warmth strategy, but I might consider DIYing a draft-sealed quilt, i.e. a sleeping bag with no insulation in the bottom.

Warmth-maximization skills

Add supplemental heat to your ice body

  • Eat a lot of food before going to sleep. Your metabolism will use that food for warmth in the night.
  • Drink something hot before going to sleep. But give yourself time to pee before bedtime, because getting out of your nice warm nest in the middle of the night sucks.
  • If all else fails and you are still numb, consider resorting to electric heated clothes, or cuddling a (very well-sealed) Nalgene of hot water inside your sleeping bag.

Learn how to select a campsite to maximize warmth

  • This campsite selection article is focused on hammock site selection (I am a hammockmaniac), but it also contains lots of great warmth tips for general campsite selection.
  • Don’t camp right next to water, especially running water; it will siphon away ambient heat.
  • Don’t camp in dips or hollows, since cold air sinks. But also don’t camp up in completely exposed areas, because of windchill. Look for natural wind protection features.
  • If there isn’t a clear leeward/windward side to pick, face your setup so that you will receive lots of sunlight earlier in the morning.

BONUS TOPIC: Hammock camping

I stopped ground sleeping when I got into hammocks. In fact, I went so far that I put up hammock anchors inside my bedroom for a quick little indoor gear test that accidentally turned into a continuous month of hammock sleeping because it was so damn comfortable. Eventually I just got rid of my Western bed entirely.

Before you interject with a mixture of skepticism, rage, and horror, please allow me to answer the most common FAQs that everyone inevitably responds with.

Q1: But how do you hammock camp when there are no trees??

A: It’s true that trees are the easiest way to sling a hammock, but they certainly aren’t the only way. One die-hard hammocker was so upset about the thought of going to ground that they invented freestanding tensegrity hammock stand trekking poles ($$$), and you can hammock from rocks if you have free-climbing experience & gear!

But realistically, yes, most hammockers are going to be rigging from trees.

I decided to start hammocking because I love forests, so it is not a hardship at all for me to find trees. If I enjoy being somewhere…it has trees. Done. Your mileage may obviously vary if your favorite places to camp are in deserts or over 12k altitude, but that’s not really my preference, so I’m safe.

I will also throw some shade that it is 100x easier to find two hammockable trees in most regions than to find a perfectly flat spot to ground sleep. You can hammock between ANY two healthy, well-rooted trees (note: “Joshua trees” are neither well-rooted nor trees) even if the ground beneath is a sloped spike trap, so it really opens up your options. I’ve hammocked over the tops of 40 degree slopes, chunky rocks, and spiky brush! Acceptable tent spots are much rarer.

You can sling a hammock really anywhere as long as you find two healthy trees that are free of widowmakers, a rather dated term referring to big broken branches that are in danger of falling and stabbing you.

Q2: Isn’t it uncomfortable to sleep in a banana shape?

A: Correct! That is why we do not do it.

Instead, we make use of a secret technique called the “diagonal lay”.

Illustration from Tips for Pitch-Perfect Hammock Camping | The Ultimate Hang

Q3: Doesn’t your butt get cold at night?

A: O ye of little faith! Do you truly believe that a perpetual iceblock such as myself would willingly endure a sleeping setup without a solution for supreme warmthiness?? Observe:

My personal favorite short-cold-frugal hammock underquilt, the AHE Jarbidge.

Hammock underquilts are the solution for retaining warmth in a hammock. Because they are slung underneath the hammock, they do not get compressed, and they can wrap around the whole underside, insulating you from windchill. (Warm-blooded hammockers can get away with different solutions, but human iceblocks typically require an underquilt in all but the balmiest tropics.)

My short-cold-frugal holy grail underquilt is the ArrowHead Equipment (AHE) Jarbidge 3/4 length 25F underquilt. At $109 (edit: pandemic raised the price to $119) and 20oz, it is the only hammock underquilt I know of that satisfies the triple whammy of:

  1. Under $150
  2. Under 1.5 lbs (22oz)
  3. Comfortable down to 40F

And it satisfies all these constraints by a landslide! In fact, it is LEGITIMATELY COMFORTABLE DOWN TO 30F FOR ME, which is unheard of in any other single piece of gear I have ever tried. 30F for me is the equivalent of 15F for a normal-blooded person.

According to popular anecdotal opinion on HammockForums.net, Apex Climashield insulation appears to be genuinely comfortable down to its warmth rating; it’s not just a survival rating. This is a really big deal for me as a perpetually cold person.

By the way, do not buy hammock gear from REI. I love many, many things about REI (especially their kids’ sleeping bags), and I love supporting them in general, but for some reason, their hammock gear selection is utterly execrable, heavy, and yet still inexplicably more expensive than good hammock gear. HammockForums.net and The Ultimate Hang are your go-to resources for learning about hammock camping.

Budget options

Having searched the entire internet and picked the brains of many a hammock expert before settling, I can say with confidence that (as of 2022) the AHE Jarbidge is, by a huge landslide, the best hammock underquilt insulation deal you will find as a short, cold, frugal person without DIYing your own quilt. I sleep better in my setup than I do in most Western beds.

That said, here are some cheap or free experiments you can noncommittally try if you’re still deciding whether hammock camping is for you or not.

  • Tie any old blanket underneath a hammock as a quick test in very warm summer conditions, or as a daytime nap.
  • Many hammockers have converted Costco’s packable down quilt ($25–30) into a cheap summer-weight underquilt. This worked for me down to 60F, which is equivalent to about 45F for warm-blooded humans.
  • Tie an exceptionally warm blanket, such as a military doobie ($30), under a hammock. Some truly hot-blooded hammockers have been known to take this setup down to 30F, but again, if you’re a human iceblock, I doubt you will get much further than 50F.
  • Borrow a friend’s sleeping bag, unzip it all the way, and tie it under your hammock. This will look very silly and not quite be the right shape for bottom coverage, so you may experience windchill, but it’s a great free way to test hammocking.

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rhetoricize

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before