Cool-Weather Camping


Camping in the Rim Country in the fall and winter means finding lots of elbow room and an opportunity to experience a certain solitude.

"We really don't do much cool weather camping," said Walt Thole with the Payson Ranger Station of Tonto National Forest.


The use of all-terrain vehicles has made getting deeper into the back country for camping and hunting easier for fans of outdoor adventures. But with greater access to more pristine areas comes greater responsibility for keeping the area the way you find it -- free of litter and damage, with fires drowned and buried.

Most of the developed Rim campgrounds close on Oct. 31, he said. Only the Houston Mesa site remains open beyond that, closing as weather and use dictate.

He said people can camp anywhere in the National Forest during the fall and winter (except the areas closed because of damage from fires). You may even boat-camp at a remote spot on the shore of one of the reservoirs in the forest.

"Mostly they stay along Tonto Creek up by the fish hatchery, weather permitting, or at the river crossings off Houston Mesa Road," Thole said.

He said the only thing that is asked of people camping outside of developed campgrounds is that they clean up after themselves. And because of lack of restroom facilities, a self-contained trailer is the best practice, Thole said.

Campfires can be built, but the area needs to be cleared of needles and other debris that might ignite, and fire rings should be used to keep the flames contained.

"Anyone with questions about making a fire properly can call the Forest Service," Thole said.

Temperatures are substantially lower at higher elevations, so campers should prepare accordingly. In fact, advance planning is essential to make the experience safe.

Keeping warm is the most important part of cool weather camping. The acronym "C-O-L-D" can be used as a good guideline:

"C" - Clean

Insulation is only effective when heat is trapped by dead air spaces, keep insulation layers clean and fluffy. Dirt, grime and perspiration can mat down those air spaces and reduce the warmth of a garment.

"O" - Overheating

A steady flow of warm blood is essential to keep all parts of your body heated. Wear several loosely-fitting layers of clothing and footgear that will allow maximum insulation without impeding circulation.

"L" - Loose Layers

Avoid overheating by adjusting the layers of your clothing to meet the outside temperature and the exertions of activities. Excessive sweating can dampen your garments and cause chilling later on.

"D" - Dry

Damp clothing and skin can cause the body to cool quickly, possibly leading to frostbite and hypothermia. Keep dry by avoiding cotton clothes that absorb moisture. Always brush away snow that is on your clothes before you enter a heated area. Keep the clothing around your neck loosened so that body heat and moisture can escape instead of soaking several layers of clothing.


Camping experts advise not sleeping in the same clothes you have worn all day since they will probably be damp from perspiration and will cause a chill, which could lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Use a thick pair of sweats and thermal underwear for sleeping, don't wear them during the day to let them dry. Also use a couple pairs of wool or thick, cotton socks for sleeping and always use a stocking cap at night.

The sleeping bags used should have a winter rating, these are typically rated down to 15 degrees and stuffed with five pounds of hollowfill, fiberfill or other polyester ticking. Put the bag on a sleeping mat, such as high-density rubber foam that is at least an inch thick.

Don't use an air mattress or sleep off the ground on a cot. The air under the air mattress or cot will cool and create a threatening situation. A spare wool or natural fiber blanket can be used in place of a pad.


When camping in cool weather, extra calories are needed to keep your body warm, so plan on lots of extra carbohydrates.

  • Oatmeal for breakfast and pasta for supper works well.
  • Lunches could be pepperoni and cheese, or peanut butter on crackers.
  • Have plenty of snacks available, such as granola bars, chocolate and trail mix -- fruit, such as apples and oranges, will turn to rocks no matter what you keep them in.
  • Melt butter in a pan and toast bagels or English muffins in it for lots of energy.
  • Have plenty of hot chocolate. If coffee is a must-have, it should be decaffeinated. Caffeine is a diuretic and staying well-hydrated while camping in winter is important. Dehydration leads to hypothermia.
  • Cooking meat doesn't work very well when camping in cooler weather, especially winter -- it's hard to keep the frying pan hot enough to effectively brown meat -- if you have to have meat in the sauce for your pasta, use pepperoni and throw it in the pot while the sauce is heating.
  • Instant soups are a terrific staple for cool weather camping.

Other Tips

  • To keep boots from freezing overnight, put them under your sleeping bag -- lie them on their sides below the bag where your backside rests, soles out. The warmth of the bag and your body should keep the frost out and help keep you from rolling off the sleeping pad in the night.
  • Keep gloves, socks and the clothes that will fit inside your sleeping bag, what doesn't fit, put under the bag. This will keep the clothes warm and make dressing more comfortable, plus provide extra insulation at night.
  • Go for a night hike or play an active game just before crawling into your sleeping bag. After getting in the bag, take a mouthful of water and eat something fatty, like cookies, this gets the furnace started and helps keep it going throughout the night.
  • Bring extras of everything -- stoves and lanterns will fail, water bottles will freeze and crack.
  • Make sure everyone knows the signs and how to treat hypothermia.

For more information about camping in the fall and winter, call the Payson Ranger Station at (928) 474-7900.

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