An Expert Guide to Early Spring Camping Gear
Early spring camping can be unpredictable; Camping & Hiking expert David Diet tells you everything you need to bring for a successful camping trip.
The first or second thaw has come, the weather warming, and the days are slowly growing longer. Spring is here and now’s the perfect time to get out into the woods! While the weather is nicer, it is still unpredictable. Rain, hail, sleet, and even snow can fall, heavy winds and thunderstorms are likely. Before adventuring out, it is time to review the basics and double-check your equipment.
Choosing the proper tent is paramount to early spring camping. Depending on geographical location, a 4-season tent should be considered. Built with heavier fabrics to help keep in heat and thicker seams and stronger poles to handle unexpected snow, rainstorms, or high winds, the 4-season tent is the superior possibility.
If a 4-season tent is not accessible, you can use a 3-season tent if you properly prepare or if you are in a warmer climate. Just be sure that heavy rain or winds are not incoming and pack a set of tent stakes designed for loose soil conditions or strong winds.
Sleeping Bag and Pads
When choosing a sleeping bag, a synthetic-filled bag with a temperature rating of at least 10 degrees below the expected low temperature is the best selection. Stay away from down bags, as when dampened or soaked, they lose insulating properties and take forever to dry.
Yes, pads, as in plural. For the base, a closed-cell foam pad is the way to go. Not only will it provide extra cushion, but it will also help stop the ground from stealing your heat and keep you dry in case your tent gains moisture. Plus, you can use it to kneel or sit on when at camp.
On top of the base pad, an inflatable sleeping pad with a decent R-value gives you just a little more space from the cold ground and adds additional cushion for a great night's slumber.
Oftentimes, due to the precipitation and melting snow, sourcing dry firewood can be a challenge. Please do not pull dead limbs off live trees. Rather, gather all your wood from already fallen trees and branches. Damp wood can be difficult to light so to help combat this, take a handful of cotton balls, roll them in petroleum jelly, and congratulations, you just made a reliable, inexpensive fire starter! To light the fire, weather-proof matches or a ferro rod will get those fire starters lit right up and the petroleum-jelly-coated cotton balls will burn hot and long enough to catch your fire ablaze.
While camping in the early spring, simple, warm, yet calorie-dense foods are best. The varying temperatures, from freezing to sunny and back, cause you to expend much more energy. Do not fret about your diet, instead, consume extra protein and extra carbohydrates to keep you in tip-top shape.
Pack a good camp stove and make sure that it is wind-proof in case you are unable to cook on an open flame.
Think simple foods. Whether premade freeze-dried meals or sticking to one-pot recipes, try to consume high-calorie, filling meals. One way to make sure you are getting enough food is to snack. Beef jerky, trail mix that’s heavy on nuts, or meal replacement bars are all solid selections.
Be sure to store your food and other products that animals will find tasty in a secure location. If they’re in your pack or hung from a tree in a stuff sack, you will not awaken to food scattered all over your camp, making you miss out on the morning bacon and coffee!
Besides carrying, at minimum, one liter of water, take a water purification device along with you. You always need to consume more water than you think. With colder weather, even in spring, your body requires the extra hydration.
Learn where and how to source water. A fresh spring bubbling through limestone is ideal. Clear, running water will work but avoid stagnant or pond water. Normally, I run all non-treated water through the filter twice, but that’s a judgement call for you to make based on the source water quality. If you do not want to carry a water filter, boiling and treating with water purification tablets is a decent alternative.
Whether it is a handheld GPS device or a good old-fashioned map and compass, having a way to verify your location without depending on a cell phone is an absolute necessity. Cellular phones are liable to lose signal from both cell towers and the GPS satellite networks. If you are planning on using your phone to help navigate the trails, at least carry a physical map to mark out your starting point and keep careful track of direction and distance covered. Always, always, always have some sort of way to pinpoint your location and have a way back to where you started.
First Aid Kit
The unexpected happens. Slips, trips, falls, slippery rocks, twisted ankles, and insect bites or stings are all hazards in the outdoors. No one ever intends to hurt themselves on a camping adventure but it happens, so it’s better to be prepared. A proper first aid kit will help mitigate any injuries and help provide comfort in case of a severe emergency that requires rescue.
This is more of a subjective item to carry. Tools are totally dependent on how and where you’re setting up camp. If you are going into the deep woods, consider bringing a camper’s axe and/or a compact folding saw to help process firewood and to clear any dangling tree limbs. A multi-tool such as Leatherman 831105A Black Oxide Super Tool 300, is a decent starting point. Its multiple tools will hasten trail repairs and help with some camp chores. Additionally, a knife, preferably a fixed blade with a full tang, should be carried. Folding knives are fine for many uses, but in terms of strength and practicality, a fixed blade is preferred. Think heavily about bringing a compact folding shovel for burying human waste or for digging yourself out of an unexpected snow!
Let’s get real. It gets dark in the woods. You’re away from civilization, away from the light-polluted glow of the city, and the flashlight on your cell phone is not going to cover it. A headlamp of at minimum 300 lumens will free your hands for hiking or cooking. An added ultra-bright handheld flashlight or lantern should be carried as well. These lights are great for seeing further ahead, doing camp tasks, or just hiking to the loo in the dead of night. Make sure to bring extra batteries!
Springtime is a mix between grey cloudy skies and bright sunshine. A brimmed hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and lip balm all need to be a part of the overall kit. Even under grey skies, you can get sunburnt. If at an elevation above the treeline, a lack of cover will intensify the effects of the sun on bare, unprotected skin.
Rain Gear and Other Layers
A set of rain protective gear, including a jacket and pants, both wind and rain proof, will need to be stowed away for that “just in case”. Check for breathability and order the correct size to accommodate your various underlayers without being too tight.
Bring an extra set of insulating layers and an extra set of mid-layers. Remember, it is easier to shed a layer if too warm than it is to add an unpacked layer when you are chilled to the bone. Insulating layers made of synthetic material that wicks moisture away from your body are preferable. Merino wool is a great choice due to its high insulating factor and relatively quick drying time. A synthetic fleece pullover is recommended for chilly mornings or to add as a warming outer layer in the evenings.
Glove, mittens, glove liners, and a knit cap are necessary in case you encounter wintery conditions. Consider taking a pair of rubberized gardening gloves. Normally made from cotton and dipped in a rubber-like polymer, this style of glove is always in my pack. They are great for providing grip and protection in less wet conditions, but also valuable when gathering firewood or any other woodland debris that have the potential to be wet and slippery. Protect your hands folks!
Extras to Consider
A power bank
In this modern age with modern technology, our devices drain juice rapidly. Having an appropriately sized power bank to help keep those devices charged is helpful. Just make sure that the bank is fully charged before heading out. Also, for items that do not have rechargeable batteries, carry extra disposable batteries.
An extra canvas or shelter
Poor weather happens, why be confined to a tent? Bringing an extra tarp or shelter to set up will allow you to still enjoy your time without getting soaked by rain or covered in snow. Use this over your camp kitchen, or even as an extra cover on your tent, if chilly. Just make sure not to cover the vent space between your tent’s rain fly and the ground. Covering that vent will stop moisture from escaping and could cause oxygen deprivation due to the tent being “sealed.”
With the ground potentially saturated, keeping your hiney off the dirt and cold with a camping chair goes far in keeping you warm. Plus, a wet booty is just uncomfortable, especially when the weather is still brisk. Tables, depending on size are also something to consider. Having a surface to prepare food that is elevated keeps you out of the mud and the muck.
Waterproof and insulated boots
With spring comes mud and mud means water. Keeping your feet warm and dry is a priority. A decently insulated boot or shoe with adequate waterproofing should be worn. Just remember the waterproofing ends at the top of the shoe, so no deeper stream crossings just yet! If you do have to cross streams where the water is deeper, take off your socks and shoes, roll up your pant legs, then cross barefoot. Sounds rough, and it is, but 45 seconds of cold and wet is better than a few hours of trudging around with wet socks and shoes.
An extra blanket or sleeping bag liner
Later in the evening when the temperature falls, an extra blanket to wrap around you while you sit by the fire makes the chill bearable. Or, if you find yourself too chilled to sleep, just add it to the inside of your sleeping bag.
Ultimately, your gear for early spring camping is very similar to winter camping and less like summer gear. Gear that is a little heavier, a little more robust, and designed for harsher conditions will leave you well-prepared for any weather situation. As important as having the right gear is, choosing the correct camp site is almost as vital.
Choosing your campsite
Stay at least 200 feet away from running water and above the flood line. Spring storms can be intense, and a barely trickling stream can turn into a raging river in the blink of an eye. You do not want to be in bed and the next thing you know, you’re being washed away! A good way to spot the flood line is to look in the trees, no joke! The branches of trees will catch straw, trash, leaves, whatever, as the high-water rushes through. Once you have located the high-water mark, try to find a spot with at least 5 feet of additional elevation.
Now that you located the flood line and have moved a bit above it, what’s next? Look for where the low-lying area of your potential spot is located. Remember, water travels the path of least resistance. Even on flat ground, there are divots and depressions that guide the water along its path to the ocean. Spotting these depressions will help keep you from setting up in a spot that is liable to pool or has water drifting through your camp.
Ok, you’ve found a decent spot above the high-water mark that doesn’t have any signs of water running through when it rains. You are almost there! The subsequent step is to look up! Spot precipitously perched branches, dead and half-downed trees, or any rocks that could be dislodged by the wind. There is a reason why they are called “widow makers”. Nothing ruins a good camp quite like a couple-thousand-pound tree falling on your head.
You have almost found the perfect spot where you’re not going to get flooded out or squished! Brilliant, you are almost done! Is there a natural feature that provides a wind break or protects your camp from the worst of the weather?
Only one last step! The ground should be mostly bare, or leaf covered with minimal or no new growth poking through. Keep your footprint to a minimum—many moths, salamanders, and other creatures depend on the undercover to breed, grow, and stay insulated from the cold. Only clear an area of as little debris as possible. Twigs, branches, rocks, or anything sharp should be removed.
While camping or hiking please practice the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace to keep our wonderful parks and trails in pristine condition. As outdoor persons, we have a responsibility to leave it in better condition than we found it. This is even more important in the spring. The rain and mud compounded by human foot traffic can speed up erosion in sensitive areas, damage emerging plants and fungi, and can lead to less than pleasant encounters with wildlife. As always, prepare ahead, plan safe, act smart, be responsible, live respectfully and your early spring camping trip will be a rousing success!
If you have any questions on finding the right gear for your next shoulder-season adventure, chat with me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.