Tips for Fall Camping in the Midwest

Maybe you, like me, have seen those photos of lovey-dovey couples sipping steaming mugs of hot coffee as the sun rises, their hiking boots side-by-side on some rocky vista as they take in Mother Nature’s beauty. When I used to see a photo like that, I would think:

Oh, isn’t that sweet. 

Where are they? Looks pretty with the leaves changing.

I wonder where she got those cute hiking boots.  

Now that I’m about to go fall camping—for the first time in my life—I also wonder:

Do they have quality sleeping bags designed to withstand the cold?

Do they have a three-season silicone and polyurethane waterproofed tent?

Did they have to sleep with hats on?

How cold were they?

I mean, it can get COLD at night in the autumn months, like COLD COLD, but most (sane) people just go indoors when that happens. When you’re camping, your “indoors” includes a layer of nylon and a zipper protecting you from the elements. I live in Minnesota by choice, there’s a lot that I love about this state, but I do not like to be cold.

That’s probably the main reason I’ve only ever been camping in the summer. If you get too hot during the day, you can cool off by swimming in a lake or river, and at night you might put on a light sweatshirt before warming up by the campfire (if only to protect you from the mosquitoes). 

I want to make the very most of this long-awaited kid-free weekend away—bonding at the campfire with some of my closest friends, forgetting about the rush, rush, rush of my everyday routine and the stresses of my everyday life—so gleaned some tips from both experienced backpackers and casual car-camping fans about the benefits of camping in fall and how best to prepare (and not be cold):

• Fall camping in the Midwest means camping during the off-peak season, so municipal campgrounds and state parks aren’t nearly as crowded as they are in the summer. This gives you a better chance of scoring a good camp site, maybe even at a discounted rate.

• There aren’t as many flying, biting bugs in the fall, or, for that case, as many bugs in general. When camping along Lake Pepin a few years ago in July, we were unfortunate enough to experience the aftermath of a massive mayfly hatch: I’m talking lifeless mayfly carcasses covering the ground and the picnic table and a fishy stench that seemed to permeate everything. I realize this is a sign that the Mississippi River is healthy (they are food for fish, birds, and dragonflies, and can fertilize trees when they die), and I think it’s fascinating that mayflies spend 99 percent of their time as river nymphs and only come to the surface to mate, then die within a day of having wings—but NEVER AGAIN will I camp near a river around mayfly hatching season. 

• There are, however, still wasps and bees. They’re preparing their queen for the winter, they’re protective near the hive, and they’re hungry. If you are unfortunate enough to get stung by a bee, immediately remove the stinger (it only takes seconds for the venom to enter your body) with your fingernail or tweezers. Wash the area with soap and water, then apply ice to reduce the swelling and relieve pain. If it’s itchy, apply hydrocortisone. If it swells, take Benadryl. If no allergic reactions are present and medical intervention isn’t necessary, take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief.   

• You will use more firewood in the autumn months (shorter days, longer nights, dropping temps). Plan ahead.

• Drink lots of water. It’s easy to get dehydrated with cooler and dryer temperatures. 

• Always have a First Aid kit along. You never know when you might need it.    

• Keep all food out of your tent, preferably in a bear-proof container or cooler. Wildlife can be more aggressive when looking for food this time of year because they know winter is coming.

• Do not forget the tarp. It is essential for rain/wind coverage. One backpacker suggested putting the tarp under your tent so that it’s covered by the outer surface of your tent, preventing rain water from collecting.

• Bring a camping mat for under your sleeping bag. Studies show that it’s actually more important to insulate yourself from the ground than from the cold air. Obviously, though, you still want warm bedding. Bring a warm, comfortable sleeping bag made to withstand the cold, and—if you’re not trekking through the back country and can afford to pack another heavy item—maybe even a fleece blanket to throw over the top.   

• Contrary to popular belief, your love will NOT be enough to keep you warm. Pack warm gear for your head (balaclava or hat) and wear it to bed. (Over half of your body heat can be lost through your head.) Pack wool socks, extra gloves, and layers of wool or fleece or moisture-wicking fabric vs. cotton (when wet, cotton soaks up moisture and holds it in, rather than insulates, and can take a long time to dry).   

• Your body needs calories to stay warm, right? One-pot meals—like chili or soup—are the way to go (especially with a group). Eating a hearty dinner, with plenty of carbs and fats, will help to “fuel your furnace.”

• Take photos. Autumn in Minnesota goes into scenic overdrive, and depending on when you go camping, you could very well have the best seats in the house for appreciating the kaleidoscope of magnificent fall colors.

• Take time to truly disconnect and relax. You have nowhere to be but here (right now) and no deadline to meet (right now) and nothing to do but hike, fish, and explore the area, play games, eat good food over the campfire, and bond with your friends. Camping experiences become memories that last a lifetime … warm gear, hot coffee, cute hiking boots and all.

For a list of Minnesota state parks and campsites, click here.

Read more:
Minnesota State Parks To Do List: The steepest hike, the wildest rapids, and the best place to spot albino deer, all within the state’s borders