Do you feel like a piece of your soul withers each year while watching leaves fall from the trees, believing that your chances to camp outside are fading away with the shortening days until a distant spring? Well, crack an outdoorsy smile again, because camping can easily become a year-round activity simply by learning the ins and outs of beautiful and peaceful winter camping!
Winter camping is a whole new ballgame compared to its summer counterpart, so read on to get started learning about the gear and techniques of camping in the snow.
What Gear to Bring
You’d be surprised how cozy you can be in freezing weather by simply having the appropriate clothes. While you might feel hot hiking to your spot or setting up camp, you’ll never regret having plenty of warm, insulating layers when you finally sit down.
- Layers – Avoid both getting cold and sweating too much by pulling layers on and off according to your activity level.
- On Top – Plan on a light base layer such as mid-weight long underwear, a pullover, a puffy jacket, and No cotton! Remember, “cotton kills” because it gets wet easily and dries slowly – a terrible situation for below-freezing conditions. Wool or heavy fleece are much better options for wet, cold conditions.
- On Bottom – Wear leggings/pants and waterproof snow pants.
- Snow boots – not just hiking boots – Get insulated, high rise snow boots. You can use the liners from the boots as booties in the tent. And if you keep them in your sleeping bag, putting your feet into your boots in the morning won’t be a frozen nightmare.
- Warm socks – Only wear one pair of socks while hiking. Don’t smush your feet in your boots so they can’t insulate you as they’re meant to.
- Hat, gloves, scarf, balaclava – You’ll thank yourself for being able to cover as much skin as possible.
- Sunglasses – Protect your eyes from the sun reflecting off the snow. Sun glare off the snow is no joke and can actually cause eye sunburns, snow blindness, and long-term sight damage with prolonged exposure.
- Extra clothes – Bring a little more of everything than you think you’ll need. Hypothermia is not worth a slightly lighter pack.
You’ll likely need to tweak your summer camping gear, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to go out and buy all new stuff. The most important part is ensuring your tent is rated for the weather.
- 3-season tent if no inclement weather is expected – 4-season tent if strong wind or heavy snow is possible.
- Foam sleeping pad and inflatable sleeping pad – Unlike summer camping, you’ll feel the chill from above and below without proper insulation.
- Sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the forecast calls for – Add a sleeping bag liner or even another sleeping bag inside the first one for increased warmth.
- Snow-specific tent stakes – If you don’t have these, you can fill stuff sacks with snow, tie the tent strings to them, and bury them.
If you can, camp near a water source, but if you can’t – melt snow! Bring lots of easy, hot food and eat it frequently, as this will keep you warm.
- Camp stove and Fuel – You might need to warm up the propane fuel canisters in your sleeping bag or under your jacket before cooking. Consider bringing a wind block for the stove.
- Pot for boiling snow to make water – Bring three times as much fuel as you would for summer camping for boiling snow.
- High-fat foods to keep you warm – At least 50% of your meal should be fats, as they will keep you warm as they digest.
- Quick, high-energy foods for snacks and lunch – Have a few food options that will get you lots of calories for energy without needing to cook. See our list of Camp Fire Recipes and Backpacking Snacks for suggestions and meal ideas.
Prepping the Site
Winter camping requires a bit more thought and preparation for setting up your site but following these guidelines will mean the difference between a comfortable night and a cold, windy one.
- Choose a site with natural protection – Use trees or a hill to block the wind, away from avalanche danger or snow-laden branches. Being out of the wind can make or break your trip!
- If you can, build a small snow wall around the tent area – This helps keep out the wind.
- Create a flat tent space – Using snowshoes or skis, thoroughly stomp down the area where you wish to set up the tent until the snow is flat and hard-packed. If the snow doesn’t get packed well, your body heat will melt it and you’ll wake up in a freezing, lumpy puddle.
- Create a protected cooking area – Use a lightweight tarp to create a shelter while you cook in snowy conditions.
Many aspects of winter camping come as a surprise to even a seasoned summer camper. Read through this list so you can be prepared for any situation.
- Bring sunscreen! – The sun glare can leave you with a nasty sunburn. Apply regularly and remember those sunglasses we mentioned earlier.
- Bring a headlamp and lantern – It gets dark quickly in the winter. Moonlight is not good enough for cooking dinner.
- Drink a lot of water – You may not feel thirsty when you’re cold, but your body still needs water to stay hydrated. The higher your elevation, the more water you’ll need to drink. Consider a hydration pack if you plan on hiking.
- Have a pee bottle (and a female urination device) in the tent – Don’t hold it – that wastes body heat, and this way you don’t have to leave the tent in the middle of the night.
- Keep warm – Use a hot water bottle or hand warmers, do some exercise to get your heart rate up, snuggle with someone, eat food, make sure your feet are dry and your head is covered. Consider bringing a small heater for your tent but remember to pay close attention to the safety precautions and never use a propane heater in an enclosed space.
- Cover all the floor space – Use packs and clothes to cover any spots where cold can seep in from the floor. Consider bringing a rug or other ground cover to lay over the floor of the tent to provide an extra layer of insulation against the cold ground.
- Bring sleeping bag entertainment – Since you’ll likely be in your sleeping bag for warmth far before you get sleepy, bring a book, tell stories, or play games like “20 Questions.”
- Observe Leave No Trace Principles – Pack out all trash and human waste with you.
- Read up on avalanche safety – If you’re anywhere near mountains with snow, it’s best to know best practices. Check in at the nearest ranger station to get weather updates, warnings, and area guidelines and restrictions.
As tantalizingly beautiful and invigorating as winter camping is, sleeping outside in freezing temperatures has inherent risks. Take the time to read as many sources as you can and use this article as a springboard for your research. Make sure you’re completely prepared before you venture into your first overnight winter experience.
May you experience the total serenity of a world silenced by sparkling white blankets covering the trees, and while surviving in the deepest night of the harshest season, know that you are experiencing something unique that few people have been brave (or maybe crazy?) enough to do. Happy Winter Camping!