Most campers stash away their tent and sleeping bag after the temperature begins to drop. If you properly prepare, winter camping doesn’t have to be cold and miserable. In fact, winter can offer some excellent camping. You don’t have to deal with crowds or insects and the landscape is absolutely beautiful. Of course, the cold and unpredictable weather does present some challenges. There are risks to camping in the snow.
With the right gear and some basic knowledge, you can comfortably camp year-round. This guide outlines 25 winter camping tips to help you stay warm, dry, and safe while camping in the snow. We’ll cover how to set up camp, winter camping gear, clothing, emergency gear, food and drinks, staying warm, and much more. I got into winter camping about five years ago. During that time, I have tested a lot of gear and made some mistakes. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
How to Prepare for Winter Camping
To stay warm, dry, and comfortable during the winter, you need to prepare properly. With the proper gear, you can comfortably camp in even the coldest winter conditions.
For winter camping, you’ll need a quality shelter and a warm sleeping bag and sleeping pad. You’ll also need some quality winter clothing to help you stay warm and dry. Chances are, you already have some of the gear and clothing that you’ll need.
Knowledge is also important when winter camping. It’s important to know how to navigate a snowy landscape, choose a campsite, prevent and care for cold injuries, and avoid avalanche zones. Staying safe during the winter requires a bit of skill and knowledge.
Pack the Right Gear for Winter Camping
Choosing the right gear is essential for a successful winter camping trip. You need gear that will keep you warm and dry. Your gear also needs to be tough enough to hold up to the extreme conditions you’re using it in.
Winter camping gear is similar to what you’d use while camping in the warmer months. The main difference is that winter camping gear must be warmer and more rugged and reliable in order to keep you safe and comfortable in the cold weather. In this section, I’ll outline what to look for when choosing gear for camping in the snow.
Shelter for Winter Camping: Tents and Bivy Sacks
Most winter campers prefer using a tent for shelter. The ideal tent for winter camping depends on the conditions you expect to encounter. For mild conditions, a 3 season tent can work fine. For more extreme conditions, a 4 season tent may be necessary.
3 Season Tents
If you don’t expect heavy snow or strong winds, you can use a standard 3 season tent. You may also be able to get away with a 3 season tent if you’re camping below the tree line if you choose your campsite wisely. The trees can provide sufficient protection from snow and wind. 3 season tents also work well for late fall and early spring camping when the weather is chilly but not extreme.
If you decide to use a 3 season tent, choose a model with steep walls. These allow the snow to slide off. If snow starts to build up, be sure to shake your tent off frequently.
You don’t want to use a 3 season tent if you expect extreme conditions like snow or strong winds. 3 season tents aren’t designed to handle a snow load. They can collapse under the weight. Strong winds can also tear the tent. 3 season tents are made from thinner materials that aren’t quite as durable.
4 Season Tents
If you expect more extreme winter conditions such as heavy snowfall or high winds, you’ll want to use a 4 season tent. The main difference between 3 season and 4 season tents is the materials they’re made of. 4 season tents use more durable poles, zippers, fasteners, and thicker fabrics. These give the tent more strength, allowing it to remain standing under a heavy snow load or in strong gusty winds.
The tent design is also a bit different. 4 season tents have less mesh. The rainfly often extends all the way to the ground. This design reduces drafts and keeps snow out. The thicker material can also provide a bit of insulation, which keeps you warmer.
In addition, 4 season tents often have a steeper roof and sides. Dome-shaped tents are popular for winter camping. This shape allows snow to slide off rather than build up. Wind can also pass over a dome-shaped tent more easily.
If you plan to camp on the snow, swap out your regular tent stakes for snow stakes. These are specially designed to anchor your tent into compacted snow. If you don’t have snow stakes, bury the stakes and compact snow around them.
If you’re car camping, rooftop tents can work well during the winter. Most models are designed for 4 season use. These feature some insulation and a thick sleeping pad. Rooftop tents also keep you off of the cold ground. It’s also easier to keep snow out as well.
For more info, check out my guide to the pros and cons of rooftop tents.
Tent Size for Winter Camping
For winter camping, it’s a good idea to bring a tent with a bit of extra space. Consider packing a tent that is designed to accommodate one more person than there will be sleeping in it. For example, if there are two people camping, bring a 3 person tent. Also, look for a tent with a large vestibule.
The extra space inside of the tent gives you room to store your bulky winter gear such as your snow jacket and boots. You can store all of your gear in your tent if you choose. The extra space also gives you a bit more room to move around. This is nice if you end up having to wait out a storm in your tent or when you’re wearing your bulky winter gear in your tent. During the winter, you also naturally spend a bit more time in your tent because it gets dark out so early.
An extra-large vestibule is also a nice feature. This will give you a place to cook that is protected from the wind and snow. It also gives you plenty of space to store wet gear such as your boots and snowshoes.
Keeping a Tent Warm During the Winter: Insulation and Heating
During the winter, it’s important to stake your tent out tightly. This helps to keep snow and drafts out. Snow will slide off of the roof better as well when everything is taught.
To stay warm, you’ll need a good sleeping bag and sleeping pad. A tent really only protects you from wind and precipitation. It doesn’t do much to keep you warm. You can stay a bit warmer by choosing an insulated tent. These have thick walls that trap some heat. They are much bulkier and heavier than standard tents
If you’re camping in extremely cold weather, you might consider using a hot tent with a wood-burning tent stove. The stove can keep the inside of your tent toasty warm. A good tent stove can keep the inside of the tent 40-50° F warmer than the outside air.
Tent wood stoves require a special tent with a stove jack for the chimney. Wood stoves are also heavy (20-40+ lbs). They’re bulky as well. You’ll also need to be careful not to burn yourself, light your tent on fire, or poison yourself with carbon monoxide. For more info, check out my guide to hot tent camping.
Consider Using a Bivy Sack for Winter Camping
A bivy sack can make an excellent alternative to a tent for winter camping. In fact, bivy sacks were originally designed for camping in extreme alpine conditions.
There are a number of advantages to using a bivy during the winter. They can keep you a bit warmer than tents because there is less air to heat inside of the shelter. They also set up faster and more easily. You don’t have to clear as much snow to set up a bivy because the footprint is smaller. Most bivy sacks don’t require poles or stakes. Bivy sacks can also handle stronger winds because they sit so low to the ground.
The main drawbacks are that bivy sacks can feel claustrophobic. Condensation is a common problem as well. There also isn’t any room inside of a bivy to sit up and move around.
For more info, check out my guide to bivy sacks.
Sleeping Bag for Winter Camping
Before your trip, check the weather report to see what kinds of temperatures you’re going to be camping in. You want to find out the coldest conditions you may encounter during your trip. This will help you choose an appropriate sleeping bag. Ideally, you should use a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10° lower than the coldest temperature you expect to sleep in during your trip.
Sleeping bag Temperature Ratings
Every sleeping bag comes with a temperature rating. These are standardized so you can directly compare sleeping bags from different brands. There are two different standardized rating systems used to test sleeping bag warmth, ISO and EN.
Men’s sleeping bags come with a lower limit rating. This is the lowest temperature that a warm sleeper could still feel comfortable sleeping in. Women’s sleeping bags come with a comfort rating. This is the lowest temperature that a cold sleeper could still feel comfortable sleeping in.
Different ratings are used for men’s and women’s sleeping bags because women typically sleep colder than men. To correct for this, women’s sleeping bags come with a bit more insulation so they have the same temperature rating as men’s bags. For more info on sleeping bag temperature ratings, check out this guide.
To ensure that you stay warm and comfortable during the cold winter nights, it’s a good idea to use a sleeping bag that has a rating of 10-20°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter during your trip. For example, if the weather forecast is showing that the nightly low will be 30° F, you’ll want to use a sleeping bag that has a comfort rating of 10-20° F. to ensure that you stay warm enough to sleep comfortably through the night.
Other factors can also affect how warm you stay while you sleep. For example, the clothes you sleep in, your sleeping pad material and thickness, and your shelter design all play a role in how warm you’ll be.
It’s better to have a sleeping bag that is too warm than not warm enough. If you get too warm in the night and start to sweat, you can always open the bag up to vent a bit to cool off. If you get too cold, all you can do is suffer through the night.
Winter Sleeping Bag Features
When shopping for a sleeping bag for winter camping, look for a model with some extra features to keep you warm. A few winter sleeping bag features to look for include:
- Draft tube- This is an insulated fabric tube that covers the zipper to prevent heat loss through the zipper. This is necessary because zippers aren’t airtight or insulated on their own.
- Draft collar- This is an insulated piece of material that cinches around your neck to prevent heat from escaping from the inside of the bag.
- Insulated hood- This helps to keep your head and neck warm while you sleep. You may want to sleep in a hat for extra warmth.
- Baffled design- Baffles prevent the insulation from shifting around in the bag and creating cold spots. Well-designed baffles also prevent heat loss through sewn seams.
Sleeping Bag Insulation for Winter Camping
When choosing a sleeping bag, you’ll also want to consider the insulation type. Sleeping bags are insulated with down or synthetic insulation.
Down sleeping bags are popular due to their excellent warmth-to-weight ratio and longevity. Down is lightweight and compresses well. It also lasts many years when taken care of.
The drawback is that down loses its insulation qualities when wet. It clumps and loses loft so warm air can’t get trapped. Low quality down can also smell. Some campers also prefer not to use down because it is an animal product.
Synthetic insulation can keep you warm, even when it gets damp. This makes it a great choice for camping in wet environments, such as snow. The main drawback is that synthetic insulation is bulkier, heavier, and doesn’t last as long as down.
Tip: Never breathe into your sleeping bag. Always direct your breath out into your tent. Breathing into your sleeping bag introduces moisture. This moisture reduces loft. Your sleeping bag won’t provide as much insulation as a result.
Tips for Increasing the Warmth of Your Sleeping Bag: Liners and Bivys
If you’re worried that your sleeping bag isn’t quite warm enough, there are a couple of ways to increase the insulation. You can use a sleeping bag liner. This is an insert that you place inside of your sleeping bag. You sleep inside of the liner.
A sleeping bag liner can add anywhere from 5-25° of warmth to your sleeping bag, depending on the thickness and material. As an added benefit, a sleeping bag liner helps to keep your sleeping bag cleaner and dryer. The liner absorbs sweat, oils, and dirt instead of the bag. This reduces wear and allows the bag to perform better.
Another option is to use a bivy sack. This is a shell that goes around the outside of your sleeping bag. A bivy sack can add around 4-10° of warmth to your sleep system. A bivy sack can also help to protect the outside of your sleeping bag from moisture. Condensation can be a problem with some bivy sacks. Make sure you choose a breathable model so your sleeping bag doesn’t get wet.
When using a sleeping bag liner or bivy, you want to be careful not to compress your sleeping bag’s insulation. Avoid liners that are too bulky and bivys that are too small. When your sleeping bag’s insulation gets compressed, there are fewer air pockets inside. This effectively reduces the warmth rating of your sleeping bag. The bag can’t trap as much heat and you’ll get cold.
It’s also important to note that adding a liner or bivy can only increase your sleeping bag’s warmth so much. If you expect temperatures 20° below your bag’s rating, you’re going to have a cold night. In this case, you’ll want to buy a warmer sleeping bag that is better suited for the conditions.
Consider Using a Vapor Barrier Liner During the Winter
For winter camping a vapor barrier liner works well to prevent heat loss. A vapor barrier liner (VBL) is a non-breathable sleeping bag liner that prevents moisture from passing from your body into your sleeping bag and evaporating into the environment.
A VBL helps you stay warmer in two ways. First, your sleeping bag will stay dryer because the VBL traps your sweat and prevents it from soaking into your sleeping bag. As a result, your sleeping bag will maintain more loft and trap more heat.
The VBL also reduces evaporative cooling. As you sweat, the air inside of the VBL becomes humid. Your sweat can’t evaporate when the air is saturated with moisture. You’ll stay warmer as a result.
If you decide to use a VBL, keep in mind that anything between your skin and the liner will get damp with sweat. For this reason, it’s best to sleep with the VBL directly against your skin or only wear a base layer while sleeping.
For more in-depth info on vapor barrier liners, check out this excellent guide from Andrew Skurka.
Sleeping Pad for Winter Camping
Your sleeping pad serves two purposes. The primary purpose is to prevent heat from transferring from your body into the ground. Your sleeping pad acts as a barrier that insulates you from the cold ground. The second purpose of a sleeping pad is to provide a soft and comfortable surface to sleep on.
A sleeping pad is necessary because your sleeping bag doesn’t provide insulation under your body. This is because your body weight compresses the sleeping bag insulation that’s under your body. Down can’t insulate when compressed because there are no air pockets to trap heat. Sleeping pads are designed to maintain air pockets under your body weight. These trap heat and provide insulation.
When choosing a sleeping pad for winter camping, you’ll want to look at the r-value. This number indicates the pad’s ability to resist heat flow. The higher the r-value, the more insulation the pad provides. Sleeping pad r-values range from 1-8. For winter camping, you’ll want to choose a pad with an r-value of 4 or higher to ensure that you stay warm.
You’ll also want to consider the sleeping pad design. Sleeping pads are available in closed cell foam (CCF) and inflatable designs. Generally, an inflatable pad offers a higher r-value (more insulation) and a softer sleep surface. The drawback is that it must be inflated and punctures are a possibility. Foam pads are more durable and easier to set up. They’re not quite as warm or comfortable.
One other drawback to inflatable pads is that your breath can introduce moisture to the inside of the pad and the valve as you inflate them. This moisture can build up and freeze. If your valve freezes open or shut, thaw it out by the fire or by your camp stove. Be careful not to melt it.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to foam vs inflatable sleeping pads.
If you expect extremely cold conditions, you’ll want a sleeping pad that is designed specifically for winter camping. These are usually inflatable pads that include a layer of down insulation.
Camping cots can also work well for winter camping. They prevent heat loss by holding you off the ground.
Use 2 Sleeping Pads for Winter Camping
For winter camping, many people like to use two full-length sleeping pads stacked on top of one another. They use a closed cell foam pad on the ground then place an inflatable or self-inflating sleeping pad on top.
There are a couple of benefits to this system. First, the second pad provides extra insulation. The foam pad also helps to protect your inflatable pad to prevent punctures. It also provides insurance. If your inflatable pad does get punctured, you still have the foam pad to use. You’ll be cold with just a foam but you will survive.
You can calculate the r-value of two pads together by simply adding the r-values. For example, an inflatable pad with an r-value of 3 stacked on top of a foam pad with an r-value of 2 gives you an r-value of 5. This would be sufficient for most winter conditions.
Clothing for Winter Camping
During the winter, you need to be able to regulate your body temperature throughout the day. The best solution is to dress in layers. When you dress in layers, you can easily add or remove clothing to warm up or cool off.
If you get too hot, remove a layer. If you get too cold, add a layer. You’ll want to bundle up in all of your clothing during the freezing mornings and evenings. During the day while you’re being active, you’ll want to strip down a bit so you don’t get too hot and sweaty. It’s okay to feel cold when you start an activity or while you’re hiking to your campsite. You will warm up quickly.
You’ll also want to consider ventilation. While you’re out hiking, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing during the day, you will sweat. Even if the weather is below freezing. If your clothes are too warm, you’ll sweat too much.
If your clothes don’t breathe, this sweat accumulates and your clothing will get wet. When you go back to camp and the temperature drops this sweat will begin to evaporate and you’ll get very cold. This puts you in a dangerous situation if you can’t get dry off and warm up. To avoid this, remove a layer if you get too hot and start to sweat. Also, reduce your level of activity so you stop sweating.
While winter camping, you should wear clothing that is made from breathable, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying materials. These materials allow sweat to evaporate away so you and your clothes stay dryer.
Merino wool is a popular natural fiber that offers these properties. Synthetic materials such as polyester also work well. These materials can also provide some insulation when they’re wet.
Dress in 3 Layers of Winter Clothing
A basic winter weather clothing layering system is comprised of three layers:
1. Base Layer
You wear this layer directly against your skin. A base layer is also known as long underwear. For winter camping, you’ll want to pack both a base layer shirt and pants. The shirt should have long sleeves.
Your base layer should be made from a warm, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying material such as Merino wool or polyester. The material should feel comfortable against your skin. Most campers also pack a second base layer to sleep in.
For mild winter conditions, you can get away with a lightweight base layer shirt only. For winter camping, a mid-weight shirt and pants set of long underwear is ideal. If you expect below-freezing temperatures, you’ll want a thick and heavy base layer shirt and pants set. The colder temperatures you expect, the thicker base layer you’ll need.
2. Mid Layer
This is your insulating layer. Its purpose is to reduce heat loss to keep you warm. The colder the weather, the thicker your mid-layer needs to be.
For mild to average winter weather, a thick fleece or wool mid-layer works well. These materials offer good breathability, dry quickly, and offer insulation when they’re damp. For more extreme conditions, a down puffy jacket or synthetic insulated jacket works well.
If you’re wearing thick and warm long underwear, you may not need a mid-layer for your legs. If it’s very cold, you might wear fleece or down pants for extra insulation. You may also want to wear two mid-layers. For example, you could wear a fleece and a puffy down jacket.
For more info on mid-layers, check out my guide to fleece vs wool vs down.
3. Outer Layer
This is your waterproof and windproof layer. It protects you from snow, rain, sleet, and wind.
Because precipitation is common during the winter, you’ll need a fully waterproof jacket and pants rather than water-resistant. This is necessary to keep your mid-layer and base layers dry. If these layers get wet, you’ll get very cold and have trouble warming up again. Water-resistance isn’t good enough.
Ideally, your outer should also be breathable. Breathability is important so sweat can escape and evaporate away. If your outer layer isn’t breathable, sweat builds up and your mid and base layer will get wet and you’ll get cold.
For mild winter conditions, a rain jacket and pants work well. For colder weather, an insulated waterproof jacket is ideal. In extreme conditions, you’ll want to wear a winter parka and insulated snow pants.
Additional Clothing and Accessories for Winter Camping
While winter camping, you’ll need a few extra pieces of clothing to keep your extremities, head, neck, and face warm. A few additional pieces of clothing to pack include:
Hat– A wool knit hat or synthetic beanie hat helps to prevent heat loss from your head. Make sure you choose a hat that covers your ears. This is important because your ears are susceptible to frostbite.
Choose a hat that would also be comfortable to sleep in. On cold nights, your sleeping bag hood may not be warm enough.
Also, consider choosing a hat with a visor to help block the sun. During much of the day, the sun will be low in the sky and will shine right in your eyes. A hat with a visor blocks the glare. It can also help to protect your face from sunburn.
Gloves or mittens- For mild winter conditions, fleece or knit gloves can provide enough warmth. If it’s snowy or extremely cold, you’ll want to wear insulated gloves with a waterproof and breathable shell. These keep your hands warm and dry. Consider packing a second pair of gloves as a backup in case your main pair gets wet.
For extreme conditions, consider wearing mittens instead of gloves. Mittens can keep your hands warmer by allowing your fingers to warm each other. The drawback is that they don’t offer as much hand dexterity. You probably can’t pitch your tent while wearing mittens.
To increase the warmth of your gloves, bring a pair of disposable plastic gloves to wear underneath. These create a vapor barrier liner that prevents sweat from evaporating and cooling your hands. The inside of your gloves will also stay dryer because your sweat gets trapped in the liner. Your hands will get clammy but they will stay warmer.
Face mask- If it’s extremely cold, you’ll want to pack a face mask. These cover your chin, ears, nose, and cheeks. This is important because these areas are all susceptible to frostbite.
A face mask also helps improve your breathing by increasing warmth and humidity around your nose and mouth. Your breath warms and moistens the material. This, in turn, helps warm and moisten the air. In addition, a face mask protects your face from sunburn.
Scarf or neck gaiter- You lose a lot of body heat from your neck. A scarf or neck gaiter helps to prevent heat from radiating away. This helps keep your whole body warmer.
If it’s extremely cold, you can use your scarf to cover your nose and mouth. This can improve your breathing by humidifying and warming the air as it enters your body. A scarf also warms your throat, which also helps to warm the cold air as it enters your body.
Footwear for Winter Camping
The ideal type of footwear while winter camping depends on the conditions you’re camping in. If there is no snow, hard-packed snow, or just a couple of inches of snow, you can get away with normal hiking boots.
If the snow is deeper than 2-3”, you’ll be better off with high top hiking boots, winter boots, or mountaineering boots. Try to choose boots that are at least a couple of inches higher than the depth of the snow. This way, snow can’t easily enter through the tops of the boots as you walk.
If the snow is deeper than around 8” you may want to bring snowshoes. These distribute your weight across more surface area so you can walk on top of the snow without sinking in. If you’re a skier, consider bringing cross country skis instead. If you’re using skis, you will need purpose-made boots to fit in the bindings. Snowshoes are compatible with most boots.
For winter camping, it’s a good idea to wear waterproof footwear to keep your socks and feet dry. If the insides of your boots get wet, you may not be able to dry them out. Your socks and feet will get cold and wet if your boots get wet. If your boots aren’t waterproof, consider applying a waterproof coating to them.
You should avoid wearing trail runners or normal running shoes while winter camping. The reason is that these types of shoes are not waterproof. They also don’t provide much insulation. Most models feature mesh uppers. Your feet will get cold and wet.
When buying footwear for winter camping, consider buying a size up. This leaves room for thick wool socks or multiple layers of socks. Thick socks provide extra insulation to keep your feet warmer.
Socks for Winter Camping
Pack a few pairs of quality Merino wool socks. These are warm, breathable, and quick-drying. Merino wool also has odor-resistant qualities. Avoid cotton socks during the winter. They take too long to dry and don’t provide insulation when wet. Be sure to pack an extra pair of socks just in case your feet get wet.
When choosing socks, go with the thickest pair you can that comfortably fit in your boots. You don’t want your socks to be so thick that they make your boots feel tight. Thick socks will not keep your feet warm if they make your boots fit too tight.
Also, consider packing a pair of non-breathable waterproof socks. These can act as a vapor barrier liner. They prevent sweat from wetting the inside of your boots. They also hold in moisture so it doesn’t evaporate away and cool your feet. Your feet will stay much warmer.
If you don’t want to buy specialty waterproof socks, you can use plastic bags. Put on your socks then place your feet in the plastic bags. Put your boots on over the plastic bags.
For extra protection, consider wearing gaiters with your boots. Gaiters attach around the tops of your boots and ankles to provide extra waterproofing and protection from the snow. They come in particularly handy while walking through deep snow. Gaiters seal the tops of your boots around your ankles and around the laces so snow can’t make its way in, melt, and make your feet wet. Gaiters can also provide a bit of extra insulation for your feet and lower lets.
For more info, check out my guide to hiking in gaiters.
Sleepwear for Winter Camping
Sleeping in clothes helps you stay warmer. It’s a good idea to carry one base layer specifically to sleep in. Your sleep clothes stay dryer than your day clothes because you won’t sweat in them as much. Change into your sleep clothes right before bed then change out of them when you wake up.
Exactly how many clothes you need to sleep in depends on the weather and how warm your sleeping bag is. Try wearing a set of thermal long underwear, your beanie, and a pair of socks. If you start feeling cold during the night, you can put on your fleece jacket or wool sweater.
Avoid wearing too many layers when you go you sleep. There are two reasons for this. First, you can start sweating in your sleep if you get too warm. This can wet your base layer and sleeping bag, which will make you colder. By the time you wake up sweaty, it’s too late. Your clothing and sleeping bag will already be damp. Dress in a single layer when you go to sleep. You can always add more clothing later.
Wearing too many layers can also make your body too bulky to fit in your sleeping bag. The extra bulk from your clothing can compress the insulation in your sleeping bag. When this happens, your sleeping bag won’t be able to trap as much heat because there will be fewer air pockets between the insulation particles. In other words, the insulation won’t be able to loft as much. You’ll end up getting cold as a result.
Avoid Cotton Clothing for Winter Camping
Cotton is one of the worst fabrics you could wear while camping. There are a couple of reasons for this. Cotton takes forever to dry after it gets wet. It also loses its insulation qualities when it gets wet. This is the case because all of the air pockets in the material get saturated with water. Cotton is absorbent. It doesn’t wick sweat.
When your cotton clothes get wet, it’s hard to get dry again. The moisture will cool and start to evaporate and you’ll chill. This can result in hypothermia if you don’t have anything dry to change into. There is even a saying about this in, ‘cotton kills’.
For these reasons, you want to avoid wearing cotton while camping. This includes cotton socks and underwear, jeans, flannel, corduroy, and other fabrics that are made from cotton.
You should also avoid wearing cotton/synthetic blends. A 50/50 cotton/polyester blend may dry a bit quicker and keep you a bit warmer than pure cotton but will still take longer to dry. Pure wool or synthetic fabrics are best. For more info, check out my guide to cotton vs wool.
Use Vapor Barrier Liners During the Winter
A vapor barrier liner is a non-breathable waterproof piece of clothing. This layer prevents sweat from passing from your body to your insulating layers. Your insulating clothing will stay dryer and warmer as a result. It won’t become damp and lose loft. A vapor barrier liner also reduces evaporative cooling by trapping your sweat near your body.
Another benefit of using vapor barrier liners is that you can get a better sense of how much you’re sweating. You’ll feel the moisture building up against your skin. If you feel too much sweat building up, you can reduce your level of activity or remove a layer of clothing to cool off.
You can use a vapor barrier liner to keep any part of your body warmer during the winter. For example, shirts, jackets, pants, gloves, and socks are all available in non-breathable materials. You can also make your own vapor barrier liner with a plastic trash bag or other non-breathable material. The most important point is that the vapor barrier material must be non-breathable. Waterproof breathable materials won’t work for vapor barrier liners.
Keep Yourself Dry While Winter Camping
When your clothes get wet, you will get cold. There are a number of reasons for this. First, water conducts heat around 25 times better than air. This allows your wet clothing to essentially suck heat away from your body.
Water also reduces the insulation properties of your clothing. When your clothes get wet, water fills the air pockets that trap heat. Your clothes can’t provide much insulation when they’re wet. Evaporative cooling also occurs. This makes you feel colder as well. If you stay dry, you’ll stay warmer. To keep yourself dry:
Avoid Sweating During the Winter
While winter camping, you want to prevent yourself from sweating as much as possible. Sweat wets your clothes. This reduces the insulation qualities of your clothes and cools your body through the process of evaporative cooling. Sweating out your clothes can put you in a dangerous situation if you have no way to dry your clothes out. Hypothermia is a concern.
To reduce sweat accumulation, control your body temperature by removing a layer of clothing. Take off your mid-layer when you get too hot. You should remove a layer of clothing before you start to sweat, not after. It’s okay to feel cold when you first start an activity. You’ll warm up quickly.
Also, try not to overexert yourself during the winter. Pace yourself. If your heart rate gets too high and you start to sweat, take a break until you cool down. You can control your sweat by controlling your level of activity.
Wear Waterproof Clothing
During the winter precipitation is common. You need to protect yourself from the environment to stay dry. Make sure you have a quality waterproof outer layer, waterproof pants, and waterproof boots to keep you dry.
It’s important to keep your waterproof gear ready. If it starts snowing or raining, take the time to stop and put on your waterproof jacket and pants. Keep wearing your waterproof gear until the precipitation stops. Be proactive. It’s much easier to avoid getting wet than it is to dry off after getting wet. In fact, if your clothes get wet, you may not be able to dry them off again.
It’s easy to skip putting on your rain jacket when you’re already warm or when it’s just snowing lightly. You might assume that it will stop soon or that you’re just getting a bit damp. Light snow can wet your clothing in just a few minutes. Snow lands on your clothes, your body heat melts the snow, and your clothes get damp.
When you stop being active and the weather starts cooling off in the evening, you’ll start feeling the chill set in. The moisture in your clothes will wick heat away. A cold breeze causes water to evaporate, chilling you even more. Your wet clothing becomes useless until you’re able to dry it out. Prevent this by staying dry in the first place.
Carry a Change of Clothes
Always carry a change of clothes while winter camping. If you sweat too much or get caught in some sleet and get wet, you need a way to dry off.
Many campers like to pack two pairs of base layers. One to wear during the day and one to sleep in. The nighttime layer tends to stay dryer. If one gets soaked, you can wear the other. It’s a good idea to carry an extra sweater as well.
Backpack for Winter Camping
If you’re hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing into your camping spot, you’ll need a backpack to carry your gear in. When winter camping, you’ll need to carry a larger backpack than you’re used to carrying during the summer.
A larger backpack is necessary because you need to carry bulkier gear during the winter. For example, you’ll be carrying a bulky winter sleeping bag, jacket, extra clothing, shovel, snowshoes, emergency gear, extra fuel, and more. All of this takes up space.
Ideally, you want to pack as light as possible while still being prepared for the winter conditions. If you’re an ultralight packer, you can get away with a 65 liter backpack (around 4000 cubic inches). If you pack heavier and bulkier gear, you’ll need around an 80 liter backpack (around 5000 cubic inches). These backpack sizes should be suitable for 1-4 day trips. For longer trips or trips in extreme winter conditions, you may need even more space. Pulling a sled can be a great way to carry more gear.
If you’re carrying skis, snowshoes, or trekking poles, make sure your backpack has attachment points on the outside where you can mount these large items while you’re not using them. You want to be able to keep your hands free when possible.
For help choosing a backpack, check out my guides:
Choose an Appropriate Camp Stove and Fuel for Winter Camping
If you plan to cook during your winter camping trip, you’ll want to choose a stove and fuel that can operate in cold weather. Some types of fuel become difficult to light when they get too cold. The reason is that the fuel condenses when it gets cold. This means it puts off very little vapor. Alcohol stoves and butane stoves should be avoided during the winter for this reason.
The best type of stove for winter use is a liquid fuel stove that can burn white gas. This fuel burns well in extremely low temperatures. White gas burns hot and clean. You don’t have to worry about the fuel getting too cold.
Another benefit of using a liquid fuel stove is that most models can burn multiple types of fuel. If you can’t find white gas, you can burn unleaded gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, or diesel. These fuels also burn well during the winter. They can also be easier to find if you’re camping internationally.
There are several drawbacks to liquid fuel stoves. First, they’re heavy. They also take longer to boil water than the canister stove that you’re probably used to using. Liquid fuel stoves also have to be primed before you can cook. This process varies depending on the brand.
I like the Optimus Polaris Optifuel Stove. It’s incredibly versatile and well made. It’s also fairly lightweight at just over a pound.
Canister stoves can also work well for winter camping. The benefit of using a canister stove is that they are lightweight and boil water very quickly.
If you prefer using a canister stove, you’ll want to choose carefully. Some models work better than others in cold weather. This is the case because the fuel tends to depressurize when it gets cold. Try to choose a model with a pressure regulator. This can prevent the fuel from depressurizing so the flame stays stronger in cold temperatures.
You’ll also need to warm the canister up before you use it so it performs properly. At night, keep the canister in your sleeping bag so it’s ready to use in the morning. When you’re around camp preparing to cook, store the canister in your jacket pocket to warm it up.
Another method is to set the canister in a small tub of water so it stays above freezing. To do this, you’ll need a flat-bottomed bowl that your canister can fit inside.
It is also possible to use an alcohol stove during the winter. The problem is that the alcohol becomes difficult to light when it’s cold. In order to light the stove, the alcohol needs to be warm.
Store the bottle of alcohol in your sleeping bag or pocket to keep it warm. It can also help to warm up the stove before use. After lighting the alcohol stove, let it burn for a minute or so before you place your pot on top. This gives the stove time to warm up.
Choosing the correct fuel is important. While hiking the Wonderland Trail during the fall a few years back, I packed an alcohol stove. One cold morning, I decided to make myself some oatmeal and coffee for breakfast. I had trouble lighting the stove. When I got it lit, the flame was incredibly weak. It took me almost 30 minutes to get boiling water. I almost gave up on it but I really wanted a hot breakfast. The problem was that I didn’t warm the fuel before using it.
A Few Tips for Using a Camp Stove During the Winter
- Pack extra fuel- In cold weather, some types of fuel become less efficient. It may take 20% more fuel to boil water when the weather is far below freezing. Fuels also become less efficient at high elevations. In addition, you may have to melt snow for water during the winter. This requires extra fuel. Be sure to pack plenty of fuel while winter camping.
- Pack a backup stove- If you rely on your stove for melting snow for drinking water, you might want to carry a backup. This way, if one stove fails, you still have a way to melt snow. Having two stoves is also nice when cooking for multiple people because you can cook more food faster. It also allows you to cook more elaborate meals. You can make a hot beverage on one stove and cook on the other. You could also use one stove to keep the food warm while you’re serving and eating. Food gets cold quickly in the winter.
- Make sure your stove is stable- If your stove has a remote burner (this means the burner connects to the canister with a hose), you’ll need to create a stable base for the burner. This is necessary because the hot burner can melt snow underneath it and become unstable and tip over. A small flat piece of wood or cardboard can work well. This is only necessary if you’re cooking on a snow-covered surface. If you’re using an upright canister stove (this means that the burner sits on top of the canister), consider wrapping the base of the canister in tin foil. This can reflect a bit of heat back on the canister to help it stay warmer.
- Use a windscreen around your stove- A windscreen can reflect some heat back to help your stove and fuel warm up faster.
How to Select a Campsite During the Winter
Winter campsite selection is a bit different from summer campsite selection. You have to factor in the snow and cold when choosing a site. After reaching your destination, put on an extra layer of clothing and take some time to look around for the best possible site.
Consider the following when choosing a campsite during the winter:
- Avalanche risk- Look at nearby snowbanks and mountains to assess avalanche risk. Make sure there are no snowbanks in the area that could give way. For info on avalanche safety, check out this guide.
- Hazardous trees- Before setting up camp, look around to make sure there are no hazardous trees or branches that could potentially fall on you or your tent. Look for dead trees, branches, diseased trees, low-hanging branches, or cracked or scarred trees. This is important during the winter because snow can weigh down weak trees and branches and cause them to fall. Avoid camping under any hazardous-looking trees.
- Wind protection- Try to choose a site with a natural wind block. This could be a group of trees, a large rock, or a hill or cliff. A wind block prevents wind from blowing through your tent and removing heat. You’ll stay warmer because there will be less wind chill to deal with.
- Water source- Think about where you’re going to get your water. Is there a water source nearby? If all of the water is frozen over, you may need to melt snow for drinking water instead.
- The sun’s location- Try to choose a site that will be exposed to the sun when it rises. The sun shining in your tent warms you up in the morning. This makes waking up and getting out of bed a bit easier and more comfortable. The sun can also help dry out your damp gear. Condensation won’t be quite as bad either.
- Exposed vegetation- If the snow is patchy, avoid camping on exposed vegetation. You don’t want to damage the plants. Instead, set up your tent on a patch of snow. If you’re camping in a campground, pitch your tent on a cleared tent site or tent platform.
- Privacy- If you’re camping in a popular spot, try to choose a site away from other campers so you don’t disturb one another. This usually isn’t a problem during the winter.
- Low spots- If the snow is melting, if there is a chance of rain, or if the weather is warming up, you’ll want to avoid camping in a low spot where a puddle could form. Try to camp on a raised patch of ground to avoid waking up in a puddle.
- Frozen bodies of water- Make sure there are no frozen bodies of water that you could accidentally walk on and fall into if the ice is thin.
- Snow bridges- Make sure there are no dangerous snow bridges that you could accidentally walk on after dark.
Look for Landmarks Around Camp
When choosing a campsite, it’s a good idea to take a mental note of any landmarks nearby. This is important because the landscape can look completely different in the morning if it snows during the night. A fresh blanket of snow can render your campsite and the surrounding area unrecognizable. A hiking trail can disappear after a just couple of inches of snow fall on it.
To avoid getting lost, look for landmarks that can help you identify your campsite and the trail. This could be a tree, rock, hill, stream, mountain, or anything that looks distinctive. This is really only necessary if you’re hiking into your campsite. If you’re camping with a vehicle, you’ll be near the road.
How to Set up Camp During the Winter
After selecting a good campsite, you’re ready to set up camp. Most snow campers sleep in a tent or bivy sack. If there is no snow on the ground, you’ll set up camp just like you always do. You may need to bring a mallet to pound stakes into the hard frozen ground. If there is snow on the ground, the process for setting up camp is a bit different.
A few tips for setting up camp in the snow include:
- Look for a flat spot- If the snow is deep, it’s difficult to tell how flat the ground underneath is. Look for the flattest spot you can find.
- Pack the snow down- Use your snowshoes, skis, or boots to stomp down the snow where you plan to pitch your tent. Pack down an area that is a bit larger than your tent. This helps to create a smooth, flat surface to sleep on. Another benefit of packing down the snow is that your body heat doesn’t melt packed down snow as quickly as loose snow. You won’t wake up in a puddle. Packing down the snow also helps to prevent lumps or holes from forming under your tent as you move around because the snow is already compacted.
- Pitch your tent using snow stakes- Standard tent stakes don’t work well in the snow. They pull out too easily. Use specially designed snow stakes to secure your tent. These Ogrmar Aluminum Tent Stakes would work well. If you don’t have snow stakes, you can dig holes in the snow where you want your stakes. Bury your stakes in the holes and compact snow around them to hold them in place. If it’s really windy, you can achieve a stronger pitch by filling stuff sacks with snow, attaching them to your tent’s guy lines, and burying the stuff sacks where you want your tent staked. You can then compact the snow around the stuff sacks.
- Dig out your vestibule- Use a shovel or your hands to dig 2-3 feet down into the snow under your vestibule. Ideally, you want to be able to sit in your tent with your legs dangling down into the dug-out vestibule. This creates a patio area that makes it easier to get in and out of your tent. It also comes in handy when getting dressed. You can sit in your tent with your legs hanging down in the vestibule while you put your socks and boots on. The deep vestibule also creates more space for storing your gear. I have also heard that digging out your vestibule can help you stay a bit warmer by creating a hole for cold air to settle in. I don’t know if this is true or not.
- Build a snow wall around your tent- If you’re camping in a windy area and there is no natural windbreak nearby, consider building your own windbreak with snow. Use a shovel or your hands to pile up some snow around your tent. Use the snow that you dug out from under your vestibule. Compact the snow in your wall so the wind doesn’t blow it onto your tent. If the snow is very deep, dig down a foot or so before pitching your tent. This way, the snow around your tent acts as a wall. Having a wall around your tent blocks drafts and prevents wind from blowing in and removing heat. You’ll stay warmer as a result. When you make a snow wall, don’t seal your tent in too tight. You need ventilation so moisture can escape. If you pile too much snow right around the base of your tent, condensation can become an issue.
When Moving Around in your Tent Try to Distribute Your Weight Evenly
Leaning down on your knee or elbow puts most of your body weight on a high-pressure point. The snow underneath can compact further under your body weight. This creates holes, lumps, and dips under your tent. This can make your sleep surface uneven. If the snow underneath is deep and you didn’t compact it enough before setting up camp, you could even tear the floor of your tent.
The solution is to distribute your weight as much as possible when moving around in your tent. Try to stay on your sleeping pad. This spreads your weight over more surface area so you don’t sink in. Avoid leaning down on your knees or elbows directly against the tent floor. If you have to put your weight directly on the tent floor, sit on your bottom or lean on your hands. These body parts have a larger surface area and better distribute your weight. You only have to worry about this if the snow is deep.
Consider Building a Snow Shelter
If the snow is deep and you have lots of energy, consider building an igloo or quinzhee to sleep in instead of using a tent. This can be a fun shelter alternative. If you’re not experienced in building shelters, bring a tent just in case your shelter fails. Make sure your snow shelter is safe before sleeping in it.
Check out this guide to snow shelters for more info.
Build a Winter Kitchen
If you plan to stay at the same campsite for a couple of days or more, consider building a kitchen and dining area out of snow. This gives you a comfortable and sheltered place to cook, sit down, eat, and hang out. Building your winter kitchen also keeps you active and warm.
Make your snow kitchen as elaborate as you like. You can make a cooking surface, table, seating area, and even a refrigerator and storage area. You can also cover your kitchen for protection from the elements.
Start by choosing a site for your snow kitchen. Look for an area near your tent. Ideally, your kitchen should be protected on one side by a hill, trees, or a snowbank. This will block the wind, making it easier to cook. It will also keep you warmer. The area should also be flat.
Pack down the snow where you plan to build your kitchen. Dig down a couple of feet with your shovel to create footwells. Shape seats and a table by piling and compacting snow around the footwells. Flatten the tops of the seats and tables to make comfortable surfaces to sit and cook on.
Alternatively, you can compact snow and cut bricks with your shovel. You can use these to build seats and a table and walls. You can also dig out cubbies and an icebox for storing food. Get creative with it.
To finish your kitchen off, pitch a tarp or floorless tent over your new kitchen area to protect it from fresh snow and wind. Try to pitch your tarp high enough that you can stand in your kitchen. Place a sit pad or sleeping pad on your snow seats so your pants stay dry and your bottom stays warm while you sit.
To add a bit of ambiance to your kitchen, bring some lighting. String some LED lights from your tarp, set a lantern on your table, stick some candles in the snow and light them.
Practice Leave No Trace Principles While Winter Camping
During the winter, it’s important to follow leave no trace principles to avoid causing damage to the environment. A few important rules to follow when winter camping include:
- Camp and hike on the snow- Try to camp and hike on durable surfaces. If the snow is patchy, set up camp on snow instead of vegetation. When you’re hiking, stay on the snow or on the trail. You’re less likely to harm plant life this way. If you’re hiking and the trail is muddy, stay in the middle of the trail or walk on snow. This way, you don’t accidentally expand the trail or create new trails.
- Properly dispose of waste- Pack out all of your trash including food scraps and toilet paper. If regulations call for it, pack out human waste as well in plastic bags. If you don’t need to haul out human waste, dig a cat hole in the snow or dirt. Try to dig at least 8” deep. Go to the bathroom at least 200 feet from any water source and away from the trail.
- Keep your distance from wildlife- The winter is a difficult season for wildlife. Food is hard to come by and the cold weather takes its toll. You don’t want to scare animals and cause them to burn energy unnecessarily. If you spot wildlife, be careful not to scare them. Watch them and take photos from a distance. Never feed wild animals or leave food sitting around where they could access it.
- If you have a campfire, only burn dead wood that’s sitting on the ground- Don’t break limbs off of living, dead, or downed trees. This damages the trees and animal habitats. After you’re done with your fire, scatter the ashes after they cool off. Also, be sure to check the regulations before you make a campfire. If campfires are prohibited, don’t make one. If you can’t have a campfire, use your stove or a lantern.
- Don’t take anything with you- Leave rocks, plants, and animals where they are. If you need something to remember your trip by, take photos or create artwork about the landscape.
- Leave your campsite the way it was when you found it- If you built a snow shelter, windbreak, or kitchen, dismantle it before you leave camp. Try to make the area look as natural as possible when you leave, as if you were never there.
- Consider other hikers and campers- Share the trail and camping areas. Don’t make too much noise that could disturb others. Try to separate ski, snowshoe, and hiking tracks so people can use the trail for different activities. For example, don’t hike on ski tracks. This makes it difficult for skiers to use the trail. Allow others to pass if they’re faster than you. Yield to those traveling uphill.
For more leave no trace principles for winter camping, check out this guide from lnt.org.
Food and Cooking Tips for Winter Camping
During the winter, your body burns extra energy to keep your core temperature up. Your metabolic rate increases in the cold. You’ll also burn more energy while hiking through the snow. This is the case because the snow and your heavy boots create more resistance for your legs. Almost like you’re wearing ankle weights.
While winter camping, you’ll have to eat more throughout the day to sustain yourself. In this section, I’ll outline some important winter cooking tips to help you stay warm and energized during your winter camping trip.
Some food and cooking recommendations for winter camping include:
- Eat energy-dense foods- High-calorie foods will keep you energized longer. It’s also easier to eat enough calories when you eat energy dense foods because you don’t have to eat as great of volume of food. In addition, high calorie foods take longer to metabolize. Your body stays warmer while it’s digesting food. Foods with lots of carbs and fat are ideal. Some good energy dense foods to eat while winter camping include nuts, chocolate, oil, butter, cheese, pasta, dried meat, and energy bars.
- Eat hot meals- A hot meal is really satisfying after a long day out in the cold. If you have the time, a hot breakfast is a nice way to get the day going as well.
- Plan quick and simple meals- When it’s freezing out, you’re not going to want to spend time chopping veggies and washing dishes. The cold weather makes your fingers less dexterous, which makes cooking tedious and uncomfortable. While camping during the winter, cook meals that are quick and easy. Dehydrated meals work well because they only require boiling water. You can eat out of the pouch they come in so there is no cleanup. You can also pre-prepare foods at home. Chop up and pre cook your foods then package them in baggies and plastic containers so all you need to do is heat them up again.
- Eat extra calories- During the winter, your body burns more calories to keep you warm. You have to eat more than you’re used to. If you don’t have enough calories, you’ll start feeling cold. Most cold weather campers need to eat 3000-5000 calories per day depending on their body size and level of activity. Don’t be afraid to eat a second serving of pasta and a candy bar for dessert. You need all of the calories you can get.
- Eat dehydrated meals- Dehydrated meals are ideal for winter camping. All you need to do to prepare them is boil water. They are fast, hot, and surprisingly tasty. Cleanup is easy as well. You can buy dehydrated meals that are designed for camping. For some examples, check out these backpacking meals from REI. The drawback to these is that they’re kind of pricey. If you’re on a budget, you can cook more affordable dehydrated meals such as mac and cheese, instant rice, instant mashed potatoes, ramen, soup mixes, couscous, and instant oatmeal.
- Eat out of a deep bowl- This reduces the surface are of your food so it stays hot longer. On a cold winter day, your hot meal will get cold in just a couple of minutes. Oftentimes, I eat out of the pot that I cook in. The hot pot helps to keep my food warm longer. If my food gets cold, I can put it back on the fire for a couple of minutes to warm it back up again. I also try to eat fast.
- Take a short lunch break- Rather than stopping to cook, consider eating simple foods or snacks for lunch. Examples include sandwiches, energy bars and candy bars, nuts, jerky, chips, crackers, cheese, trail mix, fresh fruit, etc. You can prepare and eat these foods in a matter of minutes. You can even eat them on the go. The benefit of taking a short lunch break is that you won’t cool down too much. If you allow yourself to cool down, it can be difficult to get warmed up again. Your joints and muscles can stiffen up and your damp clothing can get cold.
- Eat comfort foods- While winter camping, you will feel miserable at times. The cold will get to you. During these times, eating some comfort food can really boost morale. Examples of comfort food include chocolate, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and jerky. Comfort food is different for everyone.
- Store your food securely- One nice thing about camping during the winter is that you usually don’t have to worry about bears getting into your food because they’re in hibernation. Insects also die off or go into hiding during the winter so you don’t have to worry about them either. Unfortunately, there are still some critters that will eat your food if you leave it out. For example, foxes and raccoons are out during the winter. To keep your food safe, store it away in your backpack, hang it from a bear hang, store it in your car if you’re car camping, or store it in a bear box if available. It’s a good idea to pack a dry sack and rope so you can hang your food from a tree if you have no other option. Before your trip, check for food storage regulations. In some areas, you may be required to use a bear canister.
- Keep foods warm to prevent them from freezing- Some foods can freeze and become inedible if they get too cold. For example, energy bars are hard to eat when they freeze. To prevent your food from freezing, store it in your pockets.
Water and Drinks for Winter Camping
During the winter, it’s easier to get dehydrated. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you don’t notice your sweat as much because you’re wearing more clothing. You lose a lot of moisture from your body without noticing. Your thirst also naturally decreases when you’re cold. Drinking cold water on a cold winter day also isn’t too appealing. For these reasons, it’s easy to get dehydrated while winter camping.
You’ll want to be sure to hydrate regularly to keep your body performing the best it can. The following tips will help you stay warm and hydrated while winter camping.
- Make yourself drink- To prevent dehydration, force yourself to sip on water throughout the day. Alternatively, schedule hydration breaks every couple of hours and take a big drink. Set an alarm on your watch or phone if you need to. It’s important to keep drinking, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
- Make hot drinks- Hot drinks warm you up and provide hydration. Make yourself coffee, tea, hot chocolate, hot apple cider, how water with lemon, or some kind of broth to sip on. Boil some extra water whenever you cook and make yourself a hot drink when melting snow for drinking water. You’re boiling water during these times anyway.
- Bring a thermos- A quality thermos can keep a beverage hot all day. Sip on your hot drink throughout the day. This can warm you from the inside and help to keep you hydrated.
- Use water bottles instead of a water bladder- For winter camping, water bottles are preferable because they take longer to freeze. Water bladders can work well. Your body heat prevents the water from freezing when the bladder is in your backpack next to your back. The problem with water bladders is that the drinking tube can easily freeze up and prevent you from drinking. If this happens, you’ll have to remove the bladder from your pack and pour the water into a bottle or find a way to thaw the tube out. You can buy insulated drinking tubes for water bladders. If the weather is very cold, use an insulated water bottle to prevent your water from freezing.
- Avoiding drinking alcohol- Drinking alcohol causes your blood vessels to expand. When this happens, blood travels from your core into your extremities. At first, you’ll feel warm. The problem is that the expanding blood vessels allow more heat to leave your body. After the buzz wears off, you’ll feel colder than you were before. Wait until you’re back home or in a warm restaurant or bar if you want to drink.
Melt Snow for Drinking Water
During the winter, many water sources freeze over. Small streams often get covered in snow. This makes it impossible to collect liquid water. In this case, you’ll have to melt snow for drinking water.
To melt snow for drinking water:
- Collect some fresh, white, and clean snow- Make sure there are no signs of animals nearby. If the snow has been sitting for a while, scrape off the dirty top layer to access clean snow underneath.
- Boil a bit of water in the bottom of your pot- Around a cup of water works well. This protects your pot from damage. If you don’t add water before you add snow, you risk scorching your pot or burning a hole in the bottom of your pot. A scorched pot can make your water taste funny. If you burn a hole in your pot, it becomes useless.
- Slowly add snow to the boiling water- Try to add the snow in powder form. It will melt quickly when it’s not compacted. As the snow melts, keep adding more. Wait for the water to come to a boil to ensure that it’s safe to drink. Boiling the water kills viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Try to melt enough to fill all of your bottles. This way, you only have to mess with melting snow once or twice per day. It’s kind of an annoying and time-consuming task. I like to carry two 2 liter water bottles. This usually lasts me all day.
For winter camping, the average person needs 3-4 liters of water per day. This should be enough for drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth. If you’re hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing, you’ll need around ½-1 liter of water for every hour that you’re being active.
For more in-depth instructions on melting snow for water, check out this guide.
Don’t Let Your Water Freeze
If you’re camping in below-freezing conditions, you’ll have to take some precautions to prevent your water from freezing. Particularly during the night. If all of your water freezes, you’ll have to stop, get out your stove, and melt it. This is a time-consuming and annoying job if all of your bottles are frozen solid. It also takes a lot of fuel to melt a big chunk of ice.
To help prevent your water from freezing, use insulated bottles or place thermal wraps on your bottles. You can buy insulated bottle holders or make your own.
When you’re hiking or snowshoeing, store the bottles in your pack near your body. You could also carry the bottles in your jacket pockets. Your body heat will prevent the water from freezing.
During the night, take the bottles into your tent with you. If the weather is around freezing or just below, your body heat should keep the tent interior warm enough to prevent the water from freezing. Store your bottles upside down. This helps to prevent the top from getting frozen on because water freezes from the top down. Be sure the lid is on tight if you do this so the bottles don’t leak.
If you expect temperatures well below freezing, bring your water bottles into your sleeping bag with you so they don’t freeze. If you have to do this, make sure they’re sealed up tight so they don’t leak. The last thing you want is a wet sleeping bag on a cold night.
Consider carrying a single wall stainless steel bottle with a wide mouth. You can throw this in your campfire or set it on your camp stove to melt the ice if your water freezes. The wide mouth makes the bottle easy to fill with snow if you need to melt snow to drink.
Avalanche Safety Equipment for Winter Camping
An avalanche is probably the most deadly hazard you could encounter during a winter camping trip. If you plan to camp in an area where avalanches are a risk, you’ll want to pack the appropriate avalanche safety gear.
The three most important pieces of gear for camping in an avalanche zone include:
- Avalanche transceiver- This device emits a signal that other avalanche transceivers can pick up. Rescuers use their transceiver to search for people buried in the snow. You’ll want to make sure you know how to use your transceiver before you go camping in an area where avalanches are a risk. This requires some training and practice. This Backcountry Access Tracker3 Avalanche Transceiver would be a good choice. It offers a real-time display.
- Avalanche probe- A probe is a collapsible pole that usually measures about 10 feet long. Along the pole are depth markings. This pole is used to probe the snow to search for avalanche victims who are trapped.
- Shovel- When camping in a snowy area, you should always pack a shovel. You can use your shovel to dig an avalanche victim out. You an also use it to prepare your tent site, collect snow to melt for drinking water, and to make a snow shelter or kitchen. It’s an essential tool for winter camping. This Yukon Charlie’s Collapsible Shovel would work well.
If someone in your group falls victim to an avalanche, you will first use your transceiver to find their general location. Next, you’ll use the probe to find their exact location. You’ll then use your shovel to dig them out.
If you’re camping in an area where avalanches are common, also consider bringing:
- Inflatable backpack- These are backpacks with a large inflatable section on top. If you get trapped in an avalanche, you pull a cord and the airbag quickly inflates. This is designed to prevent you from being buried in snow during an avalanche by allowing you to ‘float’ on top of the snow. The airbag makes you bigger and more buoyant. Wearing an inflatable avalanche backpack can increase your chance of survival by as much as 50%.
- Avalung- This is a device that pulls breathable air out of the snowpack. This prevents you from suffocating if you get buried deep in snow. This way, you’ll have more time for rescuers to find you and dig you out.
- First aid kit- If you fall victim to a minor avalanche, you might get a bit banged up. You can use your first aid kit to patch yourself up. A first aid kit comes in handy for other minor injuries as well such as scratches, burns, and cuts. Even if you’re not camping in an avalanche area, you should carry a first aid kit.
- RECCO reflectors- This is a passive transponder that can help rescuers find you if you’re buried in the snow. This technology is integrated in many pieces of outdoor clothing and gear such as jackets, boots, and backpacks.
- Cell phone- If there is cell reception where you’re camping, you may be able to call for help if you get injured or even buried by an avalanche.
Before your trip, you’ll want to take some time to learn about avalanche safety. You want to learn how to identify and avoid areas that have avalanche risk. You also need to learn how to use the above listed avalanche safety gear. Using the above gear isn’t complicated but it does require some knowledge and practice.
Consider taking an avalanche awareness class before you go winter camping. You’ll also want to check the avalanche forecast before your trip. These aren’t 100% accurate but they can help you avoid potentially risky areas.
For more in-depth info on avalanche safety, check out this great guide.
Learn Winter Navigation
During the winter, it’s easier to get lost. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, everything looks different when it’s covered in snow. Your favorite campsite that you’ve stayed in dozens of times can appear unrecognizable. Next, the snow can cover features that you use to navigate with. For example, a couple of inches of snow can completely cover the trail. Trail markers such as cairns and signs can also be covered in snow. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get lost during the winter.
If you plan on hiking to your campsite, be sure to bring a map, compass, and GPS. Learn how to read a map and use a compass. It can also be helpful to keep track of your pacing. If you’re not confident in your navigation skills, don’t hike in. Go car camping instead.
Accessories for Walking on Snow and Ice: Snowshoes, Skis, Snowboards, Crampons, and Sleds
If the snow is just a few inches deep, you can easily hike through it in your hiking boots. While walking on slippery compact snow and ice, you may want to wear crampons. If the snow is deep, you’ll need some type of device to prevent you from sinking in. It’s incredibly difficult to walk through 3 feet of snow. Snowshoes and skis distribute your weight across more surface area. This allows you to ‘float’ on top of the surface. You can travel much more efficiently this way. If you have to carry a lot of gear, you might consider pulling a sled.
In this section, I’ll outline some accessories that can make walking around on the snow and ice a bit easier.
- Crampons- These are traction devices that attach to your boots with straps. Crampons have metal spikes sticking out of the bottoms and sides. These dig into the snow and ice as you walk to give you more traction. This allows you to safely walk over slippery surfaces. You’ll need crampons while hiking on treacherous icy paths.
- Ice ax- An ice ax can be embedded into ice or snow for extra traction. This is helpful while walking on steep and slippery surfaces that are covered in deep snow and ice. You can also use your ice ax to prevent yourself from sliding if you lose your footing and start to slip down a hill. Ice axes are traditionally used for mountaineering. They can come in handy while hiking as well.
- Snowshoes- These are designed specifically for walking over deep, soft snow. They have a large footprint that spreads your weight over more surface area so you don’t sink in. Snowshoes attach to your boots with adjustable bindings. These are a great option for those who are not interested in skiing. They are also great for beginners because snowshoeing is very similar to hiking. It doesn’t take much time to learn to snowshoe. For more info, check out this great guide to snowshoeing.
- Skis- For gentle, rolling terrain, cross country skis are a great way to get around. They distribute your weight and prevent you from sinking into the deep snow. If you’re planning on traveling over steep terrain, you may be better off with backcountry skis. Skis allow you to travel more efficiently because you don’t burn as much energy while descending hills. Gravity pulls you down the hill.
- Snowboard- You can carry both a snowboard and snowshoes. Snowboard down descents and wear snowshoes while traveling uphill. You can carry your snowboard or snowshoes by strapping them to your backpack. Splitboards are also an option. These are snowboards that split in half lengthwise into skis. You can use these skis to climb hills. Once you reach the top, you can put them together and snowboard down.
- Sled- If you’re planning a long trip or if you need to carry lots of gear, consider pulling a sled. You can store gear in the sled instead of on your back and efficiently slide it along the surface of the snow. This reduces weight on your back. You can attach the sled to ropes and attach these to your waist so you can pull your sled hands-free. Sleds work best for flat and gently rolling terrain that isn’t too dense. If the terrain is steep or if the trail is narrow, you may have trouble pulling your sled.
- Trekking poles/ski poles- Trekking poles help to keep you stable while hiking on slippery or uneven terrain. They give you two extra contact points with the ground that you can use to keep yourself balanced. They also make descending hills easier on your knees. Your upper body can absorb some of the impacts. Trekking poles come in handy for hiking and snowshoeing. If you’re skiing, you’ll need ski poles to help you balance. For more info, check out my guide to trekking poles and my guide to trekking pole materials.
Cold Injuries: How to Prevent Frostbite and Hypothermia While Winter Camping
During the winter, you expose yourself to dangerously cold weather. If you’re not careful, the cold could cause permanent damage to your body. Extreme cold can also kill.
Cold injuries that you could experience while winter camping include:
- Hypothermia- Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops and your body can’t warm itself back up again.
- Frostbite- Frostbite occurs when tissue freezes. The freezing causes damage to the tissue.
- Frostnip- Frostnip is a mild form of frostbite.
- Chilblains- Chilblains are inflammation of blood vessels that are caused by exposure to cold, dry air.
- Immersion foot/trench foot- Immersion foot or trench foot occurs when your feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions for a long period of time.
A few ways to avoid these cold injuries include:
- Know the symptoms of cold injuries- If you know what to look out for, you can better avoid injury. Frostbite and frostnip start with a pins and needles feeling in your skin, throbbing, then numbness. Hypothermia starts with shivering and tiredness then confusion sets in. Immersion foot /trench foot symptoms include a tingling or itchy feeling in your feet, swelling, pain, and numbness. Chilblains start with itchy and red areas on the skin and can progress to blistering. If you sense any of the above symptoms, stop immediately and treat your condition. Mild cold injuries are easily treatable. If you let them go too long, you could cause a permanent injury such as tissue loss. You could also die.
- Pay special attention to high-risk parts of your body- Some parts of your body are more susceptible to frostbite and frostnip than others. The most common places to develop frostbite include your fingers, toes, ears, nose, cheeks, chin, and lips. Chilblains commonly occur on the fingers. Immersion foot affects on your feet. Keep these areas warm and dry. Wear warm and waterproof gloves and boots to keep your fingers and toes warm and dry. Wear a face mask to keep your head and face warm.
- Keep your body at a comfortable temperature- It’s easier to stay warm than it is to warm up if you get too cold. Regulate your body temperature by adding or removing layers of clothing as necessary. You want to stay warm enough that you feel comfortable. You don’t want to get too warm and sweat. It is also possible to warm up by increasing the intensity of your activity. If you’re hiking and feel cold, hike a bit faster. Slow down if you get too hot. Regulating your body temperature helps you avoid hypothermia.
- Don’t sweat too much- Sweat moistens your clothes. When you stop moving, your body temperature decreases and the sweat starts to cool down. When a gust of wind hits you the sweat rapidly evaporates. Evaporative cooling chills you. If you don’t have any dry clothes to change into, your body temperature can drop quickly. This can lead to hypothermia. Avoid this by trying not to sweat too much and by keeping your clothes dry. If you get too hot, stop and remove a layer of clothing. When you feel yourself starting to sweat, lower the intensity of your activity and give your body a chance to cool down. Try to dry out your clothing whenever you have the chance. Dry your clothes in the sun or by your campfire.
- Keep your feet dry- Some cold injuries, such as trench foot/immersion foot, are caused by moisture. Water absorbs into the skin. This can lead to the skin breaking down and becoming infected. These injuries usually happen in above freezing temperatures. To prevent these types of injuries, keep your feet dry. Wear waterproof boots. Change your socks frequently. Take breaks during the day to dry your feet out. Try to dry your boots and socks out at night.
- Don’t try to push through the cold or pain- If a body part starts feeling cold, numb, or painful, don’t ignore it. Take the time to check yourself out and warm up. Move the affected part around to get some blood flowing. Use air-activated hand warmers to warm back up. Add a layer of clothing. When your hands are cold, try placing them under your arms to warm them up. When your feet are cold, stop and rub them and add a second layer of socks. If your condition gets worse, end your trip early and go home. Don’t try to push through the cold or you could end up with a cold injury. Mild cold injuries are treatable. Severe cold injuries can cause permanent damage. There is no reason to push through discomfort. You’re camping for fun.
- Keep an eye on your friends- Watch your friends as they walk. If they look a bit unstable or wobbly, they may be showing signs of hypothermia. Listen to them talk. If they sound confused or say something odd, this could also be a sign of hypothermia. In this case, make them stop and put another layer on to warm up. Also, keep an eye on your friend’s exposed skin. If you spot any red spots or pale spots, make them cover up to prevent frostbite. Also, ask your friends how they’re doing every once in a while. Make sure they’re comfortable and not too cold. If one member of your group starts getting too cold, stop and make sure they get warmed up before you carry on.
- Carry a mylar emergency blanket- These specialty blankets trap about 90% of your radiated body heat. This can keep you warm in an emergency situation. If you start showing signs of hypothermia, wrap your emergency blanket around yourself to warm up. Emergency blankets are extremely compact and lightweight. You should always carry one while camping. It could save your life. These Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets would work well.
For more in-depth info on cold injuries, check out this guide from the US National Library of Medicine.
Don’t Let Your Gear Freeze
Some gear can get damaged if it freezes. Some items simply become unusable when they freeze. To prevent gear from freezing, bring it into your sleeping bag while you sleep and store it in your pockets around camp. Use your body heat to keep your gear warm.
Some items that you don’t want to freeze include:
- Water filter- Your water filter can crack and become unusable if water freezes inside of it. This happens because water expands when it freezes. Put your water filter in a plastic bag so it doesn’t leak and store it in your sleeping bag while you sleep.
- Toiletries- Some toiletries such as toothpaste, contact lens solution, sunblock, soaps, certain medications, etc. can freeze. Store these items in your sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing. Another option is to pack non-freezable alternatives, such as toothpaste tablets.
- Batteries- Cold temperatures drain batteries. If you leave your fully charged phone on your tent floor, it might not even power on in the morning because the battery will be dead. When you’re not using your electronic devices, store them in your sleeping bag or jacket pocket to keep the batteries warm. You’ll want to do this with your phone, GPS, camera, smartwatch, headlamp, and spare batteries. Some sleeping bags even come with a pocket for your phone and other devices. If possible, try to use lithium batteries instead of alkaline. Lithium batteries handle cold temperatures better.
- Foods- Some foods are not edible or are hard to eat when they’re frozen. For example, energy bars get hard. Store them in your pockets to keep them soft.
- Fuel- Some types of fuel become hard to light when they get too cold. Warm the fuel up in your pocket before you use it.
Winter Camping Bathroom Tips
It’s important to check the regulations regarding using the bathroom where you’re camping. Many wilderness areas require that you pack your waste out. This is often necessary during the winter because you can’t dig down into the dirt to bury your waste because the ground is covered in snow. If this is the case, be sure to pack some plastic toilet bags. These bags are specially designed for the purpose. They are spill-proof and odor-proof.
If you are permitted to leave human waste where you’re camping and there is no snow, try to dig a hole in the dirt at least 8 inches deep and bury your waste. When the ground is frozen, roll a rock over, go to the bathroom, then roll the rock back.
If you need to go to the bathroom on deep snow, try to find a place at least 200 feet from any water source or trail. Look for a place that water will not flow or pool up when the snow melts. If the snow is deep and soft, stamp around a bit to compact the snow. This creates a platform for you to stand on while you go. After you’re done, pile some snow on top of your waste.
It’s a good idea to pack out your toilet paper when you go to the bathroom in the snow. If you just leave it there, it creates a big mess when the snow melts. Be sure to bring an extra bag for storing toilet paper, sanitary wipes, etc.
Try to avoid getting up in the night to go to the bathroom. When you get up in the night, your sleeping bag cools off. You’ll have to burn energy to warm back up again. If it’s really cold, you may never be able to get warmed back up again. To avoid this, stop drinking an hour or so before going to bed and go to the bathroom right before getting in your tent.
If you have to go to the bathroom during the night, you should go. Don’t hold it. Your body wastes energy keeping your pee warm. This makes it harder to stay warm if you hold it. If it’s extremely cold and you don’t think you’ll be able to get warmed back up again, stay in your tent and pee in a bottle.
For more bathroom tips, check out this guide.
If you’re Inexperienced, Go Winter Camping with a Guide
If you really want to experience winter camping but you don’t have the time or desire to learn all of the ins and outs, you can hire a guide to take you or join a guided tour. The guide will handle all of the planning, gear, meals, transportation, permits, and more. All you have to do is enjoy the trip.
Going with a guide brings peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or wandering into an avalanche zone because the guide knows the area. The guide will also know what kind of gear to bring so you stay warm and dry. A good guide will also be familiar with first aid and dealing with cold injuries. Going with a guide is the safest way to experience winter camping.
A Few More Winter Camping Tips
- Eat a snack to warm up- The process of digestion raises your body temperature slightly. When you’re feeling cold, eat a snack to help you warm up.
- Before going to bed, eat a snack- This will help you warm up your sleeping bag a bit faster and stay warmer during the night. Try to eat food with protein or fat before going to bed. Your body process these slowly so you’ll stay warm longer.
- Do a bit of exercise before going to bed- If you’re cold when you crawl into your sleeping bag, you’ll stay cold all night. Doing a bit of exercise before going to bed increases your body temperature. This helps you warm up your sleeping bag faster. After you’re warmed up, climb into your sleeping bag and zip it up to trap the heat that you’ve created. You’ll warm up much faster and stay warm all night. Don’t exercise to the point that you begin to sweat. Just do a few jumping jacks, squats, lunges, push-ups, sit-ups, or jog in place.
- Change into clean and dry clothes to sleep- If you sleep in dirty or damp clothes, sweat, body oils, moisture, and dirt can transfer from your clothes into your sleeping bag over time. This moisture and dirt reduce the insulating power of your sleeping bag by preventing it from lofting properly. When the down feathers get dirty or wet, they clump together and can’t trap as much heat. Keep your sleeping bag clean and warm by wearing clean clothes to bed. Wear clean long underwear and socks. Consider packing one pair of clothing that you wear only when sleeping. Keep these clothes as clean and dry as possible.
- Properly store your gear before going to bed- An unexpected snowstorm during the night could cover your gear. For example, if your skis, snowshoes, or shovel are sitting flat on the ground, a few inches of snow could bury them and make them impossible to find in the morning. Heavy wind could also blow some of your gear away. Keep your gear secure by storing everything in your tent or in your vestibule. Prop large items, like your skis or snowshoes, up against a tree so they don’t get covered in snow.
- Tie loops of cord to your zippers- This allows you to operate your zippers without having to remove your gloves or mittens.
- Elevate your feet- Sleep with your backpack under your legs. This elevates your feet, which reduces swelling and helps with circulation. This can help you recover after a long day of hiking or snowshoeing. Your pack also provides a bit of extra insulation for your legs and feet.
- Use your gear for extra insulation- Consider placing your waterproof gear under or around your sleeping pad. This can also provide a bit of extra insulation from the cold ground. If your sleeping bag is roomy, bring some extra clothing in the bag with you to fill up empty space. Don’t bring any damp gear inside. Only dry gear.
- Cover the floor space in your tent- To reduce heat transfer into the cold ground, cover the floor of your tent with your backpack, boots, clothes, and whatever other gear you have. This provides a bit of extra insulation. The interior temperature of your tent will stay a bit warmer. To prevent punctures or tears, don’t bring anything sharp into your tent such as crampons or an ice ax.
- Make a hot water bottle- Heat some water on your stove, fill a bottle with hot water, screw the lid on tight, and take your hot water bottle into your sleeping bag with you. The bottle will keep you warm well into the night. Hold the bottle near your stomach or between your legs to increase your core temperature or place it in the foot of your sleeping bag to warm up your toes. A Nalgene bottle works well for this. When making your hot water bottle, make sure the water isn’t too hot so you don’t burn yourself or melt your sleeping bag. Metal bottles can get too hot. Also, make sure the top is screwed on tight so the bottle doesn’t leak and wet your sleeping bag.
- Bring your boots inside your tent with you- Your boots will stay slightly warmer if you store them inside your tent. They’ll feel more comfortable when you put them on in the morning.
- Don’t bring anything that’s too wet into your tent- If some of your clothing got wet, leave it in your vestibule. Bringing wet gear inside introduces moisture into your tent. This moisture can evaporate during the night and condense on your tent walls. It can either freeze on the walls and build up or turn to water and drip down on you. For more info, check out my guide to reducing condensation while camping.
- Don’t bring anything wet into your sleeping bag- You may feel tempted to bring damp gear into your sleeping bag to dry it out with your body heat. The problem with doing this is that it will introduce moisture into your sleeping bag. This moisture causes the insulation in your sleeping bag to clump, which reduces loft. You’ll end up getting colder. Only wear dry clothing in your sleeping bag.
- Carry a sit pad or use your foam sleeping pad to sit on- Sitting down on the snow can make your pants wet and make your bottom cold. To stay warm and dry, sit on a sit pad or your sleeping pad. While you’re cooking, consider standing on your sit pad or sleeping pad. It will provide a bit of extra insulation from the cold ground. Your feet will stay warmer.
Final Thoughts About Winter Camping
The winter season can offer some excellent camping. Snow creates a beautiful atmosphere. Sleeping in a tent on a quiet snowy night is incredibly cozy. Campgrounds and hiking trails are also much less crowded during the winter season. Chances are you’ll have the place to yourself. The air is also crisp and clean. With the right gear, the experience can be magical.
Of course, there are some risks of winter camping. You have to be prepared so you stay warm, dry, and safe. Pack the proper clothing and gear for the harsh weather conditions you’re likely to encounter. Take some time to learn about winter navigation, avalanches, and cold injuries. To say safe, you need to take some time to learn how to camp during the winter. Hopefully, this guide helps you have a warm and safe winter camping trip.
Do you camp during the winter? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.