Looking to go winter camping, but don’t know where to start?
Worry not, you’re in the right place.
When most people think of camping, they think of sunny skies, warm weather, and stunning wildflowers. However, camping during the colder months of the year can be one of the most fun and rewarding ways to spend time in the great outdoors.
That being said, if you’ve never gone winter camping before, you might feel a little apprehensive about the whole process. From staying warm in frigid temperatures to pitching camp for the night, camping in the winter can seem like a daunting task.
Thankfully, we’re here to help.
Up next, we’ll take you step-by-step through everything you need to know to plan and enjoy your wintertime outdoor adventures. We’ll offer you some top tips for making the most of any cold-weather getaway so you can experience the magic of winter in the mountains first hand.
Chapter 1: Winter Camping Basics
What Is Winter Camping?
First things first, what even is winter camping?
Well, as the name suggests, winter camping is any camping trip that happens in the winter months. Super descriptive, we know.
The fact of the matter is that there’s multiple types of winter camping. While all of them involve sleeping outside in reasonably cold temperatures, there are notable differences that you should know about. Here are the main types of winter camping that you might be interested in:
Cold Weather Camping
Any camping trip that takes place in a cold, yet-snow free (or minimal snow) environment can be considered “cold weather camping.” These trips are often easier to plan for because you only need to focus on staying warm.
Since there’s no snow (or very little snow) on the ground, you can set up camp and go about your outdoor activities as you normally would, you just need to pack some extra clothing layers.
Treeline Winter Camping
If you’re expecting cold, snowy conditions on your camping trip, but you don’t plan to pitch your tent in an open, exposed area, you’re likely “treeline winter camping.” The key point here is that you’ll be camping in a forested area with plenty of snow and cold weather.
This is the most common type of winter camping, so it’s what we’ll focus on in this article when we talk about “winter camping.” Conditions during treeline winter camping trips can be very cold and snowy, but you’re often not exposed to exceptional amounts of wind, like you would be while winter mountaineering.
During a winter mountaineering trip, you normally camp well above treeline in an exposed, alpine environment. These trips often involve lots of snow and cold temperatures, but the real concern is high winds.
Winter mountaineering is best for experienced backpackers and climbers who have quite a few winter camping trips under their belt.
If you love winter camping and want to try winter mountaineering, we recommend hiring a guide service or taking a course with a local outdoor school to learn the ropes before heading out on your own. And maybe after that, you can use that knowledge and be an outdoor guide yourself.
The Benefits of Winter Camping
Most people who go camping in the summer never even think about planning a winter camping trip (it’s just so cold!). But, while we can’t deny that winter camping is snowy and cold, there are a whole bunch of reasons why it’s a fantastic way to spend your time. Here’s why:
- Fewer People. Since relatively few people go camping in the winter when compared to the summer, winter camping is a great option for people that like solitude in the outdoors. Even the most popular of summertime trails will see relatively little foot traffic during the winter months, giving you the perfect conditions to truly enjoy your time outside.
- No Bugs. Did we mention that there are no bugs? Yep, that’s right, no mosquitos, ticks, flies, no-see-ums, or midges to bother you during the winter. Although no one wants to be cold, that fresh winter chill does keep the bugs at bay so you can leave the DEET at home and just relax while in camp.
- Snow-Covered Vistas. While snow might be a bit annoying if you have to shovel it out of your driveway, when it turns your campsite into a winter wonderland overnight, you’ll be happy you slept under the stars. Plus, who doesn’t love building snowmen, skiing, or just hanging out in the snow in their spare time?
Key Considerations For Winter Camping
Sleeping outdoors in cold, snowy conditions for the first time can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. The good news is, that with the right preparation, you can thrive during your upcoming winter camping trip.
To get you started, here are some of the most important things you should keep in mind when deciding if winter camping is right for you.
While most people who get into winter camping are already fairly experienced summertime campers, there’s no requirement that you be a grizzled survivalist to enjoy the great outdoors in the winter.
That being said, your personal experience level will dictate what kinds of winter camping trips are right for you.
For example, someone who is very comfortable outside might find that they’re happy with planning a 4-day winter backpacking trip for their first winter adventure. On the other hand, if you’re new to camping, you might decide that a 1-night trip is a good starting point.
But, in general, it’s best to ease into winter camping, giving yourself plenty of time to learn new systems for staying warm and comfortable in the cold.
Mode Of Travel: Ski/Splitboard Or Snowshoe
In the summer months, you can lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail. In the winter, however, deep snowpacks make hiking just in boots fairly impractical.
Although you could take to the trail in just your boots, you’ll probably find that you’ll quickly sink into the snow, making your forward progress slow and exhausting. Thus, when planning a winter camping trip, you’ll often have to decide whether you want to ski/split board or snowshoe.
For folks who don’t feel comfortable on skis or a split board, the choice is straightforward. If you do know how to ski, you’ll have to decide if your proposed itinerary and location is suitable for skiing.
In general, very steep, rocky, and heavily forested trails are less appropriate for skiing, while alpine terrain is preferred.
Avalanche Safety Knowledge & Gear
Regardless of if you plan to ski or snowshoe, avalanches are a real danger in the winter months. Depending on where you plan to camp, you may or may not be in an avalanche-prone area.
If you’re not sure whether your camping area is in avalanche terrain, contact local land managers or guide services for some more information. Anyone that plans to travel in avalanche terrain should seriously consider taking an avalanche rescue course to learn the basics of mitigating avalanche risk.
Moreover, anyone camping in avalanche terrarium should have the appropriate gear with them at all times, including a transceiver, shovel, and probe.
Hypothermia & Frostbite
When winter camping, hypothermia and frostbite are top concerns. Toward the end of this article, we’ll offer some top tips for staying warm in the cold. But, staving off hypothermia and frostbite should be at the back of your mind at all times.
Doing so involves eating enough food, bringing the proper gear, and staying attentive for early warning signs of hypothermia and frostbite. We highly recommend taking a wilderness first aid course to learn more about these serious and potentially life-threatening conditions.
Chapter 2: Planning A Winter Camping Trip
The very first step in planning a winter camping trip is deciding how long your trip is going to be. As we’ve mentioned, part of this will come down to your personal experience level.
However, it’s generally best to start out with a shorter trip for your first winter camping adventure. Usually a 1-3 night overnight is a good place to begin, as this gives you the chance to test out different systems and techniques so you can find a way to stay comfortable in the cold.
Once you master the short winter camping overnight, you can start to think about going on longer trips of 5-7 days. With lots of experience under your belt, trips that are longer than 1 week are certainly possible, but they require a decent amount of skill to pull off without a hitch.
As soon as you have a general idea of how long you want your trip to be, it’s time to decide on a destination.
For the first few winter camping trips, it’s best to pick a location and route that:
- You’re familiar with
- Is fairly close to the road
- Has campsites that are only 3-6 miles apart
- Features moderate terrain
- Is relatively easy to navigate
- Doesn’t require you to cross a river or stream
Doing so can help ensure that you have a straightforward, casual camping trip that you can enjoy. Of course, there will certainly be some hiccups along the way, but starting with a friendly, familiar camping location is a great way to get started.
After you complete a few winter trips and build up your skills in more moderate terrain, then it’s worth branching out and venturing into more remote areas where you can really get out and explore.
Having the right gear is absolutely essential for winter camping. Without it, you might find yourself unprepared for the potentially extreme conditions you might face.
That being said, the gear that you’ll pack for winter camping basically takes your standard camping gear checklist to the next level. You’ll need pretty much everything that you’d normally bring on a summertime camping trip, and then some extra specialized gear.
If you want guidance on what to pack for a summer camping trip, check out our ultimate camping checklist to get started. Once you understand the basic gear you need for the outdoors, it’s time to focus on all the extra gear considerations you’ll need to master for a winter adventure.
So, here’s some background on some of the unique pieces of gear you’ll often take on a winter camping trip.
Winter Camping/4-Season Tents
For the most part, your standard 3 season tent is not appropriate for winter camping. Although there are some strong summer tents out there, they are generally not designed to withstand the pressures of high winds and extreme snow loads, like what you might experience in the winter.
There are plenty of 4 season tents out there to choose from, though keep in mind that these are often heavier and more expensive than 3 season alternatives. Also, it’s worth investing in a model that’s slightly bigger than you might need (e.g., a 4 person tent for a 3 person trip), because you’ll have a lot of gear with you in the tent.
Sleds & Backpacks
When summer camping, you can normally fit everything you need inside a backpack. Depending on the length of your winter camping trip, however, you may need to invest in a sled to carry some of your gear.
Sleds make it much easier to travel with large amounts of winter gear, so they’re worth considering for longer trips. Keep in mind that pulling a heavy sled is quite exhausting, so it’s worth practicing at home before your first trip.
Winter Camping Footwear
Keeping your feet warm and dry is critical while winter camping, so having the right boots is a must. Here’s what you need to know:
- Skiers & Spliboarders. If you’re planning on skiing or splitboarding, you’ll want to look for a pair of touring ski or snowboard boots. Ideally, your boots will have an outer shell and an inner liner. That way, you can keep the liner boots in your tent with you at night to keep them warm.
- Consider Mountaineering Boots. For snowshoers, we strongly recommend investing in a solid pair of winter mountaineer boots for trips in very snowy locales. While winter hiking books are okay for a very short trip with minimal snow, they’re nowhere near as warm as mountaineering boots. Again, a pair of double boots (with a liner and a shell) is preferred. Moreover, consider checking the Thinsulate rating of your hiking boots and choose probably 400 grams or 800 grams depending on the temperature of where you are camping.
- Bring Camp Booties. Once you get to camp, you’ll want to take off your bulky boots. To do so, it’s worth getting a pair of puffy down or synthetic booties to keep your feet warm in camp. Consider investing in overbooties to prevent your puffy booties from getting soaked in the snow.
We’ll go over how to layer for winter camping in a bit, but when you’re packing your gear, be sure to bring more warm clothing and waterproof layers than you think you need. Pack enough clothing so that you can be warm while sitting around camp in normal weather conditions, plus 2 more layers, just in case the weather turns sour.
Also, don’t neglect the importance of having plenty of extra gloves, hats, heated socks, and heated insoles.
Gloves, in particular, tend to get soaked quite easily in the snow. As a general rule, you should have at least 2-4 pairs of liner gloves and 2-3 pairs of warm gloves, and 1-2 pairs of shell gloves to keep your hands warm and dry.
Winter Sleeping Bags
Choosing the right sleeping bag is a major consideration for any winter camping trip. Choose a bag that’s not warm enough, and you might have a lot of difficulty sleeping at night.
In general, you should look for a sleeping bag that’s at least 10ºF (5.6ºC) warmer than the coldest temperatures you expect to face at night. Here are some other things to consider when it comes to winter camping sleeping bags:
- Be Cautious With Down. Down is a fan favorite for summertime camping because it has a great warmth to weight ratio. However, down has 0 insulating value when wet, which is problematic in the winter months. While we’re not going to tell you not to use a down sleeping bag while winter camping, synthetic models are generally better.
- Consider Waterproof Models. These days, there are a few different companies that make winter sleeping bags that have a completely waterproof outer shell fabric. Although these are heavier and more expensive, if you plan to camp in a snow shelter where getting wet is unavoidable, they can make a big difference in your comfort level.
- Opt For a Sleeping Bag Liner. In truly cold conditions, a sleeping bag liner can add a bit of warmth to your bag. If things are really, really chilly, you can often stuff a 40ºF (4.4ºC) sleeping bag inside your winter model for even more insulation.
Sleeping pads do more than just keep you comfortable – they also insulate you from the cold ground.
When deciding what sleeping pad to take on your winter camping adventures, take a good look at the sleeping pad’s R-value. Put simply, an R-value is a measure of how insulated a sleeping bag is, with higher numbers indicating more insulation.
For winter use, it’s best to stick with models that have an R-value over 4.0.
It’s also highly recommended that you use 2 sleeping pads (crazy, we know), as this will greatly increase your warmth at night. The best way to do this is to layer an inflatable pad over a foam pad at night.
Plus, if you bring a foam sleeping pad with you while camping, you can also use it as a sit pad when hanging around camp at night. If you do not want to bring a sleeping bag or pad, there are also other alternatives you could check for your cold-weather adventures.
While those canister-style stoves are really popular for summer backpacking, they’re not ideal for winter use. In reality, liquid fuel stoves, like the MSR WhisperLite, will perform much better in the cold.
You’ll also want to create a system that can insulate your stove from the snow. A small piece of plywood with a piece of an old foam sleeping pad insulation glued to the bottom can greatly increase the efficiency of your stove.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring a stove repair kit. Stoves love to malfunction in the winter, so knowing how to fix your stove in the backcountry is imperative.
Avalanche Safety Gear
We’ve already touched briefly on the dangers of avalanches in the wintertime. In addition to getting the proper avalanche education (which we strongly recommend for anyone traveling in avalanche terrain), having the right gear is crucial.
An avalanche transceiver (with spare batteries), shovel, and probe are all must-haves for winter camping in avalanche terrain. In fact, even if you’re not traveling in avalanche terrain, you should be sure to bring a shovel while winter camping.
A good shovel is essential for any winter camping trip. We’ll talk more about this in a bit, but having a way to move snow is important as you’ll need to craft a tent platform and kitchen when you arrive in camp.
Sunglasses & Goggles
Finally, don’t forget your eye protection while winter camping. Snow blindness is real and it’s incredibly painful, so it’s something that you want to avoid at all costs.
At the very least, be sure to pack at least 1 pair of sunglasses and 1 pair of goggles. If you can, pack spares, just in case.
Food & Fuel Considerations
As we’ll see in a bit during our section on staying warm, winter camping is all about fueling your body properly for the conditions.
In order to stay warm and comfortable when the temperatures drop, you’ll need to feed your body like a little furnace. Here are some top tips for ensuring that you have the food you need for your winter adventures:
More Calories, Not Less
Winter camping is no time to stick to a low calorie diet. In the cold, your body needs fuel to keep you warm. So, plan to eat at least 3,000 calories a day, if not more. Some folks who are particularly active or have larger frames might need as much as 6,000 calories per day.
Bring Extra Fuel
You’ll likely need to melt snow for water in the winter, which uses a whole lot of fuel. For winter camping purposes, you should expect to use at least 0.5L of liquid fuel per stove, per day, if not more. Keep in mind that very cold temperatures and high elevations also require more fuel.
Fat Is Your Friend
In the cold, fat is your friend. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, which is more than double the 4 calories you get with protein or carbs. While you shouldn’t eat only fat during a trip, high fat foods are more calorie dense, so they’re ideal for staying warm.
Good high-fat food options include cheese (pre-cut into small cubes) and butter for cooking. People who are dairy-free or vegan can also consider various plant-based fats, like canola oil, but keep in mind that these liquid fats do freeze.
Don’t Skimp On Hot Drinks
Sitting around in the snow with your friends and a hot drink in hand is a magical experience. There’s really nothing better than a cup of hot cocoa or a hot tea on a cold morning or at the end of a hot day.
In addition to hot cocoa, you can also consider bringing powdered lemonade, powdered tang, or powdered apple cider. These sugary drinks encourage you to drink water (hydration is key!), and they provide quick energy to help you stay warm.
Bring Frozen Food
If you’re camping somewhere that’s consistently cold (like below freezing sort of cold), we have good news: you can bring frozen food!
Okay, this might sound a bit weird, but don’t knock it until you try it. While winter camping, you can bring all sorts of yummy foods, like frozen appetizers (think: tater tots, pizza rolls, mozzarella sticks), which are easy enough to fry up on your stove with a bit of butter.
These appetizers are a quick and easy thing to make in the afternoon when you get back to camp. They provide you with quick, satisfying energy and they’re always a fan-favorite in the mountains.
You can also pack frozen veggies, and fruits to add to your meals for some added nutrition if you’re feeling health-conscious. There are also no-cook and no fridge camping food available in case you just want to fill your stomach without taking too much effort.
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Chapter 3: Tricks & Tips While Winter Camping
Winter Camping LNT Considerations
Leave No Trace, or “LNT” is an organization that promotes the sustainable use of the outdoors. LNT has 7 principles that we can all follow to help reduce our impact when recreating outside so that we can all enjoy our favorite natural places for years to come.
During the winter months, there are a few unique LNT considerations that we should all keep in mind. These include:
- Camp And Travel On Snow. Usually, it’s best to hike and camp on deep snow as much as possible during the winter. Even if you manage to find a snow-free area, it’s usually better not to camp on bare ground as vegetation gets very brittle in the cold. Hiking or camping directly on snow-free terrain in winter can damage the local ecosystems, so it’s best avoided.
- Secure Your Food. Sure, bears generally aren’t a nuisance during the winter months, but squirrels and other hungry forest creatures sure are. Find some ways that you can keep these critters away from your campsite. Even if you don’t have to put your food up in a bear hang, consider using some sort of rodent-proof container to protect your food at night.
- Plan Ahead For Human Waste. As a general rule, it’s best to pack out human waste and toilet paper when camping in the snow. In fact, some local land managers require that you do so. If this isn’t possible, your next best bet is to dig as deep into the snow as you can before doing your business or even make your own DIY camping toilet. Never “bury” toilet paper in the winter (pack it out, instead) as the thawing snow will simply deposit it on top of the soil in the spring.
Check out this video from Leave No Trace on some other great top tips for winter camping:
Dressing & Layering For Winter Camping
We’ve already talked a bit about the different clothing you’ll want to pack for your winter camping trip. Now, it’s time to look at how all that clothing comes together into one comprehensive layering system.
The Importance Of Dressing In Layers
While recreating outside, it’s best to wear many layers of clothing, rather than just one parka jacket. Although we love giant puffy jackets as much as the next person, wearing just one jacket means that you’re likely to get very warm very quickly if you start moving.
Moreover, dressing in layers allows you to adjust your clothing to best meet the current weather conditions. On a warm day, or while hiking, you can wear less clothing than if you’re just sitting around in camp.
Doing so prevents you from overheating and sweating. Since sweat naturally cools you as it evaporates (that’s the whole point of sweat!), it’s less than ideal during the winter, when you’re already quite cold.
How To Dress In Layers
While winter camping, you’ll want to think of your clothing system in 3 distinct layers: baselayers, mid layers, and outer layers.
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Base layers are, as the name suggests, the next-to-skin layer of clothing. This layer normally involves a pair of long underwear pants and a thin, synthetic long sleeve shirt.
The point of base layers, however, is not to insulate you. Rather, your base layers are designed to wick away moisture and sweat from your body. In the process of doing so, they prevent sweat from evaporating and cooling you down, helping you stay warm.
The next layer of clothing above your base layers is your mid layers. Unlike your base layers, mid layers are designed to insulate you. In fact you can call this your “insulating layer.”
While the base layers that you wear are likely to be fairly similar from one trip to the next, the mid layers you choose will vary greatly depending on the conditions. Since mid layers are meant to keep you warm, you’ll need to layer appropriately based on the temperatures and conditions you face.
For most winter camping trips, you can likely get away with a fleece and a moderately thick puffy jacket or 2 as your primary mid layers. You’ll also want to pack 2-3 extra insulating layers, just in case temperatures are colder than anticipated.
Also, while most of your insulating layers should be on your upper body to keep your core warm, in very cold conditions, you’ll need to insulate your legs, too. A pair of puffy pants or fleece pants can go a long way toward keeping you warm while camping.
Many people also choose to wear only their base layers and mid layers when they sleep. Depending on the conditions, this may or may not be warm enough, so a bit of trial and error is necessary each night.
Oh, and don’t forget that all of your layers should be able to fit on top of each other, otherwise, your layering system won’t work. When packing your clothing, test everything out at home to ensure that you can comfortably place one jacket on top of the other without restricting your movement.
Finally, we have our outer layers, which are designed to be your first layer of defense against the elements.
On every winter camping trip, you should have 2 sets of outer layers: 1 set for the extreme cold and 1 set for wet weather.
The first set, for the extreme cold, should include an extra-large puffy jacket and a pair of thick puffy pants, as well as liner gloves, warm gloves, and a warm hat. You’ll likely spend most of your time wearing these outer layers while in camp.
Meanwhile, the second set of outer layers, for wet conditions, should include a rain jacket and set of rain pants that can fit over your mid layers. These outer layers are critical if you get caught in a snowstorm or a rainstorm as staying dry is essential if you want to stay warm.
Check out this video from Outside Magazine on some other great tips for layering when winter camping:
Building Camp In The Snow
When you arrive at camp during your first camping trip, you’ll likely notice that setting up your campsite on the snow isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Thankfully, the process isn’t particularly difficult, but it is fairly time-consuming, so plan to get to camp early each day.
Here are some top tips for getting the job done, and if you are planning for summer camping, another guide is also prepared for you, particularly on how to set up your first campsite.
Setting up a tent in the snow is all about making a quality platform for your shelter. Follow these steps to make it happen:
- Stomp Down The Snow. Since snow is mostly air, you’ll want to take your skis or snowshoes and pack down the snow in your desired tent area. Walk around in circles for a few minutes and work hard to stomp the snow to create a level sleeping area.
- Anchor Your Tent. Regular tent stakes just won’t work in the snow, so you’ll have to anchor your tent using the “deadman” technique. To use this technique, first dig a hole wherever you want to anchor your tent. Then, find a stick, a snow stake, or even just fill up an empty stuff sack with snow. Wrap the tent guyline around your chosen object, then put the object in the hole. Fill the hole with snow, stomp down on it, and then tighten down your guyline, just like you normally would.
- Build A Wind Wall. Take the time to build up a wall around your tent using the nearby snow. This wall will help stop spindrift and can provide you with a bit of extra warmth at night. Just be sure to leave a bit of space between the wall and the tent for ventilation.
- Dig Out A Vestibule Space. If your tent has vestibules, take the time to dig down into the snow about 2-3’ (60-90m). That way, you have more gear storage space in the vestibule and even a little seat at the edge of your tent for putting on your boots in the morning.
During the summer, your camp kitchen is normally just the ground, but in the winter, you can actually completely construct your own kitchen.
Take your shovel and get to work constructing benches, a table, and even storage space for all of your cooking supplies.
Then, cover the area with a tarp for snow and wind protection. If possible, it’s best to pitch the tarp so that you still have room to stand completely upright while in your kitchen.
Keep in mind that sitting directly on the snow will make you cold, very quickly. So, bring your foam sleeping pad into the kitchen to insulate you while you cook and relax!
Hypothermia and frostbite are major concerns during the winter. If left untreated, both of these conditions can cause serious problems which can derail your trip and result in long hospital stay.
While hypothermia and frostbite are different conditions, they both have one thing in common: Prevention is key.
When it comes to preventing these cold-related issues, the crucial thing is that you keep yourself as warm throughout your trip. Contrary to popular belief, however, it is more than possible to be warm and cozy, even if the temperature is well below -20ºF (-28.9ºC).
Here are some top tips for doing just that:
- Eat Frequently. Your body needs energy to keep you warm, so you’ll have to eat more food more frequently while winter camping. Try to break up your meals into small snacks throughout the day, punctuated by a large dinner before bed. That way, you have enough energy to stay warm through the night.
- Stay Hydrated. People often get very dehydrated in the winter because they don’t feel thirsty. But, water is a critical part of your body’s natural energy production cycle, so you need to consume fluids to stay warm. If you don’t want water, make a cup of tea, a hot chocolate, or even bring packets of instant soup for quick hydration.
- Make Hot Water Bottles. Before going to bed at night, heat up water on the stove and use it to fill up your water bottles. You can then turn your standard water bottle into a simple hot water bottle for snuggling purposes in your sleeping bag at night.
- Don’t Let Yourself Get Cold. When you’re sitting around camp or in your tent, it’s easy to get very cold without noticing it. If you feel yourself getting cold, don’t just sit there, do something! Get up and do some jumping jacks or push-ups if you’re just sitting around camp. If you’re in your winter sleeping bag, do some crunches or planks to warm yourself up. Your newfound abdominal muscles will thank you, too.
- Tell Someone If You’re Cold. People often try to ignore the fact that they’re feeling cold or that they can’t quite feel their toes anymore. Ignoring the early warning signs of hypothermia or frostbite can be disastrous, so staying attentive to your personal needs is important. Tell your camping buddies that you’re feeling cold or that your fingers feel numb and they can help support you by getting you a hot drink or helping you exercise to warm up.
- Look Out For Each Other. Winter camping with friends is a team effort. Even if you’re feeling great, keep an eye out for signs of hypothermia or frostbite in your group. If you see someone struggling with tying their shoes or lighting a stove, or perhaps they’re just very quiet and reserved, check in to ensure that they’re doing okay.