How to Camp in the Winter
Calculating campers and backpackers may reason that the secret to winter camping trips is to simply head south and camp in warmer climates. Fleeing cold temperatures is a common tactic and certainly better than hanging up your camping gear for the season, but for a real challenge with staggering rewards, every camper and backpacker should try a winter camping trip. There are many tips and tricks to avoid problems in cold temperatures, from layering clothing to methods to warm up your tent.
The right gear is always important on camping trips, but in the wintertime, its importance increases a thousandfold. Hiking boots, tent stakes, sleeping bags, and sleeping bag liners are just some of the winter camping gear that will save campers from losing body heat, suffering frostbite, or catching a cold in the high winds and heavy snow that typify winter camping trips. It takes quite a bit of tailored know-how to camp in the winter, so we’ve written this guide to help show you the way.
Beyond tips and tricks and the right winter camping gear, wintertime camping takes a lot of courage and willingness to shiver a little. Amenities at campgrounds and national parks might be limited or completely shut down during the winter, so campers will have to plan ahead to make sure they have such necessities as firewood and drinking water. Campers and backpackers will also want to come prepared with some form of personal entertainment and formulate a winning strategy to warm up the tent since the nights are longer and the cold temperatures will likely force campers to spend more time inside their sleeping bag than in other seasons. And since the sun does tend to go down much earlier in the winter months, the right headlamp will be critical to see around the campsite or venture out into the nocturnal frontier.
Read through this quick guide to find out about the most important tips, considerations, and gear recommendations so you can break out into the wild, even in cold temperatures, with the confidence that you know how to camp in the winter.
What’s so different about camping in the wintertime?
The short answer is that everything is completely different once cold weather sets in. Winter campers always have tales of wonder and bewilderment in the face of such majestic natural features like frozen waterfalls, icicles, and heavy snow that falls in droves. Lakes freeze over and that means winter campers and backpackers can get a new perspective on a favorite campsite and potentially reach areas rendered inaccessible with the melting snow and return of rushing rivers and liquid lakes. Insects, one of the biggest annoyances for campers during the season, are generally gone or their populations decrease in cold temperatures. In order to enjoy this wintry splendor, wannabe winter campers will need the right winter camping gear.
Winter camping gear
What you need along with you on winter camping trips and what you take on camping trips during the season are all fairly similar. Basically whatever camping gear works during the season is outfitted for cold weather camping by beefing up the construction material and insulating layers are added to prevent heat loss. Waterproofing or water-resistant features are added or improved to protect against melting snow. Staying dry is integral to avoiding illness and discomfort on winter camping trips. Frostbite and fever-inducing colds set in faster than it seems, especially in high winds and heavy snow. In addition to the redesigned camping gear with extra layers and improved waterproofing, gear you’d probably leave behind in warmer months like mittens and goggles are going to come in handy on winter camping trips.
For camping tents, you can tell which have been designed for a winter camping trip because of the thicker layering to prevent heat loss, additional stability, and more robust tent stakes so it doesn’t blow away in high winds. Manufacturers refer to normal, lightweight camping tents that are built for warmer camping trips as 3-season tents, while tents made for cold weather camping are referred to as 4-season tents. These names are references to the number of seasons the particular tent can be used in the backcountry. However, “4-season tents” is a bit of a misnomer since 4-season tents are not likely to be the best option for camping once cold temperatures warm up.
Clothing is important on winter camping trips to retain body heat and provide as many insulating layers as possible against the cold temperatures and high winds. Down jackets make for an outer layer that is very effective at keeping heavy winds out. Mittens will keep campers’ hands from direct contact with cold air and snow, but it’s important to get a pair of mittens that will allow for hand movement to complete chores that still need to be done around the campsite in cold weather. Merino wool works great as an outer layer or as an insulating layer closer to the skin. The outside of outdoor apparel that’s been designed to be used as an outer layer of clothing is usually sporting a wicking treatment that lets water pass out of the fabric and dry more quickly so campers and backpackers can stay warm and dry on their cold-weather camping trip.
Useful tools for winter camping trips
Some cold weather camping gear is not an improvement on existing camping gear but rather a specific tool designed for implementation at a specific task in the backcountry. One great example is snowshoes, which are made to distribute the weight of the wearer over drifts of heavy snow, allowing them to traverse snowfields without sinking into the snow. This can help keep the wearer’s feet dry as well as make it easier to walk in the backcountry.
Backpacking in the snow can be challenging but the right pair of snowshoes will allow campers and backpackers to reach otherwise distant campsites and natural wonders. Snowshoes are super convenient tools to have, but they need to be paired with the right pair of winter-ready hiking boots. Hiking boots for winter camping trips are watertight and waterproofed with wicking or some other design method. Extremities like the feet and hands are the most susceptible to frostbite, so mittens and hiking boots are critical pieces of winter camping gear.
Tent stakes that work best in the wintertime are heavier than normal tent stakes and are designed to anchor a tent against high winds in heavy snow. While technically any heavy object can be buried or placed on top of guylines or the tent edges to weigh them down, real tent stakes designed for the specific purpose in wintry conditions will always be the best bet to protect the tent against high winds. A winter camping tent will be heavier itself, not only for protection against the cold temperatures but also for stability. You’ll spend more time wrapped up in a sleeping bag in your tent during a cold-weather camping trip, so make sure you have the right tent along with you and make sure you know how to set up your tent.
How to set up your tent
Campers planning on becoming winter camping enthusiasts should gather the know-how for how to set up your tent with some practice runs in the yard or somewhere convenient before going on an excursion into the backcountry. Getting stuck out in the wild in very cold temperatures without being able to properly set up your tent can be a nightmare and put you at risk of serious injury such as frostbite. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to master the art of how to set up your tent on a winter camping trip.
Site selection is even more important on a winter camping trip than on a camping trip during the rest of the year. Keep an eye out for dangers like falling branches and avalanches if you happen to be mountaineering. If there’s heavy snow, make sure to find a spot that’s solid ground and not simply snow packed on top of low bushes or with gaps that could collapse in the middle of the night and rudely wake you from your rest. When you find a site, flatten out an area for your tent.
You can do this by stomping down the snow with snowshoes or your hiking boots. There are also more specialized tools such as an avalanche shovel that work really well for this task. Campers who want a little more consistency in this stage of setting up a winter campsite will probably want to spring for the specialized equipment, but for less detail-oriented campers, a snowshoe or hiking boot will get the job done just fine.
If there are high winds, you can also dig a hole in the snow and set up your tent inside away from the biting wind. In severe winds, additional snow can be packed up around the edges of the hole as a sort of wall that will break the wind even more effectively. Regardless of what method you think is necessary and depending on the circumstances, you’ll want to let the wall and prepared campsite harden for about 30 minutes to get even more durability out of it.
Once it has hardened, you can set up your tent and dig small holes for your tent stakes. Winter tent stakes will have additional holes drilled in them that you can loop your guylines through. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is dig a hole in the snow, place the tent stake inside the whole vertically or horizontally, and then refill the hole with snow. Compact this with your hiking boot or snowshoe and it should stay secure as long as there aren’t really high winds.
If you want to give your tent an extra outer layer of insulation and make sure high winds aren’t going to blow it over, pile snow around the outside edges of the tent on the outside. This will also harden over time and help your tent stay in one place. Even though the snow itself is frozen, it will protect against wind and in the end give more insulation to keep your camping tent nice and toasty. For additional dryness, consider using a tarp as a tent footprint before you set up your tent or as a rainfly after it’s set up.
Sleeping in cold weather
This will be some crucial information not only because a restful night’s sleep is important to have adequate energy on any camping trip any time of year, but also because the most likely time campers will have to warm up and stay insulated is during the night when they’re hanging around in their sleeping bag. Make sure to take additional insulating layers such as a cold-weather sleeping bag, a high-quality sleeping bag liner, and a sleeping pad to keep you off the cold ground and protect body heat from escaping via the heat loss that occurs through tent bottoms in all seasons. Layering is just as important for insulation during sleep as it is with clothing during the day. Make sure to bring a book along and get a lantern or a headlamp that can provide light inside your tent for the few extra hours at night when campers on cold weather camping trips are usually wrapped up in the tent in their sleeping bags.
Eating and drinking on winter camping trips
The campfire is the most important aspect of a winter campsite. Many of the most important campsite tasks are accomplished with the help of a roaring red warm fire. Unless you have a camping stove along with you, the campfire is the only source of warmth besides clothing or sleeping bags that act as an insulating layer to retain body heat. The campfire is also useful for boiling water for cooking or for hot beverages like tea, coffee, or similar drinks used to warm up happy campers. Make sure to have some kind of canister or thermos to store your preferred hot beverage so you can save time boiling water multiple times and exposing yourself to the elements around the campfire waiting for the water to boil.
It may seem strange, but many campers drastically underestimate the amount of water they need to drink while out in the backcountry on a winter camping excursion. Luckily, in the coldest environments campers can usually melt snow over the campfire to get access to extra drinking water. More hardcore or impatient campers can also stick to eating mouthfuls of snow if they’re out on the trail or otherwise away from the campsite. It’s always best for peace of mind to pack enough water with you in the first place since the snow is not always clean or dependably free of harmful chemicals or poisonous plant traces. Always try to bring a reusable water bottle along so you’ll be ready for any situation and abide by the leave no trace guidelines.
Campers should be careful about the drinking water for another reason as well. If you drink too much of it, you’ll surely feel the call of nature at some point. To avoid exposing themselves to high winds and heavy snow to answer that call, many campers have resorted to keeping a water bottle (very, very well-labeled) for use as a pee bottle in the tent with them. There are also products available to make the water bottle/pee bottle a viable solution for female campers as well. If you’re sharing a tent, you might want to just face the music and hit the treeline.
Winter camping can be just as much, if not more so, thrilling, rewarding, and serenely illustrative as camping trips at other times of the year. Many campers are intimidated by the idea of cold weather, heavy snow, high winds, and frostbite. But with the proper know-how and the right gear, campers can avail themselves of the various and fantastic benefits of winter camping trips. Natural landscapes are transformed into white and silver wonderlands. Natural features like lakes and rivers will freeze, opening up new temporary avenues that only winter campers will be able to experience. Frozen waterfalls give the impression that one is living in a photograph. Insects and other perturbances are gone when cold temperatures have set in.
There’s little to fear about winter camping as long as campers are prepared and know how to do the most important tasks, like setting up a tent in the snow. That being said, it would be wise to practice these methods in snow at a reliable, safe, and familiar location. Once you’re out in the backcountry, it can be difficult for help to reach remote locations in heavy snow or high winds. Once the methods are mastered and campers know ho to do everything they need to know how to do, the peaceful snow mounds of untouched powdery snow will become available and deliver the opportunity for a chilly, wintry excursion. Additional recreational activities like skiing or sledding will also be possible if the right gear is available.
All in all, if you know how to get through them, winter camping trips will greatly increase the number of opportunities you’ll have to enjoy the rewards of camping in the backcountry. Now that you’ve read our guide and have the required know-how, head out to the trails and features of the backcountry when the cold weather has really set in. You’ll see a whole new side of your favorite campsite now that you have a better idea of how to camp in the winter.
Bonus tip: Watch these winter campers go on an Oregon snowshoe winter camping trip!