So, you want to go winter camping?
Imagine "A quaint little tent amidst a stretch of a winter wonderland. No crowd, no bugs, just you, the pine trees, and the hills donned in a white shroud of white gold. So peaceful, so serene!"
Fascinating, isn’t it?
Now imagine the bitter cold, the frost bites, and the super dry, scratchy skin.
Uncomfortable? Thought so!
Yet, you couldn't let go of the romantic idea of winter camping.
And so, we are here to help you plan the ultimate winter camping. Just follow our winter camping hacks and you are ready to go camping in the snow- play, roll, romance, but be extra-prepared!
Keep reading to know:
- How to plan the trip: Pre-trip planning tips
- The Ten Essentials
- Cold-weather Clothing
- Winter Gear Checklist
- Snow and Avalanche Safety Gear
- The Winter Kitchen
- Winter Camping Food Tips
- Cold-weather Health Concerns
- For treating water
- Sanitation guidelines
The start: Planning the Trip Right
Summers are pleasant but winters are harsh. Hence, your camping strategy must also change accordingly. In winters, the weather is severe and the daylight hours are shorter, so compromise on the weight and prepare smartly, add some additional gears and skills.
Some pre-trip planning tips:
Don't go alone
Share the camping trip with a few friends who have expertise in various winter skills such as building snow shelters, route navigating through snow, making a campfire, etc.
Research the camping site well
Study physical maps as they tell you all about the area- the nearby water bodies (if any), mountains and elevations, roads and provide a scale for you to figure out how long it will take to get to the destination. Check the local road and trail conditions as well.
Consult with other campers
Speak with people who have camped there. Ask for pointers like how to recognize and avoid avalanche areas and learn about the emergency services (i.e., medical, search & rescue) available or closest.
Check the weather forecast
Winters have unpredictable weather. Conditions like winter storm are quite likely. Therefore, check the weather to know if the conditions are favorable. The NOAA-NWS Web site is a reliable source that offers detailed backcountry forecasts.
Choose a site with available firewood
A roaring campfire is required for cooking, melting snow, warmth, and for the sake of general morale.
Know your avalanche
If camping on or near any slope greater than 20°, formal avalanche training for you and the group is necessary.
Leave a trip plan
Let others know the complete itinerary of your winter camping trip. Mention all the details like destination name, approximate reaching time and departure, vehicle information and names and contact number of all the camping participants.
Drill all the participants on one standard trip plan
Make sure everyone in the group is on the same page on the trip, has the same expectations, turnaround times and goals.
Don't forget to pack important tools
Equipment such as a knife, an ice axe- something that could be handy in the need of the hour, so make sure that everyone, or at least most participants, carry them.
Make all participants carry some cash
You never know when you might need it, so all participants should carry some cash in case of emergencies or unexpected fees.
Expect the unexpected
Always pack extra food and clothing. The weather forecast isn’t 100% dependable so it could change. Be prepared and alert. Understand that there is a possibility that you might get lost or have to make unexpected detours during the trip.
The Ten Essentials
Pack these "Ten Essentials" in your backpack for comfort and safety in winter.
- Navigation- Maps, compass, GPS, binoculars
- Sun protection- Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses
- Insulation (extra clothing)- Jackets, pants, vests, gloves, hats
- Illumination- flashlights, headlights, extra batteries
- First-aid supplies- Antiseptic ointments, bandages, and band-aids, Dettol
- Fire- Match boxes, lighters, waterproof containers, fire starter
- Repair kit and tools- Carry a knife or multitool, kits for stove, mattress, duct tape
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter- Tent, tarp, bivy, or reflective blankets
- Assorted personal items- Toiletry kit, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, sanitation trowel or quick-dry towel, hand warmers, etc.
Cold-weather Clothing: Pad up well!
Next, select the right winter camping clothes. Your humble gloves and simple windcheater won’t comfort you at 0º. You need to pad up- pad up really well in multiple layers! The basic rule of winter camping is to keep warm and stay dry. Wear several layers of clothing that dry quickly, insulate, wick moisture, and are weatherproof and breathable.
Now you don’t have to bundle up to look like a penguin. Stay toasty with three basic layers of clothing while winter camping.
- The first layer
This is the base layer is the layer next to your skin. It includes your underwear, shirt, pants, and socks. Avoid cotton garments and choose synthetic or merino wool fabrics as they quickly wick sweat away from your skin to outer layers for it to evaporate. You can wear two sets of clothing as the base layer for optimum benefit.
- The second layer
Next, is the middle layer over your base clothing. The middle/second layer is your insulating layer. The clothes in this layer are primarily designed to help retain body heat. Choose garments (shirts, pants, and jacket) made of expedition-weight fleece or microfleece, a goose down jacket, and a heavier pair of socks over the first pair.
- The third layer
And the last layer is the outer layer or shell. This layer has to be waterproof/windproof/breathable. And if you are going to build campfires then wear a fireproof outer shell of clothing- something in wool as it is one of the best, most fire-resistant natural materials. Choose a set of Gore-Tex, eVent, or REI jacket and pants. Check for underarm and core vents to expel heat and moisture.
Next, your feet. Most of us have icy toes and warming up feet could be a distress in the lower temperature.
Traditional hiking boots are good enough for the winter camping. But you can enhance the snow trekking with winter or mountaineering boots as they provide better waterproofing and insulation. If you are planning to go skiing and snowboarding then carry specific boots too.
Other Winter Accessories
Once padding up your core, cover up your extremities with-
- Hats: Carry a windproof hat or cap. You lose a significant percentage of your body heat through the top of your head. Pick hats made of Gore WindStopper fabric.
- Gloves and mittens: Another must-have on the list. Carry extras in case they get wet.
- Gaiters: A necessity for deep snow, gaiters help to keep snow and water out of your boots. They also add a bit of warmth. Use a waterproof/breathable model designed for winter use.
- Goggles and glasses: Proper vision is vital, always protect your eyes from the sun and the wind. Wear goggles and glasses - these are available in different lens tints for various weather conditions, choose accordingly.
- Socks: The more, the warmer. First, wear a thin, snug layer next to your skin and the second layer over it, both made of merino wool or a synthetic fabric. Your boot fit determines the thickness of your second sock. Avoid extra-thick sock if it makes your boots too tight. Remember: Too tight-fitting boots will not keep your feet warm.
Warm up socks and boot insoles by keeping them with you in the sleeping bag.
Winter Gear Checklist You'll Need
Winter camping requires extra gear. So, consider carrying a high-volume backpack. Pack as lightly as you can, but make sure you don’t miss the necessities required in the cold condition. For instance, for a 2- to 4-day trip your backpack should roughly weigh-
- Lightweight: minimum 65-liter (3,967 cubic inch) pack.
- Deluxe: minimum 80-liter (4,882 cubic inch) pack.
If you are carrying skis or snowshoes, be sure your pack has lash points or at least able to secure these large items.
Carry a sled for longer trips and expeditions; it helps to reduce weight on your back and lets you carry more gear. Now, a sled is not practical for all terrain, so research your route and trail conditions in advance. Practice pulling a sled while wearing your snowshoes or skis.
Choosing a sleeping bag is definitely not easy! Choose a bag that's rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. If you get too warm, you can always vent the bag.
Winter Sleeping bags consist of a generous amount of goose down or synthetic insulation. Goose down is the most popular choice due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio. Just remember to keep it dry as it loses much of its insulating ability when wet or better use the new water-resistant down bags available these days.
Cold-and winter-rated sleeping bags also consist draft tubes behind the zippers. They also have draft collars above the shoulders and hoods to retain the heat in the bag.
Sleeping Bag Liner
For extra warmth, use a bag liner. It also minimizes wear and helps to keep your bag cleaner. The extra layer can add 8° to 15°F of warmth. Much cozy, isn’t it?
For winter camping, use two full-length sleeping pads to keep from losing body heat. These provide both cushioning and insulation. Sleeping pads are rated by R-value which is the measurement of insulation and values range from 1.0 and 8.0. The higher the R-value, the better it insulates.
Use a closed-cell foam pad next to the ground and a self-inflating pad on top to get the best insulation from the cold ground. In case the self-inflating pad gets punctured, the foam pad will serve as an insurance.
Protect your tent or bivy sack from any water seepage with a ground cloth. Water, from the snow, might enter into your tent through the tent floor. Any tarp will work, but a tent "footprint" is lightweight and is custom cut to fit your tent's dimensions perfectly. A tent footprint is sold separately.
Lighting and Batteries
Winter nights are long, so make sure the batteries of the headlamp and flashlight are new and fully charged. Carry extra batteries but are you worried about Lithium vs Alkaline! Lithium batteries perform well in cold weather, but they can overpower some devices like headlamps, while alkaline batteries are inexpensive and should work on any device, but they drain at a faster rate. Check your product's manual for compatibility.
Tip: Cold temperatures decrease battery life. Therefore, to keep them warm and running, store your batteries and battery-operated devices inside your sleeping bag.
Staying well connected is essential when out in nature. And you'll most likely struggle to find cell phone coverage in the backcountry. Better carry two-way radios to stay connected to the other camping members in the group- as each of us travels at different speeds. Additionally, satellite messengers and phones offer an option to communicate with folks at home.
Route-finding in Winter
Bad weather or snow may conceal the trail and/or your destination. Before embarking on the trip, make sure everyone in the group is equipped with a good map and route description. If using a GPS, feed in as many waypoints as possible. Mountaineers should use an altimeter to determine their location better.
Study your map and plot your compass bearings beforehand. Avoid following stray footprints. Plan and follow a safe route. Avoid avalanche zones, snow-covered rivers and lakes, snow bridges, cornices, hidden holes next to logs and rocks, tree wells, and rockfall. You may need to vary your route somewhat to find better snow conditions.
This isn’t a gear per se, but definitely a winter camping essential! Rub your exposed skin- your face, ears, neck, wrists, or hands in petroleum jelly like Vaseline or animal fats. Simply slather any exposed or potentially exposed skin in a thick layer of Vaseline or oil and prevent potential windburn and frostbite.
Snow and Avalanche Safety Gear
There are some specially designed hiking/mountaineering gears to counter snow hazards. Check out the list below-
An essential backcountry item, the avalanche transceiver should be carried by each member of the group. The device requires competent instruction and practice so, be sure that each member of the group, including yourself, understands how to use the device before heading out.
Another helpful item in avalanche country is a probe. It is a collapsible pole with depth markings (usually up to 10' long). After an avalanche, the sections can be quickly assembled to probe into the snow and help find victims.
Everyone in the group must carry a shovel while winter camping in the backcountry. They can be used for digging a snow shelter, leveling a tent site, avalanche rescue, or getting fresh snow to melt for drinking water.
Personal locator beacon
This device is a life saver. If you are in serious danger, just activated it to send out a signal to satellites about your position, which in turn will alert search-and-rescue teams.
Avalanche airbag packs
A recent innovation, these special airbag packs are packed with compressed air or gas to help prevent burial in an avalanche.
In case you intend to make a snow cave or igloo, a snow saw comes in handy. Use by hand, or attach it to a ski pole for longer reaches, to cut through layers of ice or snow. A snow saw is also useful for evaluating slope stability to determine avalanche hazard.
Livingit Tip: Avoid winter camping in an avalanche likely zone.
Making camp and setting up the tent
Reach the destination before sunset so that you have enough time to relax, eat a snack, and put on extra layers of clothing. Select a camp spot after a good inspection, set up the gears, and get started on setting up the tent.
- Look for a natural find protection spot and position the tent at it.
- Steer clear of avalanche danger, falling trees, and branches
- Prefer a spot close to a water body
- In the absence of wind shelter, build a snow wall, or dig down in deep snow to reduce wind impact.
- Pack down the snow well before setting up the tent. Your body heat can melt loose snow and leave you with an even surface to sleep upon.
- Mark landmarks to help you find the camp in the dark or snowstorm
- Choose an open spot for easy sunlight. A sunny spot will warm you up faster.
- Wear your wet clothes while establishing camp. Your body heat will help them to dry more quickly.
- Hang a candle lantern on the inside of the tent, it will reduce condensation to keep the tent warm. Make sure it is at a good distance away from you and the ceiling of the tent.
Types of Winter Shelters
Mountaineering (4-Season) Tents
For winter camping, choose a ‘mountaineering tent’ or ‘4-season tent,’ one that could be easily and quickly set up in frigid conditions. These tents are a bit heavier than 3-season backpacking tents but they offer better snow/wind protection.
Features of mountaineering tents:
- They are dome shaped with an extra-strong pole structure.
- Made from solid fabric (instead of mesh) for more warmth and strength.
- Have dual doors for easy access even in bad weather
- Extra guy lines for greater stability in fierce winds
- A "gear attic" to store small items and free up floor space
- Large vestibule(s) for wet-gear storage or a sheltered cooking area.
Mountaineering tents have either single-wall or double-wall construction. Each has its advantages.
Heavier and bulkier
Cooler than a double-wall
Warmer than a single-wall
More than a double-wall
Less than a single-wall
Better ventilation but less condensation
Want to backpack light? Then you can opt to skip the tent and go with a bivy sack instead. A bivy, short for bivouac, is a waterproof/breathable overbag for your sleeping bag. It keeps your sleeping bag dry and adds about 10ºF of warmth to the bag, thereby keeping you warm and fuzzy. Some bivy sack models known as bivy shelters have mesh netting and poles that provide tent-like protection around the head area.
There is no room to store your gear in a bivy sack, so bring a cover for your gear.
If you are an experienced party of campers and plan to camp at the same spot for multiple nights then consider making a snow shelters such as snow cave, quinzhee, igloo or trench. Yes, it's a lot of work, but the result is satisfying- a quiet and relatively warmer place to sleep. Generally, it takes two people and at least 2 or 3 hours to complete a snow cave or igloo; trenches can be built comparatively faster.
Tools required to build these shelters are snow shovels and snow saws. Before you start digging, use a probe (see it has its use) to make sure you won't be digging into a rock. And, just in case, bring a tent as a backup shelter.
Snow caves are the basic snow shelters built by wild animals, mountain climbers, winter recreational enthusiasts, and winter survivalists. It is constructed by digging up snow so that the tunnel entrance is below the sleeping area to retain warm air.
Steps to building a snow cave:
- First, look for a site with plenty of snow that is level and has zero avalanche risk. You may also need to use a snow bank or a drift.
- If feasible, build the cave large enough to accommodate everyone in your group. Make the base of the cave or igloo about two to three feet thick.
- Dig the tunnel sloping it upward for the colder air to stay lower.
- Hollow out the dome of the snow cave; make it large enough so you can sit up.
- Smooth the roof to avoid water drips on your sleeping bags.
- Remember to make a small ventilation hole in the roof to avoid suffocation risk. It should be about the size of your ski or trekking pole basket.
- For the floor, use a waterproof tarp.
- Note: snow is heavy and requires to be supported correctly. Do not build cave too wide and know what to do in case the roof collapses.
Tip: To keep a snow cave warmer put a backpack in the doorway. But make sure the door remains accessible.
Igloo is a type of snow shelter made from blocks of hard snow.
Steps to building an igloo
- Find or make a level space in the snow.
- Dig a gentle slope to make an entrance passage. This helps to keep the warmer air in and the colder air out.
- Using your shovel and snow saw, make snow blocks from hard blocks of snow.
- Form a row of blocks in a circle; the first level of snow blocks should be thicker than the rest.
- Make a second layer on top of the first, decreasing the thickness and staggering the block joints.
- Keep stacking blocks, gradually decreasing the thickness so that the upper tiers are thinner and tapered toward the center to form a dome.
- Make a hole in the top for ventilation by leaving a gap between 2 blocks or making a hole through one of the blocks.
- Fill in any other cracks or gaps with snow.
- Smooth the blocks on the inside to minimize dripping water.
Tip: Don't make it too big. The wider the base, the greater the risk of collapse. Gently splash water over the igloo at night (early in the day if the temperature is cold enough) to freeze and strengthen the structure.
If the snow is not deep enough for a snow cave or firm enough for an igloo. Then, a quinzhee is an excellent alternative. It is made by gathering a large pile of snow and then hollowing it out.
Steps to building a quinzhee:
- Form a circle in the snow to create a foundation, size depends on the number of occupants.
- Pile snow inside the circle in a large dome of about 6 feet high at center.
- Let the snow settle at least 2 hours, longer if the snow contains less moisture content.
- Proceed like you are building a snow cave.
A relatively quick and easy shelter, snow trenches are quite a convenient shelter for 1 or 2 people. Snow trenches are typically emergency shelters and will not be as comfortable or warm as the other snow shelter (snow cave and igloo). It is not recommended during heavy snowfalls as the "roof" could collapse under the weight of additional snow.
Steps to building a snow trench:
- Dig a trench- 3-foot-deep, 3 to 4 feet wide (for 1 person) and about 6 feet long, with an entrance at one end.
- Wedge skis, poles and/or tree branches across the width of the trench.
- Stretch a tarp or emergency blanket over the trench. Anchor the sides and foot end with snow and/or additional tree limbs.
The Winter Kitchen
Liquid-fuel stoves (instead of canisters) are recommended for winter camping. White gas is readily available in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, but for other countries, use a multi-fuel stove that allows you to burn auto gas as well. Make sure your camp stove is working properly before starting the trip.
Other considerations: Use a windscreen and heat exchanger to improve winter cooking performance. Remember that more fuel is used at higher elevations and that it takes extra fuel to melt snow. And just in case, bring a backup stove. The advantage of having 2 stoves is that it speeds up the group-cooking process.
Camp Cooking Area
It's best to have a sheltered cooking spot and that simply can be your tent's vestibule. Dig a trench about 3 feet deep to create a cooking area that is sheltered from the wind. If you are creative enough, you can build a well-furnished kitchen, using your shovel to make a cooking surface, seats, table and even a storage cabinet. Consider using a foam sit-pad while cooking on the cold surface. It will help you stay a little warmer and drier.
Winter Camping Food Tips
Due to low temperatures and high calorie-burn activities such as snowshoeing, skiing or boarding, you burn a lot of energy. So, eating energy-dense food and drinking warm fluids are critical to any successful winter camping trip. Be sure to eat before, during and after your activity to keep your energy up and help your body recover. Bring one-pot meals or, better yet, buy some freeze-dried entrees and breakfast foods—just add hot water in the pouch and eat it directly, pack the garbage out.
Foods that provide energy are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Here's what you should bring on a winter camping trip:
- Proteins (meats, dairy, and eggs): They help in building muscles and body tissues.
- Fats (nuts and meats): Good source of energy and enable to produce heat.
- Carbohydrates (cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits, bread, and candy): Primarily for energy, they easily convert into energy and help the body to stay warm.
- Liquids: You can get dehydrated at low temperature without realizing it. To stay hydrated when winter camping, make warm, good-tasting drinks, like cocoa, hot cider, warm lemonade, or soup. And always take plenty of water on the trail.
Foods to avoid: alcohol and caffeine because alcohol increases blood flow and cools your core temperature and caffeine restricts blood flow and cools your extremities.
- To stay warmer, take short breaks to snack on food, or simply nibble while you're moving.
- Flip your water. Turn the large water storage container upside-down when storing it overnight. As you know, ice forms from the top down so, keeping the spout of the container facing downwards will prevent it from freezing up. This strategy can be combined with insulating the container, of course.
Cold-weather Health Concerns
A number of life-threatening health conditions also breed in the frigid temperature. Some of the cold-weather health concerns are-
In this condition, the body's temperature decreases due to exposure to the cold, frigid environment and it can be life threatening. Note: A person can become hypothermic without even realizing it.
- Slurred speech.
- Stay warm.
- Stay dry.
- Stay hydrated.
- Eat well.
- Put on as many dry clothing as possible to increase body temperature.
- Eat and drink warm foods and liquids.
- Slip in the person in a sleeping bag pre-warmed by another person—a hypothermic person cannot generate enough body heat to warm the bag.
- Put warm water bottles in the sleeping bag with the hypothermic person.
- You can use another person to warm the hypothermic person.
- In severe cases, call for medical help.
Tip: Carry a small vacuum bottle with a hot drink or soup—it'll warm you up when you're getting cold.
This is freezing of the tissues usually on the fingers, toes, nose or face. Frostbite is a result of heat loss at a faster rate than the blood can circulate. In severe cases, appendages may have to be amputated.
Tip: To avoid frostbite conditions, use chemical heat packs to stay warm.
- Loss of sensitivity to touch.
- Numbness to an area.
- Tingling that feels like burning.
- Skin appears red and then white-to-purple.
- Don't strain yourself to reach a summit- your health and well-being are more important.
- Be aware of your body signals.
- Stay warm and dry.
- Place the cold/frostbitten appendages against warm skin. For example, place your feet against a companion's stomach or armpits, or your freezing fingers in your own armpits.
- Pour warm water—99ºF to 104ºF—on the affected area.
- Do not thaw the afflicted area with fire, speedy relief can worsen the injury.
- Do not rub the frostbite as the abrasive action could damage tissue.
- In severe case, evacuate to a medical facility.
Even at low temperature, your body can get dehydrated and that's not healthy for your kidneys, heart or brain. So, consume plenty of water. Drinks water at regular intervals- even when you aren’t quite thirsty.
Tip: Check the color of your urine to know if you are hydrated well. If it's dark, you are dehydrated. If it's pale in color, you're drinking enough water.
Other symptoms of dehydration in extreme temperatures:
- Increased heart rate.
- Dry mouth.
- Muscle cramps.
It is a result of being in low air pressure at a high altitude. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, severe headache, lethargy, insomnia, shortness of breath, body ache and loss of appetite.
Remedy: Descend to a lower elevation for a few days.
Tip: Make a base camp and spent a few days to acclimatize with the harsh weather before climbing higher. Don't ascend more than 1,000' a day.
For treating water
In sub-freezing weather, water filters do not work as the filter and seals freeze.
Allow extra time if using chemical water treatments as they take longer to work in cold water. Keep in mind that iodine is not effective against cryptosporidium so avoid using it. Your best bet for filtration of water is boiling water.
Use the abundant snow around- melting snow is a good option. And do not be foolish to consider glacial melt or fresh snow as sterile–it isn’t! Snowflakes often form around small bits of dust (nucleation sites) which can have bacteria or viruses floating in the upper atmosphere.
Tip: Put a little bit of water in the pot with the snow to melt it faster. Another effective option: Portable UV light systems.
As with any camping and backcountry trip, you should practice good hygiene habits.
Camp at least 200’ from a trail, water sources, and other campers.
Either burn out the toilet paper or pack them out in plastic Ziploc bags.
At lower elevations, you can dig a hole in the dirt about 8" deep, bury feces and put a rock on top to deter animals from digging it up.
Winter camping demands extra steps to be taken with your body wastes. Always bag your waste using sanitary kits that include bag neutralizer- to reduce odors and turn the waste into a gel for easier transport, and a hand sanitizer is a must.
And god forbid but if you get lost- Do not panic!
- Stop and evaluate the situation.
- Maintain calm.
- Examine map and compass (and GPS, if available).
- Make yourself easy to find—visually and audibly.
- Stay together.
Hope this guide was helpful if we missed out something do contribute below or leave us your feedback in comments!