Cold-weather camping opens up whole new wonderful worlds for outdoors enthusiasts. In winter, recreation areas swarmed in warmer months can be blissfully quiet. Reduced road and trail access in the off-season can make even small wildlands feel expansive. Then there’s the splendid seasonal beauty: the snow-cloaked landscape, the pristine night skies, all the critters suited up in thick winter coats, breathing out photogenic plumes of vapor, and leaving their elegant trackways through drifted woods and across frozen lakes.
But tapping into the splendor and solitude of the wintry backcountry comes with real challenges. Mother Nature this time of year isn’t quite so forgiving as she is in the balmy summer or early autumn. The stakes when camping in cold weather go up considerably.
Hypothermia and frostbite are major concerns and can set in surprisingly quickly—sometimes with irreversible consequences. People suffering from the early stages of these conditions often fail to recognize the symptoms, partly due to cold-dulled judgment. According to the American Burn Center, some 1,300 people on average die in the U.S. each year of cold exposure. Dehydration is another insidious risk winter campers face.
When it comes to staying warm winter camping, the right gear goes a long way. But that’s not all there is to it, of course: You also have to know how to use said gear, plus other techniques for minimizing heat loss, whether you’re backcountry ski-touring, tromping around in snowshoes, or hoofing it through bare but decidedly chilly wintertime wilderness.
In this article, we’ll run through the basics of how to stay warm camping in winter. So cozy up with a hot beverage, and let’s get rolling!
The following are some of the tips and tricks for keeping that deep freeze at bay while embracing the joys of cold-weather camping.
Layering is important year-round when it comes to camping, backpacking, and hiking, but never more so than in winter. Wearing a minimal (but still protective) outfit during strenuous activity, then layering up when stopping for a rest or at camp helps you avoid getting overheated and excessively sweaty, which can result in a dangerous chill once you stop. And naturally, you want the proper outerwear to protect you from the worst of the winter elements.
Arm yourself with a base layer (e.g., moisture-wicking long underwear), midlayer (insulating puffy, fleece, or sweater up top, wool/fleece pants or heavyweight long underwear bottoms), and shell (waterproof/breathable parka, rain/snow/bib pants). Gaiters cut down on snow in your boots and soaked pant legs.
Don’t forget layering for your hands, especially prone to frostbite: Waterproof mittens or overmitts worn over gloves provide maximum insulation while facilitating dexterous finger tasks when they’re called for. Some winter campers opt for a layered two-sock system, while others simply go for a thick pair of wool socks.
You’ll appreciate having another set of nice and dry base layers on hand to slip into after your sweat-soaked self rolls into camp. These also serve as general-purpose backups if you end up with unexpectedly wet clothing—a potentially life-threatening situation in cold weather, needless to say—and as extra insulating material for your sleeping “nest.”
The sturdy rule for winter camping is doubling up in the sleeping-pad department for maximum insulation. Give yourself an adequate buffer from the cold ground by placing a closed-cell foam pad down first, then a self-inflating pad on top of that. Besides the double-layer effect, this ensures you’ve got an effective sleeping pad even if the inflatable one fails. Look for the R-value (insulating performance) of a sleeping pad; values of 4.0 or above are best for wintertime campouts.
Choose a sleeping bag rated to at least 10 degrees colder than the low temperatures you expect when going winter camping. Combined with double-stacked sleeping pads and layered sleepwear, you’ll hopefully be good to go. But you can boost the toastiness of the setup with a sleeping-bag liner—which can add up to 15 to 25 degrees of extra warmth—and/or an overlying blanket or quilt.
An overly large tent in winter can make for chilly sleeping. At the same time, winter campers generally want to scale up in the tent department so there’s enough interior space to accommodate more and bulkier gear. Besides protecting clothing and equipment from the elements, bringing gear inside (though not the sharp, pointy stuff such as ice axes, crampons, or snowshoes) boosts insulation inside the tent.
A poorly ventilated tent in winter can quickly become clammy and drippy thanks to your exhalations. Crack open zip panels or vestibule doors to allow for a bit of airflow and thereby cut down on condensation. The “high-low venting” technique works best: unzipping a panel or door low down on the upwind side of your tent and up top on the downwind side. And in a double-walled tent, keep the rainfly as taut as possible to facilitate circulation.
Also, do your best to minimize the amount of snow you bring inside your tent, as this can raise the humidity within and promote condensation.
A warm tent for winter camping—essential! A four-season model is best. You can even go all out with a stove jack. But even a high-quality, winter-worthy tent doesn’t do much good if you pitch it unwisely. Choose a sheltered spot in the lee of a rise, a stand of dense timber, and other wind-protected positions. Use that shovel that should always be in your cold-weather camping pack to erect a snow wall for further wind-proofing, or at least excavate a shallow depression in the snow for your tent. And as we’ve already mentioned, arranging clothes, pack, and other soft gear inside the tent legitimately cranks up the coze.
A balaclava is good to have on hand when snowshoeing, skiing, or snow-hiking to protect against biting wind. But it also can save the day when it comes to sleeping snugly through long, cold nights.
Hand warmers and toe warmers can make a big difference during hours out on the snowy trail. Stick boot liners, socks, gloves, and base layers in your sleeping bag to ensure a nice, warm start to the next day. Do some jumping jacks before heading into the sleeping bag to get the blood flow going.
You’re burning through more calories during winter trekking given the more strenuous travel and basic maintenance of body temperature. Upping your caloric intake isn’t just about meeting this ramped-up fuel demand, but also staying warmer due to the metabolic humming-along of digestion. Pop a fatty snack before greeting Mr. Sandman to maintain that much more inner warmth overnight.
Staying hydrated can be a challenge when winter camping, on account you often don’t feel much like slugging water in cold conditions. But dehydration’s no small matter, given it can cause headaches, malaise, and other symptoms and exacerbate more serious maladies such as altitude sickness and hypothermia. Keep a steady intake of water going; boiled water or hot decaffeinated tea in your water bottle can make this a more pleasant undertaking amid the winter chill.
Speaking of your water bottle, it doubles as a tried-and-true warming aid for sleeping. Boil water, pour it into the bottle and ensure the lid’s nice and snug. Wrap it in a sock or towel, then stick the bottle near your feet in the sleeping bag—or, for even more warmth, in your groin or armpit area (closer to major blood vessels).
There’s no clear-cut answer for this. Everybody has their own limits, after all, and hardcore, top-of-the-line cold-weather gear can—properly employed, anyway—keep you safe and comfortable in some pretty gnarly conditions. When planning any winter-camping experience, remember to pay close attention to the forecast and account for storminess, wind chill, and topoclimatic effects when predicting what kind of low temperatures you’re likely to encounter.
Minimizing cooking time is another fundamental way to deal with the early darkness and rapid temperature drops of winter camping. You can’t do better for hearty, delicious, and no-fuss cold-weather backcountry cuisine than Mountain House! Explore our full collection of freeze-dried, just-add-hot-water goodness right here.