How to Camp in Winter: Winter Camping Advice for Every Level
You’ve just finished up your very first blissful summer and fall season of camping and backpacking. Winter has arrived. Now, it’s time to clean things off and pack your gear away until spring, right?
Well, partially wrong. You just need to know how to camp in winter is all.
Winter can be an amazingly peaceful and far less crowded time of the year to go camping, but it does pose its fair share of challenges. Although any venture into the backcountry has potential hazards, understanding the risks, having the proper gear, and knowing the complete picture in terms of weather and terrain is vital during the winter season.
First, what is winter camping?
Also often referred to as cold weather camping, winter camping is what it sounds like, camping during the winter season.
Since winter looks and feels different depending on the climate, most resources define cold weather or winter camping as camping in anything below 50°F, especially in wet or windy conditions. Other sources will cite cold weather camping as camping in 30-40°F or lower.
Your definition of winter camping may vary from these, but if you are camping within the fourth season of the year, and it is cold and wet, you’re likely winter camping.
How cold is too cold to camp?
This is an all too common question among novice winter campers, and it is a good one, but it doesn’t have a simple answer. In general, your cold threshold for camping in the winter will depend on your level of experience, preparedness, and the type of gear you have.
If it is your first-time camping in cold weather, it is a good idea to try and stick to temperatures from 35-50°F. Once you get below freezing temperatures (32°F/0°C), then you need to ensure you have a suitable skill set and gear to not only be comfortable but to survive.
When in doubt, get a guide to help you learn the ropes before you venture out on your own.
What to pack for camping in winter
Having the proper gear is just as important as having the correct knowledge about how to camp in winter. You aren’t able to use all of the same camping equipment you do in the summer as you do when winter camping, so make changes where appropriate.
The number one rule for choosing winter camping gear is that it must keep you dry and warm. So, the essential items on the gear list may not vary dramatically from what you usually bring backpacking or car camping. Still, the design, durability, and warmth of the items will differ.
Cold weather camping gear list
Clothing: long underwear, long-sleeved base layer, insulated mid-layer, puffy jacket (with hood), insulated pants, waterproof jacket+pants, wool socks, winter boots, gaiters, hat, gloves/mittens, underwear, extra pair of clothes
Important: learn to layer clothing
Optional: camp pillow, sit pad, sleeping bag liner, foot warmers
Camp Kitchen: stove, fuel (liquid or canister with pressure regulator), lighter, cook set, bowl/mug, cutlery, insulated water bottle, biodegradable camp soap, towel/cloth, reusable wet bag
Water/Food: water canister (bottles, reservoir, etc.), insulated water canister sleeves, water treatment, extra fuel, bear canister/bag, meals+snacks, extra day’s supply of food
Optional: hot beverage mixes
Toiletries: toothbrush/paste, hand sanitizer, towel, toilet paper/wipes, wet bag, trowel, menstrual/urination products, prescription meds+glasses, sunglasses, sunscreen
If needed: wag bag
Snow Travel: backpack (65-80L), traction aids, trekking poles (with snow baskets)
Optional: skis+skins, snowboard/splitboard+skins, snowshoes, ice ax, avalanche gear, two-way radio, hand/foot warmers, sled
Navigation: map+compass, GPS+satellite messenger, route information
Emergency Kit: whistle, first-aid kit, emergency shelter, two itineraries (one in car, one with a friend)
Repair Kit: tent repair (cord, pole sleeve, etc.), duct tape, NOSO patches or tenacious tape, knife/multi-tool, other specialized repair kit items
Other: ID, cellphone, credit card/cash, permits (if needed)
The type of camping you do will also determine the exact kind of winter gear you need. For instance, if you are snowshoeing, it is nice to have a backpack with lash points. You may be able to get away using the same pack you do the rest of the year, but keep in mind, you need more gear and bulkier gear for winter camping and may need a larger pack.
What sleeping bag do I need for winter camping?
Your sleep gear is among the most important equipment when it comes to winter camping. Even if you plan to camp in 30°F weather, it is a good idea to get a bag that is rated much lower than that. If winter camping is going to be a regular activity, investing in a bag that goes down to 10°F is a good idea as it will work well during most mild winter weather conditions.
Temperature and comfort ratings will vary from brand to brand and according to gender because of how we biologically regulate heat. As a general rule, get a bag rated 10-15° colder than the temperature you expect to sleep in while winter camping. If you get cold easily, err on the side of caution and consider bringing a sleeping bag liner as these can add anywhere from 5-25°F of warmth.
The insulation in your sleeping bag also matters. Down and synthetic insulations are equally popular, and they both have pros and cons. Most standard down insulation does not insulate as well when wet, so that should be a consideration. However, they do pack down smaller and are lighter than synthetics.
Most cold weather sleeping bags will include additional features like draft collars, hoods, and draft tubes to prevent any heat from escaping while you sleep.
Sleeping pads are equally as important asimportant, as the sleeping bag. Sleeping pads are necessary, especially in cold weather, as they insulate you from the ground. Look at the R-value of a sleeping pad to understand the level of insulation it will provide. Most sleeping pads will range from 1.0-8.0 R-value. The higher the R-value, the better the pad insulates. Most winter campers are fine with pads 4.0 or higher.
If you are unsure about the R-value or get cold easily, consider using two sleeping pads. To do this, get a foam pad to put underneath your inflatable pad. This is also nice to use the foam pad as your seating pad when cooking, and it can save the day if your inflatable pad punctures.
Do I need a 4-season tent for winter camping?
Not in all conditions. You can use a 3-season tent for some mild winter camping. If you plan to camp below the tree line and do not anticipate any high winds or winter storms, a 3-season tent can work. You may need to add some additional insulation aspects to the tent, but it is doable with the right sleep gear.
Having a 4-season tent is recommended, especially if winter camping becomes a regular hobby. These tend to be more expensive than 3-season tents because they use sturdier poles and more durable, heavier fabrics. Most 4-season tents have less ventilation (mesh) and an extended rainfly. The combination of stronger materials and less ventilation helps to keep heat in and snow out, no matter how windy.
We recommend buying a used tent or renting a tent for your first-time winter camping.
How and where to camp during winter
Not all winter camping requires camping on snow. However, if you are camping somewhere in the winter that does receive a lot of snow, it is good to understand the differences in setting up camp from ground to snow.
Just as you would when coming up on a camp spot during warmer months, take your time to choose the right location. It may take longer to decide when winter camping, so give yourself enough time to get to camp and set up during the daylight hours.
The primary things you are searching for when choosing your camping spot include:
- Sun exposure
- Wind protection
- Avalanche risk
- Level tent area
- Identify other hazards (i.e., dead trees)
- Water source nearby (or you’ll be melting snow)
There are several interesting and fun to build snow shelters to explore, but for beginner winter campers, choosing a tent is the best and safest option. Once you’ve chosen your tent location, pack down the snow in your sleeping area. While this isn’t necessary, it will be a lot more comfortable to sleep on a flat surface. This is easier if you have snowshoes or skis, but you can do this with snow boots as well.
While you are packing in the snow, look for any sharp objects like rocks or sticks that may be coming up through the snow. The snow will likely continue to compact as you sleep, so find these objects if you can and avoid any tent rips or sleeping pad punctures.
If you cannot find good wind protection, you can dig down a little, so your tent is lower than the snow level. You can also build a snow wall as a windbreak.
When setting up your tent on snow, you will need to use snow stakes. If you are cold-weather camping on the ground, you may need a mallet or a rock to help you hammer the stakes into the frozen ground. Snow stakes take some getting used to, so we suggest practicing before your trip. Utilize guylines as well, especially if it is windy.
Leave No Trace: Winter Use Principles
No matter the time of year, always follow Leave No Trace Principles. When camping in the winter, some of the usual LNT guidelines vary according to the conditions.
Some important reminders for winter camping include:
- Camp on deep snow cover instead of vegetation, or camp only in designated areas when the ground is exposed.
- Travel on deep snow when possible, and if the ground is exposed, only travel on designated trails.
- Pack out human waste and toilet paper when camping on snow. You can dig cat holes at lower elevations if available.
- Do not cut or break tree limbs for fires. Instead, use down and dead wood.
- Observe wildlife from a distance, do not approach or feed.
See all of the Leave No Trace Winter Recreation ethics and best practices on their website.
Winter camping safety tips and injury prevention
Safety should be a priority anytime you’re in the backcountry, but there are new considerations when it comes to traveling and camping in cold weather. Concerns like frostbite or hypothermia are especially prevalent, and precautions should be taken to prevent any cold-weather injuries.
The best way to avoid these types of injuries is to dress appropriately for the weather. You want to stay warm the entire time. Once you are cold, it becomes very difficult to warm up again. If, for some reason, your clothes get wet, always have a backup pair you can change into while those dry. Storing damp clothing in your sleeping bag with you while you sleep can help them dry if you do not have access to a fire.
Please pay attention to your body and what it is telling you. If you start to get cold, address it, don’t try to be tough, and don’t power through! If your hands are cold, grab another layer or use hand warmers. If your feet are cold, use toe warmers. If you are unable to warm up properly, do not feel bad for ending the trip early. Your safety needs to be a priority, and if things start to turn, make the call early to leave.
Check-in with your travel companions and ensure they are taking care of themselves, and advocate for your needs as well. Take note of how they look and how they are acting as you are hiking. If anyone appears to be especially pale or is struggling to stay balanced, stop and check to see if they need more layers of clothing, water, or anything else.
Wind and sunburn are also a concern. Dress appropriately for the conditions, and remember to apply sunscreen to exposed areas.