The Definitive Guide To Camping in the Snow
Looking for the best guide to Winter Camping?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- How to plan a winter backpacking trip.
- Staying warm with the right gear.
- What winter hiking clothing you will need
- How to select & setup camp
- Various outer winter camping tips
It is difficult to explain at first. The absolute silence. The complete lack of noise on awakening – I am in my sleeping bag, in my tent, in the middle of the wilderness in the middle of the winter. Few people venture out here when the temperature plummets, but those few that do are greeted by a land of absolute beauty. Fragile, beautiful, yet deadly.
When mercury has dropped, and the sun is struggling to make an appearance, there are many, many good reasons to try snow camping. We take you through a few of our top reasons to get out there in the snow and ice before leading you through how to plan and prepare for camping in the cold weather.
- Do research the area and plan your route, contingencies and turn-back scenarios before you go.
- Do dress in layers so you can regulate your body temperature.
- Do bring lots of energy dense, simple, warming food (and drink) with you.
- Do select your campsite with care.
- Do watch out for the symptoms of hypothermia, dehydration and frostbite.
- Don’t go out tent camping in winter on your own.
- Don’t forget to pack down the snow before you set up camp.
- Don’t eat snow! It may contain bacteria. Always boil snow first.
- Don’t leave a Trace. Pack all trash (including human waste) out.
Reasons to go Winter Camping
While the majority of people would not consider the midst of winter an appropriate time to camping, we revel in it. While there are many many reasons, here are seven great reasons to get out and explore this winter:
One of the greatest benefits of camping in chilly winter conditions is that you are not one of the majority – most people will think you’re crazy to head out in the depths of winter. However, their loss is your gain. Gone are the crowds from the campsites and the trails, leaving you and your group as possibly the only humans in the area.
Silence is Golden
Many people choose to take a camping trip to get away from the stresses, strains and noises of modern life. Take a trip in summer, and you’ll get peace and quiet in the wilds, but take a trip in the winter, and you reach another level of tranquillity. Gone is the chatter of other human life, no buzzing insects, no rustling of the trees nor sounds of running water as the rivers have iced over. Just the sound of your own breathe punctuates the eerie silence in this ethereal landscape.
Lack of Bugs
There is quite possibly nothing more frustrating on a trip into the backcountry than spending your evenings with dozens of angry mosquitos treating your ankles as a walking buffet. Come the winter almost all insects have disappeared, so leave your bug spray at home.
More wildlife on view
It may seem a bit paradoxically that as winter rolls in and life slows down that you may have more opportunity to spot various critters – the reduced foliage provides less cover for larger animals, and darker fur will stand out in stark contrast with the white snow.
Resets your Circadian Rhythm & Can Combat S.A.D.
Spending time outdoors, particularly in winter, is good for your health; it’s official! Researchers from the University of Boulder have shown that a short weekend camping in the heavy snow will reset your sleep pattern to more closely mimic the rise and fall of the sun, thus helping you get a fuller more rested sleep once you return home. Also, the exposure to more sunlight and the exercising (you are hiking to your campsite, right?) are two common ways to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The mountains and the trails are beautiful in the summer, but their beauty come winter is something else – a fragile mystical world that exhibits mother nature unveiled, delicate, yet unyielding.
The chance to brag
What’s that, you binge-watched Netflix last weekend? Nice. I backpacked through Potawatomi State Park. Feel free to give yourself the opportunity to boast of your adventure in freezing temperatures while your friends wasted the weekend getting hooked on some drama series that was so bland they can’t remember the basic storyline four days later.
A camping trip in the winter requires a little more planning, skills and gear than a summer car camping trip. With the weather much harsher, the margins for error are much smaller so your preparation should go above and beyond to help ensure you have a safe and fun trip.
Further Reading: If you are a novice camper, then we would recommend our camping 101 guide.
If you are heading out into the wilderness in the winter, our advice would be not to go alone, especially if this is your first trip out in the colder months. Bring along some buddy’s to share the joys and tribulations of your adventure, particularly any who have cold weather experience or skill sets that complement and support yours such as being able to navigate through snow, avalanche training or snow shelter building or indeed take a cold weather camping course before you go. The winter is a harsh mistress, don’t take her on alone.
As important as who you will be travelling with, is where you go. Pick a destination for your trip that is within your abilities, and is likely to meet your expectations and goals. Research the area carefully and consider the following questions:
- Where are the nearest emergency services located and how long would they take to reach you?
- Are there any backcountry shelters in the area, and if so, where?
- How will you get there? Where will you leave your vehicle? Do you need a 4×4 or winter tires to reach the trailhead? And are the roads even open?
- What is the terrain like? What are the trails like? Is gentle easy open country or are you looking at some steep long climbs? Pay particular attention to any slopes over 200 that may be prone to avalanches and ensure your group has formal avalanche training if this is the case.
Speak to others who have visited the area and get their insight – if you don’t know anyone personally, you can find lots of helpful folks on various message boards and other online communities who may be able to answer your questions.
When you have a good understanding of the lay of the land, gather your companions and discuss the trips goals and expectations. Plan the route together, taking into consideration the likely trail conditions, weather conditions and the abilities of your group – stage overnight stops closer together than you would normally. Nothing in winter happens at the same speed as in summer.
Be prepared for the unexpected by packing extra clothes, food and cash for emergencies and make contingency plans ahead of the trip and agree on them before you leave. Always, leave a copy of the trip plan with someone, include the names of everyone in your group, the make/model/registration of your vehicle and where you will park it, the route (with timings) and arrange to check in with them every so often. If you fail to check in at the appointed time, then they call the authorities.
Lastly, check the weather forecast before you leave, and be safe rather than sorry if conditions are too nasty. If you are travelling through areas with risk of avalanches, check the local avalanche reports also.
Four-Season Camping Gear
There are no two ways about it; camping in snow is more onerous on you and your gear. You’ll need more clothing and equipment than a summer trip, and the gear will have to stand up to the harsher conditions of winter. To ensure you don’t forget anything, lay out your gear and run through a winter camping checklist before you start packing.
Warm Winter Clothing
The driving principle of an enjoyable winter camping trip is to keep yourself dry and warm. The Scandinavians have a saying “ikke dårlige vær, bare dårlige klær”, which translates as “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”.
Cold Weather Camping Tips: Clothing
Chose clothing with plenty of vents and zippers so you can quickly get some airflow to cool down and prevent sweating.
Zippers aren’t always the easiest to operate with gloves, so add 3 inch strips of lanyard to save yourself from removing your gloves.
Dress appropriately in clothing that will insulate, wick moisture, dry quickly, and are weatherproof and breathable. Do this, and you will be able to handle the elements with a grin on your face. To keep warm and dry efficiently it is dress in layers, in layers, each layer with its own specific purpose.
The base layer(s) should be a comfortable light- to mid-weight synthetic or merino wool fabric whose principal purpose is to wick sweat away from your skin to the outer layers where it can evaporate. Never wear cotton as a base layer as it will retain the moisture as you sweat, leaving you damp, cold and miserable. If it is particularly biting, then it may be a good idea to wear a second, thicker heavyweight base layer.
Moving outward, the middle layer is your insulating layer to help you retain body heat. Think fleece pants, jackets and shirts, or consider going a bit heavier duty with a down-filled jacket if it’s really cold out.
The outer layer is there to protect you directly from the harsh elements, principally, rain, snow and wind. This layer should not only be waterproof/windproof but must be breathable too. We would recommend splurging a bit more here on a jacket made of Gore-Tex or eVent rather than plumping for a cheaper alternative, that while waterproof is less breathable. Also, do not forget to pack gloves and a hat (or several) to keep your extremities warm.
Pro Tip: …more clothing
Remove your boot liners and sleep with them in your sleeping bag. If they are damp from the hike, it’ll stop you waking up to find your boots have frozen. (Can’t remove your liners, then sleep with your shoes!).
Pack Extra Gloves, Hats and Socks. Some will vanish, some will get wet, but hey, at least you brought spares. Right?
Keeping your feet in tip-top condition is a must, consider wearing 2-3 layers of socks with thin polypropylene liner sock (a cheap alternative is to use oven roasting bags) next to the skin to wick moisture away followed by 1 – 2 pairs of wool or wool/nylon blend socks.
Depending on the weather conditions you can get by with a pair of traditional hiking boots, but if snow trekking is on the cards, then you are going to fair much better in winter or mountaineering boots. These tend to have more significant levels of waterproofing and insulation to keep you drier and warmer. Lastly, pack gaiters if you expect thick snow, you will quickly find snow melting in your boots if you don’t.
When wearing all this clothing make sure only to wear what you feel is comfortable and it is imperative to try to minimize sweating. Try and anticipate ahead, if you away to go on a strenuous hike then open up your jacket or even remove a layer to prevent yourself from sweating.
Conversely, if you know you are approaching a particularly windy and exposed section of the trail, layer up before you get there. It is much easier to stay warm than trying to re-warm yourself up from the chills.
Once you get to camp make sure and put all your warm clothes on immediately to preserve the heat you have generated while hiking.
Gearing up for the colder weathering doesn’t necessarily have to devolve into an expensive exercise of “levelling-up” from your summer gear. Careful consideration of the weather conditions, the specifications and the current state of repair of your current gear need to be weighed up against the need for a complete overhaul. So, lets dig into cold weather camping gear and decide what are the winter camping essentials.
Taking a look at the first of the “big four”, purchasing a winter tent is possibly not a necessity. If the area is experiencing a mild winter, you can get by with a three-season tent and a few modifications/additions. You’ll need to bring a couple of tarps with you, one to protect the bottom of your tent from melting snow and the second to set up as a wind block. Purchase a sleeping bag liner, and this setup may work well for you.
Further reading: If you intend on using tarps to help shore up your shelter, make sure you know some basic knots for camping before you head out into the wilds.
On the other hand, if there is even the smallest chance you will be experiencing winter storms, then please, do invest in a winter or mountaineering tent. These four-season tents are heavier than their 3-season cousins but are sturdier and offer better snow & wind protection.
A good 4-season tent will typically be dome-shaped, and constructed predominately of solid fabric as opposed to mesh for more warmth and strength, have a large number of guy lines and a larger than normal vestibule(s) for gear storage and/or cooking in bad weather.
Choosing a good cold weather sleeping bag is a must, and the first place to go is to check the EN ratings. EN ratings are generated by tucking a sensor covered manikin into a sleeping bag and subjecting him/her to a simulated freezing night in a cold chamber. After pulling our stiff(er) friend out of the chiller, they will look at the data and will generally give EN ratings as two numbers – a comfort rating and a lower-limit rating in degree Fahrenheit (or Celsius).
Pro Tip: Sleeping Bags
Consider heating some water and putting it into a watertight container, such as a Neogene bottle. Place the bottle into your sleeping bag around 20 minutes before bed for a nice cozy feeling when it’s time to tuck in for the night.
If it’s a clear, sunny day then turn your bag inside out and leave it on top of your tent to dry out during the day. Buying a bag with black interiors will absorb more sunlight and dry out faster.
The comfort rating represents the lowest temperature that the average female (or cold sleeper) can comfortably tolerate and the lower-limit rating is representative for the average male (or warm sleeper).
When selecting a sleeping bag always choose one that is rated to at least 10 F (5 C) lower than the absolute lowest temperatures you expect to experience on your trip. Winter bags are typically filled with goose down due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio, however, be careful to keep your bag dry (or purchase one with water-resistant down) as wet down quickly loses its insulating properties.
If you want to keep extra cosy, then consider purchasing a sleeping bag liner. They not only will keep you 5-150 F warmer but also help to minimize wear and keep your bag cleaner. Also, consider buying on that is a VPL (vapor-barrier-liner) to prevent condensation from your body freezing your sleeping bag solid.
It may come as a surprise to some that you lose more body heat to the ground than the air while sleeping. A lot more. If you like to travel light, you can forgo a sleeping pad in the summer, in the depths of winter is a different story. As Bear Grylls, the love him or hate him ex-SAS trooper and tv presenter says, “one on the bottom is worth two on the top”.
As with the EN ratings for sleeping bags, sleeping pads are differentiated by their R-Values. The R-Values are an indicator of how insulating a pad is from 1-8, one being the poorest insulator and eight the highest. As with the EN ratings, these are from a standardized test under test conditions, so take them with a pinch of salt.
Typically entering the winter season, you want at least an R-Value of 5 between you and the ground. However, before you rush out to buy a new high-end pad, R factors from multiple pads can be stacked. A common hack used by experienced winter campers is to place a closed-cell foam pad on the ground and layer a self-inflating pad on top.
With extra clothes and gear, you will need a higher volume backpack compared to summer trekking for the same trip duration. Typically, between a 65-litre to 80-litre pack should see you through a 2-4 day winter camping trip.
Pro Tips: Electronics
Cold weather significantly decreases battery life, so store your batteries and electronics inside your sleeping bag to keep warm.
If you find your cell phone has died, place it in an inside pocket close to your body heat and you may well find it works again.
Bring some candles & candle lantern as a backup, they are lightweight and can provide extra light (and some extra heat).
With the longer nights, be sure to pack some lighting, be it headlamps and/or flashlights. Make sure all your devices/batteries are fully charged before heading out on your adventure and bring spares should they run out. Check to see if your devices can handle lithium batteries, which handle better in cold weather and last longer than cheaper alkaline batteries.
If you are going into the backcountry, then it is likely you will have no cell phone coverage to check in or communicate with your group should you get split up. It is recommended to bring two-way radios and/or a satellite phone to make sure you can still reach help if need be.
In addition to your typical gear list, it is likely that you will need some (if not all) of the following gear to make your trip a great one:
- Ice axe
- Extra Tarps
- Snow sled
- Snow shovel
Safety gear is a necessity when heading into avalanche prone areas. It is recommended that every member of the party to at a minimum carry an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a snow shovel. Extra items, like a personal locator beacon (PLB) and avalanche airbag packs can make all the difference between life and death, so seriously consider looking into them.
Setting up Your Winter Campsite
If you have got your planning right then you should arrive at your allotted campsite spot with plenty of daylight left to set up camp. If possible, try and arrive at least an hour and a half before the sun dips below the horizon.
Choosing your spot
Arriving at your destination you will have to do some work to scout the lay of the land to setup camp in the optimum location to keep you safe and warm(er). When picking a spot, consider the following:
- Is the area exposed to the wind? Do not set up camp on any ridges or other places exposed to high winds. Ideally, you should find a spot that is naturally sheltered but failing that you can build a snow wall, or use that spare tarp you brought to construct a wind break.
- Is the area in an avalanche danger zone? If so, then move location.
- Get your bearings and determine where the sun will rise. Placing your tents in a sunny spot will help you warm up faster come morning. South facing slopes will give you longer days and more direct sunlight.
- While trees will help shelter you from the wind, do not pitch your tent directly under any overhanging branches. Branches laden with snow will break from time to time. You don’t want to be sleeping under one when it does.
- Is there a water source nearby? Or will you have to melt snow?
- Is the ground relatively level?
Setting up Camp
If you are planning on sleeping with tents (rather than building a snow shelter), then start setting up your camp by getting out your shovel and packing down the snow around your pitch areas. Unpacked snow may melt, leaving a very uneven sleeping surface. If you can, leave the snow 30 mins or so to settle before beginning to pitch your tents.
Pro Tips: At Camp
It’ll likely be a long night, mostly spent in your sleeping bag so make sure you have something to pass the time like a good book, or cards or good conversation with your camping buddy.
If you intend to build a camp fire, bring enough wood along as you can’t guarantee that with limited winter services you will be able to buy or find (or be allowed to gather) wood at your location in the depths of winter.
When setting up your tent, always place your entrance at 90 degrees to any prevailing winds. If the winds are particularly strong, then build a snow wall (or use a spare tarp) on the windward side to protect your tent. Also, you can also pack up snow onto your shelter from the base up to add an extra layer of warmth. A quick warning that this is a two-person job, as you will need your companion inside the tent pushing back to hold the snow up until you have it packed down on top.
Make sure and stake down your tent with snow tent stakes (regular ones won’t work well in snow and frozen ground) and add and stake down extra guylines. If you are camping in deep snow, consider tying a plastic shopping bag to the end of the guy and fill the bag with snow then bury it so only the handles are sticking out.
To create a bit more space, dig a pit under your vestibule(s) out of the snow to a depth of 2 or 3 feet. This will 1) allow you to sit comfortably and take off your boots before entering the tent and 2) will create more space to hold the rest of your equipment. If, however, you do not have enough room under your tent to store all your equipment, then remember to cover it with a spare tarp.
If you are planning on camping in the same spot for a few days, then consider building your own winter kitchen – dig out trenches and benches in the snow around your “table”.
Pro Tips: Fuel for the Body
Plan on eating every hour or so when you are on the move. Stop for 5 minutes and eat drink, then move on! Don’t stop for long lunches and lose all your body heat.
If you are travelling light then consider cooking in your vestibule (always light the stove outside and bring it in). Keep the door open for ventilation and get out of the tent if you begin to feel nauseous or are getting a headache. If you are a bigger crowd then consider bringing a second tent/shelter/tarp to create some cover for boiling hot water and cooking when the weather turns nasty.
Drop 20-40g of butter into your dinner for an extra calorie boost.
Add gatorade/lemonade to water bottles to help prevent it from freezing.
When it comes to how you boil/cook it’s good to know that liquid-fuel stove perform better than canister stoves at lower temperatures and bringing a second contingency stove is a great idea should the first fail. Also, don’t forget the extra fuel! At colder temperatures all stoves become less efficient and will burn through fuel faster.
When it comes to food, remember it is not just your stove that will burn through its energy reserves faster, you will too. Remember to pack plenty of energy dense foods for the trips.
When you are out in the cold all day, hearty soups, stews and other one-pot meals that can be prepared at home or purchased so that you can quickly heat them up and get moving again. As there is no need for a cooler, consider replacing your typical backpacking add-water meals with regular tv dinner boil-in-the-bag fare.
Bring plenty of hot beverages: hot chocolate, coffee, tea etc. to keep yourself cosy as you snuggle down for an evening or to revitalize you on waking up the next morning.
When it comes to water, always heat your snow to a boil. While it may look pristine, snow forms by nucleation of water vapor around a nucleus (either dirt or bacteria). You don’t want to get sick in freezing temperatures.
Once you have boiled your snow and have a plentiful supply of water, store it in a wide-necked Nalgene bottle. To prevent the water from freezing, put them in an insulating bag or pouch and flip the bottle upside down. Ice forms from the top down, so flipping it will prevent the neck/drinking tube from freezing solid.
Staying healthy while out in the Cold
Cold Weather Sanitation
Sanitation is a little trickier in winter when the ground may or may not be frozen solid. If you can, dig a cathole 8 inches into the dirt, bury the number 2 and put a rock on top. If the ground is frozen solid then pack it out using human waste disposal bags – DO NOT leave it in the snow to be discovered by the first hikers of spring! Remember, Leave No Trace!
When it comes to peeing, this is slightly easier, just make sure to kick some fresh snow over once you are done. You may find that you have the urge to pee more frequently during the night when you are warm in your sleeping bag and in no real mood to get out of the tent. You may want to consider using a pee bottle in such circumstances, although, make sure that you can readily tell the difference between your pee bottle and your water bottle in the dark!
Cold Weather Health Concerns
When out and about in the cold, you will have to pay particular attention for any symptoms of hypothermia, frostbite and dehydration.
Hypothermia is easy to slip into without noticing. It is in principal; hypothermia is a failure of the body to maintain normal body temperature at (or around) 370 due to exposure to cold temperature conditions.
Pro Tip: Remember Sun Protection
Bring sunglasses and sunscreen. Sun reflecting on the snow cover can not only be blinding but also give you a nice lobster red color even in the most frigid of weather.
Pay attention for any members of your group who are exhibiting symptoms of slurred speech, lethargy, shivering or are less or non-communicative. If you suspect someone has hypothermia it is important to warm them up by giving them warm food/fluids, put them in warm/dry clothes and/or a sleeping bag and/or use your own body heat to keep them warm. In severe cases, call for help as hypothermia can be life-threatening.
Frostbite is the freezing of tissue usually on the extremities (fingers, toes, nose or face). It occurs when your body can not circulate warm blood fast enough to compensate for heat loss in cold conditions. If severe enough, frostbite can require amputation of the affected area.
If you feel an area is numb to the touch, or if it is tingling and/or has turned white-to-purple then you may be suffering from frostbite. Use warm water on the affected area and/or place the frostbitten appendages next to warm skin such as putting your fingers in your armpits.
Despite the cold weather, dehydration is a real threat. Make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids to keep you hydrated. If your urine is quite dark, then you are not drinking enough. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, confusion and weakness (and possibly death) if it becomes severe.
Don’t forget to restock and bring along a backcountry first aid kit!