While the tranquility and pristine sights that you can enjoy during winter camping certainly are appealing, the prospect of camping outdoors in the cold can be intimidating even for the most experienced campers. However, camping during winter is not all that different from camping in any other season. With careful planning, winter camping can be less of a miserable experience and more of something that you can look forward to.
Pick the right winter tent
As with fair-weather camping, picking the proper tent is key to your comfort. Tents for winter camping are specifically designed with more durable fabric and stronger poles, allowing them to better withstand strong winds and heavy snowfall.
At the minimum, you will want to get a double-wall tent with a vestibule. Double-wall tents typically have better ventilation which can help reduce condensation and internal frosting. A vestibule provides a spot to leave your wet boots and jacket so you don’t have to bring them inside the tent. Many regular four-season tents come with these features and are perfectly compatible with winter camping.
You can also get winter tents with stoves. This is probably the ultimate level of comfort you can get while camping in the winter. A tent stove provides warmth inside the tent, as well as a place to cook your food and dry your clothes.
On the flip side, a tent with a stove is a lot bulkier, heavier, and harder to set up than a regular tent. You’re also going to need some kindling for that stove, so adding a kindling axe to your gear might be a good idea.
Regardless of the type of tent you use, you’re going to want to add a few layers of insulation for your comfort. The most common way to do this is to place a thick tarp underneath the tent to reduce heat loss to the cold ground. You can also set up another tarp to act as a windbreak, taking note of the wind direction and making sure that you bring along some heavy-duty grommets.
One last thing to take note of is that tents made for winter or four-season camping are usually more expensive than tents made with more lightweight materials. However, the payoff in terms of comfort and safety is well worth the extra investment.
Understand the conditions
Knowledge is your best tool for winter camping. An understanding of how temperature changes, how your body loses heat, and how snow alters the terrain during winter will all come in handy during preparation and your actual camping trip. Most people learn this by experience. If this is the first time you’re going camping in winter, you might still run into a few surprises.
Just as with any camping trip, it’s worth taking the time to check the weather forecast for your destination. You want to be on the lookout for expected storms in the area, as well as the predicted high and low temperatures for the duration of your trip. It hardly needs to be said, but you should prepare for the lowest temperature possible.
The selection of your camping destination also has to be grounded on your level of experience and the temperatures you’re comfortable with. High-altitude camping sites will inevitably be colder, while low-altitude sites are more wet than cold.
If you’re hiking to an established camping site, then there’s a good chance that you can also get information on the area’s snow quality and level. For snow that’s particularly deep or breakable, your usual backpacking boots might no longer be enough to keep your feet warm.
Whatever the conditions may be, it’s always a good idea to go winter camping as a group. Consider the experience of each member of the group, and make sure that everyone is well-informed of the details of your plan.
Wear the right clothes for cold temperature
Wearing your clothes in several layers is the key to staying warm in the winter. At the minimum, plan to wear a mid-weight base layer, an insulating layer (such as wool, fleece, or down jacket), and a waterproof outmost layer. Although you will want to keep your waterproof layer on most of the time to keep dry, you can remove your wool or down jacket as necessary. It’s important to stay warm but not too warm that you end up sweating, as sweat can make you lose body heat rapidly.
As the layer that touches your skin, the base layer plays an important role in retaining your body heat. Whether you go for synthetic materials like polyester or nylon, or more natural options like Merino wool, you will want a base layer that wicks moisture away from your skin effectively. Mid-weight long underwear is an all-around good choice for winter camping, although you may consider heavyweight options if you plan to camp in below-freezing temperatures.
On top of the standard winter clothes, don’t forget to pack accessories like a hat, mittens, and wool socks. Since your body prioritizes keeping your core warm, your hands and feet will need all the help they can get to avoid getting cold. Keep in mind that these accessories are just as essential for your comfort as your base layer and insulating layer – you may want to consider packing an extra hat and an extra pair of mittens, just in case you lose or misplace the ones you’re already wearing.
Avoid wearing anything made of cotton when camping in winter. Cotton absorbs and retains moisture, which will make you lose body heat faster. Cotton clothes also become heavier when they get water-logged.
If you’re anticipating having to hike over deep snow, then you’ll have to trade in your standard backpacking shoes or boots for snowshoes. Snowshoes provide better insulation and traction suitable for snow. It’s also a good idea to wear a pair of gaiters to keep snow from getting into your boots and socks.
Whatever you’re wearing, make sure that they aren’t so tight that they restrict blood circulation. This often happens with base layers and boots with tight socks. Although they might feel snug and warm at first, loss of blood circulation can make your hands and feet go cold a lot faster.
Secure sites and flatten your sleeping surface
It’s a good idea to set up camp while the sun is still out and assemble your tents right away. Aside from getting that chore out of the way, this gives some time for your tents to capture and trap in as much heat as possible.
As in fair-weather camping, it’s important to pick a campsite with easy access to both water and firewood. An open water source may not be as easy to find during winter. If you need to melt snow for drinking water, then plan for extra fuel provisions.
As usual, pick a relatively flat spot that has ample protection from the wind, receives sunlight in the morning, and is far from potential hazards like avalanches. One unique thing you need to do during winter camping is to stomp down on the snow where you plan to set up your tent. This makes the snow less prone to sinking or collapsing because of your body weight – something that you would not want to deal with in the dead of night.
Stay hydrated. It can be easy to neglect the need to drink water regularly when it’s cold and you aren’t sweating. However, it is just as important to get hydrated. Make sure to drink your water even if you aren’t thirsty. To make this easier, make sure to pack an insulated water bottle.
Do not eat snow. One might think that looking for drinking water isn’t a problem in winter since there’s so much now around, but it is more often a bad idea to eat snow directly. Snow will require a lot of energy to convert to water, which will draw from your body heat. To not waste too much of your precious calories, set up your stove for a snow-melting session.
Eat to keep warm. The best way to sustain your body’s heat and energy is to fill up with calorie-rich food. Aim for a diet that is about 50% carbohydrates, with the balance provided by both protein and fat. Take the time to prepare hot and nutritious breakfasts and dinners while eating low-maintenance snacks in between.
There’s a unique serenity to winter camping. During winter, campsites are much less crowded, the skies are clearer, and the air takes on a characteristically crisp smell. Hot meals and drinks also tend to taste better out in the wild against the backdrop of the cold winter air.
For all the merits of winter camping, it can quickly turn into a miserable experience with poor planning. With the basic tips in this article, we hope that your next winter camping trips will become memorable for all the right reasons.