Winter camping requires a lot of preparation and planning. I learned that the hard way by camping unprepared in Iceland. Not taking the necessary steps is unsafe. Not only that, but it will also result in a very uncomfortable camping trip.
On the other hand, snow camping is such a peaceful activity. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful times of the year – and a great time to connect with nature. It’s definitely not an activity to miss out on. So don’t be scared and take the leap, just make sure you’re prepared!
If you’re wondering ‘what do I need to know for winter camping’, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to help you prepare for your upcoming cold-weather camping trip. We do this by making sure you bring the right gear and knowledge. This way you’ll experience your journey in a comfortable and safe manner.
Things To Know Before Reading This Post
First of all, you may want to take a look at my general camping guide if you’re a beginner. It contains much more valuable information that could help you become a pro.
You should also know that camping in extreme cold conditions ( starting from 30°F or -1°C) may not be enjoyable for everyone. That’s because it’s more dangerous than camping in normal circumstances. It’s harder, requires more work and is more intense, especially when you’re at high altitude.
The likelihood of discomfort is very, very high. So if you want to feel comfortable on your journey, you might want to pick a warm place. This will be much more pleasant for you.
It’s necessary that you plan your trip and take everything into consideration. You should prepare for bad weather and emergencies. That’s why you might want to reconsider going on a cold-weather camping trip if you’re new to camping.
Location and setup of the tent
How to choose your location
The first thing you want to do is finding a good and safe camp spot. This is much more important when camping in extreme cold conditions. When I went camping with my father in Iceland, we both slept very badly during the first night. That was because we hadn’t put the tent out of the wind enough. So try to find a place where you’re sheltered from the wind.
If there is no such spot, build a snow wall around your tent if possible. You can also make a pit in the snow and pitch your tent in it, just make sure you don’t cut off the ventilation.
You should also check the trees surrounding your potential spot. I’m sure you don’t want a tree or a branch falling on your tent in the middle of the night.
Another thing to look out for is that you don’t place your tent on or below a slope that could slide (avalanche risk!).
Try to place your tent close to a water source. Don’t worry if there isn’t one, you can always boil snow, that will make it drinkable.
Because it’s so cold, you might want to choose a location where the sun will shine in the morning. This will help you warm up and it will be easier for you to get out of your cozy sleeping bag.
Setting up your tent
When you have chosen a safe and advantageous location, It’s time to set up your tent. You want a hard and even surface. If you need to pitch your tent on snow, make sure you pack it down.
If you don’t do this, you will create an uneven surface and the snow under the tent will melt. During the night it will freeze again, giving you a hard surface with many bumps. This will not be comfortable to sleep on. You can pack down the snow with your boots or skis.
Do this with all the areas that you are going to use. You will need a place to cook, set up your tent, to sit, maybe a place for a campfire… If you have a latrine, make a pathway to it, so you don’t have to put on your snowshoes every time you go to the toilet.
Keep in mind that setting up a tent in snow will take more time than you’re used to. So make sure you start early, so it’s done by the time it gets dark. Fill as much space in your tent as you can, this will insulate it and thus make it easier for you to stay warm.
Be careful not to place any sharp objects in or around your tent. This will ensure that you don’t make a cut in your tent.
If you brought a tent stove or heater, now it’s the right time to install it. All you have to watch out for is that you don’t set the tent on fire!
Make certain that there is enough ventilation in your tent. Otherwise, condensation will form on the inside of your tent, which will result in a moist sleeping bag.
Bring the appropriate gear
Bringing the right gear with you is one of the most important steps for a safe journey. Make sure you check everything twice. Forgetting necessary gear at home is not only unsafe, but it also makes the trip less comfortable for you.
As I discovered on my trip to Iceland, winter camping is no fun when you don’t have the right equipment. We forgot to wrap anything metal in duct tape. This made touching stuff like water bottles or shovels a horror.
I found this handy checklist on Pinterest and thought this might be useful to you.
When camping in extreme cold conditions with a lot of snowfall and wind, a 4 season tent is a must-have. A normal tent or a 3-season tent would collapse under the weight of the snow, but a 4-season tent will do the job.
A 4-season tent is designed to protect from snow buildup, ice, hail and high winds. These tents often have useful functions such as ventilation openings. This allows you to control the formation of condensation. The walls are often completely free of gauze. Instead, they use polyester or nylon to absorb some body heat and block gusty winds. More pole sections, thicker frame models and full fabric sleeves are being used to improve strength and stability. These tents are only needed for extreme weather conditions. Your 3-season tent will be good enough in most cases.
Warm sleeping bag
If you want it warm at night, you’d better bring a cold-weather sleeping bag. They are insulated with a lot of down or synthetic material.
Synthetic and down sleeping bags both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Synthetic sleeping bags dry faster, insulate while damp, and are not moisture sensitive. As they’re cheaper than down sleeping bags, it’s usually a good place to start.
Down sleeping bags weigh less, are breathable and very packable.
So what kind of sleeping bag is best for you depends on your situation and what you appreciate. If you have a down sleeping bag, make sure you keep it dry, because if it gets wet, it won’t insulate as well as before.
You may want to bring a vapor-barrier-liner (VBL) if you’re going on a trip that lasts longer than a week. After a while, condensation will form within the upper layer of your sleeping bag. That’s because of the temperature difference between your sleeping bag and the air. That condensation will freeze and slowly but surely your sleeping bag will become very icy.
Closed-cell foam sleeping pad
A closed-cell foam will make sure you don’t have to sleep on a cold surface. While this kind of sleeping pad does an excellent job of insulating, it’s not comfortable. They tend to be bulky and are stiff and firm.
If you have some spare room, you may want to bring a different, more comfortable sleeping mat with a high R-value. You can put this one on top of your closed-cell foam sleeping pad.
R-value is used to measure thermal resistance. A sleeping mat with a high R-value is more thermal-resistant than a mat with a low R-value. This means that a sleeping mat with a high R-value becomes cold less quickly than a mat with a low R-value.
Wind-resistant tent stakes
I’m sure you don’t want to run after your tent after it went flying. If that’s true, you may want to consider bringing some wind-resistant tent stakes.
Here is a very informative video about different types of tent stakes that can help you make a choice. It also shows you how to use them and what kind of stake you need, depending on your situation.
Urination device (FUD) for the ladies
It’s easy for men to pee in a bottle. But for women, this is already an adventure on its own. And nobody wants to get out of their tent in the middle of the night while it’s freezing cold. That’s why you might want to bring a Female Urination Device (FUD). This will make it easier for women to pee in a bottle and in the woods.
As I mentioned before, duct tape is definitely a must-have when winter camping. It’ll save you a lot of inconveniences. Just make sure you pack everything at home, so you don’t have to do it at your destination.
If you travel by car and it gets stuck in the snow, you’ll be glad you brought a shovel. It can also come in handy in many different situations.
Don’t just rely on your electronics. Batteries can die from freezing temperatures.
Firestarter with a long burn time
Since it gets pretty cold when the sun goes down, you want to make a fire before it gets dark. You will need waterproof firestarters with a long burn since all the wood around you will probably be wet. Some firestarters burn for up to 15 minutes. This will save you a lot of time and trouble.
These types of batteries can withstand much colder temperatures than alkaline or NiMh batteries. They are also lighter, have a flat decay and have a three times longer service life.
You’ll be needing more fuel than normal because you’re probably going to melt snow for drinking water. You’ll also use more fuel at higher altitudes.
Food and water
When you digest food, your body generates heat. This means that the reason for eating differs from normal circumstances. Now you also eat to keep yourself warm.
For the gluttons among us, this may not seem like a bad thing.
Be smart about it
Bring food that doesn’t weigh much, but contains a lot of nutrients. you might want to avoid foods with a lot of water. When they freeze, they become heavy and difficult to eat. This way you save a lot of weight.
Keep drinking enough water, even when you are not thirsty. You have to be as strong as possible, otherwise you could get sick.
If you don’t feel like drinking ice-cold or frozen water, bring some insulated bottles with you. They are designed to reflect most of radiant heat and will insulate hot drinks and soup.
Lots of calories
You’ll need more calories than normal. This is because winter backpacking can be exhausting. You’ll be hiking through snow with heavy gear. Not only that, but your body will have to burn calories to stay warm, even when you sleep. Here’s an entire guide about winter camping foods.
Dry foods are very effective for winter camping. They don’t freeze as easily as food that contains water. Here are some great high-calories dry foods:
- Precooked rice (instant rice)
- Beef jerky (dry meat)
- Garbanzo beans
- Macadamia nuts
- Energy bars
What about fresh foods?
You can bring fresh foods like butter, cheese, cookies, salami and pepperoni with you as they won’t freeze.
Some foods that contain very little water can still freeze if it gets cold enough. So it’s wise to keep food that you want to eat on the way close to your body, like in your jacket. This way it won’t freeze easily because of your body temperature.
Bring the right clothing
Bringing the right clothes and the right amount is crucial. You should also know how to layer your clothing properly in order to stay dry. Maybe you don’t want to mess this up, because if you do, it could be a disaster.
How to layer your clothing
Layering your clothing is very important if you want to stay warm. In general, you need three layers, each with a specific task.
The first layer should wick the sweat away from your skin. Polyester material or merino wool are the best fabrics for this coating. These fabrics are great at wicking away sweat and dry quickly. Make sure the clothing pieces are next to your skin, like long underwear.
The second layer‘s job will be to isolate so that you maintain body heat. A puffy jacket is an excellent piece of clothing for this layer. A heavyweight (thick) fleece jacket should also be good. For your legs, you can wear thick long underwear or fleece pants.
The third layer needs to keep everything underneath dry. A fully waterproof jacket and pants will come in handy here. Make sure it is waterproof and not water-resistant. If water gets through your first layer, your camping trip will be an unpleasant experience.
You want to avoid wool and cotton because when it gets wet it becomes very heavy and it won’t be easy to get it dry. Fleece is the go-to material for winter camping. Here are some advantages of fleece in comparison with cotton and wool:
- Isolates better
- Absorbs almost no water
- Doesn’t stretch
- Has a smaller packing volume
- Dries faster
- It’s more durable
- Transports sweat out faster
A puffy coat is great for winter camping. They insulate very well and are lightweight. It’s either isolated with down or synthetic material. In most cases, down-filled coats will be warmer. But there are some industrialists who know how to make an equally isolated synthetic jacket.
Puffer jackets are waterproof, but only to a certain extent. If you experience heavy rain or snow, your jacket will get wet and freeze. That’s why you might want to bring a completely waterproof and lightweight jacket that will protect you from rain and wind.
Try to find a jacket that is warm and waterproof but won’t overheat you in the summer.
You want to get yourself warm, breathable and moisture-wicking socks. Try to find some that are made out of synthetic material or merino wool. These kinds of socks will keep your feet dry, which is crucial when camping in cold weather.
Your head is one of the most important body parts to keep warm. Make sure you bring a breathable, merino wool, moisture-wicking and insulating hat.
You might want to bring an extra one in case you lose it.
You might want to invest in some winter gloves if you still want to have some fingers after your camping trip. Insulating gloves will do the job if it’s not too cold.
But if it’s really cold, you may want to layer your gloves. You’ll need three layers, each layer being a different kind of glove. The first layer should be a liner glove, the second one an insulating glove and the third one an overmitt.
Don’t forget to bring some extra gloves, because there’s a good chance you’ll lose one.
If there’s snow at your destination, you might want to bring sunglasses. The snow reflects the light and can make the ground very bright. This can be very annoying and unhealthy, so keep this in mind.
Don’t be frugal with boots and snowshoes, you want well-insulated boots that are sturdy and breathable.
Boots are waterproof if they are completely enclosed by rubber or plastic. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you get sweaty feet easily, you might want to bring breathable shoes instead. Rubber and plastic shoes don’t do a good job at wicking away sweat and it’s important to keep your feet dry.
Snowshoes are handy in thick snow, it makes it less tiring to walk. Depending on the terrain you’re going to walk on, you’ll want some snowshoes for a flat trail or mountains.
There are two types of snowshoes: metal frame snowshoes and plastic snowshoes. Metal frame snowshoes are lighter and quieter but they aren’t as durable and are way more expensive than plastic ones.
If you don’t know how to choose snowshoes, I suggest you take a look at this guide. It’s very informative and provides all the info you are looking for.
Prevent cold injuries
You may want to prevent cold injuries like frostbite and hypothermia. That’s why it’s critical to stay warm at all times.
Don’t walk around with bare skin, especially not with naked hands or feet.
At night you can stay warm by pouring hot water in an insulated bottle. Put the bottle in a sock and place it between your thighs or on your chest.
If you have some exposed skin, you might want to apply Vaseline to protect it from the wind.
Some quick tips
- Don’t work hard as you will sweat too much, take it easy.
- Share your route or destination with friends.
- Make sure you know how to read a map.
- Don’t rely on weather forecasts. Be prepared for anything.
- Don’t make a campfire too big. Many people did not survive their winter camping trip because their tent burned to ashes.
- Have fun. Winter camping tends to be annoying because of the cold. Make sure you focus on the good things.
- Keep an eye out for snow build-up on your tent. With heavy snowfall, you may need to get up every few hours to clear it.
- Don’t push yourself. Winter camping is difficult for the first time. Don’t try to learn everything on your first winter camping trip. Give yourself time and eventually, you’ll be an expert.
Cold-weather camping is no joke and you should be prepared both mentally and physically.
Ensure that your camping spot is safe and enough out of the wind.
Make sure you know how to use your equipment and if it works.
Make a list of your gear and clothing and check it twice.
Bring the right food and stay hydrated.
Know how to prevent cold injuries.
Keep the quick tips in mind.
Planning is everything, if you do that right, your journey will be one you won’t forget.
I hope this article was useful to you! If you have any questions at all, you can contact me on this page.
Stay safe and keep exploring!