Camping in cold weather is a completely different experience than casual summer camping. Winter Camping requires detailed prior planning and it’s helpful if at least one of the campers has previous experience camping in snow conditions. If you are made of sturdier stuff than the fair-weather campers, you’ll be rewarded with an experience unlike any other! Campsites will be largely vacant and you’ll have a quieter camping experience. There is something magical about the quiet snow-covered landscape. If you’re ready to go winter camping – read on for some proven tips and hacks to make cold weather camping enjoyable.
Winter camping clothing techniques
Outer Layer: It is essential to have a windproof and minimum water-resistant outer layer. If you expect wet weather, then waterproof is a requirement.
Inner Layers: Starting with thermal underwear, try to wear as many clothing layers as possible so that you can adjust your warmth level based on physical exertion.
Hands: Always bring glove/mitten liners so that you can keep your fingers warm even if you momentarily have to remove the outer glove for dexterity.
Footwear: You need waterproof boots if you’ll be hiking in the snow.
Bring extra gloves and an extra hat
Of all the essential pieces of clothing, extra gloves and an extra hat are possibly the most important. Not only is it unbelievably easy to lose one of these items, but if your gloves get wet or compromised somehow, you must have a back up pair or else risk exposure issues.
Hydrate–your body needs more water than you realize
It’s easy to remember to hydrate in the summer months, but your body needs just as much fluids in the cold winter months
Try not to sweat
The whole point of layering your clothing is so that as your physical exertion fluctuates, you can remove layers as needed to regulate body temperature. Try never to sweat because once you cool down, the moisture can put you at increased risk of hypothermia.
Don’t eat snow (especially yellow snow)
Never eat snow. First it takes up vast amounts of energy for your body to warm the snow into water for your body. Second, the snow will bring down your core body temperature, causing your body to burn even more energy/calories trying to warm back up. Finally, snow – even if it looks pristine – can have bacteria and contaminates in it that are hazards for your health. Always take the time to melt snow and boil it for at least 3-5 minutes before consuming it. And never, ever eat/boil yellow snow.
Start the Campfire before you do anything else
First thing after arriving at your selected campsite, start building your fire. Fires in the winter are more difficult due to windy/wet conditions and wet or frozen fire wood. Bring long burning, high quality fire starters in order to give your collected firewood time to dry out enough to catch fire.
Pick a tent site that is sheltered from winds and gets the first early morning sun
When you arrive at your campsite, take note of where the sun’s first morning rays are likely to hit. Situate your tent to take advantage of the morning sun while making sure the door is shielded from winds.
Prepping your tent site ground
After you’ve located the optimal site to put your tent, stomp down all the snow that will be under the tent floor. You need it to be as compact as possible so that it doesn’t shift or melt/refreeze under your tent floor. Protect the exterior bottom of your tent with a tent footprint (or tarp) and the interior floor of your tent with a camping mat (like a Mountain mat). This will provide extra insulation as well.
Make sure to vent the tent
Open the vents at the top of your tent to allow air flow during the night. This will help reduce condensation build up inside the tent.
Ground insulation for sleeping
You need to be careful to insulate yourself at night from ground temperatures. Line the floor of the tent with a camping mat and then use either a foam pad or inflatable mattress. You should have a minimum of ½” thickness of insulation.
Choosing the right sleeping bag
Choose a sleeping bag rated for temperatures below what you expect to experience on your winter camping trip. Sleeping bag should be the mummy style with cinch-able hood.
Stuff the sleeping bag – clothes, small electronics, boot liners, etc
At night, either sleep in your clothes or keep them tucked inside your sleeping bag. They’ll stay warm and keep you warmer as well by adding insulation to your bag. If you have boot liners – make sure to remove them and put them inside your sleeping bag as well. If you don’t have liners, you can wrap your boots in a plastic bag and put them inside too (if you have room).
If you’ve been doing a good job drinking water and staying hydrated, then you’ll find yourself in the uncomfortable predicament of having to pee, but not wanting to leave the warmth of your tent and sleeping bag. Every camper should have a well-marked Pee Bottle. Use duct tape to decorate your bottle so that it never gets confused with any other kind of bottle (eww!). Men – its easy and obvious how to use a Pee Bottle. Women – use a GoGirl or other lady-funnel-pee-thingy to simplify filling your Pee Bottle. Word of caution for women: I suggest practicing at home (maybe in the shower?) just to make sure you have the hang of the whole Pee Bottle thing. Guys have been doing this since road-trips were invented (I know, gross, right?) but we’re newer to the game. It can take a little practice to get comfortable.
Winter wind, sun, and air reek havoc on the skin. Always use high-quality sunscreen and spread Vaseline on exposed skin (face, neck, wrists, etc) to prevent chapping, windburn, and even frostbite.
Leave no trace of human waste
Winter’s cold temperature and lack of sunlight significantly slow down the decomposition of human waste (#2 and its accompanying TP). Dig a cat hole in the snow that is at least 200 ft from the nearest water source. Attempt to dig to the ground or if possible, into the ground if it isn’t too frozen solid. Burn or pack out the TP you use. Cover your ‘deposit’ and mark with twig or stone so another camper doesn’t use the same spot.
If you are a first time winter camper, check out this guide with some more tips to help make your cold weather camping trip a success.
Jennifer Hillberg is the Founder and Creator of Mountain Mat, LLC, the USA’s first 100% recycled plastic, reversible, outdoor recreation mat. As an avid outdoor recreationalist, Jennifer has hiked and camped in some of the world’s most remote places alongside her husband and three children. Learn more about The Mountain Mat Story.