Introduction to Cold Weather Camping for Newbies

The whole idea of Winter camping might seem strange and…well…cold – but it can be surprising exhilarating and fun. Most people can’t imagine cold-weather camping, which means that popular camping spots are largely unoccupied– and that’s more space, peace, and quiet for you.  If you are made of hardy stuff and don’t mind a little wind-chill with your morning coffee – then its time to give winter camping a go!

Choosing Your Winter Campsite

First and foremost you need to decide ahead of time where you plan to camp. If you are a newbie to winter camping, choose a location that isn’t too far off the beaten path – you can ease into the whole wild winter camping after you’ve got a little experience under your belt.  Pick a campsite that is (if possible) protected from winds to minimize chill and to protect your tent.  You also want to look for a site that gets plenty of sun – especially the early morning sun as that can often be the coldest part of the day.

Getting Your Fire Going

Your number one priority when winter camping is keeping warm. The first thing you need to do after you’ve selected your campsite is to get the campfire going.  Unlike summer camping, firewood can be difficult to find because it’s probably wet and or frozen.  Bring a good fire starter with you to help get things burning.  Make sure you collect a good supply of wood (or bring your own if you have a vehicle nearby) so that you can keep your fire going through the night.

Setting Your Tent Up in the Snow

Once you’ve got your fire going strong, it’s time to set up the tent. Find a dry, flat area for your tent and stomp down the snow where your tent will sit.  You want the snow under your tent to be totally compacted so that it won’t sink underneath the floor of your tent.  Next put down your tent’s footprint (or tarp) to protect the exterior bottom of the tent from any debris, ice and moisture on the ground.  Inside the tent, line the floor with a plastic camping mat (like Mountain Mat) which will both insulate you from the ground as well as protect the tent floor from any sharp objects.  Finally, secure your tent with winter stakes so that it can withstand snow and winter winds.  Even if it isn’t windy at the time you are setting up, winter wind gusts can be sudden and surprisingly strong. Don’t take any chances of having your shelter ruined while you inside.

Essential Gear

Besides normal camping gear, you need to ensure that you bring a tent rated for winter weather (a 3-season tent if you don’t expect stormy weather, a 4-season tent if you are above the tree line or expect very cold/storms), warm sleeping bag rated for temperatures at least 5-10 degrees lower than forecasted weather, two sleeping pads for insulation, and a cooking stove that can operate in cold weather conditions. You can download a complete packing list for personal gear here.

What to Wear Winter Camping

Layering is the key to any winter sports activity. You want to stay warm, but not hot because you do NOT want to sweat.  If you sweat, the moisture will cool you down too quickly and can lead to hypothermia.  To prevent this, dress in multiple layers starting with quality long-underwear as the first layer.  Have shirt(s), fleece jacket, winter parka, and waterproof gear (if necessary).  As you warm up do to exertion (or the winter sun), remove layers to regulate your body temperature.

Wear 2 layers of gloves.  The inside glove should be a thinner liner that will allow you to remove your outer gloves for manual dexterity (like pouring a hot cup of coffee!).  Also, bring an extra set of gloves just in case you lose one.  It happens.  Same for hats – they are absolutely essential, bring an extra.

Top 5 Cold Weather Camping Hacks

Here are the TOP FIVE essential cold weather camping tips that will help you have a successful trip. For the full list, read this blog post: 15 Essential Winter Camping Tips.

    1. Sleep with clothes inside sleeping bag – when you head to bed, stuff your sleeping bag with the next day’s clothing, your boot liners (or boots wrapped in a plastic bag), and electronics (the warmth saves the batteries). Clearly you will be crammed into your bag with all this gear – but that will help keep you warm as well.  And warm boot liners are the thing that will make getting out of bed in the morning tolerable!
    2. Hot water bottle in sleeping bag – if you think you can squeeze one more item in – bring a hot water bottle to bed. Add hot water and securely close the cap.  The warmth will last for hours, and in the morning you’ll be able to have a drink of water that isn’t ice cold.
    3. The pee bottle – Yep, its what you think it is. Its sub-zero outside the tent and you hear the call of nature.  For guys, I’m sure you have the idea.  It’s a bottle where you can take a leak without leaving the tent (or your sleeping bag if you are really flexible).  For ladies – get a woman’s pee-funnel (like GoGirl).  With some practice (tip: use the shower), you’ll be able to use a pee-bottle too.  Now, the most important part: LABEL THAT BOTTLE CLEARLY.  I’m talking wrapping duct tape around the bottle and writing PEE all over it.  Because you do not want to confuse this bottle with your hot water bottle.
    4. Lithium is better – in general, alkaline batteries perform poorly in cold weather. Pack electronics that use lithium batteries which perform quite well in cold temperatures.  Not only will lithium batteries work better in the cold, they’ll last longer too.  Alkaline batteries tend to drain quickly when operated in cold temps.
    5. Vent the Tent – it sounds counter-intuitive, but you’ll want to open the tent vents at night to allow air flow. As you sleep, your breath will cause condensation on the roof of your tent if there isn’t airflow to allow it to escape.  Ice crystals will form on the ceiling of your tent as the night air becomes colder.  This becomes a big problem in the morning hours as the sun comes up and temperatures rise.  The ice crystals melt and will get everything wet.

Mountain Mat USA

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.