Only the bold camp in winter. When others are snuggled up indoors, central heated, protected from arctic winds by insulated walls and double glazing, you’re out there in the wild, chipping away at snow drifts to make a shelter, trying to coax flame from a stove that coughs like your first car.
You’ll feel like Robert Falcon Scott or George Mallory. An explorer of yore. Enjoying the rarest of experiences in the modern world: peace, tranquillity and snowbound stillness.
Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that things didn’t turn out too well for Scott and Mallory. You may not be heading for the South Pole or Everest, but winter conditions are a challenge that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Our winter camping tips will help you stay safe in the snow.
General Tips and Safety Advice
Planning the trip
Summer camping can breed complacency. After all, if you mess up your navigation you’ll have ample daylight hours to right yourself and the weather may be mild enough that a night in the open would be uncomfortable rather than life-threatening.
In winter, the same mistakes can be deadly.
“Planning a trip in the winter means spending a good deal of time researching areas and conditions to determine where, when, and how the trip will work,” no less a source than the Princeton University website declares.
In other words: fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Assuming you haven’t chosen your destination by blindfolding yourself and throwing pins at a map you’ll likely have some idea of the area you’re headed to. “Some idea” isn’t really enough for winter camping; you’re advised to thoroughly research the area of backcountry you’re heading to before you set off (1).
State and Park websites can provide priceless info on the kind of road and trail conditions to expect, while camping forums like Bushcraft USA can connect you to hikers with personal testimonies of visits to the area in winter.
Don’t forget about more traditional sources of knowledge, too. Rei.com suggest that you dig out a map of the area and familiarise yourself with local features, the location of nearby emergency and rescue services and avalanche hot spots you’ll want to avoid.
The National Weather Service provides detailed forecasts for even backcountry areas and is an obvious port of call when you’re planning a trip. No-one wants to be caught out in a storm in winter, no matter how well prepared or provisioned, and regularly checking forecasts is the best way to find a window of good weather.
Time is a precious commodity on winter camping trips - and easily misjudged. Backpacking.net suggest that you “reduce your mileage goal by 50% to 60%” to allow for the increased difficulty of winter travel.
Perhaps your best bet is to make a Time Control Plan that realistically assesses the distances that can be travelled in a day and includes backup campsites/emergency shelters in case the day’s target can’t be reached (2).
Consider over planning? Trust me, it’ll be a bigger pain in the ass if you skip it and find yourself wading through snowdrifts in the dark.
The Best Way to Make Camp in the Snow & Cold
Pick the Right Spot
There are a number of things to look out for when deciding where to set up a winter camp.
Protection from the wind could make your night’s sleep considerably more comfortable. Trees are usually the most readily available form of shelter, but “watch for loaded branches of snow, and place the tent so that you are not directly under them” (3).
It’s also worth thinking about where the sun will rise in the morning. Getting yourself going in the am will be significantly less painful with some sunlight to thaw you out, so don’t block the sun with your wind shelter! (4)
It should probably go without saying that you don’t want to be camping in avalanche risk zones, but I’ve said it anyway. Darwin Awards aren’t given out for nothing!
Proximity to a water source would also help. It’ll save you having to melt snow to drink (5).
Setting Up The Tent
Once you’ve decided where to locate your tent it’s time to take advantage of the snow. Stamping down the area where the tent will go creates a flat, compacted platform that will stop the snow melting from your body heat and soaking the bottom of the tent (6).
You may wish to go a step further and use a snow shovel to dig the tent a couple of feet into the ground. Failing that, building a snow wall around the tent will provide similar protection from the wind
If this all sounds like hard work bear in mind that hard work will keep you warm – and once it’s done the fruits of your labor will continue to keep you warm!
A final key consideration is which way the tent door faces. 90 degrees to the prevailing wind direction will stop drifting snow building up across the entrance (7).
Health Risks and How to Avoid Them
It probably won’t surprise you that winter camping comes with a health warning. There are three main risks to be aware of.
Dehydration may seem a surprising concern when you’re surrounded by literally tonnes of water (albeit iced water), but the air tends to be drier in winter so you “lose a LOT of water through breathing,” boyscoutstrail report.
The signs of dehydration are pretty obvious (provided you’re aware enough of the risk to look out for them). If your mouth is dry and your urine is dark make drinking water your priority!
Hypothermia is an obvious and potentially deadly risk in cold environments. One of the great dangers of the condition, highlighted by thehikinglife.com, is that “onset of hypothermia is typically gradual and the victim is often unaware that they require emergency medical treatment.”
Be aware of the early signs of hypothermia - shivering, slurred speech, diminished balance/coordination - and take action as soon as possible if you spot them in yourself or others.
Someone suffering from hypothermia can be warmed by wrapping them in blankets and providing them with hot drinks. Often the quickest way to warm someone is via other people’s body heat (8). That’s right, a cuddle could save your life!
In extreme temperatures the body protects the core, leaving your extremities - hands, feet and face - at the mercy of the elements. Feelings of numbness or tingling in an area succumbing to frostbite are common, as are colour changes - red first then white/gray/blue.
Frostbite should be treated carefully since “rapid rewarming can cause permanent injury” (9). Wrapping the affected area in a dry blanket or placing frostbitten skin against warm skin are steps that can be taken prior to medical evacuation.
Like the other health risks mentioned in this section prevention is a far better defense against frostbite than cure. Following the steps in this guide and planning your trip carefully will minimize the risks to your health.
Gear You'll Most Likely Want When Winter Camping
Time to gear up! What do you need for winter camping?
If you’re even considering winter camping I’m going to assume you already have a backpack, but should you invest in another one? You may well need to. The extra clothes, tools, first aid kits and materials required for safe winter camping could require more volume or external gear attachments than your three seasons pack.
When cotton gets wet it loses its insulation and takes a long time to dry, a combination guaranteed to have you shivering on the trail. Synthetic materials and wool are the way to go and a three layer approach seems to be the current consensus (12).
Base Layer - Thermal underwear. A synthetic “second skin” that keeps in heat but evaporates sweat.
Mid Layer - Your insulation layer. Thick wool, fleeces and/or down jackets pad you up and keep the cold at bay.
Outer Layer - This is the weatherproof layer. It should be waterproof and windproof to keep the cold and wet out, but breathable enough to allow your sweat to evaporate. Gore-tex is the most famous laminate that does all three.
Shelters & Tents
Expert winter types can forge igloos and snow caves and hardy souls may be able to make do with bivouac sacks, but the vast majority of winter campers will carry tents.
It’s recommended that your tent is classed as four-season (they have sturdier poles), has a roofline that will encourage slow to slide off (dome tents are particularly adept at this) and a rainfly to minimise the build-up of condensation inside the tent - those icy drips are the bane of winter campers worldwide (14).
Sleeping Bags and Pads
Outdoor Action recommend sleeping bags “rated to temperatures below what you will likely experience.” E.g. if you’re expecting lows of -15 fahrenheit, a sleeping bag rated to -30 would be a good bet.
They also recommend a mummy design with a hood and advise on a tight-fitting bag since open spaces will allow your body heat to leak out.
Full length foam pads with a minimum thickness of half an inch will provide further protection against the cold.
It’s not impossible to get fires going in winter but finding dry firewood can be tough so you’re advised to bring along a stove (15). Liquid fuel stoves generally work better than canisters in cold conditions as canister fuel will not vaporise when it gets too cold (16). White gas is generally more reliable and is readily available in North America but, as these stoves can fail too, sectionhiker.com suggest bringing along a reserve stove as well.
Whether you have a stove or not you may need an emergency fire. A Bic lighter and stormproof matches work well in a range of conditions but other options, such as magnesium strikers are available.
The navigation essentials haven’t changed much over the years. You’ll need a detailed and accurate map of the area, a compass and, just as importantly, knowledge of how to use them!
Sophisticated modern tools like GPS and smartphone location tracking are great when they work, but if they cut out you will need to go back to basics (18).
Winter Camping Hacks
1) Dry your wet socks overnight
2) Dig a pit outside the door of your tent
3) Avoid Cold Clothes
We all know that feeling - getting up on a freezing morning, putting your clothes on and getting colder. Sleep with tomorrow’s clothes inside your bag so they’re nice and toastie in the morning (21).
4) Keep your nose outside your bag!
As tempting as it is to snuggle all the way into your sleeping bag keep your nose and mouth free. Otherwise, the moisture from your breath will collect inside and turn it into a fridge-freezer (22).
5) Guys, if you have to pee, pee!
Keeping urine warm burns calories. Getting up in the night clearly isn’t an attractive prospect so pee into a bottle (23).
6) Girls, if you have to pee bring a funnel!
Why should men enjoy all the convenience? Urination funnels exist and the prospect of heading into the snow at 4am will make them more attractive than they sound.
7) Keep your water bottles upside down.
Water freezes from the top down. Storing them upside down will keep the business end free from ice obstructions (24).
8) Okay, let’s go a little crazy with the last one - do star jumps before bedtime
Exercise warms the body. A couple of minutes of cardio before bed will give you precious warmth to take into your sleeping bag (25).
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you keep a tent warm?
Try using a propane tent Heater or heating rocks before bed to warm your tent. Ultimately, however, you don’t have to keep your tent warm, you have to keep yourself warm. If you’re in a correctly rated bag, atop a foam mattress and use the many tips in this guide you could be snug as a bug.
What pants should you wear winter hiking?
Outdoorsmagic.com have handily compared a rage of winter camping pants in search of the perfect blend of comfort, warmth and weather resistance. Check out their site in search of a winner.
What is a winter tent?
A winter tent is usually referred to (confusingly) as a four-season tent. They are stronger than three-season tents, to resist the wind, and dome-shaped to shed snow.
What is an emergency blanket?
A thin, lightweight blanket made of heat-reflective material to trap in your body heat. Space blankets are increasingly becoming the go-to emergency blanket.
How do you heat rocks?
Outdoor Life provide a handy guide to this. Basically you boil egg-sized rocks in a pot above your fire. Make sure to research this carefully before trying it, though. Pick the wrong kind of rocks (waterlogged ones) and they can explode like grenades!
What does Okpik stand for?
Okpik is a cold weather training program run by Boy Scouts America. The word translates from Inuit as “snowy owl.”