An Expert Guide to Cold-Weather Camping
The winter months don’t need to be a barrier to enjoying the serenity of camping. Camping expert Connor Hult has some tips for how to make camping in the cold a comfortable adventure!
The mountains project a sense of wonder and awe to those who are moved by their presence. This feeling is beyond dispute. And winter months don’t need to become a barrier to enjoy the serenity of camping. In spite of bone-chilling temperatures and the obstruction that is snow, there are plenty of ways to make cold-weather camping a comfortable adventure. However, miss a few of these tips and you will be at the mountains’ mercy during their most potent and punishing time of year. Here you will find a complete guide to enjoying camping in the winter - and to one-upping Mother Nature.
The adaptations our body utilizes to excel at keeping us alive in some scenarios can become our downfall in the winter. Sweat is an essential function in warm weather, but in the winter, your absolute priority is to remain dry. Choosing the proper clothing is going to help you mitigate heat loss, wet clothes, and any harsh conditions the winter throws your way.
This is the time where you absolutely leave all cotton clothing at home. In my first outdoor education course that I took way back in high school, it was dubbed “death cotton.” While this can be a bit of an exaggeration for your summer endeavors, cotton can certainly live up to this title if worn in the winter backcountry. Cotton gets wet and never dries, placing you at risk for hypothermia - and you never want that. So remember, cotton kills.
Base layers: For the layers next to your skin, it’s important to have something that wicks moisture away from your body as you’re active. Otherwise, you’ll likely freeze when your sweat cools against your skin. A mid-weight merino wool base layer is a good option for any low-temperature adventure. I usually go with merino wool for its comfortable, moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and odor control properties. The combo of a merino long-sleeve top, underwear, and long johns/leggings is a great setup!
Outerwear: Your outer layers are what keep you both warm and dry. The best method for this is to have an insulating layer, and then a waterproof layer on top.
Your insulating, or middle layer, is what will keep you warm in those cold temperatures. A “puffy” jacket that is made with down or synthetic fill is what you are looking for here. A fleece jacket or pant can work here too, but these tend to be harder to pack. Synthetic insulation will be better for active-wear and a down jacket is better if you’re sitting around and staying put!
To keep the wind and rain off of you, a shell jacket and pants do just that. GORE-TEX takes the cake here as it is both waterproof and breathable. Waterproof pants are also great for kneeling in the snow while setting camp!
Accessories, such as a hat, a few pairs of gloves, sunglasses, (especially important in the winter), warm socks (one for hiking and a fresh pair while sleeping), and extra layers in general are important to have around, as wet clothing is almost inevitable for multi-day trips.
Footwear is something you might be able to keep from your summer hiking endeavors, depending on the amount of snow you plan to encounter. Waterproof boots are a standard, and pairing your boots with gaiters prevents snow from getting in your boots - you don’t want cold feet! If you're trudging through snow, a pair of insulated winter-specific boots will suit you best.
Because of the cold conditions, you are going to want to give your body more fuel than you would in warmer months. Hot, calorie-dense foods that are easy to make come in handy here. Freeze-dried meals are a great option, as you can eat right out of the pouch, have fewer dishes, and less work!
Stay away from hydration reservoirs since they tend to freeze unless you buy an insulation pouch for them. Water bottles are simple, effective, and you can top them off with clean snow and melt it by agitating it while you are hiking.
Pack calorie-dense snacks that are easy to eat. Make sure your food doesn’t turn to rocks when it’s cold. Frozen Clif bars will break your teeth!
Pack extra fuel for melting snow, because sometimes that is your only water source! Still bring your water filter along, as anytime you find running water, it is much more convenient to fill up that way.
Whatever gets you up in the morning. Whether you're a coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or all of the above person, something warm to hold and drink will make your morning even more delightful.
Bring the right gear
Larger backpack: If you're used to ultralight packing everything into your 45L pack, you may require an upgrade to ensure adequate space for your extra layers, gear, and bulkier items that come with a winter camping trip. In that pack, you will want to be sure to have a few key items, including the things listed below.
Bring a sturdy tent. Some three-season tents can work, depending on where you go and how “winter” it truly is. As long as you stay below or at the treeline, and you’re not expecting snowfall or high winds, your current tent may be enough. A four-season, or “mountaineering,” tent is recommended if you might encounter snowfall or heavier storms. These are built with sturdier poles and a bombproof construction to withstand snow accumulation and any other harsh conditions that you encounter at high altitudes. It’s also nice to have extra space for all the extra gear you’ll be carrying. Having the ability to store that gear inside your tent keeps it warm and dry for the next morning!
Bring a tarp or footprint for your tent. This helps prevent unwanted condensation, while also adding another layer between you and the cold ground.
A warm sleeping bag is a given for cold-weather camping. A good rule of thumb is to get a bag with a temp rating that is 10 or so degrees lower than the temperatures you expect to encounter. This allows for some wiggle room and comfort! If your current bag is close to this temperature, a sleeping bag liner can add a layer of warmth! Proper sizing for your bag is also important here. You don’t want to be too tall for your bag, but a bag can be “too big” for you too! The more space there is, the more time it takes for your body to heat up your sleeping bag. When it comes to fill, a bag with synthetic materials will insulate better if it gets wet, but down bags weigh less and compress down much smaller.
Double up on your sleeping pads for a good night's rest. Air is the worst insulator, but the ultralight and packable properties of air-filled pads have made them a standout in camping gear. Adding a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to your sleep system helps combat heat loss to the snow or cold ground. Choose a pad with an R-value (universal temp rating system for sleeping pads) of at least 4.0, and couple that with a foam one.
Bring a stove suitable for cold temperatures. There are two schools of thought when it comes to cold-weather stove systems: cannister or liquid (white gas) stoves. White gas performs better in colder temperatures traditionally, but they can be more finicky and are not as light as their isobutane canister counterparts. I personally double up on stoves and bring an ultralight stove that is a canister as a backup! If you put your fuel canister in water it helps prevent it from freezing up. A Nalgene container works great for this!
Make a stove board out of a thin metal sheet and foam (or something of the sort) to use for all your cooking. This task can also be done on a shovel blade for a more minimalist method.
Picking and making your campsite
Designated campsites are not much of a thing underneath a snowpack, so the decision making for an adequate site is completely up to you. Here are some additional factors to keep in mind whilst winter camping.
Wind shelter: Pick a site that is sheltered from the wind, either in the trees or behind another natural feature.
Be alert for avalanche danger: Make sure your campsite is not in the runout path of any avalanche terrain.
Look for a spot with a nice clearing for the sunrise to warm up faster in the morning.
Identify landmarks to help navigate back to your location in event of a snow storm, or in the dark.
Setting up your tent in the snow
Pack down snow to make an even space for your tent. Save this snow to build up walls on any exposed sides to shelter from the wind. Dig out your vestibule as well to have extra room for gear and to make getting in and out of the tent easier.
Use snow stakes or sticks to secure your tent. Burying objects like sticks in the snow with cord tied around them makes for a great anchor! Having a tight rainfly and properly set tent helps prevent condensation from building up from the accumulation of snow, while also sheltering from wind for a quiet night's sleep.
Make a sharps pile. Duct tape works well for repairs, but no need to make its use more common than it needs to be. Any ice axes, snow shoes, crampons, etc., should be in one organized pile away from anything that can rip.
Some more expert tips
Sleeping extra warm: Take your layers off before getting in your sleeping bag. Your body heat is what keeps you warm. If you keep your layers on, your body heat will be trapped in your jacket, and it will take much longer to heat up your bag. You can stuff your layers to take up space in the pack and create less space for heat to go and thus heat up faster! This also works if you have a down blanket to stuff inside of your bag too!
Put your shell layers between your two sleeping pads. It adds yet another layer between you and the cold ground.
Your foldable foam pad makes a great seat while cooking or hanging around the camp.
Bring everything fully charged, and extra batteries. There is less light in the winter, so your headlamp gets more use. Be sure to keep your electronics warm, as cold weather kills batteries much faster.
Give in to the pee bottle. You pee more often when it’s cold out, and it's a much more involved process to pee when you are comfortable inside a warm sleeping bag.
Stay dry and prevent cold injuries. Frostbite and hypothermia are not your friends.
Sleep with your gear. Your boots and layers will cooperate much better in the morning the warmer and dryer they are.
Beeswax is a great waterproofing tool for all your leather goods. Apply a coat on to waterproof your gloves, boots, or field coat.
Vaseline is inexpensive, light, and can be smothered on exposed skin to prevent wind burn and frostbite!
The 16oz baby Nalgene is hands down my favorite water bottle! It’s the perfect size for coffee or any other hot beverage, you can also sleep with it between your legs with the leftover hot water from dinner to heat things up quickly.
Winter camping can be a great way to explore your National Parks and avoid the crowds. Just be sure parks and roads are open!