Winter Camping

Winter camping will open your eyes to nature in a way that many people don’t get to experience. But, it’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you’ve previously only been a fair-weather camper. Winter camping trips require a lot of preparation, appropriate winter camping equipment, and some experience and skill. It’s essential that winter campers constantly remind themselves to prepare for the weather, and that your summer landscape can be disguised under a blanket of snow – even well known or familiar paths and landmarks.

The first step every winter camper should take is to evaluate their planned adventure and begin making checklists to help them prepare. The goal is to not only have a fantastic winter camping trip, but a safe one, as well.

Winter Camping Tips

  • Camping Party – Plan to go with a few friends, preferably ones that have some winter backcountry experience.
  • Planning Meeting – Have a planning meeting with your friends, to make sure that everyone knows all the details. At the meeting, collect personal information, like emergency contacts, phone numbers, medical conditions, and license plate numbers.
  • Emergency Plans – Have a plan in place, in case someone is injured, or you need to end the trip early.
  • Leave Behinds – Leave your plan and itinerary with someone at home, along with all of the personal information you collected at your planning meeting.
  • Forecast – Check, recheck and double check the weather forecast, and then prepare for weather that is worse than what is forecasted. If the expected low is somewhere around zero degrees, make sure your sleeping bag goes down to minus ten degrees, at least.

The planning stage of your winter camping trip is really about putting safety precautions and emergency plans in place, and making sure your camping party is prepared and informed about what to expect.

Winter Camping Packing Tips

  • Tent – A four-season or winter tent is your best bet, because it is designed to handle inclement weather; a run-of-the-mill, 3-season tent simply isn’t going to cut it. A 4-season winter tent has an aluminum frame that stays flexible in low temperatures, and sufficient frame support to hold snow loads which are a likelihood in winter. An additional issue for winter camping is wind. A 4-season winter tent has a low profile to minimize wind shear.
  • Winter Clothing – winter camping requires a clothing layering system, from winter socks to winter coats. Start with a good base layer made from a wicking fabric, so that perspiration will be drawn away from your skin, preventing a soggy wet chill. Look for synthetic or wool long underwear. Next is your intermediate layer of wool or synthetic fleece for insulation. Top it off with a water and wind-proof shell to prevent the inner layers from getting wet from snow and rain, and to prevent wind from penetrating your inner layers and chilling you. This is such an important aspect of winter camping that much thought and research needs to go into your clothing choices.
  • Sleeping Bags – Plan on using a cold-weather sleeping bag that is rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the lowest temperature you’re expecting.
  • Liners – Sleeping bag liners give you a little extra comfort in a sleeping bag, and can improve the bag’s comfort zone by up to 15 degrees.
  • Sleeping Pads- Sleeping pads are especially important in winter, as they insulate you from the cold ground. Some winter campers even prefer to stack two pads together.
  • Ground Cloths /Footprints – Ground cloths offer protection from the ground, and a bit of insulation. A footprint functions similarly, but is designed specifically for your tent.
  • Lights – Daylight is in short supply in the winter months. Bringing additional light with you is mandatory. *Campmor Tip – lithium batteries perform better than alkaline batteries in cold weather, but can overload wiring in some lights; check manufacturer recommendations.
  • Meals – Liquid fuel stoves are best for winter camping. Warm water and food are key to comfort, and may be life saving in emergency situations, to prevent hypothermia.
  • Water – Having fresh water in the winter is just as important as it is in warmer months. Staying hydrated in the winter is just as important as it is in the summer. Proper hydration is essential for the body to regulate the body’s thermostat. If you are dehydrated, you will chill quicker, just as you will overheat in warmer weather. Make sure you have a way to keep you water unfrozen. An insulated water bottle carrier or insulated hydration sleeve should be included in your winter hydration gear.
  • Transportation – You may be able to get to the trailhead in your car, to head out on your hike. If you are in luck, you might experience a good snowstorm while out on your adventure. Enjoy the wonderland of fresh snow as you work your way back to your car, but be advised – you may find that your car has been plowed in. It is wise to pack a snow shovel so you can dig out and get to the restaurant for your post-trip feast.
  • Sleds – Sleds can be useful for hauling equipment, but only if you’re traversing flatter terrain.
  • Navigation – Snow will hide trails and landmarks, so be prepared. Use a GPS frequently and be sure to mark your car, the campground, ranger’s stations and other waypoints. An altimeter and compass will prove useful as well.
  • Backpacks – Winter weather requires more gear. Accordingly, you should plan to have a bigger backpack that can hold more and bulkier equipment.
  • Emergency Money – Bring your ID, credit card, and extra cash.
  • Extra Day -Make sure to bring enough clothes and food to stay out for at least one additional day.

There is a lot of packing and planning that goes into a safe winter camping trip. The essential take-home message here, is to over-prepare, and to plan for worse situations than you anticipate.

Winter Camping Planning Tips

  • Itinerary – Give yourself ample time to set up camp. You want to be well situated and organized, by the time the sun goes down and the temperature drops.
  • Tent Location – Setting up camp on snow is a lot like setting up a tent on the beach. Specialized snow stakes are useful for anchoring your tent into the snow.
  • Proximity to Hazards – Review where you’ve decided to camp and make sure it’s as safe as possible from hazards such as thin ice, avalanche and falling trees.
  • Landmarks – Take note of all surrounding landmarks, so you can recognize your campsite when returning from a hike.
  • Sunshine – Take advantage of sunlight, and orient your camp so the sun will warm the site in the morning.
  • Wind – Try to make camp in a spot that is protected from the wind.

When setting up camp, you want to find the ideal location that is safe, protected from the elements and takes advantage of the morning sun. Although finding the perfect spot is important, you shouldn’t spend all your time searching, or you’ll be ill prepared come nightfall.

Winter Safety Gear Tips

  • Snow Shovel – A snow shovel can be a useful tool for digging an emergency snow shelter, getting snow to melt for water, and leveling a site so that you can set up your tent.
  • Avalanche Transceivers – If you’re in avalanche country, then you’ll want to invest in an avalanche transceiver. Search & rescue can find you a lot faster if you are caught in an avalanche. If you plan to travel in areas prone to avalanche, educate yourself on safe travel in avalanche areas.
  • Probe – Another avalanche safety device, a probe is basically a collapsible stick used to poke through the snow and search for lost people, or to test the snow beneath.
  • Beacon – A personal locator beacon is ideal if you’re lost. It sends your location to satellites and then to search & rescue teams.

The safety gear you bring on your winter camping trip is determined by where you’re going and how much activity you expect to be doing. Don’t weigh yourself down with unnecessary gear, but don’t forget the one piece of equipment that can save your life.

While we’ve tried to encompass most winter camping situations here to give you thorough checklists for your trip, you may find that you have some unique needs or camping requirements that require additional gear. We suggest keeping a folder of checklists, and running through them before each trip. The key to a safe, invigorating and enjoyable winter camping trip is being thoroughly prepared. Have fun out there!

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  • chilly willy

    A good tip for keeping water from freezing is to heat up a few liters of water before going to bed, put them in nalgene bottles and keep them at your feet in your sleeping bag. This will keep your water from freezing, but also keep your feet warm as you drift off to sleep.

  • Blue Ridge Rider

    Snow camp success calls for knowledge as much or more than equipment. Major point: In deep snow and on snowshoes, you would be wise to cut your hiking distance in half from summertime hikes. It takes more energy and you will need to take more breaks along the way to drink and take in more calories.. You don’t want to sweat so you will be taking off and putting on layers. An old saying in winter camping: You get soaked with sweat, you die.” It may not be that exstreme depending on your clothing gear but at best you will not be comfortable and will not sleep well at night. Another short tip: Use you snowshoes to stoop out the area that your tent will go and around your campsite before taking off your snowshoes. That will make a secure place to place your tent and you will not be postholing as you walk around the campsite. Nothing compares to the winter landscape, enjoy.

  • Blue Ridge Rider

    Retire principal, President of Back Country Horseman of NC. Love the wilderness in all seasons, when my horses and mules can’t go I go by leg power.

  • Blue Ridge Rider

    I focus most of my trail work in Pisgah National Forest and the Smoky Mountains National Park keeping the tradition and heritage of pack stock use alive and well in these areas.

  • Tomohawk

    First time winter camping last March. 4 of us, 2 dads and 2 teenage sons. Did our homework, planning meeting, morning check list, (all cotton banned). We’re half way to the trail head, 3 hr trip, and one of the boys says he forgot his boots. There was no snow at our house – trail running shoes shouldn’t be a problem. 120 miles away, 5″ on the trail. That night he had some cold toes warming by the fire, snuggling in his big cotton hoodie (!). We had to break the trail on much of the trip, sometimes averaging 4 miles in 3 hours. Lessons learned: always plan for the unexpected, like averaging 1.25 miles per hour on the trail. And all the planning you can muster can’t make up for someone’s blunder (ultimately it was my decision to proceed – we ended up not ever being more than 7 miles from the car in case there was a real problem). One more blunder turned positive. I’d ordered a 30 degree std down bag from Campor. I ended up receiving a 15 degree long. This was a huge stroke of luck. First, it was colder than I expected in the woods, probably 12 degrees the second morning. Second, the long bag allowed me to act on a tip I’d read: store hiking boots and next day’s clothes (plastic bagged) in the foot of your sleeping bag to keep them warm. Nothing like putting warm clothes (and boots) on in the morning. Its the little things that make a trip comfortable and safe.