Why winter camping?
Because there’s something wrong with you, we’ve already covered that. Sane people don’t sleep outdoors in freezing temperatures.
Winter camping has some real advantages over warm weather camping. There are no bugs bothering you, for one. There are also far fewer, if any, other people around to disturb you. Quite often when you’re out winter camping, you can get a sense of solitude that just isn’t available when warm weather has brought others out in droves. Also, with a nice blanket of snow on everything, it totally changes the landscape into something new and beautiful. If you’re into animal observation, snow makes it much easier to track them and have more opportunities to see and encounter them (from a safe distance, of course).
How will I get there?
In some cases, an off-roadable 4WD vehicle will get you there, but it’s safest to know what you’re doing before you take your rig on that midwinter maiden voyage. In many areas, you can find clubs and touring groups that you can hook up with and rely on both their experience and safety in numbers. Access can be an issue, though, since many forest roads are gated and locked against travel in the off-season. If you have a snowmobile, you’ll find more options available to you than a 4WD offers as far as trails go.
For maximum access and solitude, getting there under your own steam is the best way to go. Trails that are closed to motorized traffic are usually open to foot travel in the winter, and that means fewer interlopers and less noise pollution. Cross-country skiing is a common method of backcountry winter travel, but it’s best to develop some practice and skill before you rely on it for overnight trips. Snowshoes are a great way to get in, as they are easy to use for beginners and easily strap to most winter boots. If you decide to forgo anything but your trusty boots, don’t plan on going too far if the snow is going to be any deeper than 8”. Winter travel without any vehicle, skis, or snowshoes is called “post-holing” and is not only miserably exhausting, it’s potentially unsafe since it results in cold, wet feet and can lead to injuries caused by loss of balance.
One piece of equipment to consider is a sled. While you certainly can pack gear in your backpack, a sled makes it so much easier. You can also pack a lot more gear on a sled than your back, which is nice if you want to bring extra comforts, Dutch ovens, charcoal, dry firewood, etc. You’ll want a sled like the ones in our Helpful Links; you’ll get much better results than if you try to repurpose the types of sleds kids use for bombing down hills.
How will I keep warm?
It all starts with the clothes you choose. Check out our primer on the “3 W’s of Layering” for more on that, because what you put on and pack before you go will make the difference between a great winter trip and a disastrous emergency situation. Winter camping is also an activity-intensive pursuit. Traveling in, setting up camp, and wandering around sightseeing burn a lot more calories than you might be used to, and that will keep your core warm and toasty. We’ll cover more on feeding your furnace a little later. A lot of people are surprised to learn that if you prepare properly, you don’t even really need a campfire. Some wilderness areas are restricted against them, even in winter. Also, once you get that blaze going, it melts the surrounding ground and turns everything into a muddy, mucky mess more often than not. That’s not to say that you won’t need fire in any form, and backpack stoves that are designed for cold weather and/or high altitude use are ideal. Hand warmers and foot warmers are definitely worth their weight, and you can throw a few in your sleeping bag when it’s time to sack out. Another great trick is to fill your water bottle with warm (not hot) water and take it to bed with you. Not only will it help keep you warm through the night, but you’ll also have a thawed water source for breakfast in the morning.
What sort of gear will I need?
Speaking of sleeping bags, it’s good to understand what that temperature rating you see on the box really means. It’s a comfort rating based on the “average” person, which leaves a lot of subjectivity and very little science in the numbers. Some people just look at a weather report and take a bag that equals the overnight low, which is fine if you’re into testing your tolerance for suffering. A better way to go is to select a bag that’s rated for at least 10 °F lower than the worst conditions you can expect on your trip. The best way to go is get a bag that’s rated for 0 °F, or something in the -15 °F to -25 °F range, because you can always unzip the bag if you start to overheat. Pick a hooded bag, like a mummy or semi-rectangular model, to prevent heat from escaping from the top of the bag. Keep a spare set of base layers, a beanie hat, and fresh socks in the bag and change into them right as you’re going to bed instead of wearing the sweaty stuff you’ve been in all day. There are also a lot of good non-cotton sleeping bag liners and camping quilts that you can combine with your bag to increase that insulation even more. As soon as you get to your campsite, set up your sleeping quarters first and unroll your bag so it can expand to its full loft potential. That way it will maximize its insulating properties without having compressed thin spots.
If you’re planning on sleeping on snow, like in a snow shelter, you’ll want a tarp to use as a floor. Even if you’re planning to sleep in a tent, bringing along a tarp is always a good idea. You’re also going to need a sleeping pad to increase the insulation below you. Closed-cell foam is essential, as open-cell will not trap warm air but will tend to sponge up moisture. Any quality sleeping pad will be clearly marked as open- or closed-cell, and will also display an R-value. The R-value indicates the measurement of insulation it provides, the higher the better, and you’re going to want at least a 3+. Many winter campers will use a closed-cell foam pad as a base, with a foam core self-inflating pad on top of that, then the sleeping bag. Bring these items even if you plan on trying old-school tricks like making a bed of pine boughs, because (like so many things in life) they’re much better to have and not need than to need and not have. Sleeping pads also double as a great seat pad to keep your posterior off the snow when you’re resting.
Of course, any outdoor trip requires bringing along a survival kit and a basic first kit. See our printable “10 Essentials” list in the Helpful Links section.
Where will I sleep?
Another advantage to winter camping is the wide array of shelter options you can practice improvising. These tried-and-true methods have been used for thousands of years to survive harsh conditions. It’s a fun winter camping activity, and knowing how to build them increases your confidence in your winter survival savvy. They range in complexity from a simple tree well to highly involved igloos and quinzhees. Other styles include snow caves, pits/trenches, teepees, wikiups, and more. Before you set out, study up on how to construct them and practice in the back yard if you have a chance. Otherwise, put what you’ve learned into practice once you’re out in that winter wonderland, but plan on a lot of work. Most shelters take at least an hour to construct, and that increases exponentially with the number of people you’re looking to house. The least amount of effort is going to be a tent. In fact, bringing one in case your snow shelter doesn’t quite work out is a good idea. Just make sure you have a freestanding tent that doesn’t rely on ground stakes to be erected, since changing conditions can make stakes impossible to set into frozen ground or can shift as the terrain thaws. You’ll want at least a 3-season tent, but a 4-season is ideal.
For the most luxurious winter camping, see if you can find any yurt rentals in your area. A yurt is a specialized canvas tent with a wooden frame set up in a fixed location that usually also sports a wooden floor and a wood-burning stove. They’re nice because they take a lot of guesswork out of where you’ll be staying for the night, and they include a lot of conveniences that are helpful if you’re winter camping with kids or anyone who has a lower tolerance for roughing it. Depending on your area, you can sometimes find backcountry cabin rentals that serve the same purpose for winter campers.
What will I eat?
Here’s the good news: when you’re winter camping you can pretty much leave your diet at home! As we mentioned, winter camping is activity-intensive, and you’re going to need a lot of fuel for your furnace. High-calorie foods are perfect, especially dehydrated meals where all you have to do is add hot water. Hot cocoa, tea, instant coffee, instant hot cider, and similar items are great to bring along so you can stay hydrated and keep warm at the same time. Dehydrated cup noodles and soups make an easy and quick lunch that won’t slow you down with a lot of prep time. When you’re meal planning, try to avoid foods that will take a lot of cooking or thawing time. A pound of bacon, even pre-sliced, will be a solid block of ice by morning and will take forever to thaw out and cook. That’s just another reason to look at the dehydrated meals in our “Nutrition” link (don’t worry, there are breakfast options that have bacon).
Many areas have some small-game seasons still open throughout the winter, and it’s worth looking into. Bringing along a little .22 or .410 is a good idea, if only for emergencies. A rabbit or two for camp dinner is always nice, and some areas even allow for snaring, which gives you a chance to practice some survival skills.
Check out our “Cold Weather Camping Gear” link for the best backpacking stoves for winter camping. Although you may not be relying on a campfire, you’re going to need a method for melting ice and snow for drinking water. Cold weather is also very dry, and can lead to dehydration quickly. Make sure you have a good hydration plan, and keep your water bottle inside your jacket to prevent freezing.
Pro tip: Many snacks like jerky, candy bars, and fruit can freeze solid if they’re left out or even just in your pack. You can prevent freezing or thaw them out by putting them in an inside pocket of your clothing and use body heat to soften your food enough to eat. You can also pre-cut them into bite sizes to save your teeth some trouble. Trail mixes are perfect winter camping snacks for this very reason, plus the nuts and dehydrated fruits are good sources of protein and energy.
What will I do while it’s dark & cold?
When you’re winter camping, the days are short and the nights are long. After a day of making snow shelters, snowball fights, and touring the landscape, you’re probably going to be pretty tired. If you’ve decided against a campfire, or aren’t permitted to have one, you’re probably going to want to get into that sleeping bag pretty quickly after dinner. Many winter campers bring along a paperback book to read while they’re relaxing in bed (we’ve provided some ideas in the Helpful Links). If you’re bunking with a partner, it’s a nice gesture to bring along a deck of cards or a backpacking-size checkers or chess set to pass the time together. Make sure you bring both a headlamp and a flashlight, with at least one set of backup batteries for each. Glow sticks are particularly nice in snow shelters because there are no batteries to drain, and you’re able to orient yourself quickly if you wake up in the night.
One of the inherent risks of winter recreation of is the danger of avalanches. An average of 150 people die in avalanches every year, and about 90% of those were triggered by the victims themselves. Before going out into the backcountry in the winter, you should familiarize yourself with basic avalanche safety. Knowing how to avoid signs of trouble is the best course, but you should still have the basic safety equipment in the event of an avalanche. Three key pieces of avalanche safety equipment are a touring or collapsible utility shovel, a trekking pole or a touring probe, and an emergency beacon (worn by every participant). You can find all of those items here. Over 90% of avalanche victims survive if they can be dug out within 15 minutes, but the longer they’re under the lower the chances are that they’ll make it.