Winter Camping: Backpacking Tips & Gear Guide

​To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.

​- Aristotle

- Aristotle

​Winter is coming, as they say. As the temperature drops and most normal people are (still) cooped-up indoors watching Game of Thrones repeats; opportunity knocks for the more intrepid among us.

Have you ever tried winter camping? It's easy to say no to an experience like this. After all, who wants to be out in the wild during the coldest, darkest days of the year, when you could be relaxing in the warmth of your home?

Well, as it turns out, you can also stay comfortable if you're out camping and hiking in the winter, provided you follow the tips we're about to give you. In fact, some say backpacking is even better in the winter since there are fewer bugs, fewer crowds, and a whole different kind of natural beauty. Oh, and more importantly: the beer always stays cold.

Winter Camping Hacks
Well, as it turns out, you can also stay comfortable if you're out camping and hiking in the winter, provided you follow the tips we're about to give you. In fact, some say backpacking is even better in the winter since there are fewer bugs, fewer crowds, and a whole different kind of natural beauty. Oh, and more importantly: the beer always stays cold.

​Winter Camping Preparation

Winter Camping Preparation

Where to Go

​First of all, let's think about where you want to go. Is it your first time winter camping? Are you used to extreme climates? If not, then don't try to bite off more than you can chew. Pick a reasonably warm location for your first adventure, as it can get really cold out there. Try not to pick anything too remote, either, so you can bail if things go south.

Safety Preparations

First of all, let's think about where you want to go. Is it your first time winter camping? Are you used to extreme climates? If not, then don't try to bite off more than you can chew. Pick a reasonably warm location for your first adventure, as it can get really cold out there. Try not to pick anything too remote, either, so you can bail if things go south.

​It would be wise of you to take some precautions before heading out. Here are some things you can do:

It would be wise of you to take some precautions before heading out. Here are some things you can do:
  • ​Don't go alone. Especially if you have no prior experience. Take a friend who can handle himself well in the wild.
    Don't go alone. Especially if you have no prior experience. Take a friend who can handle himself well in the wild.
  • Check the weather forecast. Be aware of maximum and minimum temperatures and wind conditions, as well as possible storms and thaws, and plan accordingly.
    Check the weather forecast. Be aware of maximum and minimum temperatures and wind conditions, as well as possible storms and thaws, and plan accordingly.
  • Gear up. This one goes without saying. But more on that later.
    Gear up. This one goes without saying. But more on that later.
  • Research the area. Study the region's maps, roads, and trails. Know the camping conditions and availability of emergency services. Beware of avalanche-prone areas.
    Research the area. Study the region's maps, roads, and trails. Know the camping conditions and availability of emergency services. Beware of avalanche-prone areas.
  • ​Expect the unexpected. Take some extra food with you. Should the weather suddenly change or you find yourself lost, make sure you are prepared.
    Expect the unexpected. Take some extra food with you. Should the weather suddenly change or you find yourself lost, make sure you are prepared.
 

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​How to Make Camp in the Snow

How to Make Camp in the Snow

You've arrived at your destination? Great. So, first things first: let's choose a site to set up camp.

Choosing a Campsite

​Here’s some points to consider when searching for a suitable pitch:

Here’s some points to consider when searching for a suitable pitch:
  • Steer clear of avalanche zones. It’s not as simple as you might think. More on this below.
    Steer clear of avalanche zones. It’s not as simple as you might think. More on this below.
  • Avoid valleys and canyons. Hot air goes up and cold air goes down, so it tends to gather at the bottom of areas like these.
    Avoid valleys and canyons. Hot air goes up and cold air goes down, so it tends to gather at the bottom of areas like these.
  • ​Search for a place sheltered from the wind. Rocky formations can provide good wind breakage. Alternatively, you can camp in an area with lots of trees. But beware of falling branches - the ones covered with big snow coats are the most dangerous.
    Search for a place sheltered from the wind. Rocky formations can provide good wind breakage. Alternatively, you can camp in an area with lots of trees. But beware of falling branches - the ones covered with big snow coats are the most dangerous.
  • ​Choose a location where firewood is available. Even if you're not planning to start a fire, it's there if you need it.
    Choose a location where firewood is available. Even if you're not planning to start a fire, it's there if you need it.
  • Choose a morning sunny spot. Don't underestimate the morning sun. It will warm up the area more quickly, and allow you to dry out your sleeping bag or any wet clothes.
    Choose a morning sunny spot. Don't underestimate the morning sun. It will warm up the area more quickly, and allow you to dry out your sleeping bag or any wet clothes.
  • ​Settle near running water. It's true that in the winter, there is never a shortage of water because you can get more by melting snow. However, this requires keeping a fire or a stove lit. If a water source is available, you won't have to spend as many resources fueling your heat source.
    Settle near running water. It's true that in the winter, there is never a shortage of water because you can get more by melting snow. However, this requires keeping a fire or a stove lit. If a water source is available, you won't have to spend as many resources fueling your heat source.

Pitching Your Tent

​When you've decided on the best location, it's time to prepare the area. First, trample on the snow to create a flat area where the floor is compact. If you don't have skis with you, this operation can take some time. But don't skip it, as you can tear a hole in your tent floor if you step on a soft spot later.

Decide carefully which way you want your tent door to be facing. Having a nice view is all good, but it is more important that it is not facing the wind. As a rule of thumb, the door should be pointing downhill.

You may also build a snow wall to protect you from the wind if you feel that your location does not provide enough shelter.

Decide carefully which way you want your tent door to be facing. Having a nice view is all good, but it is more important that it is not facing the wind. As a rule of thumb, the door should be pointing downhill.
You may also build a snow wall to protect you from the wind if you feel that your location does not provide enough shelter.

Igloos and Snow Caves: Are they Worth It?

​Instead of taking a tent with you, you may choose to travel light and try to build a shelter on the spot. One downside to this is that the area must have abundant snow for you to have enough resources to work with. Also, the snow must be at a temperature that allows it to be worked on properly.

There are basically three approaches to this: build an igloo, a snow cave or a quinzhee. An igloo is a construct made with blocks of snow and is quite hard to do properly if you lack the experience. One thing that might help is the Icebox Igloo Maker, which at least makes it easier for you to make the building blocks.

The difference between a snow cave and a quinzhee is that with a snow cave, you dig a hole into the existing snow, whereas with the quinzhee you first make a big pile of snow, and then hollow it out. They are both easier to make than an igloo, but all three of them can take quite a while to put up, so plan ahead.

The advantage of such constructs is that they can provide a really good wind shelter, and temperatures inside can be much warmer than on the outside.

The advantage of such constructs is that they can provide a really good wind shelter, and temperatures inside can be much warmer than on the outside.

​Winter Camping Tents

Winter Camping Tents

​Before actually going out, you'll need to get your gear first. Let's start with the tent.

There are mainly two types of tents: three-season and four-season. Basically, four-season tents are more appropriate for winter. But can you use a three-season tent for winter camping and get away with it?

The answer is yes, it is possible. But there are some conditions. First, your camping site should be especially guarded against the wind, because the walls of a tent like this are thin and don't offer much protection or insulation. For the same reason, if you have a three-season tent, you should sleep in a four-season sleeping bag, as it will be more exposed to the elements.

Also, if it is still snowing outside, a three-season tent may not be able to cope with the snow build-up properly.

Even though you can camp in the winter with a three-season tent, we recommend a four-season option. Some of the things to look for in a good tent are:

Even though you can camp in the winter with a three-season tent, we recommend a four-season option. Some of the things to look for in a good tent are:
  • Solid walls. These should offer protection from the wind and keep it warm on the inside. Some tents have a double-wall structure.
    Solid walls. These should offer protection from the wind and keep it warm on the inside. Some tents have a double-wall structure.
  • ​Capacity. It's more important to stay together with your friends in the winter because it also means staying warm.
    Capacity. It's more important to stay together with your friends in the winter because it also means staying warm.
  • Breathability. One of your biggest enemies out there is moisture build-up, so make sure your tent allows water to evaporate.
  • ​Durable floor. This is important not only for insulation but also because you will be walking on it with rough snow boots.
    Durable floor. This is important not only for insulation but also because you will be walking on it with rough snow boots.
 

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​Winter Camping Gear

Winter Camping Gear

​Earlier, we told you to gear up, so now let's see exactly what gear you should take with you.

Essential Gear

Earlier, we told you to gear up, so now let's see exactly what gear you should take with you.

​REI has an excellent expert advice article, where they present a "ten essentials" list based on systems, rather than items. Here is the list:

  1. Navigation (map and compass)
  2. Fire (waterproof lighter/matches/candles)
  3. Insulation (extra clothing)
  4. Nutrition (extra food)
  5. Hydration (extra water)
  6. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)
  7. First-aid supplies
  8. Repair kit and tools
  9. Emergency shelter
  10. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Navigation (map and compass)
Fire (waterproof lighter/matches/candles)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
Illumination (flashlight/headlamp)
First-aid supplies
Repair kit and tools
Emergency shelter
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)

​Almost everything on this list is self-explanatory. Regarding the first item, while it’s great to have GPS, there’s no substitute for carrying a map and compass since they don’t rely on those pesky batteries!

We recommend carrying these items in your backpack at all times, rather than leaving them in your tent. The emergency shelter could be a lightweight tent, a sleeping bag or a blanket. It might not be much, but it's better than nothing in case of an emergency.

Cold Weather Clothing

We recommend carrying these items in your backpack at all times, rather than leaving them in your tent. The emergency shelter could be a lightweight tent, a sleeping bag or a blanket. It might not be much, but it's better than nothing in case of an emergency.

​First rule: dress in layers. This allows you to insulate better and remove a layer if your body temperature rises. The final layer before the puffy jacket should be a soft-shell or hard-shell jacket. A softshell gives you more breathability and flexibility, while a hard-shell is usually waterproof. It will depend on what type of activity you’ll be doing.

REI has some good advice on how to choose your base layer, and Reserve America also has some useful tips on layering.

As far as hand wear is concerned, consider wearing mittens instead of gloves. They don't give you much dexterity, but keep your hands warmer because they allow your fingers to share the heat.

Choose a pair of warm and waterproof boots. This is important for more than the support they provide. It is also important to use several layers of socks, but only if it doesn't make your boots too tight. Tight boots cut off blood circulation and don't keep you warm.

Choose a pair of warm and waterproof boots. This is important for more than the support they provide. It is also important to use several layers of socks, but only if it doesn't make your boots too tight. Tight boots cut off blood circulation and don't keep you warm.
 

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​Top 10 Winter Camping Tips & Hacks

1. Use a Sleeping Pad

Top 10 Winter Camping Tips & Hacks

Make sure to throw a sleeping pad under your sleeping bag, because you lose much more body heat to the snow through conduction than to the air. Choose a pad with proper insulation, this is indicated by the pad's R-value. For winter, look for an R-value of 4.0 or more.

2. Sleep with Your Boots

Don't even think about trying to put those freezing boots on in the morning. If they have a removable liner, it is enough to throw it inside your sleeping bag. If they are single-layered boots, cover them with a plastic or waterproof bag and keep them at the bottom of your sleeping bag.

3. Don't Burrow Your Head While Sleeping

It may be tempting to stuff your head inside your sleeping bag during the night. However, this causes moisture from your breath to get trapped inside the bag, ultimately eliminating its insulating properties.

4. Don't hold It In

If you feel the urge to pee during the night (and you will), don't hold it in. Your body loses heat trying to keep the urine warm. If you're a guy, use a pee bottle (properly labeled) so you don't have to strip down. Girls can try using a urination funnel for the same purpose.

5. Pack a spare hat and set of gloves

Pack extra items of clothing too. Even if you are extra careful, you could end up losing a glove somewhere, and during winter camping, this is game over.

6. Use Lithium Batteries

Lithium batteries are usually better than alkaline ones. Despite being more expensive, they last longer and can handle cold weather very well. However, sometimes they can be too powerful for some devices, like headlamps, so keep that in mind.

7. Wear Synthetics Instead of Cotton

Cotton is simply no good for cold, and especially wet weather, as we can see in this tragic hiker incident. It soaks water like a sponge but does not wick it away from your skin, so as soon as you start to perspire you'll get cold really quick. Wool is acceptable, but synthetic fabrics are the way to go.

8. Wear a Fireproof Outer Layer

When near fire sources, you should be careful not to wear easily combustible clothes. Down is one of the worst types of materials in this regard, so switch to a wool jacket before starting a fire.

9. Eat Quick Snacks

You should avoid taking large breaks to have big meals, because this allows your body temperature to drop too much. Short, frequent snacks are much better. Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they mess with your blood flow and can also cool you down.

​10. Have a Sheltered Cooking Spot

​This could be your tent's vestibule, or you could dig a trench in the snow, which is much more fun. This helps you and the food to stay warmer. Also consider making surfaces with your shovel to sit, cook and eat on, with some insulated pads for sitting.

This could be your tent's vestibule, or you could dig a trench in the snow, which is much more fun. This helps you and the food to stay warmer. Also consider making surfaces with your shovel to sit, cook and eat on, with some insulated pads for sitting.
10. Have a Sheltered Cooking Spot
If you feel the urge to pee during the night (and you will), don't hold it in. Your body loses heat trying to keep the urine warm. If you're a guy, use a pee bottle (properly labeled) so you don't have to strip down. Girls can try using a urination funnel for the same purpose.
winter camping

​Winter Camping Safety

Winter Camping Safety

Avalanches

​Avalanches are a force to be reckoned with. An average of 27 people die in avalanches each winter in the US. Obviously, as we've pointed out, you should check the forecasts and avoid risky areas. But what to do in case the worst happens?

You should stay away from areas with large slopes, as they present the largest risk. Also, wear an avalanche rescue beacon that signals your location. And if you're actually caught in an avalanche, try to get off the slab or grab a tree. Check out this article by National Geographic for more information.

​General Safety tips

General Safety tips
You should stay away from areas with large slopes, as they present the largest risk. Also, wear an avalanche rescue beacon that signals your location. And if you're actually caught in an avalanche, try to get off the slab or grab a tree. Check out this article by National Geographic for more information.

​If there’s one hard and fast rule for winter camping, it’s stay dry and stay warm. Keep it in mind when you’re out in the wilderness. Also, don't forget to eat heartily, eat plenty of snacks and drink a lot of water. It may not look like it, but your body loses a lot of energy trying to keep you warm. Read more about the essential survival skills for hikers in our guide here. =ZIP=

If there’s one hard and fast rule for winter camping, it’s stay dry and stay warm. Keep it in mind when you’re out in the wilderness. Also, don't forget to eat heartily, eat plenty of snacks and drink a lot of water. It may not look like it, but your body loses a lot of energy trying to keep you warm. Read more about the essential survival skills for hikers in our guide here. =ZIP=

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