What to Bring Winter Camping
Winter camping isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you’re ready to blaze a trail into the harshest of seasons and push past your limits, camping in the winter can be a thrill-seeking, unforgettable experience. The quiet, the cold and the vast emptiness create an environment unlike any other. If you’re looking for a unique outdoor odyssey, winter camping will deliver.
For beginners, winter camping can be a bit intimidating. Luckily, all you need to succeed in sub-zero temperatures is proper planning and the correct all-season gear. Take full advantage of this all-season camping guide from The North Face® to prepare for your newest camping journey.
Tips and Tricks for First-Time Winter Camping Adventures
Winter expeditions have extremely unique challenges. Freezing weather, the risk of decreasing body temperature and the danger of inadequate shelter from the elements can lead to threatening conditions. Help ensure you can help ensure you stay safe while you explore by preparing beforehand. Use these tips to help you succeed in winter conditions.
Keep a Log
As with any new outdoor experience, your first winter camping trip will involve some trial and error. Bring a notebook and write down the basics of what you discover so you can reference it later and build off your experience.
Bring a Urinal
In inclement weather, it’s important that you stay warm. While this generally means that you stay bundled in thick layers and cozy up with a sleeping bag, it also means that you avoid heading into a snowstorm to find a place to do your business. Well-marked bottles or transportable camping urinals can help you stay comfortable, even when nature calls.
Boil Snow for Water
Do not eat snow for hydration. Your body uses too much energy to transfer water from a solid to a liquid state, which could lead to hypothermia if the conditions allow. To stay on the safe side, boil the snow before you drink it. If possible, add a little water to the pot before throwing in the snow to avoid scorching it and creating an unpleasant taste.
Bring a Candle Lantern
Old-school candle lanterns are heavy and a lot more trouble to use than an LED light, but they also produce plenty of heat. You’ll be surprised by just how much cozier a little candle lantern can make your tent.
Remember to Warm Your Fuel
The fuel canister for your stove will perform better if its temperature stays above freezing. To keep it warm, try putting it in your jacket pocket, keeping it in your sleeping bag at night or even keeping it in a bowl of water.
Sometimes, things break. Sometimes, items get lost. Bring extra gear like fuel sources and gloves to ensure you have enough warm meals, water and clothing to last your entire expedition.
Keep Down Dry
Some of the warmest all-season sleeping bags are made of down. This material does an amazing job at keeping you warm at night – as long as it stays dry. Keep your down sleeping bags dry as much as possible, as moisture causes down to lose most of its insulating ability.
Use Two Sleeping Pads
Using two sleeping pads can help keep the ice-cold ground and surrounding snow from leaching the warmth from your body. Lay one closed-cell foam pad on the surface and add another inflatable pad on top. The combination will give you a relatively soft, warm surface to rest on.
Winter Camping Essentials
Find out which winter camping gear is required for safe camping in the coldest season.
If you’ve researched tents, you may have seen the "3-season" designation on many of them. This indicates that the tent is durable enough to protect you during every season but winter. In contrast, an all-season tent is designed to handle treks out to exposed, high-elevation locations. Constructed with denser, stronger materials and supported by sturdier poles, all-season tents can retain warmth and stand up strong against the winter elements.
It is important to note that you do not have to have an all-season tent to camp in winter. Plenty of adventurous souls push through with a 3-season tent. However, if you are expecting heavy snow and intense winds, or you want to stay out for more than three or four days, an all-season tent will provide the protection and support you need.
When you look for an all-season tent, check for the following design features:
- Heavy-duty construction
- Enough room for you and your gear
- Wind-resistant design
- Waterproof materials
- Rainflys that extend close to the floor to keep snow out
- Fewer mesh panels to retain warmth
A high-quality pack will work year-round for camping and backpacking. The big concern with winter camping is the volume of supplies that you need to carry. Clothing, sleeping bags and tents designed for winter camping are bulkier than gear for warmer weather. That bulk can add up quickly. While a 50-liter pack may have served you find in spring, summer and fall, it just won't cut it in winter.
When deciding on a technical pack for winter camping, consider the following:
- Volume: The minimum for winter camping should be 65 liters. If you want to carry all your favorite gear and plenty of food, 80 liters can provide adequate storage space.
- Lash Points: Most winter campers carry some kind of outdoor adventure gear, like skis, snowboards or snowshoes. If you are bringing any of these along, be sure your pack has lash points to attach them to.
After all the exploring you’ll do during the day, settling into your sleeping bag at night will sound like a dream. Make sure you can sleep peacefully throughout the night with a warm, fully insulated sleeping bag.
A good rule of thumb is to choose a bag that is rated for 10 degrees colder than the temperature you expect to sleep in.
When looking for a winter sleeping bag, consider the following features:
- Draft Tubes and Collars: Winter bags will include these design elements to retain as much heat as possible, keeping you warm and comfortable as you rest.
- Liners: In some serious winter conditions, you may want your bag to be warmer. Add a sleeping bag liner to your arsenal to add anywhere from 5 to 25 degrees of warmth.
- Warmth-to-Weight Ratio: Since down is lightweight yet extremely warm, down sleeping bags will be your best defense against the cold. Unfortunately, down loses its ability to keep you warm if it becomes too saturated. If you choose not to risk the functionality of your sleeping bag, choose one designed with a synthetic blend. These can provide more warmth and weight, even when it gets wet.
What to Wear for All-Season Camping
What you wear during winter adventures is critical. Pick clothing that is durable, comfortable and most importantly, warm enough for the conditions that lie ahead.
As with all camping, layering is important. You can always take off a layer, but you cannot add one you don't have.
Base Layers to Outerwear
You will need at least three layers to stay warm in the elements:
- Baselayer: This layer sits closest to your skin and should be chosen based on the outdoor conditions. For cold-weather expeditions, a breathable and lightweight baselayer can typically provide enough support. If the temperature will be below freezing during most of your exploration, choose a heavier baselayer for men or women. Either way, this layer should be able to wick sweat and dry quickly.
- Mid-layer: The mid-layer does the heavy lifting when it comes to retaining body heat. Puffy jackets filled with down or other synthetic insulation are popular upper body options with winter campers. For the lower body, fleece pants or thick hiking pants with heavyweight long underwear are common.
- Outer Layer: The outer layer is your shield against the elements, protecting you from water, snow and wind. Look for waterproof jackets and pants that help keep you warm in the harshest weather, but also have the ability to adapt to changing conditions.
In the snow, accessories aren’t just for looks. These items are essential to winter camping:
- Hat or Face Mask: Take a wool or synthetic hat that sits all the way over your ears for full protection. If you’re exploring in heavy winds or severe cold, you may want to bring a face mask for additional coverage.
- Eye Protection: The sun reflects off snow, causing poor eyesight on the trail and damaging UV radiation throughout the day. Bring goggles or sunglasses to shield your eyes and protect your face against sunburns and skin damage.
- Socks: To stay warm in cold conditions, bring socks designed with wool or synthetic material. Make sure that you only wear socks that fit comfortably inside your boots. If the material is too thick, it could lead to reduced circulation, putting your feet at risk of frostbite.
Winter Camping Boots
If you’ll be traveling through deeper snow or icy conditions, bring snow boots or mountaineering boots that provide superior traction, functional durability and full support underfoot to keep you exploring all day. Choose men’s or women’s hiking boots that feature waterproof and insulated, plus full crampon-compatible mountaineering constructions for extra confidence while you embark through the unknown.
The Ultimate Adventure Awaits
You are right on the edge of an epic journey. Prepare to thrive in the harshest weather and gain a newfound respect and understanding for snow-covered land. With proper planning and the best winter camping gear available, you’re well on your way to accomplishing the impossible.
For more camping challenges and new explorations, check out our other camping guides. Our backcountry camping guide explains everything it takes to successfully camp away from the beaten path, while our hike-in camping guide gives expert tips and advice to discovering nature’s playground without being weighed down by generic campgrounds and crowds.
See everything nature has to offer. The trail is waiting.