13 Lucky Tips for Your Winter Camping Itinerary

Camping isn't reserved for summer anymore! Hopefully tips encourage you to go camping during this years winter weather. By using a couple tricks, you will feel like you are sleeping in a Holiday Inn.

By: Alex Anderson
September 16, 2016

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Camping in the snow adds a mountain of challenges and fun, to what would normally be a routine camping trip. Obviously the colder and more serious the winter weather, the more gear you have to pack. Items like skis, skins, snow shoes, crampons, an ice axe, warm layers, and a thicker sleeping bag, can add up quickly, and before you know it your pack weighs 80 pounds. Well 'tis the season for camping in the snow, so here are some tips to help both the novice and experienced camper in the snow. Remember that all these tips take discipline. If you truly want to stay warm, you can't be lazy and think you can suck it up until morning. That attitude will be detrimental on a long trip.

1. Prepare for the worst

With the summer long gone, the beautiful trails we once hiked are now covered in ice and snow.  Unlike in summer when trails are clearly recognizable with marked signs and plenty of people on trail, winter has zero people on trail and everything is under multiple feet of snow. Before you even step out the door, you need to perform a detailed map study and identify multiple prominent terrain features in the area. Planning accordingly for the harsh winter weather will determine if you are able to enjoy camping year around.

Understand that even though it looks like a winter wonderland, it can turn into Hell very quickly. This time of year, storms can white out an area within minutes and its very easy to become disoriented. Thick cloud cover and storms could also potentially throw off a GPS, so having the old map and compass ready, could save your life. Don't be scared to hunker down and wait out a storm. People have survived multiple days by building a snow cave.

2. Buy A Sleeping Bag Larger Than The One Recommended

Now that you have planned the perfect trip and you are ready to take on your favorite trail in the winter, buying the right gear is crucial. I know plenty of you are going to disagree with this tip, but I swear by it. I've tried and used a fair amount of different sleeping bags over the years. What I've discovered on complete accident, is that a larger sleeping bag then the one recommended is always better. 

I know the gurus will tell you, the added space will just be an empty void you have to heat up, which is wasted energy. They will also say the extra ounces of down and material are not worth the weight. But, from my experience when I borrowed a taller buddies mummy bag one night, I found the secret to all my problems. If you are like me, your nights camping in the cold don't resemble some beautiful Patagonia commercial, with a beautiful sunrise, my hair neatly combed, stoically looking off into the distance like I just awoke from an amazing dream. 

The truth is most of us toss and turn, one arm goes numb, then the other, then my head gets cold, so i shimmy lower into my bag, then I wake up confused and claustrophobic like an animal trapped in a sack. I claw violently for my zipper, thrashing around in my bag until I finally find the zipper to my bag and explode out of it gasping for air as if I almost drowned. I stare at the sunset with one squinting eye while my beanie covers the other, confussed why I'm sleeping in the middle of nowhere. That's the look of a true Patagonia model.(hahaha) That's how I felt when I slept in the "by the book" sleeping bag, that I have been told for years was the right one for me. 

With the larger bag it doesn't make you look any more like a Patagonia model in the morning, but you do have a lot more room. The larger bag lets me sink down into the bag where I'm able to toss and turn more freely and I even have room for my boots so they don't freeze during the night. I can easily pull the bag over my head and not feel like I'm being buried alive. I'm not saying it will work for everyone but it doesn't hurt to try. Borrow a buddies sleeping bag that is larger than yours and see if you like it.


Winter Camp at Dog Lake | Photo: Eric Harris

3. Layer Correctly and Wear Your Layers Correctly

  • Don't Layer Too Much
  • Don't Wear Tight Fitting Layers
  • Good Circulation Will Keep You Warm

For most people who haven't spent a lot of time camping in the cold, it may make sense in their heads that, if you continue to put more layers on, you will eventually get warmer. In fact its not really true at all, especially if the layers aren't the right material. The best way to stay warm is to use the proper 3 layers. 

Wearing a good thermal under wear layer, a down gear layer, and a wind/water shell layer, are the basics to staying warm. Obviously these layers are to be used at different times, based on weather conditions and your activity. You should shed and add layers as you see adequate. One of the biggest problems with these layers is people tend to wear gear that is too tight. By not proper fitting your layers to fit over the previous layer, you are restricting the gears ability to insulate and keep you warm. 

You will also prevent circulation in your own extremities, which will cause you to become colder more quickly. You want the layers to be able to create a column of warm air between each layer. Also when you sleep, try to start off with fewer layers. By adding layers, you are only compressing the layers, thus preventing them from insulating you properly. Everyone can suck it up, and survive the night, but if you want to enjoy multiple nights camping, learn your limits by starting off with less.

4. Start Your Hike Shivering and Stay Dry

This tip takes a lot of discipline! It's hard to step out into 20 degree weather and start taking clothes off, but you will thank me later. Start off as minimal as a T-shirt (weather permitting) or a very light thermal layer, but try not to sleep in the same thermals you've hiked in. Although merino wool and polyester thermals still insulate while damp, there is no need to sleep in damp clothes, unless in a survival situation. Have a large down jacket strapped to the outside of your bag so its easily accessible. When you stop to take a break, just throw your down jacket on. This will allow you to hike in very minimal clothing and remain warm while you rest.

If I'm going very light and fast, I will only bring one set of clothes, because I know they will dry out in my bag while I sleep, but it's not the most comfortable way to sleep by any means.The sweat and oils from your skin will also decrease the efficiency of your gear. Sleeping in damp/wet gear will also cause condensation in your bag. Either hike in without your thermals, neckgater, wool socks, gloves, beanie or have a dry pair to change into. A wet sleeping bag could become frozen solid, or remain wet for the next night, if you stuff it in your backpack. Practice on short trips and find out what works for you.

5. Keep the Snow Out

While you hike around all day in the snow, the snow will try to find its way into your boots, gloves, neck area, etc. Keeping the snow out will prevent unnecessary damp socks, glove liners or thermals. Wear pants with an elastic bottom that also has a cord to keep them down around your boots.

Place snow gaiters over top of your boots/pants and you will prevent any snow from getting inside your boots. Make sure your outer layer glove also has a draw string to prevent snow from getting inside your glove while you work around camp. A neck gaiter and hood should prevent snow from entering around your neck. Stay dry and stay warm.

6. Getting to Camp- Skis vs Snow Shoes

Once you are ready to walk through a blizzard backwards, determine what method of travel you will use. Of course we all want to pick the snow mobile, but that's not an option and we are definitely not post holing our way to camp. Cross Country Skis/Alpine Touring skis or Telemark skis are the fastest way to get to camp over fairly rough terrain. The back of the heels release from the binding, allowing you to walk in a sliding motion to ascend a mountain.

With skins attached to the bottom of your ski, you can easily walk once you learn. AT's make it even easier. You simply click the heel into the binding to ski downhill. Teles are much harder to ski down hill and require a difficult lunging method. Skis can also be used to hold down a tent or help build a shelter. Although very efficient, skis can be very heavy and difficult to use at first. If a ski or binding breaks, it's also much harder to fix than a strap on a snow shoe. Ski boots are terrible around camp, so you will need to pack in boots or your feet will freeze.

Snowshoes, although a much slower way to cover ground, are the most practical for camping in the snow. Snowshoes can be used by anyone, clip into any boot, have crampon bottoms, are much lighter than skis and you can even make a pair with a little ingenuity. Although I prefer skis and a heavier pack, I recommend going with snow shoes for your first snow camping trip. Both of these items can be used as snow anchors or as a dead man to rappel from in an emergency.

7. Building the Perfect Camp/Shelter- Tent vs Bivy 

  • Beware of Avalanche Locations
  • Snow Build Up on Trees or Cliffs 
  • Try to Avoid Areas of High/Funneled Wind

Now that you've made it to camp, you can't just whip out the old tent and throw it on the ground like you did in summer. Remember you are standing on multiple feet of snow. Site selection for your camp is extremely important. First, you want to find a location with the least amount of avalanche concern. Second, you don't want to camp under any over hangs or trees with a lot of built up snow, that could break lose and bury you. Third, you want to orientate your site either out of the wind, or in the best direction to deflect the wind without destroying your tent or gear.

Find an area with as little snow as possible. Never sleep directly on the snow, use a ground pad! During the night the snow under your body will slowly melt and you will sink down. If you decided to just throw your tent down and climb in, the floor of your tent could potentially rip out. Your tent will probably decide to rip out from underneath you at about 2 am. Now all your gear is covered in snow and you're freezing cold.

Once you have established the best campsite, prepare for harsh weather. You need to pack down the snow or dig it out. This creates a nice solid foundation and usually blocks wind. Use your skis, snow shoes or shovel to pack the snow down enough that you can jump on it without punching a hole. If it's wind blown, very hard packed snow already, you don't have to dig it out. Gather fire making material just in case, even in places where fires aren't permitted. This is just a precautionary measure in case of an emergency.

Stake down your tent or bury tent lines in the snow. Build a snow fence/wall out of rocks or branches for wind blown drifting snow. It is a terrible feeling, and dangerous to wake up buried alive by snow in your bivy. It's a mistake I will only make once. From my experience, a tent is very luxurious and its nice to be inside when the weather turns nasty, but I usually just roll with the bivy. It helps me cut down on weight/bulk in my bag, and it usually forces me to build up my campsite a little better. 

Be cautious with a tent when the winds pick up. A tent will inflate like a balloon and explode apart at the seams. Bivy sacks, sleeping bags, ground pads, and even large gloves can easily be ripped away during high winds. Now, you are stuck in a snow storm with zero shelter and at risk of frostbite. It doesn't just happen on high mountains in Colorado or Alaska. I've watched a group of buddies lose all of the items I just stated at only 10,000 feet while winter camping in Nevada. Not only was it extremely embarrassing, but we all had to hustle to get to safer ground.


Winter Camp at Glacier Vista | Photo: Lucas Boland

8. Have Multiple Ground Pads

  • Inflatable vs Foam or Both?

You can have the greatest sleeping bag and warm gear in the world, but if you don't have a ground pad, you will lose all the heat your body made, to the ground beneath you. Ground Pads not only insulate, but also reflect your own body heat back towards you. I've found that inflatable pads are much warmer and more comfortable, but you always run the risk of tearing one high in the mountains, or find a hole you never noticed. 

Bringing a repair kit is an easy fix if it works, but I always bring half of a foam ground pad just in case. This gives me the added comfort of the inflatable ground pad, but if it fails, I always have a backup. The half of the foam ground pad is also great to seat on, kneel on or prepare food on.

9. Difficulty with Food and Water

  • Pre-make Food and Coffee
  • Eat, Eat, Eat, The Calories Will Keep You Warm
  • Drink, Drink, Drink, Stay Hydrated to Stay Warm
  • Insulate Your Fuel Canister

Once camp is all set up, its time to sit down to a nice hot meal and refreshing drink of water. Then you open your Nalgene to a block of ice and your Jet Boil won't light. Well, just like your bottled water needs to insulted, so does a Jet Boil canister. Keep the canister near your body while hiking in, and use a small foam ground pad to cook on, instead of placing the canister directly on the snow.

Place your water bottles upside down in the insulating covers and the bottom will freeze before the top. Then you can use the remaining water to reheat the frozen water or use it to melt snow. You must have a small amount of water to melt snow. If you try to melt snow directly in a cooking stove it will just burn the snow. You can also add Gatorade or lemonade packets to your water to lower the waters freezing temperature. Also bring a lighter to light your Jet Boil, the ignitor on the Jet Boil seems to have the biggest problems. Jet Boil claims they work up to 26,000 feet.

I've successfully used mine at 14,000 feet and it took about 4-5 minutes to boil water. Remember liquid fuel always performs better at extreme altitudes and temperatures. If you decide to bring a mountain house, use the small pro-paks, they wont expand at altitude. Also never eat snow if you are thirsty. It will only cause you to drop your core temperature and cause your body to work harder to warm you up, thus creating you to become more Dehydrated!

Every time before I step on trail, I pre-make as much food and drinks as I can.  This keeps myself from not doing it when I'm cold, feeling sorry for myself and just want to crawl in my bag. Making Hot Coffee, Hot Coco, or Hot Soup in a thermos will go a long way. Depending on the quality of your thermos, you can keep it hot for more than 12 hours. Sometimes I'll even pre-make my lunch and dinner for that night.

A mountain house makes it easy and it will stay warm for about 30 mins to an hour by itself. You can make your mountain house last for hours, if you buy the smaller Pro-packs. Cook the mountain house almost completely before getting on trail, this way all the water is soaked up and it wont spill out. Place the Mountain House in a good Ziploc bag for protection from spillage, and place the meal in a Nalgene bottle insulator.

Put a hand warmer on the top and bottom of the meal, and you will have a hot meal that lasts for hours. This will keep you from having to break open your entire bag when you stop and it will also keep you from shivering while trying to get a Jet Boil going in your freezing tent. Knowing you can get right in your tent and eat a hot meal or drink hot coco immediately, will make a cold camping trip that much more comfortable.


Winter Camp near Coulson Gulch | Photo: Ryan McKinney

10. Take Care of Your Gear and Your Gear will Take Care of You

  • Change Your Socks
  • Keep Your Gear Dry and Clean

It is very important to stop a problem before it even starts while camping in the snow or below freezing temperatures. In summer its fine if your gear gets soaked by rain, but in winter wet gear can kill you. Down loses its insulating properties as it gets wet. Use a strong bristle brush to clean off any snow from your boots, outer layers of clothing, tent, etc. Snow will just keep accumulating like dirt if you don't keep cleaning it off, and then all your gear ends up wet.

If you decide to sleep with your boots, use the small bristle brush to clean off any snow, dirt or twigs from the bottom. Snow inside your bag will cause condensation which will decrease your warmth and make everything damp. Dirt inside your bag will decrease the efficiency of the bags ability to insulate and twigs or small rocks could puncture or tear your bag.

Use vapor barriers for your sleeping bag and boots. Using vapor barrier socks can keep your feet from sweating into your boots. The sweat from hiking all day will cause your boots to freeze by the morning. A vapor barrier for your sleeping bag can keep condensation from building up in your bag, and although I've never experienced it, potentially keep your sleeping bag from turning into a frozen rock.

Weather permitting, turn your sleeping bag inside out everyday and allow it to dry in the sun on top of your tent or from a tree limb. A black sleeping bag will soak up the heat very quickly. Keeping all your gear as clean as possible and free of moisture, will allow it to work more efficiently. When you are ready to settle in for the night, remove your sweaty socks, gloves, beanie, etc and place them inside your down jacket pocket, close to your body. Over night your body heat will dry out your socks for the next day.

Allow your feet to air out until they are completely dry. Gently massaging them with wool gloves will increase blood flow and dry them more quickly.  Your feet will get a little cold during this time but it will be well worth it for the warmth while you sleep. Place the new, dry, thick wool socks on and you're ready for bed. For even more warmth, add another layer, put a pair of hot socks/down socks over your wool sock. 

11. Block The Sun and Wind

Even though it is 10 degrees below, you still need to protect yourself from the sun more than in the summer. In the snow you are being hit by sun rays from every direction due to the snow reflecting the rays. Always wear sunglasses/goggles or you literally could go snow blind. Apply sunscreen in places you wouldn't normally think, such as under your chin or under your nose.

It is extremely painful when the skin under your nose becomes dry, cracked, wind/sun burned and you keep rubbing it with your glove cause your nose is running.  And if you happen to be a mouth breather, you could even burn the roof of your mouth, which makes it difficult to swallow. Everyday, throughout the day, you should apply lotion to your hands, face and feet to keep them from drying and cracking. Apply copious amounts of lip balm and wear wind protective gear such as balaclavas. Vaseline can also be used to trap heat or act as a wind barrier.

12. Pee before Bed and Have a Pee Bottle

This tip may seem ridiculous, but there is nothing more annoying than being completely bundled up and cozy in your sleeping bag and then you have to pee in the middle of the night. Not only will you lose the heat you built up in your sleeping bag, but you have to put on your boots to go outside. Its not the warm summer where you can quickly tip toe bare foot to a tree. Now its snowing with a steady wind outside and you have to put on boots, snow shoes, gloves, etc just to pee. So having a distinct pee bottle in your sleeping bag is a life saver. I'm sure you can guess why having a distinct bottle marked is highlighted! Urine looks the same as Gatorade at 3am, but it sure doesn't taste like it. (hahaha) Ladies I'm sorry, but you may still have to leave the tent unless you have some incredible aim.

13. Sleep Like A Baby

  • Sleep With A Hot Nalgene Bottle
  • Do Push Ups and Jumping Jacks Before Bed
  • Bring Your Vice (Chocolate, Cigarettes or Alcohol)

On really colds night or if I wasn't able to have a fire before going to sleep, I'll heat up 32 ounces of boiling hot water, pour it into my Nalgene and put it near my groin or hug it as I go to sleep. Placing something hot in your groin or arm pits will quickly warm you up. If you make hot chocolate or coffee, it will be warm in the morning or you can reheat it quickly.

Another quick way to warm up when you cant have a fire is to do a quick push up and jumping jack workout to get the blood flowing. It will warm you up and keep you warmer once you crawl into your sleeping bag.

Of course drinking and smoking will constrict your blood flow and cause you to become colder, but there is nothing better than a a couple shots of whiskey before you hit the sack. If you have a vice you love and can't live without, then by all means bring it. Now is not the time to go cold turkey and be more uncomfortable. We all know its not going to help you if you get hammered, but a couple drinks won't hurt.

I hope these tips help you stay warm, help you find some tips of your own, and get you to go camping more in the winter weather! Remember half the battle of staying warm is mental. If you touch a warm jet boil, eat or drink something warm and put on dry clothes you will mentally feel warmer.


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.