Winter is here – but that’s no reason to stow your camping gear until next season.
With the right winter camping gear and a little bit of know-how, camping in the winter is actually a whole lot of fun for the entire family.
Here are the best winter camping tips to make the most of your trip.
- Benefits Of Winter Camping
- Winter Clothing
- Making Camp
- Staying Warm
- How To Start a Campfire
- Setting Up Camp Kitchen
- Dealing with Rain
- Stay Safe While Winter Camping
- Additional Cold Weather Camping Tips
- Building Snow Shelters
- Other Winter Camping Activities
- Winter Camping Gear Checklist
Why Go Camping in the Winter?
There’s no denying that camping in the winter can be cold and wet, especially if you live in an area with harsh winter weather.
But it’s these cold, wet conditions that make winter camping so much fun. That winter weather you’re worried about drives off other campers. Chances are you’ll have the whole campground to yourself!
Bring a tent heater along and you’ll wonder why you waited this long to go camping in the winter!
Winter Car Camping
First time winter campers should stick to car camping.
A car enables you to pack along as much gear as you like. You won’t have to worry about weight limitations. So, load up on even more heavy blankets and warm clothing than you think you’ll need.
Winter car camping gives you a “basecamp” to warm up and dry off your gear. And although tent camping in winter is 100% doable, you can always sleep in your car if needed (or preferred).
You’re unlikely to see crowds while winter car camping – but you can truly get away from everything else by backpacking in the winter.
A winter backpacking trip is an excellent way to explore the great outdoors. In addition to the lack of other people, you’ll experience pristine snowy landscapes, untouched by anyone else.
Of course, winter backpacking requires a little more preparation than winter car camping. For more info, check out our guide on how to plan a backpacking trip.
What to Wear While Winter Camping
Never go cold weather camping without the right winter camping gear.
The right winter clothing makes a big difference in how warm and dry you stay. It also helps you avoid frostbite and hypothermia.
We recommend a three-layer system for winter camping and backpacking.
This involves a moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating mid layer, and a weatherproof outer layer. Add warm socks, gloves, and a hat for even more protection.
Don’t forget a good pair of winter boots. They must be warm, waterproof, and comfortable. Look for a pair of winter boots that matches your intended activity level.
Making Camp in the Snow
Winter camping involves camping on the snow.
Other differences from summertime camping are the cold temperatures and the potential for high winds.
With these factors in mind, it’s important to select a campsite that’s naturally guarded from the weather. In particular, look for a campsite with natural wind protection (group of trees, large rock, or hill).
At the same time, keep an eye out for any potential dangers. The most hazardous are trees with limbs that are damaged or could otherwise fall (known as widow makers).
Another winter camping danger is avalanche. Even if you’re not camping in the backcountry, don’t camp near a snowy slope with slide potential. (Here’s how to identify avalanche danger).
Set up your tent on a flat area free of vegetation. If possible, select a bare patch of ground without any snow. If you do set up your tent on snow, create a hard-packed platform first.
Remember to tend to your tent throughout the day and night. If it snows, remove heavy snow from the roof of your tent. If wind is in the forecast, use snow stakes to better secure your tent.
How to Stay Warm While Winter Camping
Aside from warm, waterproof winter clothing layers, a quality winter tent and cold weather sleeping bag are the two other most important pieces of winter camping gear.
Another extremely useful tool is a tent heater. These portable heaters typically use propane to safely heat up your tent. The best come with built-in safety features, such as accidental tip-over automatic shut-off switches.
Our guide to the best tent heaters breaks down the top models based on your needs and preferences.
A sleeping pad doesn’t just make winter camping more comfortable, it also provides an extra layer of insulation between you and the cold ground.
Some winter campers and backpackers prefer to bring two sleeping pads (usually a self-inflating air mattress and a closed-cell foam pad) instead.
Other ideas for how to stay warm while cold weather camping include eating a high-calorie nighttime snack, exercising before bed (jumping jacks), using hand warmers or a hot water bottle to heat up your sleeping bag, or simply wearing extra clothing to sleep.
Start a Campfire in the Snow
Rain, snow, and wind make starting a campfire even more difficult than normal.
But, if you’re like me, a campfire is one of the best things about camping, especially if you’re camping with children. It just doesn’t feel like camping without one.
Here’s how to build a campfire in snow:
1. Build a Platform
Build your winter campfire in a flat spot that’s protected from the wind. Build a small platform out of rocks or sticks if snow is on the ground.
2. Start the Fire
Place your tinder (lightweight material that catches fire easily) on top of the platform. Pine needles and bark work well. Or, come prepared with waterproof tinder, like UST WetFire Tinder.
Next, place your kindling (small sticks or branches that catch fire quickly) around the tinder. I prefer the tepee-style fire.
3. Add Fuel Wood
The final step (other than tending to the campfire) is to add fuel wood. These are the large pieces of wood that keep your fire going. If you didn’t bring your own campfire wood, look for sizable pieces of wood near your campsite.
Only use wood that’s already fallen or from dead trees. Not only does this wood burn better than live wood, but it also minimizes your impact on the campsite, one of 7 Leave No Trace principles.
Use a camping hatchet or axe, like the Fiskars X7 Hatchet, to chop the wood into manageable pieces and to access the dry center.
Check out our additional tips on how to build a campfire in rain.
Your Winter Camp Kitchen
You might think preparing camping meals is more difficult in the winter – but that’s not always the case.
Although rain, snow, and wind are certainly difficult to work around, it’s actually not all that difficult to cook in the snow.
Here are the basics you need to know about camp cooking in winter:
1. Cook Stove
The simplest option is to bring a normal camping cook stove, like the Coleman Classic Propane Stove, to cook your meals.
If you expect very cold weather, or you’re camping at a high elevation, a cook stove that uses white gas, like MSR WhisperLite Backpacking Stove, is a more efficient option.
Because I like to pack light, I typically use a camp stove for winter camping. But if weight isn’t a priority, you might be interested in a commercial camp kitchen like the Coleman Packaway Portable Kitchen.
2. Kitchen Shelter
Another option is to cook your meals over the campfire. There are a whole lot of different recipes you can use, but Dutch oven camping recipes are among my very favorite.
4. Cooking in a Tent
What about when the wind is really howling or the snow is really coming down?
Although it’s smart to shy away from cooking in your tent, Section Hiker states that it is possible to safely cook in a tent.
They recommend using a flameless radiant burner stove, like the MSR Reactor Stove System, to minimize the dangers.
Section Hiker goes on to state that the main dangers of cooking in a tent are carbon monoxide poisoning, setting the tent on fire, and burning yourself.
Avoid these potential dangers by keeping the tent door all the way open for ventilation, using only a cook stove without exposed flames, and making sure not to spill any fuel (especially if you’re using white gas).
Another negative of cooking in your tent is that food odor attracts wildlife. And when you cook in your tent, that food odor stays in your tent.
Although I know a lot of people that safely cook in their tents, I personally avoid it just in case. Instead, I pack a few no-cook camping meals or tasty camping snacks to munch on until the outdoor conditions improve.
5. Snow Kitchen
Another fun option is to build a snow kitchen.
Outlined in the video above, a snow kitchen is a kitchen-like structure built from snow complete with “countertops,” “benches,” and “platforms” for your cook stove and cooking utensils.
And, if you really want to kick things up a notch, use a metal stove plate under your cook stove and pieces of closed cell foam on the tops of the benches to minimize melting.
For more camp kitchen tips, including the best camping cookware, utensils, and dishware, take a look at our guide on how to organize your camp kitchen.
How to Deal with the Rain
For a lot of people, camping in the rain doesn’t necessarily mean camping in the snow.
In my neck of the woods (Northwest Washington), winter camping usually means camping in the rain.
For example, my winter camping trips to the beaches of Olympic National Park almost always guarantee rain with a minimal chance of encountering snow.
Winter camping in the rain doesn’t require as robust of equipment as winter camping in the snow. Still, you’ll greatly benefit from waterproof clothing (remember the layering system).
As for your tent, you don’t need a 4-season tent for camping in the rain. You’ll be fine with a 3-season tent as long as its waterproof (don’t forget your rainfly!).
A tarp is another essential piece of rain camping gear. Use a ground tarp to prevent moisture from seeping through the underside of your tent.
Bring a second tarp (or another type of shelter, like a pop-up canopy) to keep the rain away when you’re not in your tent. You can even set up this extra tarp to cover your tent for additional rain protection at night.
Finally, I recommend packing a tent heater, even when you expect mild winter weather. Not only will it generate extra heat, but it will help you dry out wet gear. (Use your car’s heater for additional gear drying power – just don’t run down the battery, unless you have a portable power device for camping.)
Our guide to camping in the rain will teach you even more tricks to make the best of a wet camping experience.
Stay Safe While Cold Weather Camping
Safety is paramount on any camping trip – but camping in the winter throws additional dangers into the mix.
Stay safe by remembering these winter camping safety tips:
1. Food Storage
Follow all food storage guidelines for your local area to minimize the risk of wildlife encounters.
Although it’s tempting to cook inside your tent in the winter, remember that the odor will remain, potentially attracting wildlife.
2. Carbon Monoxide
Winter camping often necessitates the use of tent heaters, cook stoves, and other devices that produces carbon monoxide.
Never use any of these devices in a confined space (like a tent) without proper ventilation (door completely open). Safer yet, cook only underneath the tent vestibule not inside the tent itself.
That said, the Center for Disease Control states that it’s unwise to use any fuel burning device inside a tent (or similar enclosed space).
3. Frostbite & Hypothermia
Frostbite and hypothermia are two major dangers when snow camping in winter.
While the key to avoiding both is staying warm and dry, protecting the extremities (hands and feet) by wearing thick gloves and socks will help protect you from frostbite.
To avoid hypothermia, you need to keep your inner body temperature up. One of the biggest threats for winter campers is moisture.
If your winter camping gear gets wet, it can quickly freeze. This is why it’s so important to layer clothing (dress like an onion). You want to avoid getting overly warm to minimize sweating.
But sweating is a natural part of outdoor activities, including winter hiking. That’s why you need moisture wicking clothing. The clothing is made of materials that wick moisture away from your skin to prevent the perspiration from freezing.
4. Tree Branches
Learn how to identify hazard trees – and never set up camp underneath them.
Although hazard trees are dangerous at any time of the year, the U.S. Forest Service says they’re particularly dangerous in winter.
The cold temperatures, high winds, and heavy snow put more pressure than normal on trees and their branches.
5. Avalanche Safety
If you’re traveling in an area with even the most minimal avalanche danger, you need a firm grasp on avalanche safety.
First up is learning how to identify avalanche danger. Learn how to gauge the terrain, weather, snowpack, and human factors to spot potential hazards before they develop.
This is a difficult skill to learn on your own. We recommend taking an avalanche safety training course to learn from an expert.
An avalanche safety training course also teaches you how to react if an avalanche does occur on your trip.
Buy all of this avalanche safety gear separately or as a bundled kit (the Backcountry Access T3 Rescue Package is an excellent option).
Avalanche airbags are becoming increasingly popular, especially for backcountry skiers and snowboarders (check out the Black Diamond Saga 40 JetForce Avalanche Airbag Pack).
But don’t just bring the right gear. Learn how to use it as well. Practice with your beacon, probe, and shovel, so you know exactly what to do if worse comes to worse.
6. Weather Conditions
You must always keep an eye on the weather when camping, but doing so is even more important for winter camping.
Never go outside your comfort zone. If the forecast predicts a storm or weather outside your experience level, reschedule your trip for a different time (or pack your camp up and head out if you’re already in the field).
Because most winter campgrounds require a drive to visit, you must also keep an eye on local road conditions and follow safe winter driving practices.
7. Detailed Plan
Never head out on a camping trip without letting someone know where you’re going.
For winter camping, leave a detailed camping plan with a close friend, family member, or even the local ranger station.
If a problem does arise, you want someone to not only know that you’re gone, but also where to look.
Other Winter Camping Tips
By now, you should have a super solid idea of what it takes to plan an enjoyable cold weather camping trip.
But more information is never a bad thing. No matter the specifics of your trip, these additional winter camping tips are useful:
1. Simple, Calorie-Dense Food
You’ll likely burn even more energy while camping and hiking in the winter as your body fights to stay warm.
This means you’ll need more camping food than normal. Think simple so cooking and cleaning up are easy. Calorie-dense foods are perfect since you’ll be burning so many calories.
Of course, hot meals are nice when it’s cold out. A simple meal that requires one pot or pan is best as this limits time spent doing dishes in the cold.
2. Remember Water
Even though it’s cold and you might not feel thirsty, remember to drink water on a regular basis.
Hydration is incredibly important in cold weather. Dehydration can actually cause your body temperature to drop. So, remember to sip on water throughout the day.
Although you can certainly pack in all your water, many winter campers prefer to melt down available snow for drinking water. Just boil the snow in a pot on your camp stove.
3. The Ten Essentials
Like always, never take a camping trip without the ten essentials. These survival items are pivotal to dealing with any accidents or emergencies that might come up.
4. Don’t Tough It Out
Though cold temperatures are a factor of life for camping in the winter, be cautious about getting too cold. And if you do feel yourself getting too cold (and failing to warm up), don’t be afraid to bail.
Same goes for sudden storms or changes in weather conditions. If you get in over your head, don’t tough it out. Head back home (as conditions allow) and plan to finish your trip later.
5. Fill Floor Space
You don’t want to sleep alone (just one person) in a 4-person tent. All of that extra floorspace lets heat escape and cold enter.
Even in an appropriately sized tent, filling floor space at night helps keep you warm. Use your backpack, boots, jacket, and other gear for extra insulation.
6. Stake Down Your Tent
When the wind starts whipping, you’ll appreciate that you staked down your tent.
Use your normal tent stakes if the ground is bare. You can also use “deadman” objects like logs and rocks to stake down your tent.
For snowy or icy conditions, special winter tent stakes, like the MSR Blizzard Stake Kit, will keep your tent firmly in one place.
7. Store Boots Inside
Frozen boots are worse than just uncomfortable – they can also quickly lead to hypothermia.
So, keep your winter boots inside your tent at night. Better yet, bring along a waterproof stuff sack you can store them in to further prevent moisture.
If your winter hiking boots have removable liners, take these out and keep them at the bottom of your sleeping bag at night.
8. Try Out a Candle Lantern
A candle actually adds a whole lot of heat to your winter tent.
At the same time that it helps heat you up, the candle also helps prevent moisture and condensation from building up.
Another camping-safe option is a candle lantern, like the UCO Original Candle Lantern.
9. Know How to Pee (and Poop!)
Don’t fight it if you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night!
Going to the bathroom while camping is actually a lot easier than it sounds. A pee bottle might sound gross, but it sure beats leaving the warmth of your sleeping bag in the middle of the night. For ladies, an outdoor pee funnel makes it easier.
Need to go number 2? Well, unfortunately, you’ll have to leave the tent for that (unless you have a portable camp toilet, but still…).
Remember to follow all backcountry bathroom etiquette when you take care of business.
Try Building a Snow Shelter!
You’re already snow camping – so why not sleep in a snow structure instead of a tent?
Not only is a snow structure fun to build (especially with kids), but they’re also one of the best shelters for snow camping thanks to their more solid construction, which can provide even more insulation and warmth than the best winter tents.
Here are three snow structures to try on your next winter camping trip:
An igloo is a sturdy winter shelter made from a dome of snow blocks.
These structures have a low risk of collapse (when properly built). They are well insulated, last for a long time, and can be built tall enough to stand up in. Igloos are easy and fun to build.
Learn how to build an igloo, thanks to Boy’s Life Magazine.
A quinzhee is similar to an igloo except that it’s made by piling up snow and excavating an interior rather than with snow blocks.
Like an igloo, these structures are quick and easy to build. They last for a long time and are relatively safe. Building a quinzhee takes less effort than an igloo, but takes more time.
Boy’s Life Magazine shows you how to build a quinzhee.
3. Snow Cave
A snow cave is like a simplified version of an igloo or quinzhee.
Because you can build a snow cave in even a very shallow snow bank, they’re one of the best emergency winter shelters. But they’re also fun to build as a winter activity.
Boy’s Life Magazine has another excellent guide on how to build a snow cave.
Remember that all snow shelters come with an inherent risk of collapse. It’s important to take all necessary snow shelter safety precautions.
What About Other Outdoor Winter Activities?
Camping in the winter is just the tip of the iceberg for winter outdoor activities.
Since you’re already outdoors, why not combine your snow camping trip with another outdoor winter activity, like hiking, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing?
These are some of the best options:
1. Hiking (or Backpacking)
Winter hiking is one of my favorite outdoor winter activities.
Best of all, it’s easy to combine winter hiking with winter camping. Plan to camp somewhere with good access to trails. Nothing beats coming back to your campsite ready to kick back after a long hike in the snow!
Winter backpacking is another option. Although it takes more planning, preparation, and equipment than camping/hiking, backpacking in winter is an awesome way to experience nature at its most pristine. Our backpacking guide will help you plan your trip.
Check out Backpacker’s list of the 12 best hiking destination for winter to get inspired.
Or search for winter hikes in your local area. For my area, Washington Trails Association has put together an excellent guide to winter hikes of all lengths and skill levels.
2. Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing is another winter activity that goes hand in hand with snow camping.
The best part is that you can often strap on your skis at your campsite itself and head out for a fun day of exploring the local area with your family.
Stay tuned for our upcoming guide on cross-country skiing.
Snowshoeing is one of the most popular winter activities to pair with winter camping.
Not only is snowshoeing a whole lot of fun, but it also lets you explore the surrounding area. It’s also very versatile, enabling you to easily reach areas you’d have a difficult time accessing while hiking or cross-country skiing.
Check back soon for our upcoming guide on snowshoeing.
Cold Weather Camping Checklist
As mentioned in our safety section, proper preparation and detailed plan are key to a safe and enjoyable cold weather camping trip.
So, use our winter camping checklist to make sure you pack the winter camping essentials:
The Ten Essentials:
- The Ten Essentials
- Winter Tent
- Cold Weather Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Base Layer
- Middle Layer
- Outer Layer
- Dry Clothing for Night
- Gloves or Mittens
- Winter Hat
- Goggles or Sunglasses
- Winter Boots
- Warm Socks
- Liner Socks
- Propane (/Fuel)
- Avalanche Safety
- Tent Heater
- Hand Warmers
Remember that this is just a quick checklist of winter camping essentials – there’s probably quite a bit of other gear you’ll need for an enjoyable camping trip.
Consult our family camping checklist to make sure you don’t forget any of this other gear!
Winter camping is just camping (with a little more gear and preparation).
Even though it might seem intimidating, it’s actually not too difficult. Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun for the whole family.
So instead of stowing your camping gear and cooping up all season, get aside and try camping in the winter for yourself!
And, make sure to check out these additional resources:
- Best Tent Heaters
- Best Winter Tents
- Best Winter Sleeping Bags
- Winter Hammock Camping
- Camping in the Rain
Happy winter camping!