It’s winter, it’s snowing, and it’s the perfect season for some outdoor camping!
While it takes a little more planning than your regular summer camping adventure, there are some cold weather camping tips you could use to ensure an enjoyable and memorable trip.
Check The Weather Forecast
This should be at the top of your winter camping checklist. Check out whether there are any precipitation or low temperatures in the area you’re heading towards and pack extra clothes or the right supplies and equipment to stay dry, warm and comfortable.
Many winter campers opt for rented cabins near to the campgrounds so that they can still be close to Mother Nature while enjoying the warmth and security of a solid roof over their heads during the winter months.
Pack The Snow
If you prefer roughing it out with the natural elements in a tent, there’s something you should do first before pitching your tent – pack the snow until it’s hard on the ground where the tent is going be. If you’re wearing heavy duty snow boots or have brought along snow-skis, it’s easy to stomp on the ground until the snow is all hard and packed.
If you’re only wearing a pair of winter boots meant for general or light walking on snow or in cold weather, snow packing may take a little longer. However, it’s well worth the effort because this ensures that you don’t accidentally step onto a soft patch of snow in your tent and tear the floor (no fun!).
Choose The Right Camp Site
When deciding where to pitch your tent during winter camping, think of how you’d choose a summer campsite – in reverse manner. During summer, you may prefer shady, secluded spots. However in winter, the sun is a comforting companion. Shady spots won’t get you the warm and relaxing morning rays during winter camping.
Note where the sun will hit first in the morning (this may mean doing a recce at potential campsites before the big trip) and angle your tent in such a way that it’ll bask in the morning light. Imagine waking up to the warm embrace of the sun on a chilly winter day. There isn’t a better start to your winter activities than this.
Bring The Right Sleeping Bag
There’s a dazzling range of sleeping bags out there with various materials, sizes and ratings. If you’re looking for cold weather sleeping bags, a general rule-of-thumb is to buy one which is rated 10 degrees colder than the expected low.
For instance, if you’re going somewhere where the lowest temperature could dip below 30F, a sleeping bag rates rated 20F should be sufficient to ensure your comfort. It’s good to get a sleeping bag that’s too warm rather than something too thin as you can easily unzip the sleeping bag if it gets too warm. However, if it’s too cold, there could be no easy solution in the dark of a winter night when you’re camping outdoors.
A cold weather sleeping bag should be filled with lightweight down rather than heavier synthetic materials. Pick one that comes with a down-proof shell that will keep the insulation warm and dry in all-weather conditions.
The shape of your sleeping bag could also make or break your cold weather camping holiday. Choose a sleeping bag which is long enough to cover you adequately and suit your sleeping style. If you like tossing and turning about, a rectangular-shaped sleeping bag should offer enough room for you to move around on your campouts. However, many people love the snugness of mummy-style sleeping bags during their winter camping trips.
Put a sleeping pad or blanket underneath your sleeping bag so that you’re not directly sleeping on the cold ground. This could steal your body heat and give you the chills faster than you think.
Pack Extra Gloves
Our hands are usually one of the first body parts to feel cold. No matter how careful you are, you may lose a glove. Keep a spare pair of cheap ones or be prepared to brace a frost-bite. It’s also good to prepare heat packs which you can conveniently slip into your gloves when you need a little heat boost.
Moreover, these easy-to-use heat packs can also go into your socks or under the sleeping pad. However, take care that your skin doesn’t come into direct contact with the heat packs as they can go up to over 100F.
Good winter camping tips will always include wearing the right clothes the right way. During winter, you need to keep warm while being able to easily remove some clothing if all that walking or activity works up a sweat. Layering your winter wear is your most practical strategy at striking this balance.
Start with form-fitting thermal underwear made of breathable fleece or cotton which can trap body heat to keep you warm or wick away perspiration during exertion.
Bring along a scarf that you can easily put on and remove to regulate body temperature and a lightweight and waterproof jacket. If you’re planning to build campfires, it’s best that your outer layer of clothing is fireproof to keep yourself safe from flying embers. Wool is one of the most fire-resistant natural materials while down is at the bottom of the fireproof list. Check out our tips on how to properly layer for winter to learn more.
Layering your head and feet can also help you stay warm. Wool or fleece caps with a detachable hood can protect yourself from wind chill. Woolen socks (if you’re concerned about itchiness, choose socks made of merino wool) or moisture-wicking polyester ones are better than cotton socks.
While you don’t have to wear expensive and chunky snow boots, they should be water-resistant or at least water-repellent if you’re planning to walk or hike through the snow.
Sleep with Your Boots and A Change of Clean Clothes
If your winter boots have removable liners, place them at the bottom of your sleeping bag for extra warmth. If your boot liners are not removable or you only wear single-layer boots, put them in a plastic bag and stuff them at the bottom of your sleeping bag.
So that you can wear your boots first thing you wake up to keep your feet warm and don’t have to wait for your “frozen boots” to thaw if you’ve left them overnight outside. For more information on the top winter hiking boots, see our earlier article on this topic.
The same theory applies to the clean clothes you’d like to change into when you wake up the following morning. Nobody likes slipping into cold clothes right from the warmth of their sleeping bag. So when you’re packing for the trip, place clothes and underwear into several Ziploc® bags (this also helps to keep them dry throughout the camping trip).
Choose one pack you wanted to change into the following morning and stuff it into your sleeping bag. This way, you’ll have warm, clean clothes to change into when you wake up.
Use A Pee Bottle
Imagine you have to tear yourself away from the warmth of your sleeping bag and bare your posterior in the freezing depths of the winter night to answer the call of nature. Not a very cheerful prospect. That’s when a pee bottle could save you a lot of hassle and discomfort during winter camping.
However, don’t confuse your pee bottle with your water bottle in your half-awake state at night. Get a pee bottle of a different color and wrap it in duct tape to make sure that you’re reaching for the right bottle in the middle of the night.
Remember to Hydrate Yourself
Staying hydrated in cold weather is important, if not more important than during summer. That’s because you may not feel thirsty for an extended period of time in winter and thus forget about drinking water.
It’s good to regularly top up your fluid intake in cold weather with water (hot or cold), hot tea or hot chocolate – the yummy high-calorie fuel for your winter adventures.
Air Out Your Tent
As you sleep in a warm tent on a cold night, condensation will form on the tent. There’s nothing much you can do about condensation except dry the tent before you use it again. To minimize condensation at night, try venting your tent before you crawl into it at night. Though it may not be as warm inside anymore, the tent will stay dry. No more having to dry a wet tent in the morning when you have an exciting day ahead of you.
However, condensation doesn’t only form on your tent. It’ll form on the upper layer of your sleeping bag too.
Dry your Sleeping Bag
If it’s not snowing, turn your damp sleeping bag inside out and leave it out on top of your tent to dry during the day. If your sleeping bag has a black interior, it’ll dry more efficiently as it absorbs the sun’s heat better. Which is why it’s a good idea to choose a winter sleeping bag with a black interior.
Prevent Condensation with A Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL)
Don’t be surprised to find condensation on the upper layer of your sleeping bag. When heat from your body meets the freezing air, condensation could form.
Line your sleeping bag with a VBL if you’re camping out in the cold for more than a week.
It adds warmth to your sleeping bag by trapping an extra layer of air and minimizes body heat loss. Hence, a VBL can help keep your sleeping bag from getting wet with condensation though it may not be the most comfortable thing to sleep in.
Start the Fire First
Start the campfire first before doing anything else as soon as you arrive at the campsite.
If the snow is light, simply shovel it aside to start your fire on the solid ground. If the snow is thick, it may not be possible to push it all side – try packing it down so that you can place your wood pile on a solid platform.
For firewood, start by collecting fallen branches. Even if a thin layer of snow covers the branches, they could still be dry enough to burn. If the snow has been heavy, your best bet of finding dry wood is under thick vegetation.
To get your winter campfire going, try using a fire starter from your neighborhood outdoor shop. Pinecones, pine needles and bark all make fantastic sources for kindling.
Campfires, especially during winter get-togethers, are made for deep conversations and all-night hot chocolate. To keep your campfire going for as long as possible, surround the fire with any logs or branches you haven’t used so that the heat can dry them out and you’ll more firewood to add throughout the night.
If starting a campfire right in the middle of winter sounds like a major task to you, candle lanterns make a cozy substitute. Hanging a candle lantern inside your tent (far away from you and the tent ceiling to prevent a fire hazard) not only keeps the tent warm, it also helps reduce condensation.
Pack Lithium Batteries Instead of Alkaline Ones
Lithium batteries are your electronic accessories best friends during winter camping trips. They’re more consistent performers in cold weather, lighter and last three times longer than their alkaline counterparts.
Every pound in your backpack counts and the last thing you want is for those crucial electronics to die on you while you’re out exploring the winter wonderland.
Invert Your Water Containers
Getting the spout/opening of your water bottles or other water storage containers you’ve brought along to face down when storing them overnight. As ice forms on top, flipping your water containers upside down will prevent ice from forming at the spouts or openings.
Smear Vaseline Liberally
We usually go “eeks!” at Vaseline’s cloying feel on our skin on normal days. However, this heavyweight moisturizer is a lifesaver when you’re out in the blistering winter. Slather it on your face, lips, ears, necks, wrists, hands or any exposed skin. That’s because the only souvenirs you’ll want from a cold weather outdoor adventure are happy memories and not painful windburn and frostbite. For more useful tips when hiking during winter, see our earlier piece on this topic.
A winter escapade is always a joy to look forward to. But you can never be too prepared for some freezing time in the outdoors. That’s why, running through this winter camping checklist will ensure that you’re adequately prepared and protected for a fun-filled vacation! Of course, if you have any fun winter camping adventures to share, we’d be happy to read them in comments!