Winter Camping 101: How to Camp in the Snowy Months
Winter camping might seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. At its core, it’s just camping, only a little colder and maybe a little snowier. With the right frame of mind, the right preparation and gear, you can turn your outdoor adventuring into a year round activity. And chances are you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the snow when you experience the quiet, white solitude that winter camping can provide.
This article lays out the basic tenets of winter camping, including what to pack, how to stay warm, and how to find the right level of difficulty for your outing, especially if you’re trying winter camping for the first time. Keep these commandments in mind and before you know it, your whole calendar will be open for adventure.
Winter Camping Commandment #1: Be prepared.
Whether you are a summer weekend warrior camper wanting to get out in the winter for the first time, or an experienced mountaineer, it is essential to be prepared. Winter is not the season to spontaneously drive into the mountains with no plan. Before you go, set aside time to do your research and make a detailed plan. This plan should include where you are camping, a packing list, and knowing the dangers/precautions of the areas you are going to. And just like for summer camping, send this plan to a friend or family member who is not joining you so someone knows where you’ll be and when you plan on returning.
It’s important to research what areas are open to camp in the winter. Areas may be more limited than you think. In your research, make sure the area you choose to camp in is suitable for your experience level. Try car camping before backpacking and backpacking before mountaineering. If there is one thing to emphasize during winter camping, it is to not push your limits or comfort levels. If it’s your first time out, try a one to two night trip before planning a week long mission. It takes time to adjust to this type of camping.
When choosing a campsite, it is recommended to choose areas that are more sheltered from wind. Tops and bottoms of hills tend to be more exposed, so you will want to stay away from those areas. If you are camping in snow, find a spot that is flat or one where you can pack the snow down. You can check out this link for more tips on selecting your winter tent site. Car camping is a great alternative to keep you warmer.
Winter Camping Commandment #2 - Pack accordingly.
Just like winter and summer are two very different seasons, the type of gear that you will need to go camping in the winter is probably going to look different than what you normally pack on your summer adventures. Of course it all depends on where you are going, but typically colder temperatures and potential snow call for more durable, warm, and rugged gear. Assuming that your summer gear will work could turn into a miserable, and potentially disastrous situation, so it’s important to be aware of what gear is okay for both seasons and which need a winterized version.
The main pieces of gear that come to mind when thinking about camping are your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent. These are the pieces of gear that are going to keep you warm during your camping trip. Generally, sleeping bags have degree ratings on them that will make it pretty clear whether or not it is suitable for your winter adventure. Cascade Mountain Tech offers a 0 Degree Adventure Mummy Sleeping Bag that will work well in the winter, but, keep in mind, we recommend that you get a bag with a degree rating 20-25 degrees colder than the expected temperatures. Another important component is your sleeping pad. Not only does your sleeping pad provide you with comfort to get you a good night’s sleep, but it also is a layer of insulation between you and the ground. Most sleeping pads rate their warmth by R-value. The higher the R-value, the warmer your pad is. For winter camping in cold temperatures, you will need a pad or combination of sleeping pads with a higher R-value. Our sleeping pad has an R-value of 1.8, making it suitable only for winter camping in warmer climates, as it is considered a 3-season pad. When considering a tent, you may be able to get away with a three-season tent if you are skipping out on the snowy conditions. If you are planning to head out into the snow-laden backcountry, it may be time to consider investing in a 4-season or mountaineering tent.
Winter Camping Commandment #3 - Stay Warm and Dry.
Part of the magic of winter camping is seeing our favorite landscapes and mountains covered in snow. The flip side of the magic is that temperatures drop below freezing to make it happen. In order to really enjoy the beauty of your surroundings, it’s vital to keep your body warm and dry. The moment your toes or fingers start getting cold, you are guaranteed to transform from a happy camper into a miserable camper.
Layers are your friend. Backpacker Magazine recommends having 4 layers when heading out for winter adventures. You will want to start with a tight-fitting, light base layer. The closer it is to your skin the better. Next, you will have your mid-layer. This is typically a bit thicker and made of wool or polyester. After that, you have the insulating layer. This will be your puffy jacket either made of down or synthetic insulation to keep your body heat in. On top of everything, wearing a shell or outer layer will protect you from wind, rain, and the elements, preventing your other layers from getting wet. Don’t forget about your hands, feet, and head. Having a good pair of gloves, wool socks, and a beanie will keep you extra warm in colder temperatures.
If for some reason your clothing does get wet, change out of it as quickly as possible. The moment your clothes get wet, it starts lowering your body temperature and it’s better to maintain warmth than trying to get it back after being in a sopping wet pair of socks for a couple of hours. A couple of wet socks or a shirt is not the end of the world. The Sierra Club gives a great tip on sleeping with your wet clothing on top of your body and when you wake up in the morning they will be dry ready for use again.
Winter Camping Commandment #4 - Eat and Hydrate.
It’s no time to be counting calories on your winter camping trip. Colder weather causes your body to burn calories faster, so it is absolutely essential to eat nutritious and hearty meals. You may not think about it, but eating will actually help your body stay warmer. You want all of the carbs and fats you can get, so try foods like a hearty vegetable soup, spicy chili, or nutritious stew. Doing a quick google search will give you an overload of options and recipes to keep your stomach full and heart happy.
Photo by Rafa Godoi
Just as important as eating is staying hydrated. While you might not feel like you need to drink water, it is necessary in order for your body to stay warm. Even if you are not thirsty, being aware that you are drinking water throughout the day will make a big difference.
Winter Camping Commandment #5 - Have emergency gear.
Winter camping conditions can create situations that are potentially hazardous if not properly prepared. If you are in the backcountry, being educated on avalanche safety is a must. If you are in an area that has avalanche hazard zones, having equipment like a transceiver, probe, and snow shovel is non-negotiable. Consider taking an avalanche safety course before heading out in any of these areas. Northwest Avalanche Center is a great resource and offers virtual educational seminars so you can be prepared before you head out in avalanche territory.
Even if you are camping in an established campsite, weather conditions can change rapidly. Be prepared with extra sets of gloves, hand warmers, and emergency blankets. Remember to have a good source of light close at hand. Cascade Mountain Tech offers Pop-Up LED Lanterns that are battery powered and perfect for winter camping adventures.
Pro tip from the Sierra Club: Keep all of your electronics close to your body at night. Cold temperatures tend to wear out the batteries on electronics and phones a lot quicker, so keeping them in your sleeping bag or near you will prolong their battery life.
Winter Camping Commandment #6 - Head South.
Maybe you’ve gotten this far and decided that all of this sounds like a lot of work. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a winter camping trip. Just head south, to the places that have warmer climates in the winter. There are ways to escape the snow and the cold and still fill your adventurous heart. Winter is the perfect time to try desert camping and the places that get too hot the rest of the year. This is a great option for those who do not feel ready to invest into new gear and don’t want the hassle of the extra precautions and planning that colder and snowier locations require. Reserve America has a great list of warm winter camping getaways that will get you inspired to get outside somewhere this winter even if it is not in the mountains.
Winter Camping Commandment #7 - Don’t worry and have fun.
There’s no need to be stressed about winter camping. There are options for every experience level of camper out there. As long as you are prepared and have a positive mindset about it, you are bound to have a good time. Imagine yourself cozied up in your adventure blanket, cooking dinner over the campfire, and enjoying the winter wonderland you are surrounded by. Winter camping doesn’t have to be all serious either. Remember, daylight in the winter is scarce so bring plenty of entertainment and activities to keep you occupied when the sun goes down. Bring your favorite card game or adventure book to enjoy with your camping crew.
Winter can feel like a dreary time for a lot of folks, but adding in a camping adventure into the calendar is a great way to get out, have fun, and enjoy some fresh air during these months. For those who’ve never tried winter camping, you’re in for a treat. There is nothing quite like watching the stars surrounded by snowy mountain tops. And for those who have, well, you know that it’s worth the preparation. We hope that this article serves a guide to get out this winter and experience a whole new side of camping. Leave us a comment where you plan to go!
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