Anyone who spends time enjoying and exploring the great outdoors knows that gear is everything. Clothing with features that optimize breathability, warmth, and freedom of movement is a must, along with durable equipment you can rely on to get you through your adventures. In the summer months, this gear may be more minimal, but when it comes to winter camping essentials, there’s a lot more to it.
Many of us campers have experienced waking up on a chillier-than-average morning in the summer: the cold can be unpleasant, but you can usually go about your day and activities as per usual, even if you overestimated the temperatures and underpacked. But in the winter, misjudging the weather can be what sends you home early – or worse – puts you in a dangerously cold situation. So you want to be as prepared as possible, and that starts with the foundation of a sturdy tent and warm sleeping bag and pad.
Camp and sleep in the cold
Get the right tent type
Your winter camping tent is your shelter and not something you want to skimp on. A 3-season tent might be an okay choice if the weather is more mild, but a 4-season tent is a better option when camping in winter’s unpredictable extreme elements. 4-season tents are designed to shield strong winds and shed heavy snow, thus keeping you protected and comfortable.
Choose warmer sleeping bags and mats
You’re going to want your sleeping bag to be lofty and warm, and should choose one with a temperature rating that’s 5 degrees colder than the weather you’re expecting. Plus, your sleeping mat plays a big role in keeping you toasty too: it’s what protects you from the freezing ground and should be insulated as well, with a high R-value.
Tent insulation tip
If you’re wondering how to insulate a tent for winter camping, using heat packs in your sleeping bag is a useful trick. Another insider tip: try not to touch your tent walls from the inside. If condensation has gathered, it’ll snow into your tent when you touch the walls! But if you’re in an area where you can put a tarp up over your tent, that’ll help minimize tent dew too.
Camp kitchen and food management
Bring enough gas for the trip
There’s nothing quite like a hot cup of coffee after waking up surrounded by nature. When the temperatures are low and you’re also surrounded by snow, this is even more true. To get that early morning cup of joe, all-in-one canister stoves are reliable, easy to use, and thrive in the face of winter winds. Make sure to bring a little extra fuel than what you actually need too, especially if you’re melting snow for water. An 8-ounce isobutane or propane canister is a good amount for two campers for two days.
Use all-in-one cooking sets
We also recommend using a stove platform, since as your winter camping stove heats up, it’ll melt the snow underneath it, creating an uneven cooking surface. If you have an all-in-one stove system, you won’t need to bring a pot, just a spork. For food, dehydrated meals are a convenient and tasty option. Bring along a multitool as well: a knife will serve you well for cooking purposes, but can come in handy for other uses too.
Keep your food and water from freezing
So you’ve got your meals sorted out, but you also want to know how to keep food from freezing during winter camping: well, we’ve got some tips for you. For your food, burying it in the snow can be a good option, believe it or not, since snow has incredible insulating properties. For water, first and foremost, make sure to bring an insulated water bottle. Then, sleeping with your water in your sleeping bag is a nifty way to keep it from freezing, thanks to your body heat.
Clothing and footwear
Wear quick-drying underwear
When you’re thinking of what to bring winter camping, clothing plays a very important role as well. And layering is the only way to go. Build your clothing foundation with quick-drying underwear, then a warm and breathable base layer set. Merino wool base layers are an amazing option. For a trip of a few days, one set should be enough, but for longer trips, it’s a good idea to pack another set.
Use mid layers to stay warm
The next step is a warm mid layer, like a fleece or light puffy jacket. On top of that, you’re gonna want to wear a heavy-weight down or synthetic winter jacket. When it’s really cold, you should also add winter pants, and when you’re expecting precipitation, add a hardshell or ski jacket.
Pack extra socks, gloves and hats
The last thing you want when winter camping is wet feet. Wet means cold. So a durable, waterproof, and warm pair of winter boots is a must. Don’t forget good socks too (Merino is another fantastic option here). And of course, gloves and hats. You should bring several pairs of gloves so your hands are never cold, and two hats: one really warm one for camp and a more technical one for outdoor activities.
Keep your clothes as dry as possible
Ideally, your clothing should be high quality and technical enough to stay dry, even when you get sweaty. But if you fall victim to dampness, there are ways to combat it. If you’re able to have a fire at your camp, it’ll be a good way to dry out your clothes. Plus, if you have a metal water bottle, you can fill it with hot water and try to iron out moisture as well.
Personal hygiene is not something to be skipped just because the cold and wind may make it uncomfortable to keep up with. A simple wet rag used in your tent at night can suffice to wipe away sweat from key areas on your body, like your armpits. And hand sanitizer is the easiest way to keep your hands clean. If you plan on using soap, make sure you choose an option that is biodegradable.
When packing toilet paper, you can take out the cardboard roll, and put the remaining paper in a plastic baggie, to reduce weight and bulk in your bag. A toothbrush and toothpaste are also obviously a must, but some people may forget one other key product in the winter: sunscreen for your face. Just because there’s snow on the ground, doesn’t mean those rays are any less powerful!
Insider tip: instead of a wet rag, makeup wipes or baby wipes can make for a useful quick fix. Plus, since using the bathroom outside when it’s cold is already enough of a hassle, we recommend GoGirl products for women to make it a bit easier.
Traveling and safety gear
There are many safety risks to consider in winter that don’t exist during summer, like avalanches or whiteout conditions. But with the right winter camping essentials, you can be ready for anything.
Use remote navigation tools
A good navigation method is a must, whether you’re using a GPS. Make sure to also bring a durable and reliable portable charger for your phone as well. Once you know the ground you’re going to cover, get some poles so you can easily trek through powdery snow banks. A headlamp is also essential for navigation, and for just chilling around camp.
Don’t mess with avanlanches
If you’re going to be travelling in avalanche territory, have a beacon (otherwise known as a transceiver) with you at all times. If you were to ever be trapped and buried by an avalanche, your beacon sends a signal to someone else’s beacon, so they can find you as quickly and efficiently as possible. You should also have a shovel and a probe, so you can dig out someone that’s trapped if needed.
Invest in a good backpack
Finally, you’re going to need a way to carry all this stuff, along with everything else on your winter camping checklist. Invest in a backpack that can hold 50-70L, since winter camping gear is normally bulkier than summer equipment.
Want to optimize your winter camping experience with your phone? Use AllTrails to check out routes completed by other winter adventurers, who usually provide reviews or updates if a trail is no longer maintained, for example. Strava is also a fun way to share your journey with your friends when you’re done, and provides you with useful stats like elevation gain or pace.
Q: What do you need for camping in winter?
A: While winter camping requires a few more key gear pieces than summer camping, it requires most of the same equipment - just with more features optimized for braving the cold.
For example, a winter camping sleeping bag will be loftier than its summer counterpart. The sleeping bag you bring along should be good for at least 5 degrees colder than the forecasted temperatures for your trip. Your sleeping mat should be insulated to keep the freezing ground from hindering your nighttime rest. A winter camping tent will be sturdier than a summer one, shielding strong winds and shedding heavy snow.
Your clothes will also be bulkier and designed to keep you warm while wicking away sweat. A good base layer set is non negotiable, along with a mid layer, heavy-weight winter jacket, and waterproof winter boots, plus a shell jacket and/or winter pants if necessary.
These winter camping items will keep you safe from the cold, but there are other safety items you need to have as well. A reliable GPS system, an avalanche beacon, a probe, and a shovel mean the difference between life and death in the event of an avalanche.
Q: How do you keep warm in winter camping?
A: Staying warm while camping during winter starts with having the right gear. This is true for your comfort, but also for your safety. Below freezing temperatures can be very dangerous if you’re not properly prepared.
That being said, these dangers of winter camping shouldn’t discourage you from giving it a try. As long as you don’t skimp on gear, research the area you’re going to be camping in, and have your routes mapped out in advance, winter camping is extremely rewarding. By toughing it through the snow, you’ll get to see some landscapes that few get to experience. And after spending a day out in the cold, there’s no feeling quite as satisfying as slipping into your warm, insulated winter sleeping bag at night.
Q: How cold is too cold for camping?
A: It depends. Your version of too cold might be different from someone else’s: it all comes down to experience level, equipment, and tolerance to the cold. If you’re completely new to winter camping, you might want to ease into it by not going in the dead of winter, maybe opting for the shoulder season first instead. A seasoned mountaineer, on the other hand, may be comfortable and equipped to dive into temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Ultimately, there is no concrete “too cold” temperature, but make sure to always check the forecast before you go to know what you’re getting into.
Okay, winter camping might be a bit more daunting than summer camping, but what kind of outdoor enthusiast doesn’t love a good challenge? Plus, it can also offer some of the most beautiful, serene, and calming experiences in nature. By taking on a winter camping adventure, you’ll get to see the elements in special ways that most don’t ever get the chance to witness.
As long as you’re well prepared for the temperatures and conditions, there’s incredible new outdoor memories that await. We hope these winter camping hacks will inspire your first winter camping trip, or help to improve your next one!