Winter camping is not for the faint-hearted—but waking up to a silent, snowy landscape is pretty spectacular. The stars are ridiculously bright on a cold winter night, and sipping hot coffee inside your sleeping bag as the icicles slowly melt off your tent is an unforgettable experience.
However, camping in the wintertime is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
I’ve seen experienced winter campers get airlifted out of the mountains with hypothermia or frostbite, and I don’t want the same thing to happen to you.
You need to do your research before your first winter camp—and I’m afraid that reading articles online isn’t enough! Ideally, you should do your first winter camp with a mountain guide or experienced friend.
So, this article is just a starting point, but it will point you in the right direction. I’ll give you some tips for pitching in the snow and staying safe in extreme conditions, as well as explain the kind of kit you need to bring with you. I hope you find it helpful!
Planning the Trip and What to Know Before You Go
As tempting as it can be to launch into planning your dream camping trip in the snowy mountains, it makes more sense to take things slowly.
If you’ve never camped in cold weather, you should try it out in the late fall or early spring, before conditions are extreme.
Also, try camping in your yard or a registered campground so that you can test out your kit. It’s much better to find that your equipment isn’t up to the job when you can pop into the house and warm up than when you’re miles away from help.
If you are going on an epic icy camping trip without experience, you should be paying for the services of an experienced (and certified!) guide. They will keep you safe and share a wealth of knowledge, so you don’t end up getting into trouble.
Here are a few things that are helpful to know before camping in cold weather.
Batteries are less effective in cold weather, and you might find that your phone runs dead much more quickly than usual. You can help prevent this by placing your phone in a thermal sock to keep it warm, but you should also consider bringing a backup emergency phone.
I know you don’t want to spend your camping trip texting, but you must have a phone on hand in case you need to call for help. You can tell a friend when you expect to be back from your trip and arrange to call them. If they don’t hear from you at the agreed time, they can notify the authorities. (They’ll need to have an idea of your route, too, so they can send help in the right direction!)
Also, note the local mountain rescue number and keep it handy. Hopefully, you won’t need it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
If you aren’t used to camping in the snow, you need to be aware of avalanche risk.
Avalanches are almost always triggered by the people they kill, and it takes many years to understand how to safely move through avalanche country. If you don’t have in-depth knowledge of avalanche safety, you should trek through this kind of land only with a guide.
Unless you manage to climb out or get rescued from an avalanche within 45 minutes, there’s an 80% chance you will die. (Source) The vast majority of winter campers won’t set foot in an avalanche zone, but it’s something you need to be aware of so that you don’t set up your camp somewhere dangerous.
You can check out this website for an up-to-date avalanche risk calculation by region in the USA. Once you find the danger zones, stay clear!
If you do get caught in an avalanche, swim hard to stay near the surface. Once you’ve stopped moving, create some space around your head so that you can breathe. It can be hard to know which way is up, so some people advise dribbling.
Thanks to gravity, your saliva will run in the direction of the ground, so you can work out which way is up and know which direction you need to move in.
You are NOT ready for an avalanche because you read this article. You need to take certified avalanche courses before you even think about heading out into these zones, and you should always camp safely outside of them.
Most winter campers will be setting up their tents in places where avalanches never happen. However, even in less extreme conditions, you need to allow plenty of time to set up your tent in the snow.
I’ll give you more detailed instructions later in this article, but just remember that you’ll need to get into your campground with enough time to dig out your platform and put up your snow wall.
You’ll need to get into camp much earlier in the winter, or otherwise you’ll be digging in the cold and dark. (At least the digging will keep you warm.)
Essential Winter Camping Gear
I normally emphasize keeping your pack nice and light, but camping in the winter is a different story.
You need the right equipment to keep you warm and safe, so your pack will be considerably heavier in the colder months.
This section gives you insight into the kinds of things you’ll want to bring along for winter camping adventures.
Here are the essentials you’ll need to bring along on your winter camp:
- Four-season tent
- Paracord (for tie-downs in snow)
- Insulated sleeping mat
- Sleeping bag
- Folding shovel
- Phone (and mountain rescue number!)
- Head torch
- Toiletries (including sunscreen and lip balm)
- First aid kit
- Cooking supplies (stove/fuel/pots/utensils)
- Nalgene water bottles
- Knife (always handy)
- Clothing and footwear
- Power bank
- Crampons and ice axes (depending on your plans)
You’ll find more information about packing for your winter camp below!
You need a decent tent that’s not going to collapse under the snow.
It’s also helpful to have a tent with a snow skirt. You can pack snow on top of the skirt to prevent the wind from blowing up and under your outer skin, bringing fresh snowfall into your sleeping compartment.
Even a strong tent can collapse under a heavy snowpack, so you’ll have to get up several times in the night to knock the snow off your tent roof. (Don’t forget to set some alarms!)
A good-quality four-season tent isn’t cheap, and it’s going to be heavier than the other tents you might be used to. It’s worth the investment to keep you safe, though, so don’t go hiking off into a snowy mountain with your budget three-season tent!
You’ll also want some paracord for tie-downs, but I’ll talk more about that later!
A mummy sleeping bag is best for winter camping. It will have a hood that you can secure around your face to help trap your body heat inside the bag.
Make sure your sleeping bag is appropriate for your plans by checking the temperature rating. Also, bear in mind that sleeping bags break down over time. I made the mistake of going winter camping with my dad’s old expedition sleeping bag from the attic.
It looked like it was in excellent condition, but once I got to camp, I realized that some stuffing was missing. My teeth were chattering all night.
Sleeping mats aren’t just about staying comfortable.
They also provide essential insulation in the colder months and stop your body heat from leaching into the ground. Make sure you have something with a decent R-Value. For winter camping, I recommend an R-Value of at least 5.
When it comes to dressing for winter camping, layers are key. You need to forget about trying to insulate or heat your tent. Instead, focus on insulating your body.
If you imagine that you’ll be sleeping outside without a tent and dress for that, you’ll have a good idea of the kind of clothes you need to wear.
Avoid cotton clothing because it increases your chances of getting hypothermia. You’re naturally going to sweat as you set up your camp; cotton will absorb this moisture and soon become wet.
The last thing you want is to be wearing wet clothing in the winter, so go for something like wool, silk, or polyester.
If you’re hiking in heavy snow, you need to wear snowshoes or cross-country skis to distribute your weight. If you don’t do this, you’ll sink into the snow. Stumbling around in the snow for hours is not only exhausting but also dangerous. You could easily break an ankle.
If you aren’t hiking in heavy snow, a sturdy pair of waterproof boots will be fine. Just make sure they have plenty of grip and ankle support to keep you safe on the slippery ice.
Underwear and Base Layers
It might not be sexy, but thermal underwear is essential for winter camping!
You’ll want some nice, thick woolen socks, full-length long johns, and a long-sleeved base top. To keep your base layers clean, wear regular underwear that’s comfortable to hike in.
Silk base layers are cozy, but they are more expensive than polyester. I advise buying the best kit that you can afford, as it’ll probably work out to be cheaper in the long run. (It will last you for years, so you don’t have to keep replacing it!)
Good mid-layers are hiking fleeces or wool sweaters. Depending on the temperature, you could also use comfortable hiking trousers as a mid-layer, then put salopettes over the top.
All these layers can constrict your movement. So, for the mid- and outer layers, you might have to go up a size to ensure that you can move comfortably.
Your outer layers are things like salopettes and a good waterproof jacket. It’s helpful to have vents in the armpits to open up when you’re hiking. This will stop you from overheating, but you can close them once you arrive at camp.
If the weather doesn’t justify salopettes, some snow gators will be helpful to keep snow out of the top of your boots. (It’s pretty horrible when meltwater builds up in your shoes.)
It’s amazing how quickly you cool down once you aren’t hiking anymore, so it’s best to take measures to stay warm before you start feeling the cold. You’ll waste less energy this way.
Hats, Gloves, and Goggles
Make sure you have a good pair of gloves and a warm hat. You should also consider bringing goggles or sunglasses with you. These will help keep snow out of your eyes, which makes it hard to see, and will also protect you from the sun reflecting off the snow.
Even if it’s overcast when you set off, bring something to protect your eyes.
I’ve peaked a mountain to blinding sun before, and I had to turn back before I reached the summit because I could feel my eyes burning. I had planned to camp on the other side of the mountain, and I was gutted that my plans were ruined because I didn’t bring one small piece of kit with me.
You might want to bring a camping lantern for the evenings, but you should definitely bring a head torch as well. If it gets dark before you finish setting up your winter camp, you can light up what you’re doing while keeping your hands free.
As with any camp, you’re going to need personal toiletries. (Though you might be a bit more reluctant to maintain a strict hygiene routine when the icy winds are rolling in!)
Your toiletries should include sunscreen and lip balm, as the sun can be extremely powerful when it reflects off the snow. It might seem strange to pack sunscreen for a cold-weather trip, but you’ll regret it if you don’t!
First Aid Kit
When camping, you should always take a first aid kit, but you might want to be even more cautious on a winter camp, where there’s a higher chance of slipping.
On top of the standard first aid supplies, I recommend that you bring an emergency splint. You can get relatively compact and flexible ones that shouldn’t take up too much space in your pack.
You’re also going to want to bring an emergency foil blanket in case you get too cold in the night, or potentially an emergency shelter. Foil blankets are cheaper and more compact, but some people prefer to have the sturdier emergency shelter, especially if they are camping in a group.
I hardly ever hike with walking poles because they get in my way. But for icy and snowy hiking, especially with a heavy backpack, I find them useful.
They’ll help you keep your balance. You can also use them to check the snow depth before proceeding.
I already mentioned that batteries run down more quickly in cold weather, so you might want to consider bringing along a power bank. Keep it in a sock to protect it from the cold, and try to keep devices for emergencies.
Hot Water Bottle
I get cold quite quickly, so I never camp without a hot water bottle in the winter. (Or the spring or the autumn, to be honest!)
One option is to use a Nalgene drinking bottle. You can boil some water, fill it up, and then wrap the bottle in a t-shirt or scarf so that it doesn’t scald you. Keep it at the end of your sleeping bag to prevent your toes from getting cold or stick it up your t-shirt to help maintain your core temperature.
You can drink the water the following day, so it isn’t wasted!
You could also use a small rubber hot water bottle. These are more comfortable to use, but you wouldn’t want to drink the water afterward. It will have a weird aftertaste and probably contain weird chemicals that leached into it from the rubber bottle.
If you are camping in the snow, you’ll need a shovel to dig the sleeping platform for your tent. It doesn’t have to be massive, but the bigger the shovel, the less time it will take you to dig!
You’re probably going to want to get a folding shovel, as they will take up less space in your pack. I prefer to secure a shovel to the outside of my backpack, as it doesn’t matter if it gets wet.
Crampons and Ice Axes
Some winter campers head out with crampons, ice picks, and climbing ropes. To be honest, you want to save these harder-core adventures for a later time, when you have more experience.
But if you’re wondering what they’re for, crampons are a traction device that you tie to your shoes to help you move across ice without slipping. They look a bit like football boots but are sharper.
For deep snow, you’d want to stick to snowshoes or skis that will keep you on the surface. If the terrain is more hard and icy, crampons might be the better option.
Ice axes are used for ice climbing, but they might be appropriate for a winter camping trip in the mountains, where you have some steep icy areas to ascend and nothing to grab on to.
Food to Bring and Cooking Tips
My culinary prowess goes out the window in cold weather; I just try to get as many calories inside me as I can, for the least effort possible. (Sitting outside around your camping stove is a lot more enjoyable when your fingers aren’t going blue!)
So, I prefer to go for dehydrated ration packs that I just add boiling water to.
And, no, you don’t have to get dehydrated meals, but they are really convenient for winter camping. Whatever you decide, get something simple that doesn’t require too much prep or washing up.
Dehydrated Ration Packs
Ration packs are loaded with calories, and some of them are actually really tasty. If you are vegan, need gluten-free food, or have any allergies, you will almost certainly find something suitable for your needs. (Of course, you’ll find a lot more variety if you’re a meat-eater without any allergies.)
I always go for hearty dehydrated meals like:
- Chili con carne (well, sin carne for me)
- Macaroni and cheese
- Mushroom stroganoff
- Sticky toffee pudding
It’s also possible to dehydrate your own meals. This video will get you started!
Compostable Versus Disposable Packaging
I hate using unnecessary plastic, but I have managed to find some ration packs with compostable packaging. (You’ll still take it home with you, but at least it will break down in the bin.)
The downside of compostable packaging is that it isn’t as convenient. With disposable packets, you pour the water directly into the bag up to the fill line and seal them, so the cooking happens in the pouch.
If you use the more eco-friendly paper packaging, you’ll have to pour the contents of the ration pack into a pan of boiling water (which means you have a pan to wash up at the end).
For me, the slight extra effort is worth it, but it’ll come down to your personal choice.
As well as ration packs, I always fill my pack with lots of calorie-rich snacks like nuts, dried fruits, cookies, and flapjack. You need a lot more calories when you’re cold, so don’t underestimate how hungry you will get.
I also bring lots of sachets of hot chocolate, cup-a-soup, and herbal teas to help keep me warm and my spirits high.
I’ve already told you to keep cooking simple and quick and to minimize washing up. But here are a few more cooking tips to help you out on your next winter camping trip:
Liquid Stoves are More Reliable in Cold Weather
Liquid stoves can run on white gas, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, or diesel, and they’re much more effective than propane or alcohol stoves when the temperature drops. If you do have to cook with gas, you can keep the canister at the bottom of your sleeping bag to prevent it from getting too cold.
You Can Build a Snow Wall to Protect Your Stove
To build a snow wall around your stove, you need to create a few snow bricks by molding the snow into rectangles. Then you can make your wall, or preferably two small walls at a 90-degree angle to one another so that you can shelter your stove from two sides.
This will stop the wind from blowing your flame around, so your water will boil more quickly.
Be Careful When Cooking With Gloves
Gloves can make it more difficult to feel what you’re doing, so make sure you’re extra careful around your cooking flame.
I have set my gloves on fire before in the winter, and I didn’t even notice the flames until my husband started yelling at me. (I was just thinking, ‘Jeez, what is that guy’s big problem?’ Then I saw the smoke!)
Avoid Cooking Inside Your Tent
I know it’s tempting to boil your water from the comfort of your sleeping bag, but tents are highly flammable. Also, in such a small space, you could poison yourself with the fumes from your stove.
If you want to cook from your tent, you could dig out a cooking pit close to your tent door. Having your stove set down a little way into the snow will help prevent your tent door from flapping in the wind and catching the flame.
You could also get one of the water boilers in which the flame is enclosed. A popular brand is called Jet Boil, but many alternatives do a similar thing. Water boils super quickly with very little gas, and the fire risk is massively reduced.
Cook With Snow
The great thing about camping in the snow is that you don’t have to carry water with you, so your pack will be considerably lighter. Make sure you boil melted snow water for a good 10 minutes to get rid of any nasty bacteria.
And never eat yellow snow. (I tried to resist saying it!)
How to Pitch a Tent in the Snow
Pitching a tent in the snow is a bit of a learning curve. The ground will often be too frozen to get your pegs in it, or you’ll be camping on soft snow, so your pegs will come straight out of the ground in a gust of wind.
Here are some tips for pitching your tent in the snow. Remember to leave plenty of time, as it will take a lot longer than you might be used to.
1. Make Sure You’re in a Safe Zone
Choose a safe camping spot, well outside any avalanche zones.
Test the area with your walking poles or shovel to ensure you’re not camping over a water body or trench. The snow beneath you will probably melt a bit during the night, and you don’t want to end up floating away!
Also, try to avoid camping beneath trees, as the branches could snap off under the weight of heavy snow. (Or they could just dump a load of snow on your tent!)
2. Get Digging
If the snow isn’t too deep, you’ll be able to dig to solid ground. This is ideal!
But if the snowfall has been heavy, you’ll have to dig just enough snow to create some snow walls around your tent. Then, to compact the area as much as possible, use your shovel or feet to flatten the trench you’ve dug.
You will now have a compacted sleeping platform that is much less likely to melt, as well as extra protection from the elements.
You might want to create snow bricks for these walls, then fill in all the gaps with more snow to create a strong and smooth wind barrier.
3. Put Up Your Tent
You’re now ready to pitch your tent, but you might run into some problems when it comes to the pegs. If the snow is shallow enough that you’re going to be digging down to the bare ground, it might be frozen hard.
In this case, you would benefit from a mallet, so you don’t tear your hands open trying to get the stakes in the ground.
You could consider getting special snow stakes for heavier snow. These are designed especially for winter camping. Snow stakes are short and wide; you push them into the snow horizontally.
I find that the old-fashioned method is more effective, though.
Just tie your tent to rocks or sticks, which you bury under the snow. For this, I’d use paracord, which you can thread through the loop that your peg normally goes through. Once you’ve compacted the snow on top of your homemade anchors, they will freeze in place and keep your tent nice and secure.
It’s going to take some practice to set up a decent winter camp, which is why it’s so important to go with a guide or experienced friend for your first trips.
How to Prep Your Car for Winter Camping
If you’re driving out to your camping spot or trailhead, you need to take some extra safety precautions in the winter.
You’ll need decent snow tires that can handle the snow and ice. I know that good tires can be expensive, but it’s a terrible idea to keep your summer tires and ‘hope for the best.’
You could also consider getting good-quality four-season tires, which is what I have on my camping van. They were more expensive than conventional snow tires, but I can keep them on my van year-round instead of changing them out.
The downside of four-season tires is that they’ll wear out more quickly than if I swapped between snow and summer tires every season.
As well as good tires, you should bring along some snow chains. These will help prevent your vehicle from getting stuck in deep snow.
Use snow chains only if the ground is covered by at least a few centimeters of snow. If you use them on bare roads, the chains will break under the weight of your vehicle. They could also damage your car after they snap.
They aren’t designed for long drives but, rather, for crossing tricky road sections or mountain tracks. They will give you a lot more traction and help you move forward safely, but you aren’t supposed to drive too fast with them.
You’ll probably want to limit your speed to 30 miles an hour when using snow chains, or they could snap.
Sleeping in Your Vehicle
If you’re going to be sleeping in your vehicle, you still need to bring loads of layers, a suitable sleeping bag, and an insulated sleeping pad.
Sleeping in a car will protect you from the wind, but it’ll still get cold in there. To be honest, trying to insulate your vehicle is a waste of time and effort. If you have a camping van, by all means, take the time to insulate it.
I have three layers of insulation in the back of my Peugeot Boxer, and it makes a huge difference. But it took two weeks of full-time work to adequately insulate it, and it’s a permanent fixture.
If you’re sleeping in your vehicle occasionally, you’re better of just focusing on insulating your body like you would in a tent.
As painful as it might seem, you’re going to have to crack a window in the winter; otherwise, you’ll wake up to condensation dripping down the walls and making all your kit damp.
You can also reduce condensation by hanging microfiber towels or using some charcoal bags, but opening your window is still essential.
Tips on How to Stay Warm (Preventing Cold Injuries)
Getting too cold isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be extremely dangerous.
A healthy human body temperature is 36.5–37°C (97.7–98.6°F). It doesn’t take a huge shift in temperature for things to get nasty.
If your core body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F), your organs will stop functioning correctly and you will start experiencing the symptoms of hypothermia. At 28°C (82°F), you are likely to lose consciousness, and at 21°C (70°F), there is a very high chance that you will die. (Source)
Frostbite is also a considerable risk when camping in the winter. You need to wear well-insulated gloves and socks. Be especially careful about touching anything metal when it’s cold, like snow chains or cooking pots.
Keeping Warm on a Winter Camping Trip
Here are some tips to help you stay warm on your next camping trip:
Eat Plenty of Food
Your body will be working hard to keep you warm, so you need to give it enough fuel. In fact, shivering for 10 minutes can burn as many calories as an hour of exercise (Garvan Institute of Medical Research). Imagine how many calories you’ll burn if you’re shivering all night!
Of course, it’s best to take along enough layers to stay warm in the first place. But if you do feel cold, it’s essential to have some calorie-packed meals to replace all the energy that you’ve lost.
Wear a Hat to Bed
You’ve probably heard people say that you lose 30% of your heat through your head. Well, that’s not exactly accurate.
You lose that much heat through your head only when the rest of your body is well insulated, because it’s harder for heat to escape in general. But if you’re wrapped up in your sleeping bag, then, yes, you could be losing a significant amount of body heat through your head.
It’s a good idea to wear a warm hat to bed. Make sure you have a mummy sleeping bag with a hood, too.
Don’t let yourself get cold in the first place.
Beat the cold by anticipating when you think the temperature will drop. That means adding an extra layer before sunset and zipping up the vents in your coat as soon as you stop hiking.
You’ll also want to make yourself a nice hot water bottle before you go to bed, letting it warm up your sleeping bag before you get in.
Sharing Body Heat
Your tent will be considerably warmer if you sleep in it with somebody, as you can share any body heat that does escape from your sleeping bags.
You don’t have to be spooning to benefit from this. (But sure, it helps!)
Leave No Trace
We campers have a responsibility to leave wild places as we found them. That can be a little more complicated in the wintertime.
Let’s not beat around the bush; I’m talking about poop.
In the summer, you can dig a hole away from water sources or trailheads and bury your business. But in the winter, the ground might be frozen solid. You can’t just bury your poop in the snow, either.
When the snow melts, that lovely gift will reappear for summer hikers. So, while it’s ok to go for a pee outside in the winter, you need to pack your poop and toilet paper out with you.
While we’re on the subject, it’s also worth telling you to go for a pee before bed. The less liquid in your bladder, the warmer you’ll be. Some people also pee in a bottle inside their sleeping bag. This is easier for men, but some women have mastered the art, too. (I take my hat off to you.)
I know that bottle peeing sounds a bit risky, but if you are cozy in your sleeping bag and it’s way below freezing, it makes a lot more sense to pee in a bottle instead of going outside and letting all your precious body heat escape from your sleeping bag and tent.
Winter camping is in a whole different league compared to summer camping. Your pack is going to be heavier, and the quality of your kit is far more important.
You’ll need to take things one step at a time.
Start by camping in slightly colder weather than you are used to, and take things from there. Also, seriously consider hiring a guide or asking an experienced friend to show you the ropes.
A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing because it gives you a false sense of security. Remember, reading articles online will never prepare you in the same way that an avalanche or winter mountaineering course will.
That doesn’t mean you just wasted your time, as everything you’ve just learned will serve you down the line. Just remember that cold weather camping has some serious risks, and you have a responsibility to go into it fully prepared.
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you some unforgettable camping experiences in the snow!
Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.