Cold weather tent camping hacks
For those of us who like to spend time outside, winter can serve a punishing blow to morale. But if you’re prepared to not only endure but embrace cold weather conditions, you don’t have to let snow and ice keep you cooped up inside.
Cold weather camping can take many forms from cross-country ski trips to snowmobile bug outs to weekend ice fishing missions. But regardless of your activity of choice, the challenges of winter camping and recreation remain largely the same across the board.
So whether you plan on snowshoeing into the backcountry for some isolated winter camping or setting up a fish camp along your favorite steelhead river, the following 30 tips will help you set up camp, sleep warm, eat good, and enjoy every second of your snowy excursions this winter.
Choosing a Winter Campsite and Setting Up Camp
If your camping plans take you into the mountains, be prepared to deal with the white stuff. Driving to your winter campsite is perhaps the most dangerous stretch of your entire trip, so be sure you’re driving a capable vehicle and don’t forget to carry chains.
Once you get to the general area you’d like to camp, your biggest challenge is choosing and setting up a proper winter campsite that’s comfortable and safe.
1. Flatten the Snow Before Pitching Your Tent
In the dead of winter, there’s a good chance you’ll be camping directly on top of the snow. Before you pitch your tent, take a few minutes to flatten the snow that will be under the tent. When you sleep, your body heat will melt the snow, then when you leave the tent it will re-freeze.
If you don’t flatten the snow before, you’ll be sleeping on a bumpy icefield that’s downright uncomfortable and annoying.
2. Pitch Your Tent Behind a Windblock
Before you start stomping snow, make sure you’ve chosen a site for your tent that has adequate protection from the wind. Not only will high winds stress your tent and potentially blow it away, the added chill of the wind can make cold weather even more miserable.
Instead, try to find a natural wind block — the side of a cliff, a cut bank, a stand of trees, an outcropping of rocks — where you can pitch your tent. Get creative.
3. Watch Out for “Widowmakers”
No matter what season, it’s crucial that you look up when selecting a tent site and make sure you’re clear of any “widowmakers” — dead overhead branches that could fall at any minute. Widowmakers are especially dangerous during winter as accumulated snow can weigh down the branches, making them even more likely to snap.
4. Avoid Slopes Steeper Than 20 Degrees
If your travels take you into avalanche zones, do yourself a huge favor and get proper training. Then, when you’re in the field, do everything you can to avoid areas that show signs of avalanche potential.
As a general rule of thumb, slopes that are 20 degrees or steeper are more prone to avalanches — definitely not a good place to set up camp!
How to Stay Warm While Sleeping
Much of your overall enjoyment while camping comes down to how well you sleep at night. But getting good sleep in the freezing cold can be extremely challenging if you don’t have the right gear or make one of several rookie mistakes that can rob you of precious body heat.
The next seven tips will put you on track for toasty nights in arctic-like conditions.
5. Use a Properly Rated Sleeping Bag
Make sure your sleeping bag is rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures you expect to be camping in. For true snow camping, a 0-degree sleeping bag is a good starting point; go warmer if you can afford it.
6. Make Your Sleeping Bag 10 Degrees Warmer with a Liner
Let’s say you have a 20-degree sleeping bag but you want to camp in some 10-degree weather. If you don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for a new sleeping bag, spend $60 or so on a fleece sleeping bag liner. These lovely items can add an extra 10 degrees to your bag’s rating.
7. Don’t Breathe Into Your Sleeping Bag
The tendency is to want to work your way deep into your sleeping bag where you’re sealed away from the bitter cold outside.
But if you’re breathing into your sleeping bag, you’ll be adding considerable moisture into your bag, which will sap your body heat. Instead, cinch up the hood of your sleeping bag so that just your nose and mouth are exposed.
8. Stash a Bottle of Warm Water at Your Feet
Before you go to bed, fill a Nalgene water bottle with warm water then put it by your feet in the sleeping bag. This infusion of heat will keep you super warm for hours.
9. Eat a Big Warm Meal Right Before Hitting the Sack
Try to push back dinner until just before bedtime so you can fall asleep with a belly full of warm food. This will warm you up from the inside out, plus your body burns calories while digesting food which will also help you stay warm.
10. Don’t Hold in Your Pee
You’re going to want to hold it until the very last minute to avoid a trip outside the tent to relieve yourself. But it’s actually best to get it over with as soon as possible because your body has to expend energy keeping your bladder full of urine warm — energy that could be much better spent.
11. Wear Your Beanie and Socks to Sleep
We lose a tremendous amount of body heat out the tops of our heads and the bottoms of our feet. Wearing a beanie and socks while you sleep can go a long way to retaining as much body heat as possible.
Cold Weather Cooking Tips
Food always tastes better when you’re out in nature. This is especially true when most of your day is spent trying to stay warm. Hot bites and warm sips of coffee are heavenly when you’re frozen to the bone.
12. Make a Sheltered Cooking Area
When setting up camp, one of your first tasks should be to establish a sheltered cooking area. A simple tarp is often all you need to create a small area to get out of the snow, rain, and wind to make cooking in the elements more doable.
13. Use a White Gas Stove, Not a Canister
Standard backpacking stoves that use canisters generally work well in temperatures down to around 31 degrees or so. Any colder than that, however, and the butane in the fuel mixture stops vaporizing, resulting in weakened pressure and a tiny flame. Instead, go with a liquid fuel stove that burns white gas — they continue working well below freezing.
14. Bring a Windscreen for Your Stove
Along with your camp stove, bring a small windscreen like this one, or make your own out of tin foil. Save yourself the headache of a stove that won’t stay lit.
15. If You are Using a Canister Stove, Keep It Warm in Your Sleeping Bag
The convenience of canister stoves can outweigh their poor cold weather performance. So if you insist on rocking the can, keep it in your sleeping bag at night so it’s warm and ready for use in the morning.
16. Keep a Bottle of Drinking Water in Your Sleeping Bag with You So You’ll Have Unfrozen Water to Drink in the Morning
Similarly to the last tip, if it’s below freezing, keep a bottle of drinking water in your sleeping bag so it doesn’t turn into a block of ice overnight.
17. Heat Things Up with Spicy Foods
We mentioned that eating a warm meal before bedtime makes for a warmer night’s sleep, but why not make it even warmer by adding a hit of spice. Pack some chili powder or a small bottle of hot sauce and go to town.
18. Don’t Forget the Flask of Bourbon
When you need to warm up quickly, nothing hits the spot like a swig from a flask. Filler up with your spirit of choice, but it’s hard to go wrong with a nice smooth bourbon.
Dressing Smart for the Cold
Having fun while camping in the cold often comes down to your sustained level of comfort. Dressing for the conditions is crucial.
19. No cotton
Cotton clothing is cheap and comfortable, but it’s a poor insulator and loses all warmth if it gets wet. Plus, cotton holds onto smells and can get very stinky over the course of a multi-day trip. Go with garments made of moisture-wicking and breathable synthetic materials, or better yet…
20. Go with Merino
Merino wool is somewhat of a miracle product for anyone who stays active in cold weather. With natural water repellent and anti-microbial properties, wool wicks moisture and doesn’t get smelly. Merino wool apparel can get expensive, but if cared for, it will last a long time and perform better than any synthetic.
21. Layer Up
This is standard advice when dressing for any outdoor activity in practically any weather, but it’s paramount in cold temperatures. By dressing in layers, you can quickly remove or add clothing as your activity levels change throughout the day. Adaptability is key.
22. Wear a Base Layer
The clothing you wear next to your skin is known as your base layer and its primary purpose is to wick moisture away from your skin. Merino wool long underwear for your upper and lower body is the way to go.
23. Wear a Mid-Layer
Your mid-layer garments are all about insulation and for this, materials like fleece, down, and of course, Merino wool, are the clear winners. Have at least two different mid-layers available to fine-tune your temperature.
24. Don’t Forget Your Outer layer
Unless you’re blessed with bright blue skies and dry, powdery snow, count on getting wet while winter camping. A waterproof parka is standard outerwear for winter adventurers, just make sure yours is made of breathable material and has a good hood.
25. Wool Socks = Warm Feet
Heavy-duty expedition weight wool socks are the winter hiker’s answer to cold toes. Again, invest in at least one pair of Merino wool socks and you won’t regret it.
26. Insulated Boots
You can probably get by with standard hiking boots and thick wool socks for a few days in the snow, but you’ll be a lot happier with dedicated insulated cold weather boots. Look for waterproof boots lined with Thinsulate or similar insulation, and if you aren’t doing any strenuous hiking, a pair of good ol’ fashioned Sorels will suit you just fine.
27. Don’t Tie Your Boots Too Tight
Or else you’ll cut off the circulation to your toes and your feet will freeze!
28. Wear Warm Gloves
At a minimum, you need a pair of wool gloves to keep your hands warm. For more warmth and waterproofness, a pair of ski or snowboard gloves work great.
29. Keep the Heat in Your Head with a Beanie
Again, minimize the amount of heat you lose out your head by wearing a warm, comfortable beanie. If you anticipate high winds, check out a beanie that features Gore Windstopper fabric.
30. Don’t Get Sweaty, Strip off a Layer Before Heavy Activity
Monitor your activity levels very closely and add or remove clothing accordingly. The last thing you want is to get sweaty because once that sweat cools off you’ll be chilled to the core. Avoid a potentially hypothermic situation by stripping off insulating layers when you hit steep sections of the trail. Similarly, when you stop hiking for lunch, pull on an extra fleece sweatshirt to stay warm while you’re sitting still.
It’s Easier to Stay Warm Than it is to Get Warm
You may have noticed a trend emerge as we walked through these 30 cold weather camping tips — having a good time in cold weather is all about staying warm.
And while it’s important to have the right gear to endure the conditions, it’s much easier to stay warm if you never let yourself get cold in the first place. It takes considerably more energy to generate heat from scratch than it does to retain and conserve heat you already have.
Keep this in mind as you venture out into the solitude of the winter woods. Move slowly, plan your actions carefully, don’t overexert and get sweaty, and don’t forget the tips and tricks we shared with you today as you head outside this winter.