A few pro tips to make winter camping better
“Camp in the winter? Are you NUTS?”
“Yes to both.”
If this is your answer, read on. Camping in winter can be really fun, especially if it’s attached to some kind of neat-o goal or expedition. (Even if you want to go sleep in the snow sans mountaineering objective, we support that. You do you.)
The key, as with all things in extreme elements, lies in preparation and proactive problem-solving. While this is not an exhaustive guide, here are a few tips we find deeply helpful.
Most importantly, stay dry.
Nothing will sap your warmth faster or more dangerously than getting damp on a winter night. Plan your clothing layers very carefully so what you wear to bed isn’t dirty or sweaty. Going to sleep in a dry sleeping bag, in dry clothing, in a dry tent, helps you set up for success.
For tips on layering to stay dry, check out our articles on the subject here, here, and here. Yeah we take layering pretty seriously. It’s totally possible to have a big active day and not get drenched. You can then hang on to your warmth all through the evening.
Tent or snow cave?
Snow caves can be great but take hours to build properly, and you need to learn exactly how to make them warm and safe, which is a skillset unto itself. Often, you risk getting soaked from sweating while building the darn thing.
By contrast, a four-season tent is designed to withstand heavy wind and snow, and takes 10 minutes to set up compared to the hours it takes to build a safe snow cave. You can still build a snow wall around your tent to block the wind, which is far easier than building a whole snow cave.
A couple pro tips to keep in mind if you do use a tent: ventilate it a bit so condensation doesn’t build up inside as you exhale all night. Without any air flow, this can turn your tent interior into an ice castle—a drippy ice castle. Also, know in advance that regular tent stakes won’t stick to the snow like they would to the dirt in the summer. You’ll need to buy special snow stakes, or bring extra stuff sacks to fill with snow and bury.
Where you put your tent counts.
When it comes to tent placement, make sure you’re avoiding any avalanche danger whatsoever. (If you don’t know how to avoid avalanche danger, do yourself a valuable favor and sign up for an avalanche safety class!)
Then, consider a spot as sheltered as possible from the wind. This could be on the leeward side of a small hill. You can build a nice little snow wall around your tent, too, for added protection. Also, think about a spot that might see the sun first thing in the morning. That little bit of sunlight adds a helpful touch of warmth that takes the sting out of getting up. (Well, some of the sting.)
Go warm on your sleeping bag choice.
Yeah, you might “sleep warm” usually, but just remember, it’s really easy to unzip your bag to cool down, whereas if your bag isn’t warm enough, there’s nothing you can do. So over-prepare a bit, and consider getting a bag 10-20 degrees warmer than you anticipate needing.
Read up on the difference between down and synthetic bags, and choose carefully. Also, you can consider adding a sleeping bag liner, which stuffs down to the size of a baseball but can easily add 10 degrees of warmth if you slip it into your bag. A couple pro tips: wear dry clothes to bed, as sweaty and dirty clothes are much clammier to sleep in. And, you can fill up your plastic water bottle with very warm water before bed and stick it in your bag with you. It sure feels kinda nice at your feet.
Get a winter-specific sleeping pad.
Yes, we’re sorry to report your summer pad won’t do. (It’s ok, you can shop for UnNew winter ones here on a budget.) Winter sleeping pads have a higher “R rating” for insulation between you and the cold ground. The better your buffer, the better your sleeping bag can do its job of warming you.
Many people double up on sleeping pads to maximize this insulating buffer between ground and sleeping bag. A sleeping pad with a high R rating (it ranges between 1 and 10, with 10 being warmest) should get the job done.
Things that shouldn’t freeze go inside your sleeping bag.
You’ve probably already made peace with the fact that you won’t be quite as comfy as you would be in your bed at home. Now, make peace with sleeping with your boot liners inside your bag! Because you sure don’t want them frozen solid in the morning. Then, think about any other items you should stuff in your bag with you, such as your phone or contact lens case. Contacts are pretty tough to put on if they’re encased in ice.
Be wary of using camp stoves, heaters, or candles in your tent.
It’s totally tempting to cook inside your tent, but unless you really know what you’re doing (i.e. you know how to safely ventilate the tent and avoid lighting the whole thing on fire), set up a cook area outside. Stoves give off deadly fumes that can kill you inside a tent, and tents are generally very flammable on top of that. A tiny misstep can light it on fire with you in it. Yeah … shudder.
Enter the Camp Kitchen of Safety and Happiness. If you’re going to be hanging out at this spot for a few days, take the time to build a nice cooking hangout outside your tent—using a sun shade and/or snow wall to add some shelter. You can cook in your tent’s open vestibule, too—just keep the stove away from the tent itself.
Eat a lot, drink a lot of water, and pee a lot.
Being cold burns calories on top of the calories you’re burning doing sporty things. Keep your body nourished so your inner furnace can keep firing. You also lose a lot of hydration not only through sweat but also by exhaling in the cold, dry air. So do yourself a favor and drink lots of water—especially warm or hot water. (Your thermos is your friend!)
When you need to pee, don’t hold it—your body expends additional energy keeping your urine warm, so get rid of it. Even if it’s the middle of the night, get out to pee or use a *well-marked* pee bottle. (Did we mention you should mark it well? We like adding duct tape to the bottle exterior so you know its texture in the dark and won’t—EW—slurp from the wrong bottle.)
Did we make winter camping sound fun? Adventurous, surely. But we also promise it’s great fun if you learn lots about how to stay warm and safe in advance. There’s nothing like a sleep-over under the stars on a big mountaineering objective, or a winter bonfire amid snowy peaks with friends. Share your pro tips with us, too. We’re all ears!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
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