Love camping too much to avoid if for 4-6 months of the year? Winter camping definitely has its perks, like no crowds and beautiful white vistas. But don’t let all the hype fool you: a winter camping trip and end up completely miserable or be downright dangerous, even if you are a skilled backpacker. Snow only complicates things further and increases your risk of getting wet and hypothermic. So, if you are planning a trip, first read these tips for winter camping in the snow.
*Not sure what to bring on your trip? See this winter camping gear checklist.
1. Everything Is More Difficult in the Cold and Snow
When camping or hiking in winter, the simplest tasks suddenly become difficult and annoying. Like trying to check your GPS while wearing gloves. Or setting up a tent with frozen fingers. Or quickly getting exhausted from even slight uphill ascents…
To make sure you actually enjoy the winter camping trip, don’t be an overachiever. If trekking to camp, only plan for a few miles per day. And make sure you give yourself plenty of time to set up camp, especially since the daylight hours are limited in winter.
2. Prevent Condensation in the Tent
One of the biggest risks with winter camping is getting wet at night from condensation. Because the temperature inside the tent is warmer than outside, condensation forms on the walls of the tent. It freezes and then melts when the sun hits it in the morning, and then drips down on you at night. You wake up drenched and freezing.
The image above shows what a tent looked like after removing the fly. It was 20F temperatures. All those little white specks are condensation crystals from breathing!
To prevent condensation inside your tent:
- Vent the tent. Most tents provide ZERO insulation (they keep you warm by blocking wind); leaving the door or vents open won’t make you colder. It is better to have some cold air get into the tent than get wet from condensation!
- Use a “candle lantern” or tent heater. In addition to keeping you warmer, candle lanterns and tent heaters dry out the air in your tent, preventing condensation. See tip #19.
- Put wet clothes in a stuff sack. Otherwise the moisture from the clothing will escape into the tent.
- Never cook in your tent: Or, if you must, make sure the door is open so condensation is able to escape.
- Bring a towel for removing condensation. If you have a pocket at the top of your tent where condensation gathers, you can keep the towel there. It will absorb the condensation before it drips down on you.
- Let your tent fly and groundsheet dry before packing up. This goes a long way to reducing the amount of moisture in the tent on multi-day trips.
3. Keeping Your Sleeping Bag Dry at Night
There are lots of ways your sleeping bag can end up getting wet while winter camping. Even a bit of dampness can ruin its insulating properties! You might be able to turn it inside out and dry it on top of your tent, but this is only if there is good sun (not guaranteed in winter!). So it’s better to be cautious and keep your sleeping bag dry.
Don’t put your face inside the sleeping bag.
As tempting as it may be, never wriggle down into your sleeping bag so it covers your face. Your breath actually contains a lot of vapor and this vapor will get your sleeping bag wet. Instead, use a balaclava to keep your face warm at night.
Put a Shell between the Sleeping Bag and Tent Walls
If you touch the sides of the tent while sleeping, it will create condensation and a wet spot on your sleeping bag. A solution is to put a waterproof barrier between your bag and the tent wall. This can be:
- Your hardshell jacket on one side of the sleeping bag and your pack at the other side.
- Or, if you are tall and have issues with your feet touching the tent wall, you can put just the foot of your sleeping bag into a waterproof.
Consider a Synthetic Sleeping Bag instead of Down
Down sleeping bags are definitely warmer than synthetic bags but down easily turns into a soggy, wet mess. Unless you are absolutely sure you can keep your sleeping bag dry, it’s better to go with synthetic. If you must, bring two synthetic sleeping bags; put one inside the other for extra warmth.
4. Use Vapor Barrier Liners
Vapor barrier liners (VBL) are a waterproof layer which is used to keep your insulation layers dry. They can be used for clothing during the day or in your sleeping bag at night. Here’s how VBLs work:
In warm conditions, your base layer wicks water away from your body towards your mid and outer layers. It then evaporates into the air so you stay dry. In cold weather though, the lower dew point means the vapor never evaporates. Instead, it turns into water and drenches your clothes. By using a vapor barrier liner, you keep moisture from ever making it to your insulating layer so you stay dry.
To use a VBL correctly, wear in this order:
- Base layer
- Vapor barrier
- Insulating layer
In a down sleeping bag, the VBL goes inside the bag. Never put a VBL over a down bag or it will just trap the moisture in the down bag.
Downsides of VBLs
Vapor barrier liners will keep you dry. However, they are also non-breathable so trap perspiration against your body. You end up slick and clammy. Yes, you still stay warm because the insulation layer is dry, but the feeling isn’t great.
A lot of people use vinyl gloves as VBLs for their hands. Or they use plastic bags as VBLs for their boots. This is fine for short trips. However, if the VBL is worn for a long time, the skin on your hands/feet gets soft, wrinkled, and is more prone to blistering. The trapped sweat is also a breeding ground for bacteria, so be prepared for your feet to stink like crazy!
Guidelines for Using VBLs in Winter
- If bringing lots of backup insulation layers, don’t bother with a VBL. It’s better to change into dry layers than deal with the clamminess of wearing a VBL.
- Remove VBLs from your hands and feet frequently. This will allow your hands/feet to air out so the skin doesn’t get saturated and blister.
- Use a VBL for a down sleeping bag on multi-day camping trips. Perspiration builds up in a down bag after just a few nights!
- Also use VBLs on any trip involving high-intensity activities (lots of sweating) followed by rest. The VBL is necessary to keep insulation dry. You remove the VBL when you are done with the activity to allow your skin to breathe.
For more on this, Andrew Skurka has a great guide to VBLs.
5. Be Extremely Cautious about Putting a Hot Water Bottle in Your Sleeping Bag
One of the most common winter camping tips is to put a bottle with hot water into your sleeping bag before bed. You can insulate the bottle with a wool sock to help it stay hot longer.
However, this is a HUGE risk.
If your water bottle leaks, your sleeping bag will get wet. Your sleeping bag is what keeps you alive while winter camping. Your sleeping bag is going to warm up anyway, so it’s really not worth the risk to get comfortable a bit faster.
Water bottles are especially likely to leak in winter. Why? Because water freezes in the threads so the bottle lid doesn’t close properly. Don’t believe me? Watch this video of a winter camping trip gone wrong: one guy’s water bottle leaked and drenched his sleeping bag and pad. Luckily he had a down suit or probably would have needed emergency evacuation for hypothermia.
There’s also the issue of pressure: steam inside your water bottle builds up and can cause the water bottle to crack open or leak.
If you absolutely must use a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag, follow these steps:
- Only use water bottles which can handle boiling water. Otherwise they might crack.
- Pour the boiling water into the water bottle and close the lid.
- Give the bottle a bit of a shake. This will melt any frozen water in the threads.
- Open the lid to let pressure escape.
- Repeat this 3 more times. This is the only way to ensure there isn’t too much pressure in the bottle.
- Keep the water bottle in a wool sock or dry bag to catch any leaks, just in case.
6. Frozen Boots
When camping in winter, your boots will get wet from snow and sweat. If you weren’t wearing gaiters or a VBL, then they could be very wet. At night, they might freeze into a frozen block.
It’s very uncomfortable to put frozen boots on in the morning. Yes, your boots will “thaw out” once you put them on. However, depending on the conditions, it could take HOURS thaw out boots and your feet might already have frostbite by then.
To prevent boots from freezing at night:
- Bring a lightweight waterproof bag with you. Or, invert your sleeping bag stuff sack for this purpose.
- Put your boots in the bag and then put them in your sleeping bag.
- Or wrap the bagged bots in some clothing and use them as a pillow.
If your boots do freeze solid, here’s how to thaw them:
- Put hand warmers into each boot before putting them on.
- Or bring two water bottles. Put hot water in the bottles, wrap a sock around the bottles, and put one bottle in each boot.
- Have booties (like these) to wear around camp while waiting for boots to thaw.
- Don’t use a fire to thaw frozen boots. You’re more likely to melt them.
7. Keeping Your Clothes Dry
To stay warm while camping in winter, you need to be dry. In this case, prevention is key: It’s a lot easier to stay dry than try to dry wet clothing!
Here’s how to keep clothing dry when winter camping:
- Resist the urge to wear too many layers. It’s easy to put on too many layers, especially in the morning before you’ve had to warm up. Then you get active and start sweating through the layers. Only wear the minimal amount of clothing you need to stay comfortable on the move so you don’t sweat too much!
- Use vapor barrier liners for your feet and hands. Since hands and feet sweat so much, it’s really worth it to use VBLs. See #4.
- Tuck in and cinch up. You want to make sure your insulating layers aren’t extending past your shell or they can get covered with snow, which promptly melts and gets your clothes wet.
Even if you follow these tips, you can still end up with damp clothing. Which brings us to…
8. Drying Clothing
Some people recommend wearing damp clothes at night to dry them. Or putting them in your sleeping bag. The idea is heat from your body will dry out the clothes at night. However, this is generally a TERRIBLE idea:
- Putting wet clothes into your sleeping bag will make your bag wet. A wet sleeping bag won’t insulate as well. Since your sleeping bag is keeping you alive at night, it’s not worth the risk of getting it wet.
- It probably won’t completely dry the clothes anyway. You end up with damp clothes and a damp sleeping bag.
- Wearing wet socks at night will saturate your skin. Your feet get all wrinkly and will blister quickly.
So how should you deal with wet clothes on a winter camping trip?
Just put on the wet clothes in the morning. Once you get active/start hiking, your body heat will dry out the clothes. And it’s much more comfortable to dry out clothes with your body heat when are you moving around than laying in a damp sleeping bag.
As one backpacker pointed out,
“Novices may find the idea of putting wet stuff on in the morning just too horrible to contemplate. But one gets used to it as confident (or experience) grows.”
Besides, you probably were just going to get all sweaty again. So it doesn’t make sense to dry out clothes at night just to get them wet all over again.
*Note: If it’s really cold, put wet clothes in a sack and put it in your sleeping bag or next to it. The point isn’t to dry the clothes though; it’s to keep them from freezing solid at night so you can put them on easier the next day. It’s also easier to put on warm wet clothing than cold wet clothing.
9. Pack Lots of Extra Socks
It’s one thing to put on damp clothing in the morning. It’s another thing to put on damp socks. Our feet don’t produce heat like our core does, so you won’t be able to dry out your wet socks with heat from your feet.
- Bring two pairs of liner socks per day. Put on the second near the end of the day.
- If you aren’t using a VBL, then you’ll also want lots of spare insulating socks too.
- Have an extra set of liner and insulating socks to wear to bed.
- Dry socks in an interior pocket or tucked into your waistband.
10. The Layering System Applies to Your Hands Too
Experienced campers know they need to layer their clothing, but often overlook that this also applies to their hands. If you want to keep your hands warm, you will need a base, mid, and shell layer! Some tips:
- Like with socks, you’ll want to bring lots of extra base layer gloves. Swap these for dry ones as they get wet.
- Dry wet liner gloves in an internal jacket pocket.
- If you use a VBL, it should be worn over the base layer. Never wear a VBL directly against your hands or they will get clammy, wrinkly, and blister.
- Never wear just your insulating layer. It will either get wet from snow or sweat, and then your insulating layer is ruined. It is okay however to wear 1)just your liner or 2)your liner plus the shell.
- Use clips for your shell mittens. This will keep your mittens from getting lost when you remove them to do camp tasks.
For more on the layering system, read this post about the best winter hiking mittens and gloves.
11. Protect Exposed Skin
Cold, dry winter air will quickly chap your exposed skin – especially your lips and around your nose. This is unsightly and painful! Use Vaseline to coat all of your exposed skin.
I personally break out really easily from Vaseline so instead use a beeswax product to coat my skin. (I like this one.) The only issue is it gets really hard in cold weather, so you need to keep it in an interior jacket pocket to warm it before applying.
12. Clear Snow Under Tent or Not?
It is good advice to clear the snow from under the tent before pitching. This prevents the tent from sinking into a wet puddle as the snow melts. However, clearing snow requires a shovel, takes a lot of effort, and isn’t always necessary.
- Consider your sleeping pad. If it is a thin pad, then your body heat will melt the snow underneath and cause the tent to sink. If you have a good winter pad, then you probably don’t need to clear the snow.
- Pay attention to the forecast. If the temperature suddenly gets warmer, the snow under the tent will melt and cause your tent to collapse into a puddle.
- Stomp down snow if you aren’t going to clear it. This should be enough to keep your tent level overnight. It also prevents you from tearing a hole through the bottom of the tent when you step into the soft snow!
13. Tent Pegs in the Snow
Pegging down a tent in the snow is really tricky. Assuming you can access the ground, it will be frozen solid. You’ll need a hammer to bang them in, and they are likely to bend. It’s also easy to lose pegs in the snow; you will need spares and want to tie bright-colored string to them.
Instead of pegs, bring some bags with you. Fill these with snow or rocks and use them to anchor your tent.
14. Stoves for Winter Camping Trips
- Forget about gas canister stoves. These stoves are very inefficient or stop working completely in cold weather. Yes, you can do things like sleep with the canister but it’s not worth the hassle and inefficiency on a true winter camping trip.
- Use white gas instead. This fuel works well in sub-freezing temperatures. It actually ends up being cheaper because it is so much more efficient than gas canisters in winter.
- Remember extra fuel for melting snow. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow for water, so be sure you have budgeted enough.
- Don’t forget about your stove sinking. The heat from your stove will melt the snow underneath. Either clear the snow underneath it or have a small insulated pad to put it on.
15. Calculate 4,000+ Calories of Food Per Day
Your body will burn through fuel quickly to stay warm, and from the extra effort it takes to hike through snow. It’s likely you will need at least 4,000 calories of food per day. If you are a larger person or doing really intense activities, you might need 6,000+ calories per day (source).
How many calories of food to bring? One study found people used 34% more calories when hiking in at temperatures of 15-23F compared to 50F. Other research puts the number at 23% and the Army only calculates 10% more calories for soldiers exercising in cold weather.
Use this calculator to figure out how much food to bring backpacking on a warm-weather trip. Then budget 25-50% more calories. It’s better to play it safe than sorry!
*Not sure how to pack all of these calories of food? Check out my ebook. It has 50+ calorie-dense backpacking recipes you can make on your dehydrator plus lots of advice on planning backpacking meals.
16. Bring a Piss Bottle
Getting up in the middle of the night to pee in winter is no fun. But it’s also not fun to lie in your sleeping bag unable to sleep because you have to piss so badly but don’t want to leave the warmth. The solution? A piss bottle.
A wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle works best for this. Ladies – you can use a Go Girl urination device to pee directly into the bottle instead of risk peeing all over yourself. Remember to label the bottle so you don’t accidentally drink from it!
17. Pooping in the Snow
Leave No Trace still applies in winter! Ideally, you should always pack out your human waste. However, the LNT does say it is okay to bury poo in snow if you can’t pack it out.
Remember that the poo will still be there when the snow starts melting, and will be a disgusting sight for other nature-lovers. Be sure you bury your poo deep in snow and FAR AWAY from trail routes. It also needs to be 200 feet from water sources.
Toilet paper and wipes still need to be packed out. Bring doubled zip-lock bags for this. You can cover the exterior bag in duct tape so the contents aren’t visible. Or line the bag with foil so you can’t see inside.
*When pooping off-trail, be sure you can find your way back. It is very easy to get lost in the snowy whiteness! Tie a bright-colored bandana to a tree within visibility of your bathroom spot, or make sure your hiking buddy stays in view.
18. Don’t Forget about Campsite/Trailhead Access
An easy thing to overlook is how you will get to the campsite. Lots of roads – especially to less popular trailheads – are not plowed in winter. Even if they do get plowed, it might not be very often. You could end up with your vehicle stuck somewhere until spring. So do your research about road access before setting off!
Oh, and this would be a good time to add keep an emergency kit in your vehicle (which is something you have anyway, right?). If you get stranded, you should be able to survive for several days or even weeks until you can get out.
19. Bring a Candle Lantern
There’s a lot of debate about how much a candle lantern can really heat up your tent. Depending on the amount of ventilation, the R-value of your tent, and size of the candle, it could be several degrees or nearly nothing.
However, it’s still worth it to bring a candle lantern on your winter camping trip. The light from the candle does wonders to improve morale at night and lets you cozy up with a good book while waiting out the darkness. Candles also significantly reduce condensation in the tent, which is especially helpful if you need to dry damp clothes in the tent.
Candle lanterns in tents are safe, but you should still be cautious.
- You must vent your tent a bit whenever burning fuel (stove, heater, candle, etc.). Incomplete combustion creates carbon monoxide gas which can poison you! You should be venting your tent a bit during winter anyway to prevent condensation.
- Don’t put the candle in front of the tent door. If a fire breaks out, you want to be able to escape.
- Obviously keep the candle lantern hanging away from the tent walls or somewhere it could be bumped. And never fall asleep with the lantern burning!
*UCO candle lanterns are by far the most popular option. Check out the options here on REI.
20. Apply Waterproofing before Your Trip
You should regularly reapply the waterproof coating to your camping gear. Even if you’ve done it recently, you’ll still want to reapply before a winter camping trip. This is not the time to have a leaky tent or jacket!
21. Use Lithium Batteries
Only use lithium batteries on gear when camping in winter. While they aren’t rechargeable like NiMH batteries, they perform a heck of a lot better in cold weather. Energizer Ultimate Lithium cells (Amazon) work well in temperatures down to -40F and come in AA and AAA sizes.
If you absolutely want to use rechargeables, then go with Enloop NiMH LSD batteries (Amazon). They actually perform well in cold weather. But it’s still a good idea to keep a set of lithium primaries as a backup.
22. Don’t Let Your Water Bottle Freeze or Leak
A few things about water bottles for winter camping and hiking:
- Don’t use a metal bottle. Your bottle lid will freeze shut, or it will start rusting. Insulated thermoses are usually okay if you aren’t backpacking and worried about weight. Just make sure the bottle says it is “freezer safe” or the expanding water could damage the seal and cause it to leak.
- Choose a glove-friendly lid. Try opening a water bottle with fluffy mittens! It really helps to have a large lid. A large lid also makes it easier to pour boiling water into the bottle.
- Keep your water bottle inside your jacket. This prevents it from freezing.
- Flip your water bottle. Ice first forms on the top of water. If you flip it over at night, the lid is less likely to be frozen shut.
- Don’t overfill your water bottle. Leave lots of headroom in your bottle. Water expands by approximately 9-10% when frozen.
Read this post for the best winter hiking water bottles plus how to keep water from freezing.
23. Winter Camping Clothing Tricks
- Invest in wool base layers. Synthetics also work for base layers, but winter camping is a situation where you really want wool. Wool is warmer, wicks moisture better, still insulates well when wet, and doesn’t smell nearly as bad as synthetics! Seriously, your tent will stink with synthetics in it.
- Keep clothing loose to create a “chimney.” Loose clothing will trap air and keep your circulation going. It also allows warm air from your body to flow upwards to warm your face.
- Don’t cover your mouth. As tempting as it will be, don’t cover your mouth or even your chin. Condensation from your breath will moisten the balaclava or buff, causing ice to form over it and give you frostbite.
- Wear suspenders instead of a belt. It’s a lot more comfortable and allows heat to travel up towards your core.
- Hardshell is probably better than softshell. Softshell jackets only keep you warm while you are active. Once you stop moving, you will get cold quickly. So think about your type of trip and whether it makes sense to bring a soft or hardshell jacket.
24. Melting Snow for Water (Don’t Destroy Your Pot!)
Chances are you will be melting snow as your water source. Always remember to leave about a half cup of water as a “starter” for the next batch. Why? If you just pile snow into your pot, the bottom of the pot will come in direct contact with very hot flames without a way to transfer the heat upwards. You will end up warping your pot!!! Plus, melting snow goes a lot faster if there is already a bit of water in the pot.
25. Gear You Absolutely Must Bring for Winter Camping
In addition to the normal gear you need for camping, this gear is absolutely necessary. Depending on the type of trip, you might also need other gear like ice picks, snow shoes, and avalanche probes.
- Snow shovel. You’ll need this for packing or clearing snow from under your tent, digging a scat hole, transporting water to melt, packing down a cooking surface, and much more.
- Insulated butt pad. Where the heck do you plan on sitting while cooking or resting during breaks on your hike? Absolutely bring an insulated butt pad!
- Traction for your boots. Trails are extra slick during winter and can be dangerous. Play it safe and get traction like crampons for your boots.
- Insulated camp shoes or booties. After a long day of hiking in snow boots, you’ll be happy to have soft, warm booties to put on so your feet can breathe. These down booties or these Teva moccasins are popular.
- Spare socks, mittens, and hat. Mittens and hats easily get lost and can mean frostbite. Likewise, your toes will get cold even in the best winter hiking boots if your socks are drenched. Play it safe and bring spares!
- Tent brush. It’s likely ice crystals will form on the wall of your tent. When the morning sun hits the tent, the ice crystals will melt and drench your gear. A small brush lets you remove the ice and sweep it out of the tent before it has time to melt.
- Water bottle insulator. These keep your water from freezing. It’s also more enjoyable to drink hot water during your hike. Drinking cold water will lower your body temperature. The Granite Gear Air Coolers work well.
- Sun block and sunglasses. It is easy to forget about these in winter. But the sun becomes very intense when it reflects against the snow. Without sunglasses you lose visibility. Without sun block, you end up with a raccoon-like burn mark over your face.
- Lots of hand warmers. Aside from making your winter camping trip more comfortable, these could save your fingers or toes from frostbite.
- Rubber gloves (if you’ll need to refill your stove). White gas can “supercool” in cold weather. If spill liquid fuel on your hands while refueling, you can get instant frostbite on your hands.
- Trekking poles with snow baskets.
- Emergency food, such as gels or lots of extra chocolate for helping you fight hypothermia.
- GPS: It’s easy to get lost in a white winter wonderland. Make sure you have a GPS in addition to your map and compass.
26. Consider Morale
One thing about winter camping in the snow which doesn’t get talked about much is how boring it can get. The daylight hours are very short and the nights are very long. Assuming you are done with camp tasks and dinner by 7pm, you’ve still got nearly 12 hours until sunrise! You could go to bed early, but then you’ll wake up at 4am with nothing to do.
To keep the winter nights from getting boring or downright depressing, bring:
- A lantern. The light at night really improves mood! Wind-up lanterns are great because you don’t have to worry about extra batteries and winding gives you something to do.
- Entertainment, like a book, radio, or deck of cards. Preferably it’s something you can do while wearing gloves.
- Really good food. You’ll enjoy the night more when you’ve got a badass hot meal to eat.
- Whiskey. Or, something to smoke is lighter weight than alcohol. 😉 Plus it won’t make you have to pee a zillion times like alcohol does.
27. It’s Not Cheating!
It is not “cheating” to bring things like hand warmers or a tent heater. I know a lot of people try to prove how hardcore they are by going minimalist on their winter camping trips, but what’s the point if you aren’t going to enjoy it?
Read this post about the best tent heaters and how to use them safely.
28. Have an Exit Plan
I always think “worst case scenario” and have an exit plan on my backpacking trips. In winter, an exit plan is even more important.
- If you are new to winter camping, then don’t set up camp too far away from your vehicle in case you need to make a hasty exit.
- Make sure you have survival provisions in your vehicle, especially if you end up spending the night there.
- Bring an emergency communication device, such as a personal beacon locator (the SPOT device is great). This allows you to call for help regardless of where you are.
Bonus tip: The Winter Camping guide by NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) is one of the best books on the subject. I highly suggest you give it a read before going on a winter camping adventure.
Have you gone winter camping in snow? Let us know your tips in the comments section below.
Resources for this article include:
“Tent” (CC BY 2.0) by blachswan“NZ | camping” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by thestritzi“Safety tent” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by hugochisholm“camping!” (CC BY-SA 2.0)
“A little breezy down low (by J. Valdez)” (CC BY 2.0) by Tim Berger
“the 2 place-tent of Andreï at Camp3” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by twiga269 ॐ FEMEN
“Sarek NP (S) – Full moon” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Michiel van Nimwegen
“Condensation crystals on my tent” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Al_HikesAZ