Winter Camping 101
Gear & Tips for Staying Warm
When you ask most people for advice about winter camping, their response is usually either “Don’t!” or “Why?”
To many, heading out into the wilderness when there’s snow on the ground and temperatures are in the single digits is totally crazy. But there are actually a lot of good reasons to go winter camping: quiet, solitude, having your pick of camping locations, and freedom from bugs and bears (which are most likely in hibernation), and, if your trip includes backcountry skiing or snowboarding, access to all the untouched snow you could want. The key, of course, is staying warm.
The good news is, with some planning, careful packing, and armed with some knowledge, you don’t have to freeze. The right layers, sleeping bag, pad, and tent, along with a few simple tricks can help combat the cold and turn your trip into an enjoyable cure for midwinter cabin fever. Read below for a short breakdown of the standard winter-camping gear and how to get the most out of each item.
Essential Gear for Staying Warm
Merino wool provides incredible comfort in both summer and winter, but it does tend to dry more slowly. If you tend to be the sweaty type, it may not be your best option overnight trips. For multi-day excursions, a synthetic T-shirt, midweight long-sleeve base layer, and midweight fleece layer create a system that handles a wide range of temperatures and activities. Top it off with a hardshell or softshell jacket depending on your preference and the conditions you expect to encounter. As a general rule, softshells provide better performance in cold, dry conditions and highly aerobic activities while hardshells tend to protect better in really wet conditions but lack a softshell’s breathability.
Throwing a down or synthetic jacket into the equation adds an immense amount of comfort on those seriously cold days. Wear a puffy jacket over the top of all your layers and your shell whenever you stop moving to combat the temperature drop when your body stops generating heat. This jacket also helps dry your base layers by pulling moisture away from your skin. Down jackets weigh very little and pack down nicely, but don’t work as well when wet; for this reason a jacket filled with water-resistant down is pretty much a must for severe weather. Jackets with synthetic insulation are a bit bulkier, but they work better when wet so they’re better on long trips where you stand a good chance of getting soaked. Keep in mind that the moisture comes from your layers as well as from the outside, so your puffy jacket gets attacked from both sides.
Regardless of which style of insulation you choose, it’s important to remember the golden rule of winter layering: Layer to avoid sweating. If you plan on doing any high-output work like building an igloo, snow couches and the like, or you’re going on a hike to check out the winter scenery, you should be cold when you start out. As you begin to move around you will warm up, and immediately ditching the insulation and non-breathable hardshell (if applicable) will allow your body to shed moisture extremely fast. Just remember, if you’re leaving camp, bring your puffy with you. You’ll probably need it at some point.
Like the puffy jacket, your sleeping bag choice requires a decision between down and synthetic insulation. This has been debated for years, so I’ll be brief. Down insulation weighs less, lasts longer, compresses smaller, and costs more. As with puffies, a sleeping bag with water-resistant down or an outer membrane / DWR-coated shell is recommended because you’ll almost always have to deal with moisture due to condensation. Bags with synthetic insulation dry faster, provide better insulation when wet, and cost less. Whichever you choose, you should be diligent about keeping your sleeping bag dry. Waterproof stuff sacks go a long way toward getting this done.
You should also consider whether you sleep warm or cold and take that into consideration when buying your bag. As a general rule, you want a sleeping bag rated for the coldest temperature you expect to encounter; to get a good sense of how bags compare to each other, be sure to check the EN ratings of bags. If you already have a bag but it isn’t quite warm enough, you can boost its warmth by adding a sleeping bag liner.
Along the lines of keeping your sleeping bag dry while winter camping, it’s important to note how to sleep in your bag. The rule here is, never cover your nose and mouth with your sleeping bag. Breathing directly into your bag will almost always lead to a cold, wet sleeping bag in morning. If your face gets too cold, cinch your sleeping bag down tight so just a small opening around the mouth and nose is left, and wear either a balaclava or some other very breathable layer over your face.
Your sleeping pad provides the best resistance to conductive heat loss during the night by putting a layer between you and the cold ground. Inflatable pads tend to be far more popular than foam pads for their comfort and packability, and many of these include extra insulation for winter use. If you do go with an inflatable pad, make sure it has insulation in it to protect it (and you) from the cold ground.
When you’re shopping for a pad, you’ll see something referred to as an “R-value.” R-value refers to a pad’s thermal resistance, and offers a way to compare the insulating efficiency of different pads. A pad that is warm enough for winter camping should have at minimum an R-value of 3.5.
Alternatively, if you already have a three-season pad (and weight isn’t a serious consideration) you might want to just double up with two pads, ideally one that’s inflatable and one that’s closed foam. The effective R-value of this setup is the sum of the insulating abilities of each pad. To save weight you can also use a 3/4-length pad and put your pack under your feet at night. Whatever you do, you just want to make sure you’re completely separated from the ground.
For winter camping you want the warmth and weather protection of a four-season tent (which is really a one-season tent … winter). These tents can be completely sealed off from snow and wind, so you stay nice and dry inside. Four-season tents tend to have stout pole systems that easily support heavy snow loading and gale-force winds that you encounter during a winter storm. Learn how to stake out your tent with all the guylines to keep it from becoming a kite in raging winds.
Double-wall tents tend to provide extra warmth, less condensation, and more comfort for extended stays, but single-wall tents have been gaining in popularity among weight-conscious backpackers and climbers. Regardless of which type you use, make sure the vents are open and you leave a small opening at the top of the entrance zipper, to allow moist air to escape. This may seem counterintuitive, but otherwise condensation will collect inside the tent and you’ll wake up wet.
In the summer you just set up the kitchen on a flat piece of ground or maybe on a handy rock near camp. Winter requires a different approach. Pitch a floorless tent or tarp shelter over the snow and dig out the ground to standing height to create a comfortable, weather-protected place for three daily meals. Don’t be afraid to go to town with the shovel and build a table, shelves, seats, or anything else that makes your storm-bound time more comfortable and keeps your gear well organized (just try not to break a sweat while you’re doing this work). While all this may be overkill for an overnight trip, it makes a huge difference when you plan to stay in the same place for a few days in a row.
As a general rule, liquid-fuel (white gas) stoves tend to work better than butane canister stoves in the winter because the latter lose performance in colder weather. You can make butane work, but it requires a lot more attention to your cooking system and a few tricks that tend to void your stove’s warranty. White gas works as well in sub-zero temperatures as it does in the middle of the summer, so you can count on it in any conditions. This becomes an important consideration when you think about that fact that you’ll be melting snow to get most of your drinking water and make your meals a couple times a day. No stove means no water or food, which means going home early. Plan for about eight ounces of fuel per person per day for trips where you’ll have to melt snow for all your water.
It’s also worth thinking of what you’ll set your stove on since you can’t just flop it in the snow. A shovel blade works well for weight-conscious people, and you also have the choice between several specifically designed stove stands.
Tips for Winter Camping
You’re in your bag and wearing everything you have, but you’re still cold. Boil a bottle of water and put it between your legs against your femoral artery. This warms your blood directly and quickly increases body temperature.
Have to go to the bathroom? Don’t hold it. Your body uses a lot of energy to keep all that warm inside you. It’s much better to just get rid of it and use your energy for more important stuff.
Bring two (and only two) pairs of socks on your trip. Yes, even if it’s a week long. When you turn in for the night, change into a dry set and put the wet set against your chest under all your layers where they can dry overnight.
It takes a lot of calories to keep your body warm. Winter trips make bad times to go on a diet. Fat, calories, carbs … eat all you want and you’ll probably lose weight anyway. Skimp on any of it and you’re likely to have a hard time staying warm no matter how many layers you wear.
Two pairs of gloves should be considered minimum. Gloves take a long time to dry, and cold hands make you miserable in a hurry. You should also learn how to do everything shy of tying your boot laces while still wearing your gloves so you don’t unnecessarily expose your bare fingers to frigid winter temps.
Lithium ion batteries provide the best performance in cold weather; but regardless of the type you’re carrying, you’ll want to keep battery-powered devices close to the chest (literally) to keep them functional.
Bring along down booties. You’ll thank me.