Camping in the winter is the best way to experience the splendor of the outdoors without the crowds. There’s nothing better than the solitude and elegance of blustery winter landscapes. But enjoying your winter wonderland comes with unique challenges—frigid temperatures, sleepless nights, and the risk of hypothermia.
The good news is, with a bit of planning and the right gear, you can enjoy the best of winter without freezing. We’ve got all your tips and tricks for staying comfortable while camping in the winter.
Camping in the winter provides a unique opportunity to enjoy your favorite places in a new way. It’s the only time of year you can revel in your own real-life snowglobe. But many campers hesitate to brave the cold, choosing to avoid the discomfort of freezing temps. Fortunately, you can reap the benefits of winter camping without the suck. From morning to night, these tips will help you stay warm throughout your entire winter camping trip.
Clothes and Accessories
Dress in layers. Wearing layers is the best way to regulate your body temperature. Prolonged exposure to the cold can put you at risk for hypothermia and frostbite. Keep your internal temps stable by wearing layers you can add or remove as your body warms up or cools down.
There are three primary layers for body temperature regulation. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, like thermals or leggings. Merino wool and polyester are good base layer fabrics. They’ll keep you warm and dry no matter what you’re doing.
Add an insulating middle layer, like a fleece pullover or a puffy jacket. The purpose of a mid-layer is to hold in your body’s heat regardless of outside temps. Quick-drying, insulating fabrics are best for heat retention. Polyester fleece, wool, and down fillers are materials that will keep you warm.
Top it all off with a waterproof (or water-resistant) outer layer, like a shell jacket or ski pants. The outer layer protects you from wind, snow, rain. Aim for a breathable outer layer treated with a DRW (durable water repellent), like Goretex. Whatever you do, avoid wearing cotton, as it traps moisture and steals your precious body heat.
As a general rule, you don’t want to wait until you’re already cold to add layers. Try to anticipate body fluctuations by adding layers before you slow down or rest.
Keep your clothes dry. Wearing wet or sweaty clothes will cause your body to lose heat through evaporation. This is why layering is so important. You can peel off layers to cool down while you’re engaging in fun winter activities. Your base layer and socks are most likely to become wet, so bring plenty of spares. Make sure you pack extras of each layer so you can change into dry clothes whenever possible. It can be helpful to keep designated bedtime clothes and socks in your sleeping bag during the day.
If you do have wet clothes, dry them off as soon as possible. You can dry your clothes by hanging them from a string tied across the roof of your tent. Alternatively, place them at the foot of your sleeping bag while you sleep (which also helps warm them up). Your body heat will keep them dry and toasty for the following day.
Take advantage of accessories. You also lose heat through exposed skin, so it’s worth your while to cover your head, ears, neck, face, and hands. Protect your head and ears with a knit cap (beanie) or ushanka. You can keep your face and neck warm by wearing a balaclava, ski mask, or neck gaiter. Cover your hands with mittens or gloves.
It can be helpful to wear a pair of liner gloves—which preserve dexterity—under a pair of mittens for added warmth. Keep your toes toasty with thick, wool socks that wick moisture away. You can also place hand warmers inside your gloves or foot warmers inside your boots for extra protection.
Sleep and Shelter
Get a winter tent. You can get away with a 3-season tent in milder temperatures. But if you’re camping in freezing temps, you’ll want a reinforced 4-season tent or canvas tent. Make sure your tent is the appropriate size for your group. A smaller tent is more effective at trapping in the heat. If there are two people in your camping party, don’t bring a giant circus tent unless you have a portable tent heater on hand.
You can help insulate the tent by building a snow wall around the perimeter to stave off the wind. And be sure to ventilate the tent so you don’t trap in moisture and wake up in a pool of frozen condensation. Minimize your time in the cold by learning how to set up and take down your wall tent before the trip.
Pick the right spot. Choose a campsite that’s sheltered from the elements. Cold air sinks, so avoid setting up camp in a valley or at the bottom of a hill. If it’s windy, raining, or snowing, try to pick a spot protected by trees or boulders or a site that’s lower in elevation. Be prepared by learning how to set up the perfect winter camp.
Use two sleeping pads. Sleeping pads keep you warm by raising your body off the cold ground. Make sure you aim for a pad with a sleeping pad R-value of 4 or higher. Even better, stack two sleeping pads on top of each other for added insulation and protection. The ideal combination is to use an inflatable or insulated sleeping pad as your base pad with a closed-cell foam pad on top. Alternatively, you can place extra clothes underneath your sleeping bag for insulation.
Get the right sleeping bag. Not all sleeping bags are created equal. Lightweight synthetic sleeping bags are better for warm-weather camping. Down-filled bags will keep you toastier in cold temperatures. To stay warm through the night, pay attention to sleeping bag temperature ratings. Aim for a sleeping bag that’s rated ten degrees lower than the lowest temperature you expect. If you’re a woman, opt for a women-specific sleeping bag. They provide added insulation and are designed to fit a woman’s contours. Most winter bags are mummy-shaped to keep you better insulated, and some include built-in hoods to keep your head warm. To protect your head and face through the night, wear a hat or balaclava while you sleep.
Maximize your sleeping bag. It can be helpful to add an extra layer to your bag. Place a sleeping bag liner inside the bag or top it off with a fleece blanket. In a pinch, you can place a mylar blanket (or “space blanket”) on top of the bag. For added warmth, fluff up your bag each night before bed. Grab the bottom of the bag and shake vigorously to loosen up air pockets. And if you’re in a down-filled sleeping bag, try to avoid burrowing into it. Breathing inside your bag causes condensation that compromises the bag’s insulating capabilities.
Make a personal heater. Portable heaters can be nice, but they’re risky and expensive. It’s often better to make your own DIY heater. Fill a water bottle with hot water before bedtime and place it near your core or between your legs (next to your femoral artery). Alternatively, you can stuff a few hand warmers or foot warmers throughout the bag to heat things up. For freezing nights, take advantage of body-to-body heat transfer. Or if you have a fur friend with you, move the dog bed closer or let them sleep in your bag to share body heat.
Nutrition and Exercise
Eat often. Your body burns calories to stay warm, so the more you eat, the better you can regulate your temperature. As a general rule, you’ll need to consume about 20% more calories to account for colder temps. Focus on nutritious, calorie-rich foods that take more energy to burn. High-fat, high-protein foods are great for daytime activities and bedtime snacks. High-fiber, high-protein foods are good for cold mornings. Either way, make sure you eat often; don’t wait until you’re starving to eat. And consider taking a few snacks to bed with you (storing them in a scent-proof container).
Stay hydrated. It’s easier to become dehydrated in the cold, so make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day. Your body uses energy to keep the liquids in your stomach warm, which helps keep you toasty. Make sure you insulate your water bottles to avoid freezing. And if you need to pee at night, do it. You’re wasting precious energy keeping your liquids warm. Get rid of it so you can use the energy to stay warm and sleep peacefully.
You can add extra warmth by enjoying a hot beverage or camp cocktail around the fire before you hit the sack. To prevent nighttime bathroom breaks, stop drinking liquids 2-3 hours before bedtime.
Move your body. One of the most effective ways to warm up in the cold (and stay warm) is to get moving. Move around first thing in the morning to rev up your internal engine. At night, do a few sets of jumping jacks or burpees to warm up before you slip into that cozy sleeping bag. Try to stay active throughout the day, so your body never has a chance to dip too low.
Don’t let cold temperatures keep you from enjoying the magnificence of winter camping. Follow these tips to stay warm and comfortable throughout your winter camping adventure.