Winter Camping Guide: The Essential Top Tips

Avid campers know that the thrill of being outdoors doesn’t end when the snow starts to fall. In fact, some people are just starting to gear up for the year and hit the trails hard. Whether you’re new to camping or a seasoned vet, there are some things you need to know before you head out on your next winter camping trip.

We have extensively researched and compiled the most essential winter camping tips for you. Below you will find:

Top Seven Winter Camping Tips

Top Winter Camping Gear

Winter Camping Clothing

Pre-Trip Planning

Food

Setting Up Camp

Snow Shelters

Back Country Travel

Selecting Routes

  1. Be very diligent in your trip planning. Know the conditions and terrain of the area you will be camping in.

  2. Make sure you have the proper gear, including the ‘10 Essentials.’ See below.

  3. Follow correct protocol in regards to clothing and activity.

  4. Be prepared for the unexpected.

  5. Ensure your shelter is safe and durable.

  6. Avoid avalanche spots and have someone knowledgeable of these dangers.

  7. Enjoy yourself.

Winter backpacking requires extra gear, so you most likely want a high-volume backpack. Pack as lightly as you can, but always make sure you're prepared for winter weather and conditions.

Rough guidelines for a 2- to 4-day winter backpacking trip:

  • Lightweight: minimum 4,000 cubic inch pack

  • Deluxe: approximately 5,000 cubic inch pack or larger.

If you plan on carrying skis or snowshoes, make sure your pack has lash points or is otherwise able to secure these large items.

A sleeping bag helps retain your body heat to keep you warm, and keeping warm is essential to snow camping. Make sure you use a bag that's rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. You can always vent the bag if you get too warm.

Cold and winter rated bags are supplied with generous amounts of goose down or synthetic insulation.

Down is the most popular choice due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio—just make sure to keep it dry (when wet, down loses much of its insulating ability). These bags are also distinguished by their draft tubes behind the zippers, draft collars above the shoulders and hoods to help keep the heat in the bag.

Winter nights are long, so make sure your headlamp and flashlight batteries are new or fully charged before an excursion and always take extras. Lithium batteries perform well in cold weather, but they can overpower some devices like headlamps. Check your product's manual for compatibility. Alkaline batteries are inexpensive and should work in any device, but they drain at a faster rate.

Tip: Cold temperatures decrease battery life. Store your batteries and battery-operated devices inside your sleeping bag to keep them warm.

Snow saw 

This is a necessary tool when making a snow cave or igloo because you'll need to cut through layers of ice and snow. Use by hand or attach it to a ski pole for longer reaches. It is also useful for evaluating slope stability to determine avalanche hazard.

Snow shovel 

Everyone should carry one in the winter backcountry. Shovels can be used for avalanche rescue, leveling a tent site, digging a snow shelter or getting fresh snow to melt for drinking water.

Avalanche transceiver 

This is a required item in avalanche-prone areas for each member of your group. As with any safety device, be sure you know how to use one before heading out. This requires competent instruction and practice.

Probe 

Another mandatory item in avalanche country, a probe is a collapsible pole with depth markings (usually up to 10' long). Sections can be quickly assembled after an avalanche to probe into the snow and help find victims. Some ski poles have a connector option that allows 2 poles to be used as a probe, but taking the baskets off and connecting the poles takes longer than using a probe.

AvaLung 

While optional, this popular device from Black Diamond can help avalanche victims pull air from the snowpack and thus increase the time the victim has to breathe. It is worn like a pack over your clothing. To work, the mouthpiece needs to be in place before the wearer is buried in the snow debris.

Personal locator beacon 

If you are ever in danger in the backcountry, you'll be extremely grateful to have a PLB. Once activated, it sends out a signal to satellites about your position that in turn alerts search-and-rescue teams.

‘Ten Essentials’

  • Navigation

  • Sun protection

  • Insulation (extra clothing)

  • Illumination

  • First-aid supplies

  • Fire

  • Repair kit and tools

  • Nutrition (extra food)

  • Hydration (extra water)

  • Emergency shelter

According to WildEarth, there are three layers that are essential to keeping yourself comfortable, warm and safe as you camp.

The base layer is basically your underwear—the layer next to your skin. Synthetic and merino wool fabrics work best (avoid cotton). They wick perspiration away from your skin to outer layers so it can evaporate. They dry quickly so you spend minimal time in wet clothing.  For maximum thermal efficiency, the base layer should feel snug but not constricting. When winter camping, it's common to wear two base layers: a lightweight or mid weight layer, then a thicker heavyweight layer.

A zip T-neck is a versatile choice in cold weather.

The middle layer is your insulating layer. It also moves (wicks) moisture away from your body, but it is primarily designed to help you retain body heat. For camping in the snow, consider expedition-weight fleece or microfleece shirts, pants and jacket and/or a goose down jacket.

The outer layer, or shell, is your waterproof/windproof/breathable layer. Shells made of laminates such as Gore-Tex, eVent offer premium protection. Less expensive alternatives typically use polyurethane-coated fabrics that are equally waterproof but somewhat less breathable. Many are designed with core vents and underarm vents to help you expel excess heat and moisture.

Ideally, you want boots that are insulated and waterproof, however, you could get by with traditional hiking boots.

Be sure to bring hats and gloves, the more the merrier.

Your socks follow the same layering rules as mentioned above: you should have a tight fit sock as your first layer and then a thicker sock on top of it. Make sure that the thicker sock isn’t pushing your foot up against your boots. You shouldn’t feel any loss of circulation in your feet. Wet socks can dry overnight in your sleeping bag.

Aptly prepare yourself for the trip both physically and mentally. Understand the conditions of where you are going while you will be there. Consider the snow level, the quality of the snow, know the trails and whether you will be venturing away from them or not, clarify if you will be hiking, snowshoeing or skiing and the group size and camping experience.

Also, consider the following:

  • How many people are in the group?

  • Does everyone know the area well enough? If not, provide maps so they do.

  • Make sure your group is in full understanding of the conditions they’ll be facing

  • Make a plan

  • Avoid avalanche areas

  • Most importantly: be prepared for the unexpected

Feeding yourself while camping has changed drastically over the past 20 years. It has become much easier to take care of yourself and your group. Dried foods are best to bring along. Avoid fresh foods as they weigh a lot and can hinder your mobility.

If possible, the best decision you can make is to bring along your Solavore Sport Solar Oven so you can eat warm, solar cooked meals. Solar cooking has changed the way we think about cooking while camping, and it changes the game for campers across the globe. It doesn't matter the temperature outside, as long as the sun is out you can use the sun to cook your food. 

Whether it is heating up potatoes, a stew, or even purifying water (don't eat snow), the Solavore Sport is your best friend for all things food on your next trip.

Three tips to successful wintertime cooking with your Solavore Sport. 

1. Use your reflectors. Capture every ray you can. 

2. Get an early start. Don’t wait until after noon to start cooking, start by 10 am for dinner. 

3. Experiment with using the Sport in its winter angle (Solavore Sport logo down). The “floor” measures 8” x 18” in this position, so loaf pans work great, as does my 7 ½” x 11 ½” metal casserole from the discount store; squash can simply sit on the floor of the oven, halved and cleaned.

It is recommended that you eat at least three meals-a-day and take ingredients to bed with you so they can thaw for the next day, similar to what we talked about earlier with drying your socks. Bring plastic utensils instead of metal and the only utensil you should need is a plastic spoon.

Winter Water 

Here are three tips from Princeton's Outdoor Action Guide. 

1) Do not eat snow! It takes an incredible amount of energy to transfer water from one state to another (solid to liquid). You are burning up too many calories to do this which can quickly lead to hypothermia.

2) Water may be obtained by digging a hole in frozen lakes or streams where there is running water beneath the ice. Be careful about falling in. Remember, in most cases water will need to be purified from giardia and other bacteriological contaminants (see below).

3) Snow can be melted on a fire, stove or your solar oven to make water. It should be clean snow, no yellow (urine) or pink (bacterial growth). Because it takes so much energy to convert from one state to another you should have some water in the bottom of your container. Heat this water up and add snow to it slowly so it turns to slush and then water. This is much more efficient. If you dump in straight snow, you will only burn the bottom of your container and not make any water. By volume it takes about 10 quarts of snow to make 1 quart of water. Snow does not need purification.

Here are a few winter camp set up tips from Princeton's Outdoor Action Guide. 

When you first get into camp, leave your snowshoes or skis on and begin to tramp down areas for tents and your kitchen. If possible, let the snow set up for 30 minutes or so, this will minimize postholing once you take snowshoes or skis off. Set up your tents with the doors at 90 degrees to the prevailing winds. Stake the tents out. On a cold night you can build snow walls on the windward side of the tent. Mound the sides of the tent with snow (have someone inside pushing out on the tent to keep it from collapsing. When the snow sets up you will have a hybrid tent-snow shelter which will have better insulation than the tent alone. Dig out a pit in front of your tent for a porch. This makes taking your boots off much easier. Put your foam pads in the tent and unstuff your sleeping bag and place it in the tent so it can "expand" from it's stuffed size.

If the snow is deep, you may want to dig out a pit for your kitchen. Dig a pit at least 6 feet in diameter (for 4-6 people). You can mark out the circle using a ski or a rope. Dig down about 2-3 feet and pile the excavated snow around the perimeter. Pack the snow at the perimeter of the hole with your shovel. This will give you a 4-5 foot deep area, protected from the wind. You can carve out seats and benches, put your skis or snow shoes behind the pile as backrests, carve places for stoves, etc.

General night sequence - after dinner, getting warm water for water bottles, and putting gear away, it's time for bed. This is a general sequence:

  1. Get warm before you get into your bag. Do some jumping jacks, etc. so your heat is built up for when you get in your bag.

  2. Get any clothing/gear you will need out of your pack as well as full water bottles and tomorrow's lunch.

  3. At the tent door, brush off any snow with the wisk broom. Sit down inside the tent entrance and, keeping your boots outside, either have a friend brush them off, or remove them and brush them yourself.

  4. Climb into the tent and close the door.

  5. Strip off your layers of clothing to what will be appropriate in your sleeping bag. The more layers you wear the better insulated and the warmer you will be (contrary to the myth that says sleep in your underwear). However, too much clothing can compress dead air space in the bag and reduce its effectiveness.

  6. Remove any wet/damp layers and replace them with dry ones, particularly socks.

  7. Pre-warm your bag with your body (get it nice and toasty).

  8. Place damp items in the sleeping bag with you near your trunk. This will help dry them overnight.

  9. Place your boots in your sleeping bag stuff sack (turned inside out) and place the stuff sack between your legs. This will keep them from freezing during the night and the stuff sack keeps your legs from getting wet.

  10. Put water bottles and food with you in the bag.

  11. A hat and polarguard booties are recommended to help keep you warm.

  12. Try to sleep with your face out of the bag. This reduces moisture build-up inside the bag (which could be catastrophic for a down bag). A scarf on your neck may be better than using the sleeping bag neck drawcord (which makes some people feel a little claustrophobic and creates a difficult nights sleep).

  13. You will probably wake up a number of times during the night. This is normal in cold weather. Your body needs to change position to allow for circulation to compressed tissues and to move around a bit so that muscle movement generates more heat. If you are still cold, eat some protein to "stoke up your furnace." If that doesn't work, wake a tent-mate for some extra warmth.

  14. With 10 or more hours in the tent, you are likely to need to urinate in the middle of the night. Go for it! Otherwise you won't get back to sleep, and your body is wasting energy keeping all that extra fluid warm. You will be surprised how quickly you can get out and back in and your body really won't chill that much.

  15. It is useful to have a thermos of hot drink in each tent.

Snow Cave

A snow cave can be dug into a hillside. Dig the entrance up so that the door is below the sitting level. Also there are natural snow caves formed by the overhanging branches of trees covered with snow. By digging down you can get into the cave beneath the branches. In both cases you should poke a ventilation hole and keep it clear.

Igloo 

Igloos can be constructed if there is snow of the proper consistency to pack into hard blocks. Keep in mind that building such a shelter takes a great deal of energy and time. Two skilled persons can build a two person igloo in 2-3 hours with proper equipment and good snow.

Building an igloo is a process that requires a certain amount of artistry, but is less of an energy expenditure than a snow mound shelter. In general, rectangular blocks roughly 24" by 18" by 6" are cut and stacked in an ascending spiral.

The rectangular blocks are placed vertically and the bottom is shaped so that only the two bottom corners are supporting the block. Then the block is tilted inward and the vertical edge contacting the adjacent block is cut away until the weight of the block rests only on the upper corner.

The weight of the block is supported by the diagonally opposite corners, while the third corner prevents rotation. Once the first row is laid you shave off the tops of several blocks ( 1/4 - 1/3 of the circumference) to create a ramp and build upward in a spiral. Once the structure is complete, snow is packed into all the open joints.

You have a number of enjoyable options for snow travel. For an overview, see the REI Expert Advice article and video on backcountry travel in winter. Just keep in mind it takes a little more gear than in summer to get there.

ALPINE TOURING (RANDONEÉ) OR TELEMARK SKIING

If you're a skier, these are great ways to go for both the ascent and descent. AT ski bindings let the heel move for going uphill, and they clamp down for downhill skiing. Telemark skiers have their heels free all of the time, which requires a different type of turn when skiing downhill.

AT skis require matching boots that are a combination of a plastic climbing boot and an alpine ski boot. A switch sets the cuff to a soft flex for uphill skiing or climbing, or it can be set for a stiff flex for downhill skiing. Telemark boots and bindings are not compatible with AT gear.

Skiing with a full pack on your back takes some practice—so practice!

Tip: To keep your boots from freezing at night, put them in a stuff sack (turn the stuff sack inside out to keep the inside clean and dry) and then into your sleeping bag. Your toes will thank you in the morning.

SNOWBOARDING

Just as snowboarding is popular on ski-resort slopes, it is also a popular way to see the backcountry. A snowboard's wide base makes it great for descents, but the ascent may still require snowshoes (which means more weight on your back).

Some snowboards are split boards—they are actually two skis that latch together and form a snowboard. These are not as rigid as a traditional snowboard.

SNOWSHOEING

Snowshoes offer the easiest and least expensive way to travel in snow. "If you can walk, you can snowshoe" is a common expression indicating that no special skills or training are required. Snowshoes disperse your weight over a large surface area, thus providing a degree of flotation that reduces the amount you sink into soft snow. You should not, however, expect to literally "float" on the surface of the snow.

Snowshoes provide good traction for climbing, traversing and descending slopes. They also work better than skis in areas of closely spaced trees or in brushy or rocky areas.

RELATED GEAR

Poles: No matter what your means of ascent, you'll want to have a pair of adjustable ski or snowshoe poles. They provide welcome support and balance and can be used for downhill skiing or snowshoeing as well. If you don't want them for parts of your route, just shorten them and strap them on to your pack.

Ice axe: This can help you self-arrest when sliding, serve as an anchor for climbing or hack through ice when setting up camp. Be sure you know how to properly use it before heading out. Seek out competent instruction and practice.

Excess snow or bad weather may hide the trail and/or your destination. Before heading out, make sure everyone in your group has a good map and route description. If using a GPS, program in lots of waypoints. Mountaineers should consider using an altimeter as an extra means of determining their location.

Study your map and plot your compass bearings in advance so you know what terrain to expect. Beware of simply following someone else's tracks, as this person may not know where he or she is going! Plan and follow a safe route. Avoid cornices, snow-covered rivers and lakes, snow bridges, hidden holes next to logs and rocks, tree wells, rockfall and avalanche zones.

You may need to vary your route somewhat to find better snow conditions.

If you get lost:

  • Stop and evaluate the situation.

  • Stay calm.

  • Check map and compass (and GPS, if available).

  • Make yourself easy to find—visually and audibly.

  • Stay together.

Winter camping is no joke, the snow can be brutally unforgiving. But that won't stop us from getting out there! Just make sure to do a lot of planning, preparing and prepping. With these winter camping tips you should be good to go. If you have been winter camping before and have any additional tips we would love to hear them! Happy camping!

 

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