Winter is a beautiful season, but you should never underestimate how dangerous it can be.
Many of the risks associated with three-season camping also apply to winter camping, however the risks are higher because of the cold weather.
Before you set out on a winter camping trip, make sure you’re aware of all the risks—and have a plan to prevent and respond to them in the event of an emergency.
Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95°F (35°C), and can be deadly if not treated.
Symptoms include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and loss of coordination.
To prevent hypothermia, it’s important to stay warm and dry.
- Wear layers of clothing and avoid cotton, which retains moisture and can make you colder.
- Go for wool or synthetic fabrics that wick away sweat.
- Make sure to bring a waterproof jacket and pants to keep you dry in case of rain or snow.
- Stay hydrated and well-fed, as dehydration and hunger can make you more susceptible to hypothermia.
- Drink plenty of water and warm beverages, and eat high-energy foods like nuts, cheese, and jerky.
If you or someone in your group shows signs of hypothermia, take action immediately.
Move to a warm, dry place and remove any wet clothing.
Wrap the person in blankets or a sleeping bag, and provide warm liquids if possible.
Seek medical attention if symptoms persist or worsen.
Frostbite is a serious condition that can occur when skin and underlying tissues freeze.
It typically affects the extremities, such as fingers, toes, nose, and ears.
Frost nip is frostbite’s precursor and a warning sign, which is what I was suffering from in the above photo on my toes due to overly tight socks and boots—cutting off circulation to my toes.
To prevent frostbite, make sure to dress in layers and cover all exposed skin.
- Wear insulated and waterproof boots, gloves, and hats.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing, as it can restrict blood flow and increase the risk of frostbite.
If you suspect frostbite, seek medical attention immediately.
Don’t try to warm the affected area with direct heat, such as a fire or hot water.
Instead, gently warm the area with body heat or warm water.
Avoid rubbing or massaging the area, as it can cause further damage.
When you’re out in the snow, you’re at risk of developing snow blindness, which is essentially sunburn on the cornea of your eyes.
To prevent snow blindness, it’s important to wear sunglasses or ski/snowboard goggles that provide 100% UV protection.
You should also avoid looking directly at the sun or other bright light sources, especially when they’re reflecting off the snow.
If you do develop snow blindness, symptoms may include eye pain, redness, and sensitivity to light.
To treat snow blindness, you should move to a darker area and rest your eyes.
You can also use cold compresses or over-the-counter pain relievers to help alleviate the symptoms.
Remember to always protect your eyes when you’re out in the snow to prevent snow blindness and other eye-related injuries.
Dehydration is a common problem during winter camping because people tend to drink less water when it’s cold outside.
To prevent dehydration, make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Consider adding electrolyte mixes or tablets to your water to hydrate more efficiently.
- You can also drink hot beverages like tea or hot chocolate to help keep you hydrated.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks, which can make you lose more fluids than you take in.
- Recognize the signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, thirst, headache, and dizziness to help you remember to drink more water and stay hydrated.
- Wear layers of clothing to help regulate your body temperature and prevent sweating, which can lead to dehydration.
- Use a thermos or insulated water bottle sleeve to keep your water from freezing.
Avalanches are one of the biggest dangers of winter camping in mountainous areas.
They can occur suddenly and without warning, burying you and your equipment in snow.
To prevent avalanches, it is important to check the weather and avalanche forecasts before going camping.
You should also avoid camping in areas with a high risk of avalanches, such as steep slopes and areas with heavy snowfall.
If you must camp in an area with a risk of avalanches, there are some precautions you can take.
These include traveling in groups, carrying avalanche safety gear such as beacons, shovels, and probes, and learning how to recognize avalanche terrain.
In case of an avalanche, it is important to stay calm and try to stay on the surface of the snow.
If you are buried, you should try to create an air pocket and wait for rescuers to arrive.
Falling through thin ice
Falling through thin ice is one of the biggest dangers of winter camping and can happen unexpectedly when you’re traveling across lakes, rivers, streams ponds, and even bogs or marshy areas.
When you fall through thin ice, it can be a terrifying experience, but it’s important to stay calm and act quickly to increase your chances of survival.
To prevent falling through thin ice, it’s important to check the current ice conditions for the area and know how to identify and avoid areas of thin ice.
- Look for signs of thin ice such as cracks, slushy areas, or areas with no snow cover.
- Avoid areas with running water, such as rivers or streams, as the water flow can prevent ice from freezing thick.
- Carry ice claws around your neck, which is a piece of safety gear used specifically for climbing out of water after falling through the ice.
If you do fall through thin ice, the most important thing is to try to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Use your arms (or ice claws if you have them) to try to grab onto the ice and kick your feet to try to propel yourself out of the water.
If you can’t get out of the water, try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible to reduce heat loss.
Once you’re out of the water, it’s important to get dry and warm as quickly as possible.
Change into dry clothes and wrap yourself in a warm blanket or sleeping bag.
If you’re with a group, huddle together for warmth.
Unexpected snowstorms, blizzards, and freezing rain can quickly turn a fun camping trip into a dangerous situation.
To prevent getting caught in unpredictable weather, make sure to check the forecast before you leave for your trip.
- Keep an eye on weather updates throughout your trip as well, as weather can change quickly in the winter.
- If you won’t have cell service in the area, bring a satellite device or weather radio that can give you updates of the forecast.
Remember to pack warm and waterproof clothing and gear, such as a waterproof jacket, pants, gloves, and boots.
Layering your clothing is also super important because it allows you to adjust your body temperature as needed.
In addition to packing the right clothing and gear, make sure to bring extra supplies in case you get stranded.
These supplies should include food, water, blankets, and of course a first aid kit.
Getting lost while winter camping can be a frightening experience, but it’s not uncommon.
To prevent getting lost, make sure you bring a map and compass and know how to use them.
- You can also invest in a satellite GPS navigation device, such as those from Garmin, or download a mapping app to your smartphone, like Gaia Maps, which works even when you’re offline.
- Mark your campsite on the map and take note of any landmarks or distinctive features in the area.
If you do find yourself lost, stay calm and try to retrace your steps.
If you’re unable to do so, stay put and set up a shelter as soon as possible.
Carry a whistle and a mirror to signal for help, and make sure you have a way to start a fire to keep warm.
Finally, make sure someone knows your planned route and expected return time so that if you don’t return, they can alert authorities.
While many animals hibernate in winter or seek higher ground to get to water sources, it’s important to take precautions to prevent any dangerous encounters.
To avoid wildlife encounters, you should be aware of the animals that live in the area you’ll be camping in.
- Research the animals’ behaviour, habits, and habitats, so you can take appropriate measures to avoid them.
- If you’re camping in very early or very late winter, carry bear spray or other deterrents in case of late hibernation or bears that wake up early.
- You should also be familiar with the signs of wildlife activity, such as tracks, droppings, and scratches on trees.
- Keep all food in airtight containers and store them in a secure location, such as a bear-resistant container or a tree at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet away from the trunk.
- Unless you’re deep in the winter season and you can safely say that bears are hibernating, avoid cooking or eating in your tent.
If you do encounter wildlife, it’s important to know how to react.
Stay calm and slowly back away, making yourself look as big as possible by raising your arms and standing on your tiptoes.
Don’t run—this can trigger a predator’s instinct to chase.
If the animal approaches you, use a loud and firm voice to try to scare it away.
Carry bear spray or other deterrents, and know how to use them in case of an attack.
Winter camping requires specialized gear that can withstand harsh conditions.
However, equipment failure can still happen, and it can be dangerous.
To prevent equipment failure, make sure to invest in high-quality gear and check it before heading out.
- Inspect your tent for any tears or holes, and make sure your sleeping bag is rated for the temperature you’ll be camping in.
- Bring backup gear such as extra stakes, repair kits, and extra layers of clothing.
If your gear fails while you’re camping, there are a few things you can do.
First, try to repair the gear with your repair kit.
If that’s not possible, try to improvise a solution using items you have on hand.
For example, you can use duct tape to patch a tear in your tent or sleeping bag.
Hot tenting is a popular way to stay warm and comfortable while camping in the winter, which involves using a wood burning stove and a chimney inside your tent.
Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous if proper precautions aren’t taken.
To prevent fires, make sure both the tent and stove are set up correctly and all gear is kept a safe distance from the stove.
- Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when setting up the tent and stove.
- The stove should be placed on a level surface and away from the tent walls.
- The stovepipe should also be properly installed and secured to prevent it from falling over.
- Make sure the stove is properly ventilated and never leave it unattended.
- Keep a fire extinguisher nearby and know how to use it in case of an emergency.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Carbon monoxide is an odourless, colourless gas that can be produced by any fuel-burning device—such as wood burning stoves or even gas-powered heaters.
Although the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is rare in camping scenarios, it’s still important to do your part in preventing in it.
To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, make sure that you have a properly ventilated tent and bring a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector.
If you’re using a wood burning stove inside a hot tent, make sure to put it out completely if you plan on leaving your tent for an extended period of time.
If you’re using a gas-powered heater, never leave it unattended and don’t use it overnight.
More about winter camping:
- The best stoves for winter camping
- The best portable tent heaters for winter camping
- Tent vs. tarp camping in winter (how they compare)
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).