There’s camping in “chilly” weather, and then there’s camping in extreme cold. It can be done, but you better be prepared!
Ross and I have camped in wind chill temperatures of -31°F (-35°C) and lived to tell the tale. Here’s what we learned through our research, planning, and experience doing it.
What’s considered “extreme cold?”
There isn’t an exact temperature that’s considered extreme cold—mainly because local climate and seasonal temperatures vary by location.
In the U.S., the general guideline is that freezing temperatures (32°F or 0°C) or below is considered extreme cold. In Canada, however, extreme cold temperatures are typically much lower than freezing.
Worried about the cold? Find out how cold is too cold for camping.
The biggest risks associated with winter camping
The two biggest risks to your health and safety are hypothermia and frostbite when camping in extreme cold temperatures.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that happens when your body temperature drops below 95°F (35°C). When this happens, your body starts to shut down—and it can be deadly.
Although hypothermia is often associated with falling into cold water, this isn’t always the case. In many cases, it happens when a person’ exerts energy, sweats through their clothes, and then becomes chilled from those wet clothes once you cool down.
Shivering can be of the first signs of hypothermia. It’s your body’s way of trying to generate heat.
Frostbite happens when your skin and tissue is damaged due to being exposed to freezing temperatures for prolonged periods. Mild to severe frostbite can permanently damage nerves, tendons, muscles, and bones, which can sometimes call for amputation.
“Frostnip” is a warning that frostbite could set in if you don’t take immediate action. It’s a much milder and reversible condition that can cause a numbness, stinging, prickling, or burning sensation along with pale or red skin.
Although you can suffer frostbite at the freezing mark or below, your risk significantly increases at wind chill temperatures of -17°F (-27°C).
Other risks associated with extreme cold camping include:
- Snow blindness (and potential eye damage)
- Slipping on or falling through ice
- Carbon monoxide poisoning (from using gas-powered heaters or lanterns in an enclosed space)
Why would anyone want to camp in the extreme cold?
Good question. Most people don’t!
But there are a few who do, for various reasons. We’ll omit the people who have to do it as part of their job—perhaps as an outdoor adventure guide or researcher.
As far as camping in extreme cold goes as a hobby, many people interested in it are simply looking for a different way to explore and enjoy the outdoors during a time when it’s far too easy to stay cooped up indoors.
The most common why anyone might want to go camping in the extreme cold include:
- To experience the beauty of winter in a more intimate way
- To enjoy winter activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and more
- To make a social event out of it by camping with friends or family
- To unplug from screens and devices
- To “get away from it all” and enjoy some solitude
- To break up the monotony of winter
- To be more present
- To take on a unique challenge
Winter may be cold, but it’s also beautiful and very peaceful. Immersing yourself in that environment—even for just a short time—can be an incredibly rejuvenating experience and a much needed shake-up to your indoorsy routine.
The best winter tents
There are three different types of tents that can be used for extreme cold camping:
Four-season tents are built to withstand heavy snowfall and high winds. They typically have double-walled construction with a waterproof and breathable inner layer and a waterproof outer layer.
Five-season (or expedition) tents are like four-season tents on steroids. They’re made to withstand the most extreme weather conditions on Earth and are mostly only used in the harshest of environments—including alpine, arctic, and antarctic environments.
Hot tents are canvas tents that are meant to be used with a wood stove inside (along with a chimney that fits through a hole in the roof of the tent). This is our number one choice for extreme cold camping because it’s the best way to get warm.
As far as tent brands and models go, there are too many on the market to name the best. We mention a few in our four-season and five-season tent guides linked to above, but we also encourage you to do your own research.
Essential sleeping gear items for extreme cold camping
Sleeping in extreme cold is no joke. You absolutely must make sure that your sleep system is up to the task, or you’re risking serious health consequences.
At a bare minimum, you’ll need:
A winter sleeping bag. Not a summer sleeping bag, not a three-season sleeping bag—a winter sleeping bag. Always make sure to check your bag’s temperature rating so that you know what conditions it’s meant to be used in. Our own winter sleeping bags are rated for use in temperatures down to -22°F (-30°C).
An air mattress or sleeping pad with an R-value of 4 or 5+. The R-value is a measure of how well a material resists heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better insulated the material is. For extreme cold camping, you’ll want an air mattress with an R-value of at least 4, but 5 or above is even better. We have two Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite mattresses, which are on the low side for extreme cold camping with an R-value of 4.2.
Optional items that are good to have include:
A closed-cell foam sleeping pad for extra insulation. This can be placed underneath your air mattress, or on top of it. We find placing them on top keeps us warmer as it acts as a barrier between our bodies and the cold air inside the mattress. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is what we both use.
A sleeping bag liner. This is an additional layer that can be placed inside your sleeping bag to provide even more warmth, which can add up to 32°F (18°C) of extra warmth to your bag depending on the material. Fleece is the warmest. We recommend checking out the Sea to Summit Reactor insulated sleeping bag liner.
An extra groundsheet. A four-season or five-season tent will already have an extra thick floor, but it never hurts to add another for extra insulation. Something like a simple tarp will do just fine. The greater the barrier between you and the cold ground, the warmer you’ll be.
Make sure to download our cold weather camping checklist to find out what else you need to bring. It’s free!
How to dress for extreme cold camping
Just like your sleeping system, you absolutely must take clothing seriously when camping in extreme cold weather. Dressing poorly could mean the difference between a comfortable camping trip and a dangerous situation.
Dress in layers
Layers allow you to adjust your clothing to match the changing temperature as well as your body moisture level according to your energy exertion. The key is to add or remove a layer as needed to avoid getting too hot or too cold.
In general, it’s best practice to plan to wear at least three layers:
- The base layer is the thin layer that’s in contact with your skin.
- The mid layer(s) is thicker and provides insulation.
- The outer layer or shell is your weather protection.
Depending on how cold it really is, you may want to bring a fourth layer mid layer for extra insulation—like a down jacket or fleece-lined pants. They’ll be especially handy when you’re resting and your body isn’t generating as much heat.
Choose the right materials
Layering is one thing, but it won’t do you much good if they’re made from cheap or thin fabrics that aren’t designed to insulate you very well.
The best materials to wear in winter are ones that are are moisture-wicking, quick-drying, breathable, and insulating even when wet.
For your base layer, choose materials like:
- Merino wool
- Synthetic fabrics like polyester
- A combination of the above
For your mid layer(s), choose materials like:
- Synthetic fabrics like polyester
- A combination of synthetic fabrics (like polyester), wool, and/or fleece
For your outer layer, choose materials like:
- Tightly woven synthetic fabrics (like nylon or polyester)
- A nylon coated waterproof shell
When choosing layers—especially an outer layer—you need to consider your activity level. If you’ll be very active, like processing lots of firewood or snowshoeing, you’ll want to go with a more breathable outer layer so you don’t overheat and sweat.
However, if you plan on very low levels of activity, like walking or hanging around camp, you can get away with a less breathable outer layer. Nylon coated shells aren’t very breathable, but they come with good waterproofing.
On the other hand, breathable shells and soft shells made with synthetic fabrics won’t protect you as well from the elements but will allow your body to ventilate better.
Gore-Tex is the gold standard for extreme cold weather outer layers because it’s both waterproof and breathable. But, it can be expensive.
Don’t forget your extremities
Your head, hands, and feet are where you’ll lose the most heat and have the highest risk of frostbite, so make sure to pack extra warm layers for them. This should include:
- One or multiple head coverings—like a beanie (toque), balaclava, fur-lined trapper’s hat, and/or fur-lined hood
- A buff or scarf
- A pair of thick and ideally waterproof gloves or mittens
- Multiple pairs of wool or synthetic socks
- Waterproof and insulated boots
Again, material for these clothing items matter. Wool is always a good choice, but you can also go with synthetic materials like polyester.
Some items like hats and mittens can be down-filled, which provides great insulation but can be bulkier. And as far as footwear goes, winter boots or mukluks are a must. They should ideally be waterproof and have some sort of insulation.
How to stay safe when winter camping
Extreme cold is dangerous and can even be deadly if you’re not careful. Here are some tips to stay safe when winter camping:
Invest in (or rent) the right winter gear and clothing. There are no shortcuts with this. It’s not worth the risk of going out in the cold without the proper layers and equipment.
Check the weather conditions before you go. Make sure you know what to expect temperature-wise (including wind chill) and plan your trip accordingly.
Be smart about walking over ice. Frozen bodies of water can be deceiving and dangerous. If you’re not familiar with an area, it’s best to avoid walking over ice-covered lakes, ponds, and rivers.
Be prepared for anything. When winter camping, always pack extra supplies and food just in case you get stranded or have to stay out longer than expected.
Bring a first aid kit. This should include basic items like band-aids, gauze, and antiseptic as well as supplies for getting warm in case of injury or accident—like matches and an emergency blanket.
Tell someone where you’re going if you’re backcountry camping. This should include where you plan on camping and when you plan to be back.
Get a personal locator beacon or 2-way satellite messenger if you’re backcountry camping. Check out our review of the SPOT Gen4 if you’re interested in getting a GPS satellite messenger.
Go with someone who knows what they’re doing. Someone who’s experienced winter camping in extreme cold conditions can lead the way and teach you what to do (and what not to do).
Pay attention to your body temperature and moisture levels. If you start to feel too hot or as if you’re about to sweat, take a break to cool down and remove a layer if needed. If you start to feel cold and your skin is getting pale o feels numb, add a layer (or two) and find a heat source (like the campfire) to help you get warm.
Wear protective goggles if there’s a lot of snow. This will prevent snow blindness, which is when UV rays reflecting off the snow cause damage to your eyes.
Drink plenty of water. It’s easier to get dehydrated in the cold because the dry air robs your body of moisture. Eating hearty, liquidy meals like soups and stews can help—along with adding an electrolyte mix to your water.
Gradually work your way up to camping in cold or freezing conditions. If you’ve never camped in the cold before, it’s best to start out with cool or above freezing temperatures for the sake of developing your skills and gaining experience. Check out our temperature-specific guides:
- Camping in 60-degree weather (16°C)
- Camping in 50-degree weather (10°C)
- Camping in 40-degree weather (5°C)
- Camping in 30-degree weather (-1°C)
- Camping in 20-degree weather (-7°C)
- Camping in 10-degree weather (-12°C)
Know your limits. Extreme cold weather camping is more challenging than camping in mild or warm weather. If you don’t have the proper gear or experience, it’s best to stick to car camping in extreme cold weather instead.
How to stay warm when winter camping
Besides making sure your tent, sleep system, and clothing are up to snuff for camping in the cold, here are some other tips to stay warm when winter camping:
Eat or snack regularly. Keeping your body fueled will help maintain your internal temperature. Fatty foods are especially good because they take longer to digest, giving your body a steadier source of energy.
Move around. Getting your blood flowing will help warm you up. But be careful not to overdo it and get sweaty. If you start to feel sweat coming on, take a break or remove a layer.
Drink warm beverages. Drinks like coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and hot cider can help warm you from the inside out. Just be careful not to drink too much caffeine or alcohol, which can both lead to dehydration and make you feel colder.
Stay dry. Always bring at least one extra layer of clothing to change into if your clothes get wet. Your feet are probably at the highest risk of getting wet due to snow and sweat, so be sure to bring multiple pairs of socks.
Seek (or create) shelter from the wind. Make sure your campsite isn’t in an exposed area that wind can sweep through. You can also build a windbreak with an extra tarp or if car camping, use your car to shelter your tent from the wind.
If cold camping, insulate your tent. Some extreme cold weather tents come with a built-in layer of insulation, but there’s more that you can do to keep your tent warm—without electricity.
Use a hot water bottle. Fill a hot water bottle with hot water and tuck it inside your mid layer or into your sleeping bag to help warm you up overnight. A great trick that works every time!
Get a portable gas-powered heater. Although there are risks to using these, they can be a godsend if you’re extreme cold camping and want to make sure your tent doesn’t turn into an icebox. Be sure to follow all the safety precautions that come with using one of these.
Scrap cold camping for hot tenting. Seriously. Hot tenting beats cold camping every time! Just be sure to practice good safety precautions with and around the wood stove—and be sure to bring a portable carbon monoxide monitor for some peace of mind.
Tips for planning a trip in the extreme cold
Planning a winter camping trip is a lot different from planning a summer camping trip. Here are a few tips to help you plan it:
Start with a smaller, local trip. If you’re new to extreme cold weather camping, it’s best to start small and close to home. A one or two-night weekend trip is ideal.
Consider frontcountry camping. Many parks and campgrounds close in the winter, but some remain open and offer great opportunities for car camping year round. Frontcountry camping is more accessible and safer for first-time campers compared to backcountry camping—especially in harsher winter conditions.
Consider renting a yurt. If you’re unsure about extreme cold weather camping, but still want to give it a try, consider renting a yurt, which is a type of semi-permanent tent that’s often heated. This way, you can get a taste of extreme cold weather camping without having to invest in all the gear or suffer from being too cold.
Research the area. It’s important to get an idea of what kind of weather conditions you can expect, what amenities are available, and what activities there are to do to keep you busy. You can do this by searching for blog posts written by people who’ve visited the area in winter, reading reviews on travel sites during the winter months, or watching YouTube videos.
Create a realistic yet flexible itinerary. This should include departure and arrival times, camp setup, meal times (and meal plans), chores, activities, and backup plans. Remember that extreme cold weather can make even the simplest of tasks, like driving, more difficult—and dangerous. So it’s always best to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
You might like extreme cold camping if:
After taking in all of this information, you might be wondering if extreme cold weather camping is right for you. Here are a few signs that it might be:
- You love being in nature and find beauty in the winter season
- You can tolerate and adapt to the colder temperatures
- You’re willing to sacrifice some creature comforts for the experience of camping in extreme conditions
- You’re adventurous and up for a challenge
- You have access to the proper gear and clothing
- You’re willing to take the time to research and plan a proper trip
- You’re prepared to take extra safety precautions
You might not like extreme cold camping if:
Better to be honest with yourself than to suffer through a trip that you’re not enjoying. Here are a few signs that extreme cold weather camping probably isn’t for you:
- Winter is your least favourite season
- You’re not an outdoorsy person or you’ve never camped before
- You don’t tolerate cold weather very well and would rather stay inside
- You don’t like feeling uncomfortable or being out of your element
- You want to be able to relax on your trip and not have to do much manual labour
- You’re not willing to spend money on the right gear or clothing
- You have no interest in researching potential areas or planning a potential trip
If you do decide to try winter camping in very cold weather, be sure to keep an open mind and have realistic expectations. It might not be exactly what you’re expecting—but it could end up being one of the most unique and rewarding experiences of your life.
You’ll have a newfound appreciation for the harshest season of the year and it will certainly take the humdrum out of your regular winter routine. Come spring, you’ll be glad you did it, and you may even start looking forward to next winter!
Happy winter camping, y’all! Stay safe—and warm!
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).