Staying warm and managing your body temperature is arguably the number one most important thing you need to be aware of when winter camping.
There are so many factors at play—including personal factors like your genes/metabolism/fitness level, outdoor temperature, wind, moisture, clothing layers, and activity level.
As winter campers ourselves, we’re constantly experimenting with different ways to stay warm as the conditions change and we shift between activities.
Here’s what we focus on the most and what we’d recommend to anyone looking to get into winter camping for the first time.
Gear first: Get the right winter camping tent
At the bare minimum, go for a four-season tent, which is specially made to handle tough weather conditions.
These tents offer better insulation and are tougher than three-season ones.
If you’re dealing with extreme conditions or going to higher altitudes, think about getting a five-season or expedition tent.
These bad boys are built with sturdy materials to handle heavy snow and strong winds.
Another option to keep warm is using a hot tent (shown in the above photo).
Hot tents are designed to fit a wood burning stove, giving you heat and a cozy spot for cooking and drying gear.
Choosing your heat source
Aside from selecting the right tent, having reliable heat sources can make a significant difference in staying warm during winter camping.
Let’s explore a few options:
Hot tent stove: As mentioned earlier, a hot tent stove is a great companion in a hot tent setup.
It offers warmth, a cooking space, and a way to dry wet gear.
Make sure you follow all safety precautions and choose a stove that’s compatible with your tent.
Campfire: A classic source of warmth, a campfire can be a great heat source during winter camping as long as you’re mindful of fires safety regulations and the location of your fire pit.
Additionally, a campfire provides a cozy atmosphere to share stories and relax at the end of the day.
Camp stove: A camp stove is a more portable and lightweight option, which is perfect for backpacking adventures, however its smaller size and liquid fuel type will limit how much heat it may provide.
Choose a stove that can handle cold weather conditions and works efficiently in low temperatures.
Portable propane heater: For more consistent warmth, you might consider a portable propane heater.
They’re efficient and relatively lightweight, but remember to follow all safety guidelines and make sure your tent is well-ventilated to avoid carbon monoxide buildup.
Getting your winter camping clothing right
When you’re winter camping, it’s key to pick the right clothes to stay warm.
- Go for breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics like wool or synthetics to help keep you dry and comfortable by wicking away sweat.
- Skip cotton since it holds moisture and can make you feel colder.
- Don’t forget a hat to keep the heat in.
- Consider using hand warmers to keep your extremities cozy.
- Remember to wear wool socks and waterproof hiking boots to keep your feet dry and warm.
- If you want extra insulation, you could even get a heated jacket.
How to layer for cold weather
When it’s cold outside, layering up properly is important to stay warm.
- First, grab a moisture-wicking base layer to keep sweat away, which should fit snugly, but not too tight.
- Then, pile on a mid-layer like a fleece or lightweight down jacket for insulation.
- Lastly, top it off with a waterproof and breathable outer shell to shield yourself from wind and rain.
Dealing with sweat and moisture
Sweating can lead to damp clothing and make you feel colder.
To avoid excessive sweating while camping in cold weather, you need to actively manage your ventilation.
- Remove layers when you start to feel too warm, and put them back on when you cool down.
- Make sure your layers are loose enough to allow air circulation and trap heat.
- Immediately change into dry clothes if you get too sweaty or wet from rain or snow.
Using food and hydration to stoke your internal fire
Proper nourishment and hydration play a pivotal role in maintaining body heat, especially during winter camping.
Consuming high-caloric and nutritious meals will provide the fuel your body needs to produce heat and maintain body temperature.
Water also helps regulate body temperature and aids in digestion, ensuring that the heat-generating process of metabolism runs smoothly.
Prioritize calorie-dense foods
While winter camping, keep in mind that your body will be working harder and burning more calories to stay warm.
That’s why it’s important to consume calorie-dense foods, which will provide the necessary energy to sustain your body in cold weather.
Some good options include:
Nuts and seeds: These are high in healthy fats and proteins, making them a compact and convenient source of calories.
Nut butters: Spread some peanut or almond butter on crackers or bread for a tasty high-calorie snack.
Dried fruits: Besides being energy-packed, they also offer a natural source of sugar and carbohydrates.
Energy bars: There are a wide variety of bars available on the market, choose those with high caloric value and don’t forget to check the ingredients for good nutrition.
Cheese: Go for hard cheese with high-fat content—in addition to boosting your calorie intake, they’ll keep well and be more resilient in colder temperatures.
Staying hydrated is crucial while winter camping, as dehydration can sneak up on you, especially in cold weather.
Have a backup water source: Your water source may be frozen or covered in snow, so plan accordingly.
Bring enough water and insulated bottles or a thermos to keep your liquids from freezing.
Melt snow if you need to: If you need to replenish your water supply, melting snow is an option.
Always boil it to kill any potential bacteria and viruses, and let it cool before filling your water bottle.
Enjoy hot beverages and liquid meals: Drinking hot liquids like tea, coffee or soup will help keep you hydrated and warm at the same time.
Consider bringing dehydrated meals that require adding hot water for a quick and nourishing meal.
Avoid alcohol: Although it may seem tempting to enjoy a drink by the campfire, alcohol can actually contribute to dehydration and lower your body’s ability to stay warm.
Monitor your hydration: In cold weather, it’s easy to overlook thirst.
Drink water regularly, apart from meals, to stay on top of your hydration.
Use electrolyte mixes: When you sweat, you lose not only water but also electrolytes like sodium and potassium.
Consider bringing electrolyte mixes to replenish these essential minerals and keep your body functioning properly.
Sleeping safe and warm while winter camping
Your sleep system is going to be totally different in winter compared to summer and warmer shoulder seasons.
Get a proper winter sleeping bag
You absolutely must have a winter or four-season sleeping bag with a temperature rating appropriate for your camping conditions.
Keep in mind that your personal comfort and warmth preferences may differ from the sleeping bag’s temperature rating, so choose a bag with a lower rating if you tend to get cold easily.
Use sleeping pads with high R-values
Using a sleeping pad is more than just a comfort bonus—it’s a key component in keeping you warm during the night.
Sleeping pads provide insulation and prevent heat loss from your body to the cold ground.
Look for pads with a higher R-value, which indicates the pad’s insulation capabilities.
An R-value of at least five is ideal for winter camping.
Pairing a closed-cell foam pad with an inflatable pad can improve insulation and make your sleeping spot more comfortable.
Don’t underestimate the importance of ground insulation
A closed-cell foam sleeping pad is a good choice for insulation since it doesn’t compress under your weight and maintains its insulating properties.
You can also use a camping cot to elevate yourself off the ground, adding an extra layer of insulation between you and the cold ground.
Pump up the heat by sleeping with a hot water bottle
A hot water bottle can be a lifesaver when you need extra warmth inside your sleeping bag.
Fill a hard plastic bottle with hot water and place it in your sleeping bag.
Positioning the bottle near your femoral artery, which runs between your legs, can maximize heat transfer and help warm your entire body more efficiently.
Be careful when using a hot water bottle and make sure it’s tightly sealed to avoid leaks and burns.
The risks of getting too cold while winter camping
Being cold isn’t just uncomfortable—it’s downright dangerous.
Your two biggest cold weather risks are hypothermia, which can happen in any temperature (even well above freezing) and frostbite, which can happen when temperatures fall being the freezing mark.
To stay warm in the cold, start with proper layering: mid-weight base layers, fleece pants, a puffy coat, and a waterproof jacket make a great combo.
Don’t forget to keep your head, hands, and feet warm with hats, gloves, and thick socks.
Oh, and remember, try not to sweat too much as it can cool you down quicker.
If you feel too warm, unzip, remove a layer, or take it easy for a bit.
Frostbite can occur when skin is exposed to freezing temperatures or touching cold objects, such as tent poles, for too long.
To prevent frostbite, protect your skin by wearing insulating clothing like mittens, warm socks, and a face mask.
Make sure your clothes aren’t too tight, as it can restrict blood flow and increase the risk of frostbite.
Be aware of the wind chill factor as well since wind increases the rate of heat loss from the skin and can exacerbate frostbite risks.
In the photo above, you can see that my toes are red.
My boots were too tight because I was wearing too many layers of socks, which cut off circulation and probably led to very mild frost nip—a less severe form of frost bite.
Learn from my mistake by making sure your clothes boots aren’t too tight, and if it feels like circulation is being cut off, try removing a layer.
More about winter camping:
- Your winter camping checklist (essential gear for the backcountry)
- What to wear to sleep while winter camping
- How to pack for winter camping
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).