One of the most amazing ways to experience nature is by winter camping.
That’s right—camping…in a tent…in winter!
We’ve been winter campers for more than three years now, camping in extreme cold temperatures as low as -40°F/-40°C and in locations as remote as the subarctic region of Canada.
We’ve learned quite a lot along the way.
If you’re new to winter camping, here’s what we recommend getting started with to help you plan your perfect trip.
Pick your preferred winter camping type and style
Before you plan your trip, it’s important to decide on the type of camping and the style that suits you best.
Frontcountry camping is an excellent choice for those new to winter camping or who prefer more facilities and comforts.
You can choose to stay at a campground, using your car or RV as a base, and go on winter day hikes and other activities.
This option still offers the chance to enjoy the snowy landscapes while providing easy access to warmth and supplies.
If you’re an experienced camper seeking a more remote and challenging experience, backcountry camping is an ideal choice.
This involves hiking or skiing into the wilderness and setting up camp away from established campgrounds.
Proper planning, gear, and knowledge of backcountry safety are crucial for a successful trip.
Cold camping involves setting up a traditional tent and sleeping in a well-insulated sleeping bag.
This option relies on your clothing and gear to keep you warm throughout the night.
It’s perfect for adventurous winter campers who don’t mind braving the cold and are familiar with layering techniques to stay warm.
Hot tent camping involves using a tent with a wood-burning stove or other heating source inside.
This style provides the warmth and comfort of a heated shelter while still allowing you to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.
If you prefer a cozier camping experience, hot tenting might be right for you —just remember to research and follow safety guidelines for heating options.
Pick your location
Choosing the right location for your winter camp is key to having a comfortable and safe experience.
For frontcountry campgrounds, first consider vehicle accessibility, especially during winter months when roads may be less maintained.
You’ll also want to check for access to amenities like restrooms, potable water, and trash disposal—as some campgrounds may limit or close certain amenities during the winter.
Weather is another important aspect to keep in mind.
Check the weather forecast ahead of time and try to pick a campsite that offers some protection from harsh weather conditions, such as a location with natural windbreaks like trees or rocks.
When it comes to backcountry sites, accessibility can be a bit more challenging.
Consider whether you’ll be using a sled, snowmobile, or snowshoes to reach your desired location.
Be mindful of the terrain and ice conditions on lakes or ponds for safety reasons.
It’s also helpful to find a site where you have access to firewood and water, so set up camp near a water source, but make sure not to block wildlife’s path to the water.
Given that the wind chill can be absolutely brutal in winter, we always recommend picking a backcountry campsite that’s sheltered by trees or other natural windbreaks.
Just be sure to look for widow makers (hanging branches or dead standing trees) that could pose a risk.
Get the right gear
Winter camping gear is typically much different than summer or even three-season gear.
It’s also a lot more expensive because it needs to be able to perform in freezing cold temperatures and harsh conditions.
Make sure to get your free copy of our winter camping checklist.
Let’s start with the basics.
Four-season tents are designed for all-year-round use, including cold and snowy conditions.
They’re built with sturdy materials and often have additional poles to provide extra stability.
These tents work well for most winter camping adventures.
Five-season tents (or expedition tents) are a step up in durability and insulation.
They’re designed for extreme conditions, such as mountaineering and high-altitude expeditions.
Although they may be a bit bulky, their superior wind and snow protection is worth the extra weight in severe conditions.
Hot tents are a popular option for those who prefer a warmer environment during winter camping.
These tents have a stove opening for a portable wood or gas stove, which generates heat inside the tent.
Be prepared to carry extra gear and manage fire safety with a hot tent.
Yurts provide a unique, spacious, and communal shelter option for winter camping—and are often considered a type of glamping.
You can typically book these at campgrounds.
They’re set up with a central stove, which gives them cozy and luxurious atmosphere.
However, these options require extra care and caution when used in cold weather.
You need proper insulation, wind protection, and an excellent knowledge of how to stay warm in freezing temperatures.
For instance, a tarp camper might use a bivy sack in addition to a sleeping bag.
A hammock camper, on the other hand, might use an underquilt for extra insulation on the underside of their hammock.
It’s important to choose a sleep platform with an appropriate R-value, which measures the material’s thermal resistance.
For winter camping, go for a pad or mattress with an R-value of 5 or more.
Your sleeping bag plays a significant role in keeping you warm during those cold winter nights.
Look for a bag with a temperature rating that matches the conditions you expect to encounter.
Remember that it’s always better to have a slightly warmer bag than needed, as you can always unzip or vent it if you’re too warm.
Make sure the bag has adequate insulation, which can be synthetic or down.
While down insulation often provides better warmth-to-weight ratio, synthetic insulation tends to stay warm even when wet and may be a more affordable option.
Aside from your sleeping bag and sleep platform, consider layering with additional insulation.
This may include:
- Sleeping bag liner: Boosts the warmth of your sleeping bag by adding an extra layer of insulation.
- Combined cot, mattress, or pad: Stacks insulation to increase the R-value.
- Layered clothing: Dressing in layers while sleeping can help trap warm air close to your body.
Wood burning stoves are a must-have for hot tents while winter camping.
Portable camp stoves, on the other hand, are necessary for cooking and boiling water while cold camping.
Generally, white gas stoves and canister stoves are the top options for cold weather use.
White gas stoves are ideal for freezing temperatures because they burn hot and clean without losing performance.
They’re reliable and can be repaired easily if needed while out in the field.
However, these stoves are typically heavier and take longer to boil water compared to canister stoves.
Don’t forget to pack enough white gas fuel for your trip!
Canister stoves are lightweight and convenient, making them a popular choice among campers.
Unfortunately, they don’t perform as well in cold conditions.
If you opt for a canister stove, make sure to choose one specifically designed for cold weather, and keep the fuel canisters warm by storing them inside your jacket or sleeping bag when not in use.
Here are a few tips for using your camp stove during winter camping:
- Always test your stove before your trip to ensure it is working properly.
- Remember to pack extra fuel, as you’ll likely need more than you think due to the cold temperatures.
- Keep your stove clean and well-maintained to avoid any surprises during your trip.
- Bring a box of matches in case your lighters don’t work well in cold weather
Dressing properly is the most important thing you can do to stay warm and dry.
Layering is key to managing your body temperature and moisture.
Let’s look at the three essential layers and the best materials for each.
Your base layer is meant to wick moisture away from your skin.
This helps to prevent staying damp and feeling cold.
For the best results, choose a light, breathable fabric like merino wool or synthetic materials.
Cotton should be avoided as it tends to hold moisture and takes a long time to dry.
The mid layer’s purpose is to insulate and retain body heat.
Fleece, down, or synthetic insulation are excellent choices for a mid layer.
When selecting a mid layer, consider the thickness and weight based on the outside temperature and your personal preference.
Outer shell layer
Your outermost layer, or shell layer, protects you from wind, rain, and snow.
Waterproof materials like Gore-Tex, eVent, or other similar fabrics are ideal for the shell layer.
Look for features such as sealed seams, vents, and adjustable cuffs for added protection.
Socks and footwear
Go for moisture-wicking wool or synthetic socks rather than cotton.
Bring extra pairs in case you need to change them throughout the day.
Waterproof, insulated boots will help you stay warm while walking in snow and slushy conditions.
For cozy nights in the tent, pack some down booties to keep your feet toasty.
Head and neck warmth
A beanie or insulated hat will help retain heat while you’re outside.
For added protection, consider a scarf, neck gaiter, or balaclava to keep your neck and face warm.
These can be adjusted as needed to allow for proper ventilation.
Gloves and mittens
Fingers are prone to getting cold quickly, so protect them with insulated gloves or mittens.
Look for waterproof and breathable options with adjustable wrist closures to keep the cold and moisture out.
Bright snow and cold wind can cause discomfort and even damage to your eyes.
Bring sunglasses or ski goggles to protect them from the elements.
Make sure they have proper UV protection and fit well with your other headwear.
Other important winter gear items
Here’s a list of other gear you should consider packing:
Snow shovel: A compact, lightweight snow shovel is useful for digging out tent platforms, clearing snow from around your camp, and can also be an essential tool in emergencies.
Winter tent stakes: These specialized tent stakes are designed with helical or Y-shaped designs to provide better hold in snowy or frozen ground.
Fire starter: Waterproof matches, a lighter, or a fire steel can be essential for starting a fire to keep you warm or cook your meals in cold weather.
Headlamp: Winter days can be short, so having a headlamp is especially important for setting up camp, cooking, or navigating in the dark.
First aid kit: A well-stocked first aid kit is always essential, especially in the snowy backcountry where emergencies can be more difficult to manage.
Satellite GPS messenger/personal locator beacon: These devices can be invaluable for getting help in an emergency, especially when in remote locations with limited cell reception.
Sled or pulk: For long-distance backcountry trips, a sled or pulk can help you transport your gear, saving energy and making your trip more comfortable.
Repair kit: Pack a repair kit with tent patches, a multi-tool, and duct tape for any unexpected gear malfunctions that might occur during your winter camping trip.
Avalanche safety kit: If your trip takes you through avalanche-prone terrain, an avalanche safety kit that includes a beacon, probe, and shovel is a must.
Ice claws: If you plan on traveling over frozen lakes, ponds, rivers, or even marshy areas, keeping a pair of ice claws around your neck can potentially save your life if you happen to hit a patch of thin ice and fall through.
Navigation tools: A map and compass are vital for navigating in remote winter landscapes, especially when snow-covered trails can be difficult to follow.
How to pack all your gear
Packing for winter camping can be a bit more challenging than your regular summer trip.
You’ll need to pack heavier and bulkier gear to stay warm and dry.
Here’s how you can keep your gear organized and make sure it serves its purpose out in the cold.
First, choose a sturdy backpack that’s designed for winter conditions.
Look for features like a waterproof or water-resistant exterior, multiple compartments, and sufficient space to fit all your extra winter gear.
Comfortable straps and support are crucial, as your pack will likely be heavier with all the winter-specific equipment.
When packing your bag, place your insulation layers and extra clothing in compression sacks, which allow you to stuff soft items inside as tightly as possible by releasing air when you press down on the sack.
These help you save space and keep your items dry.
Many compression sacks are waterproof, but be sure to check before you decide to purchase any.
Keep your electronic devices and batteries insulated to prevent them from being ruined by the cold.
You can use a padded case or wrap them in a spare fleece or extra clothing.
Store them close to your body for warmth during the day or tucked inside your sleeping bag at night.
Food and water
Use insulated containers for your meals to ensure they stay warm or don’t freeze.
For water, use a thermos or make your own DIY sleeve out of Reflectix material for your water bottle.
Other packing tips
Pack your gear in a logical order.
Keep frequently used items like maps, compass, and snacks easily accessible on the outer pockets of your backpack.
If backpacking, pack the heaviest items close to your body and in the middle, with the lighter items filling the remaining space around them and on top.
This distribution will help maintain your balance on snowy and icy trails.
If traveling by sled or pulk, place the heaviest items on the bottom and lightest on the top.
Be sure to evenly distribute weight across the whole sled or pulk as much as possible, avoiding too much weight in the front or back.
Setting up camp
Find a sheltered area: Look for a location that’s sheltered from the wind.
If you’re in the mountains, pick a spot that’s less prone to avalanches.
Clear the area: Before pitching your tent, clear the snow from the ground.
This will help create a flat, insulated surface and prevent moisture from melting snow from seeping into your gear.
Position your tent: Set up your tent with the door or vestibule facing away from the prevailing wind to minimize drafts and blowing snow inside.
Use the right stakes: Heavier duty winter stakes are longer and stronger so they can be staked down in thick ice and snow.
Insulate the ground: Place a winter-rated ground tarp or insulating pad beneath your tent to create a barrier between your sleeping area and the cold ground.
Build a snow wall or windbreak: This will help protect your tent from strong winds and blowing snow while also improving insulation.
Dig a kitchen area: Create a snow kitchen area where you can cook and prepare food.
Dig a shallow pit and set up a windscreen to shield your stove from wind.
Store gear properly: Keep all gear and supplies inside your tent or in an insulated vestibule to prevent them from freezing.
Keep your boots inside your tent to prevent them from freezing overnight.
Ventilate your tent: Proper ventilation is crucial to prevent condensation inside your tent. Keep the vents open, even in cold weather, to allow moisture to escape.
Organize your gear: Keep your gear organized and readily accessible. In cold conditions, you don’t want to be fumbling around for essentials.
Hydrate regularly: Ensure you have access to liquid water, as snow may need to be melted for drinking.
Melt and boil snow for drinking water in advance, so you don’t run out of water while setting up camp.
Respect Leave No Trace principles: Be extra cautious about minimizing your impact on the environment, as vegetation can be especially vulnerable under snow cover.
Food and cooking
Carefully selecting food items and planning your cooking methods will make a big difference in your overall experience.
To make things easier on yourself, try to choose food that’s easy to prepare and doesn’t require a lot of fancy cooking equipment.
For lunch and snacks, nuts and dried fruit, or yogurt mixed with nuts and fruit, can be easy yet satisfying options.
For hot meals, consider dishes that can be made using a camp stove or a pot, like soups, stews, or one-pot pasta dishes.
Cast iron equipment can be a great addition to your cooking setup, as it retains heat well and can be used for a wide variety of dishes.
Hot beverages: Don’t underestimate the importance of hot beverages for staying warm and cozy during your winter camping adventure.
Hot cocoa, tea, or instant coffee can help keep your spirits up when the temperature dips.
Other great foods to bring include:
High-energy snacks: Options include trail mix, energy bars, nuts, and dried fruits.
Dehydrated or freeze-dried meals: These are lightweight, have a long shelf life, and are easy to prepare.
Instant oatmeal: A warm and filling breakfast option that’s easy to prepare with hot water.
Canned foods: Canned goods like canned chili, beans, or canned fruits can be a good source of quick, hot meals.
Hard cheese: Hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan are a good source of calories and protein.
Tortillas or flatbreads: Tortillas or flatbreads are more resistant to cold temperatures than regular bread and can be used to make sandwiches or wraps.
Peanut butter: High in calories and protein, peanut butter is a versatile spread that can be used on bread, crackers, or added to oatmeal.
Beef jerky or dried sausage: These protein-rich snacks are convenient and don’t require refrigeration.
Instant soup packets: Warm soup can be comforting in cold weather. Instant soup packets are easy to prepare and can help warm you up.
Rice and pasta: These are relatively lightweight and can be used in a variety of dishes.
Cereal and powdered milk: Quick and easy to prepare for breakfast or a snack.
Freeze-dried fruits and vegetables: These can add essential vitamins and nutrients to your meals and provide a fresh taste to your camping food.
Spices and condiments: Small containers of salt, pepper, hot sauce, and your favorite spices can make a big difference in adding flavor to your meals.
Instant pudding or dessert mixes: Treat yourself to a warm and sweet dessert after a day in the cold.
Nutritional supplements: Depending on your nutritional needs, you might consider bringing supplements like vitamin C or electrolyte tablets to stay healthy and hydrated.
Emergency food rations: These are compact, high-calorie bars designed for survival situations and can be a backup option in case you run low on other food.
Hot sauce or flavouring: A little extra flavour can make your meals more enjoyable, especially when the weather is cold, and your appetite is reduced.
Things to do
Winter camping offers a variety of exciting outdoor activities to fill your days with adventure.
While the snow-covered landscapes provide breathtaking scenery, they also introduce unique opportunities for fun and exploration.
One popular activity is snowshoeing, an excellent way to explore nature trails and take in your surroundings.
If you’re more into sliding down snowy slopes, skiing or snowboarding could be your go-to activities.
Cross-country skiing offers a different experience, allowing you to glide gracefully while getting a workout at the same time.
For those who love fishing, ice fishing can be an exciting way to pass the time.
Just be sure to have all the necessary gear and follow safety precautions.
If you want a bit more thrill, ice climbing might be right up your alley.
Always remember to climb with a partner and use proper equipment while staying within your skill level.
Looking for something a bit more low-key?
Bird watching could be a peaceful way to spend your time outdoors during winter camping.
Don’t forget your binoculars, a field guide, and a warm drink to keep you cozy while observing the local bird species.
Of course, not all activities need to take place outside.
Sometimes, you might prefer to stay warm inside your tent.
In that case, bring along some board games, a good book, or even a portable musical instrument like a guitar or ukulele.
You could spend the evening around the campfire, singing songs and sharing stories.
Lastly, don’t forget about classic winter fun, like sledding, making snowmen, having a snowball fight, playing ice hockey, and ice skating.
These simple pleasures are sure to put a smile on your face and create lasting memories.
How to stay safe
Winter camping can be an incredible experience, but it’s important to prioritize your safety.
So, here are a few tips to help you stay safe while enjoying the great outdoors in cold weather.
Keep warm and dry: Dress in layers, starting with moisture-wicking base layers and adding insulating layers on top, like fleece, followed by a waterproof and wind-resistant outer layer.
Don’t forget to protect your extremities, including your head, hands, feet, neck, and ears.
Staying dry is also crucial, so have extra clothes on hand to change if you get wet.
Recognize the signs of hypothermia: Signs include shivering, fatigue, confusion, and difficulty speaking.
Early identification can be crucial in preventing a minor problem from becoming a dangerous situation.
Keep moving when possible, eat high-calorie foods, and stay hydrated to maintain your body’s core temperature.
Avoid frostbite and frost nip: Keep your skin dry and protected from wind and cold temperatures.
Use hand and foot warmers, as well as insulated gloves and socks.
If you start to feel a numbing sensation in your extremities, rewarm the area immediately.
Early symptoms of frostbite include colour changes from red to white or blueish-gray, stiffness, and a waxy appearance.
Stay hydrated: Dehydration can be sneaky in cold weather.
Make sure to drink water frequently, even if you don’t feel thirsty, as thirst is often a late indicator of dehydration.
Hot drinks, like herbal tea or warm water with a bit of lemon, are good options as well.
Be cautious around ice: Never assume ice is stable—always test its thickness with an ice pick or other tool.
If the ice is less than four inches thick, avoid walking or camping on it.
Stay away from areas where rivers or lakes have currents, as the ice can be much thinner and less stable.
Beware of the potential for avalanches: Familiarize yourself with the terrain you’re camping in and avoid slopes steeper than 30 degrees, as they’re more likely to be affected by avalanches.
Check local avalanche forecasts and avoid areas with high risk.
Protect your eyes: Snow blindness can occur when sunlight reflects off the snow and damages your eyes.
Wear sunglasses or goggles that provide 100% UV protection to shield your eyes from harmful rays.
Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning: When using portable heaters or hot tents, always open a window or vent to allow for proper air circulation.
Be cautious when cooking or using stoves inside tents, make sure there’s adequate ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide buildup.
How to stay warm
Staying warm is perhaps the number one struggle while winter camping.
Here’s what you can do to avoid getting too chilled:
Here’s a bullet point list of ways to stay warm while winter camping:
Prioritize your clothing:
- Layer up with moisture-wicking base layers, warm and breathable middle layers, and a waterproof outer layer to stay dry and toasty.
- Wear wool or synthetic socks, a hat, and gloves.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothes to maintain good blood circulation for warmth.
Minimize the impact of the elements:
- Choose a sheltered spot away from the wind.
- Use a 4-season tent designed for cold weather.
- Pack down the snow with snowshoes, skis, or an avalanche shovel to create a stable tent space and insulation.
Hack your sleep system:
- Lay down an extra insulated sleeping pad (or two) in your tent for extra insulation.
- Use a sleeping bag rated for -22°F (-30°C) or lower if needed.
- Put a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag before sleeping.
Fuel your body right:
- Eat high-energy foods like nuts and fat-rich items.
- Favour foods with high liquid content and hot beverages.
- Use the bathroom before bed; holding in urine can cost your body more energy to keep it warm.
Take advantage of extra tools:
- Use hand warmers and toe warmers to maintain warmth in your extremities.
- Consider a propane heater or heated jacket if necessary, but prioritize safety.
Move around, but don’t overdo it:
- Keep moving around to maintain body heat and generate warmth.
- Avoid excessive sweating, as moisture in your clothes can make you feel colder.
Watch one of our winter camping videos on YouTube:
More about winter camping:
- How to insulate a tent for winter camping
- How to stay warm inside a tent (without electricity)
- How to keep your feet warm in your sleeping bag
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).