Nothing is more important than being prepared the first time you go winter camping.
Of course, there are some things you just can’t foresee happening until you’ve done it.
We’ve been there!
There were definitely lessons learned after our first winter camping trip.
Here are some of the the things we wish we new as beginners.
The gear and packing challenge
The real truth about winter camping is that it starts long before you’ve even left your house.
You’ll need a lot of heavy and bulky gear
When winter camping for the first time, you’ll quickly realize that the gear you need is heavier and bulkier than for a summer trip.
The right gear can make a huge difference in your overall experience and comfort.
You’ll need a sturdy, four-season tent to protect you from wind and snow—or alternatively, a hot tent and a wood burning stove, which is our number one choice.
Your sleeping bag must be rated for cold temperatures (think a 0°F or lower rating), and having two sleeping pads will help insulate you from the ground.
When it comes to cooking, invest in a stove that works well in cold temperatures.
Canister stoves with isobutane-propane fuel work better in colder conditions, but white gas stoves are a popular choice for extreme cold and high altitudes.
Packing is way more involved
Packing for winter camping is a bit more involved than just grabbing your summer gear and throwing it into a backpack.
Layers are crucial for staying warm.
You’ll need to figure out how to pack everything efficiently without sacrificing warmth and comfort.
Some helpful packing tips include:
- Use compression sacks to minimize the space your sleeping bag and clothes take up.
- Organize items by categories (e.g., clothing, food, and cooking equipment) in separate waterproof stuff sacks.
- Pack heavier items closer to your back and lighter, bulkier items near the top or sides of the backpack.
- Balance the weight of your pack by tightening all compression straps and adjusting the load lifters on your shoulder straps.
Your clothing will take up a lot of space
Your clothing is essential for staying warm and dry during your winter camping trip.
Here’s a list of recommended clothing items you should bring along:
- Mid-weight base layers: Tops and bottoms made from moisture-wicking materials like merino wool and synthetic fibers.
- Insulating layers: Fleece or down jackets, vests, and pants to keep you warm as temperatures drop.
- Outer layers: Waterproof and breathable jackets and pants to protect you from snow, rain, and wind.
Accessories are important as well.
Consider adding thermal socks, gloves, sunglasses, and a hat to your winter camping packing list.
Remember that layering is key to staying warm and dry during your winter camping adventure!
Getting to camp
Backcountry camping means travel, and that can be a serious trek when snow, ice, extreme cold, and whipping winds are involved.
You might need snowshoes, skis, and a sled or pulk to get there
When you go winter camping for the first time, you’ll need to consider your mode of transportation.
In some cases, snowshoes or cross-country skis can help you move through snow-covered terrain more efficiently.
They provide more surface area to distribute your weight, preventing you from sinking into deep snow.
If you’re planning to cover a longer distance or carry a heavier load, a sled or pulk can be invaluable.
They provide an easier way to transport your gear without straining your back or arms.
Your water and snacks might freeze on the way
Be aware that your water bottles and snacks may freeze during your journey.
So it’s important to take precautions.
To prevent your water from freezing, try using insulated water bottles or thermoses.
Alternatively, store your water bottles upside-down, as water freezes from the top down.
Keep your snacks in an accessible and insulated location, like an inside pocket of your jacket, to avoid them freezing solid.
Setting up camp and doing chores is a ton of work
Finally, remember that setting up camp and doing chores in winter conditions can be more demanding compared to summertime.
Here are a few tips for making life easier at camp:
Choose a sheltered location with natural windbreaks, like a small stand of trees or a rock formation, to protect your tent from strong winds.
Stamp down the snow beneath your tent with your snowshoes or skis to create a flat, solid surface.
This reduces the chances of melting snow causing your tent to sink or become uneven during the night.
Allocate extra time for tasks like collecting firewood and melting snow for drinking water.
These activities can be surprisingly time-consuming in cold, snowy conditions.
Be prepared with multiple methods to start a fire, such as waterproof matches, a firestarter, and a lighter.
Remember, dry tinder and kindling can be hard to find in a snowy environment.
The camping experience
One thing is for sure: It’s nothing like summer camping.
You’ll probably find it weird to be at a campsite in the middle of winter
Expect to feel a bit out of place when you first set up camp during winter.
You’re essentially camping in a transformed environment.
The usual green, leafy campsites are replaced with frosted landscapes and perhaps snow.
But this can actually be a highly enjoyable experience – the isolation and snow-covered backdrop make for a unique camp setup.
You’ll feel like a burrito in your winter sleeping bag
When you turn in for the night, expect to feel cozy in your winter sleeping bag.
These sleeping bags are designed to keep you warm in low temperatures, and you’ll likely feel like a bundled-up burrito.
Make sure to use the right one, as temperatures can drop significantly during the night, especially at higher elevations.
The mornings will be extremely cold when you get up
In the morning, brace yourself for cold, crisp air as you emerge from your warm sleeping bag.
It’s normal for the temperatures to be at their lowest just before the sun comes up, so make sure you have a set of warm clothing to put on immediately.
Layer up and start preparing your breakfast to get your body warmed up and ready for the day’s activities.
You may need to dig your tent out after a snowfall
Overnight snowfall can partially or completely bury your tent, so have a lightweight shovel at the ready to dig it out.
Make sure to remove any excess snow from your tent’s exterior to reduce the potential for leaks and maintain the tent’s structural integrity.
You need to be strategic when going to the bathroom
Nature calls, even in cold weather.
Nighttime bathroom breaks can be a chilly experience, so be prepared with a headlamp and warm clothing.
Find a designated spot at least 200 feet away from your campsite to minimize any unwanted odors lingering near where you sleep.
Also, remember to practice Leave No Trace principles during your bathroom breaks, and properly dispose of any waste in designated areas or pack it out with you when you leave.
Water and food
You won’t need to worry about refrigeration, that’s for sure.
But you may need to worry about everything being frozen solid.
You won’t necessarily need to worry about food spoiling
When you’re winter camping, the cold temperatures can actually work in your favor when it comes to food storage.
Instead of worrying about cooler space and ice packs, you can use the snow as a natural refrigerator for perishable items.
Just make sure to place food in waterproof containers and bury them in snow to keep animals from accessing your supplies.
You’ll be very thirsty if you don’t remember to hydrate regularly
Cold air has a drying effect on your body, and people tend to underestimate their need for water during winter activities.
Make it a priority to drink water regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
High-calorie foods like granola bars, trail mixes with nuts or chocolate chips, can also help keep your energy levels up and make it easier for your body to stay warm during cold conditions.
You might need to melt snow or use an ice auger to get water
If you’re camping in an area where liquid water sources are frozen, melting snow or using an ice auger may be necessary to access drinking water.
Melting snow can be done by heating it over a camping stove, but take care to avoid overfilling the pot, as this may result in accidentally extinguishing the flame.
Also, don’t forget to filter and purify the melted snow before consuming it.
Using an ice auger, on the other hand, can help you drill through thick ice and access water beneath it – just make sure to bring an appropriate filter or purification method for treating the water before you drink it.
The cold is generally what keeps most people away from camping in the winter, which is understandable.
There’s a lot to deal with, and if you mess up, you could put your health and safety at risk.
Your body temperature will heat up a lot while you’re active
When winter camping, you might be surprised by how much your body heats up during physical activities like hiking or setting up camp.
To avoid overheating and sweating, dress in layers.
You’ll want a moisture-wicking base layer to move sweat away from your skin, an insulating middle layer for warmth, and a waterproof outer layer to protect you from the elements.
While you’re active, remove or add layers as needed to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Your body temperature will cool down a lot when you rest
As soon as you stop moving, your body temperature can drop quickly.
It’s essential to replace the moisture-wicking base layer with a dry one and add more insulating layers to stay warm.
A key tip is to always pack extra clothing.
A good rule of thumb is to choose a sleeping bag rated to at least 10 degrees colder than the low temperatures you expect, combined with a quality sleeping pad for insulation from the cold ground.
Your nose will run and your face covering will get wet from condensation
Cold weather can make your nose run, and wearing a face covering, like a balaclava or face mask for warmth, may cause it to get wet from condensation.
To avoid discomfort, bring extra face coverings to swap out when one gets damp.
Also, try to minimize your face covering’s moisture accumulation by allowing some airflow.
You can do this by wearing a face mask with air vents or adjusting your balaclava to create a small gap around your nose.
Remember, staying dry is crucial to staying warm and comfortable while winter camping.
The overall experience
You simply can’t compare winter camping to summer or even three-season camping.
It’s in its own league.
That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible experience—it’s just extremely unique.
The heat from your stove or campfire will feel like heaven
When winter camping for the first time, you’ll quickly discover the importance of warmth.
As temperatures drop and snow blankets the ground, the heat generated by your stove or campfire becomes a source of comfort and happiness.
You’ll come to appreciate the warmth it provides after spending hours out in the cold.
Hot meals and beverages will taste better than ever
Winter camping means the food and drinks you consume play a crucial role in keeping you warm and energized.
Hot meals and beverages will not only warm you up from the inside, they’ll also taste better than ever.
The simple joy of sipping hot cocoa, soup, or tea on a cold winter’s day or digging into a steaming bowl of pasta will make the challenges of camping in the cold all the more rewarding.
You’ll appreciate the beauty and serenity of winter
Winter camping offers a unique experience of the great outdoors.
Snow-covered landscapes and the stillness of the season create a sense of peace and tranquility you won’t find during other times of the year.
You’ll encounter fewer crowds, allowing you to take in the serenity of this winter wonderland uninterrupted.
The early nights and invigoratingly crisp mornings further enhance the sense of solitude and connection to nature that you can only achieve during winter camping.
More about winter camping:
- How to keep your face warm while winter camping
- The best places in Ontario to go backcountry camping in the winter
- Your free winter camping checklist
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).