When you first think of camping, you probably visualize hot summer days and slow walks down the local trails. If there’s a river or lake nearby, perhaps you’ll even indulge in a few water sports to pass the time and enjoy the bright sunshine. All in all, the warmer months are definitely the more popular ones for campers to leave the comfort of their own home and rough it in the wild for a bit.
However, as I’m sure you’re aware, summer isn’t the only season in the year. Winter is also a great time to get out and explore, but unfortunately, many who enjoy camping during this time are labeled as diehard or crazy. I mean, camping is great and all, but it can’t possibly be worth freezing half to death for, right?
Because of thoughts like these, a great majority of outdoor enthusiasts miss out on the wonder of snow camping. Which is why we wanted to take a few minutes to talk about why it’s worth it to tackle such a harsh season, and different things you should be prepared for when you head out.
Why Camp in the Winter?
It’s an obvious question that I’m sure most of you are thinking about. The snow and ice are pretty, but treacherous, while the cold temperatures alone are enough to prevent people from wanting to spend any significant amount of time outside. For all intents and purposes, there just don’t seem to be enough pros related to winter camping to outweigh the cons.
I won’t deny, even after hearing the reasons why you should consider winter camping, many of you probably won’t be convinced. It really isn’t for everyone, and I may be a little biased as someone who grew up in Minnesota (winters are brutal), and as someone who prefers to camp in the mountains where it’s naturally colder. Winter camping is more difficult and dangerous, making it an activity that isn’t suited to most people, especially those of you who have young kids.
But, I’m sure you already have a million reasons in your head as to why you should avoid camping in the winter, and don’t need me to expound upon it any further. In that case, let’s dig into a few reasons why you should consider snow camping, and perhaps you’ll be convinced to try it out.
1. There are Fewer People
I’ve mentioned this before in a few other posts, but one of the biggest reasons why I like to camp is so I can get away from everything. That includes people. And what better time to go camping than a season that most people want to avoid being outside? Without a doubt, winter is a significantly less popular time for folks to get outside and pitch their tent, meaning that campgrounds that are normally packed full have little to no visitors. If you’re just looking for an escape, and don’t mind the colder temperatures, winter is the best time to get out and enjoy the solitude of nature.
2. It’s Beautiful
There are just some places that don’t look very attractive in the summer. Swamps, vast plains of dull grass and dirt, and other unimpressive swaths of land don’t really do much to excite that adventurous side of most people. In winter, though, everything is covered in an enchanting layer of glittering snow. With the landscape looking vastly different, locations that were once unimpressive turn into a sparkling expanse of wonder.
My point is, it’s really pretty.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time in parts of the world known for their winters, there are few things that I enjoy more than putting on my boots to hike for miles into the wilderness. The trees have lost their leaves, but the branches sparkle with frost, and the half frozen rivers seem to shine even brighter in the sunshine. Even though it’s colder, it’s hard to notice once you get the blood flowing and your body heats up. Overall, winter is my favorite time to explore the outdoors, and I think you’ll agree with me to some extent.
3. Winter Activities
Just think of all the things you can do in the winter that aren’t possible in any other time of the year. Personally, I love to hike and cross country ski when there’s snow on the ground, but there are a lot of other options as well. Some campgrounds are close to slopes where you can downhill ski or snowboard, while hopping on a snowmobile or ice fishing is also a potential route you could take. There are a lot of different possibilities for everyone out there to enjoy, making winter camping a lot more exciting than just sitting in a cold tent with no one else around.
How to Prepare
Camping is camping, in the sense that you’ll still need a tent, sleeping bag, and other essentials. However, when you throw in freezing temperatures, nothing is as simple as it used to be. We’ll take a look at the bare minimum you’ll need to survive, as well as a few other tricks and techniques to help make your trip better than bearable.
1. Try a Tent Heater
Houses have furnaces, tents have…body heat? Doesn’t sound like a fair playing field to me. If it’s a relatively warm time during winter, you can probably get away without having any external heat source to keep you warm, especially if you’ve got a blazing campfire going. However, if it’s painfully cold outside or you just don’t have a high tolerance for any temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it might be in your best interest to get yourself a tent heater. I wrote a separate article covering everything you’ll need to know about tent heaters, which you can check out here:
2. Look into 4 Season Tents
Your regular, run of the mill tent was probably designed for summer, since that’s when most people go camping. As such, they tend to be thinner and less insulated, because retaining heat inside is the last thing you’ll want to do. In the colder months, this feature very much works against you. If you’re actually serious about camping during the winter, I guarantee you’ll want a good 4 season tent to sleep in during the night. If you’re a solo camper, there are some one person tent options, but remember that they’re heavier than your average 3 season shelter because of the additional material.
Setting up your tent will look a little bit different as well. You’ll want to avoid pitching it on light, fluffy snow, as you’ll find yourself sinking wherever you place weight inside your shelter. Instead, take some time to pack down an area to pitch your tent, so the surface will be fairly similar to regular earth. Throw down a waterproof groundsheet underneath your tent for added protection as well, to help keep the wet snow from soaking through your tent floor.
And remember, if it ends up snowing, remove the build up on your tent as soon as possible. If you let it accumulate, the weight may cause your tent to collapse on you, and that would make for a very miserable night!
3. Sleeping Bag Liners
Hopefully you’ve got yourself a nice mummy style sleeping bag, since they are much more effective at trapping heat than rectangular models. I’ve done quite a bit of camping where the mummy bag is all I’ve had, and generally I sleep pretty well. However, there have definitely been a few occasions when I would’ve liked a little something extra to help me stay warm, which is where the sleeping bag liners come in.
Just like sleeping bags, the liners are rated for certain temperatures too, though the way it works is a little different. If your sleeping bag is rated for 40 degrees, that means you should be able to sleep in relative comfort down to that temperature. If you add a liner that’s rated for 10 degrees, you now should be able to comfortably sleep in temperatures down to 30 degrees.
4. Get Different Tent Stakes
Your average tent stakes are designed for one purpose: securing your tent to the earth. So what happens when you take the dirt away and replace it with snow? You guessed it…the stakes you normally use are far less effective. Because snow is slippery, cylindrical stakes will easily slide in and out regardless of the angle you put them in at. Stakes shaped more like a wedge will fair a little better, but still won’t be the ideal option, especially once the wind starts to pick up. Instead, you’ll need to find a product with holes in it to help trap the snow better, allowing it to stay firmly in place. I also have a few orange screw stakes that I swear by for winter camping. For a few options to look through, check out our article on tent stakes here:
5. Dress Appropriately
Don’t count on a long sleeve shirt, pants, boots, and a coat to be enough to keep you warm. If you’re moving around a lot during the day, it’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t need many layers because the activity is keeping you warm. But once you sit or lay down, especially at night, you’ll notice that you start to get cold really quickly.
Layering your clothing is a great idea any time of the year, but it’s even more vital during the winter. The different layers serve a variety of purposes:
The base layer is designed to keep your skin dry. Any water will give you a chill, so a good base layer will have wicking properties to move sweat and other liquid away from you.
The middle layer helps keep you insulated. This will help trap your body heat, making sure you stay warm by minimizing the amount of heat that’s allowed to escape through your clothes.
And finally, the outer layer works as a repellent against wind, rain, and snow to keep the elements from soaking through and making you cold and damp.
For a more in-depth explanation of the layering system and the proper way to prepare, check out our detailed guide:
6. Grab a Sleeping Pad
If you consider yourself an avid camper, you probably already have one of these handy items. Sleeping pads and air mattresses are widely used to provide some cushion between you and the hard ground, but they’re also an effective source of insulation. For hammock campers, an underquilt will get the job done, though it is possible to use a sleeping pad as well.
7. Other Odds and Ends
The above list will cover your most pressing needs, but there are a couple other points that are worth making. Prior to leaving, you’ll want to check the weather forecast to see what you’ll be dealing with. If there’s a blizzard that’s supposed to roll in halfway through your trip, you might want to reconsider your travel dates!
You’ll also want to plan your meals beforehand. Your body will use up extra calories in an attempt to stay warm, so you’ll want to replenish that supply by eating high calorie meals.
Be wary of avalanches. It’s a very real threat that only presents itself in the winter, so if you find yourself near the mountains, be careful. Stay far enough away from slopes that look hazardous, so that if an avalanche does occur, it won’t be able to reach your location.
Winter is also known for having high winds, so it’s even more important to find a good windbreak. Groups of trees and rock faces are great in this regard, but be careful not to set up too close to any trees that look dead or dying. If a wind gust breaks off a heavy branch and it falls on you…well, you get the point.
While it might seem counterintuitive, I like to bring a tent fan with me as well. It works well as a way to circulate air inside of the tent, preventing the buildup of condensation from your breath.
And finally, be sure to prepare plenty of things to do inside your tent as well. The weather can be fickle, and even though there might be plenty to do outside, sometimes you might find yourself trapped in the tent for a whole day due to bad conditions. Having something to keep yourself entertained inside the confines of your shelter will be a much needed reprieve if you find yourself in this situation.
Backpackers beware – hiking in the winter is a lot different than hiking during other times of the year. Winter navigation requires extra precautions, whether you’re trekking 15 miles to your next campsite, or wandering a fair distance from your shelter to find a good place to relieve yourself. Snow has a way of dramatically changing the landscape around you, so what might have once been a walk in the park can turn into dangerous puzzle. Especially during nighttime hours in freezing cold temperatures when frostbite becomes a real concern.
To make sure you’re thoroughly prepared, here are a few points to keep in mind:
- Use a GPS Device
- Be Careful of Deep Snow
- Winter Means Less Daylight
- Beware of Vegetation Traps
1. Use a GPS Device
Snow drifts have a way of covering your path, and potentially any signage designed to point you in the right direction. If you aren’t careful, you may wander off the path without even knowing it, and end up far away from your destination. A GPS device can help you stay on the trail, or at the very least, keep track of where you’ve been so you can find your way back!
A map and compass can be helpful, but only if you’re intimately familiar with how they work and how to use them. For a refresher, you can check out our guide on How to Use a Compass.
Otherwise, to avoid these problems altogether, try to stick to well travelled paths and locations. Many parks and campgrounds do a great job of maintaining their trails during the winter, so if you stay close to more popular spots, navigation should be no trouble.
2. Be Careful of Deep Snow
I’m a born and bred Minnesotan, and one who enjoys the outdoors at that, so I can personally attest to the shock that deep snow can pose. One minute you’re hiking along in ankle deep snow, and the next moment you find yourself up to your hips in white powder as the “real” ground falls sharply away from you.
From personal experience, taking a random step into deep snow is rarely dangerous. You probably won’t twist your ankle or break your leg, but it can be difficult to get back up again, especially if you have a lot of gear on your back. The cold snow has a way of finding paths toward your bare skin as well, giving you a wet chill that’s uncomfortable if you’re lucky, or hypothermia if you aren’t.
Trekking poles or a giant walking stick can work well to test the ground in front of you while you’re hiking off the beaten path.
3. Winter Means Less Daylight
And less daylight means you don’t have as much time to dally when going from Point A to Point B. As I mentioned above, navigation in the winter is hard enough when you do have daylight to work with, but when it’s dark out?
Don’t even try, unless it’s an emergency.
If you have a long way to go, get moving at the crack of dawn and try to keep a good pace until you’ve made camp again. Also understand that getting to your campground just as it’s starting to get dark means that you’ll be pitching your tent and making dinner without much visibility or the added warmth the sun brings. When you’re hiking, the movement will do a good job of keeping you warm, but you quickly lose this benefit when you stop to set up for the night. Try to reach your destination before you lose the sun for the day.
4. Beware of Vegetation Traps
This point refers back to the topic of “Be Careful of Deep Snow,” but with a slightly different take. When snow lands on bushes and small trees, a void is created underneath the initial white layer that you can see, making for a nasty pitfall if you aren’t careful.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this, other than hope you have a friend nearby who can help pull you out. Sometimes you’ll notice some vegetation peeking out of the snow, so you know to avoid stepping in that area, but this isn’t always the case. When walking through sections of trail that are known to have a lot of plant life, take extra precaution when stepping forward.