Winter forest covered in snow.
tips and tricks for
winter camping

MOST PEOPLE HEAR THE WORDS "WINTER CAMPING" AND CRINGE. It's cold, wet, and miserable, why would anyone want to do that?!" they might ask—and they definitely have a point. But it doesn't have to be that way. Learn the right way to do it and you’ll see how winter camping can open up a whole new world of adventure that fair weather campers will miss. With the forest and mountains blanketed in a layer of white, the landscape takes on a whole new look. The snow shimmers in the sunlight, sparkling as you move through a frozen world. Your familiar landmarks and spots might be unrecognizable in the winter, and you can see them anew, experiencing something familiar yet completely different. Winter camping can offer more solitude than the summer months, and with the right planning, it can be warm, dry, and blissfully uneventful. Winter camping can be a requirement for some alpine climbs, as snowy approaches can take much longer and might require an overnight stay in order to reach your objective.

This article offers information about winter-specific tents and sleeping bags, selecting a safe campground, prepping before sleep, and staying warm while sleeping. Whether it's camping for the sake of camping, for an ice climbing trip, or for glacier travel on a mountaineering trip, here are a few tips to have a pleasant night out.

Winter camping can add more stresses on a tent than the other three seasons combined. Heavy snow, sleet, hail, and wind can flatten or tear lightweight 3-season tents. An expedition tent or 4-season tent designed for the winter is built to withstand the harsh conditions you might encounter. Heavier duty fabric and aluminum poles can support the additional loads a heavy snowstorm will place on your tent. If you've ever shoveled a driveway full of heavy, wet snow, it can feel like you are shoveling wet cement. You don't want to wake up at night with your tent collapsing under the weight. The heavier fabrics also trap more heat inside the tent, keeping you warmer.

Most expedition tents will also have two doors in case snow from a storm or avalanche makes it necessary to exit your tent quickly, or if snow buries one entrance. They will typically have a vestibule, which is a sheltered space that extends over one or both entrances. The vestibule allows you to enter your tent protected from the elements, as well as providing a dry place to store your pack or other gear. You can see Mountain Hardwear’s line of expedition tents here

Synthetic or down? The eternal question for outdoor enthusiasts can often be simplified a bit in winter. With less chance of rain, the winter months can be perfect for the high loft and low bulk of a down sleeping bag. For winter camping and climbing, down will take up much less space in your pack and offer excellent warmth. Depending on the region you live in, the amount of water in the snow is the ultimate factor in deciding which way to go. If the local snow tends to have a higher water content, consider synthetic insulation, which will still keep you warm when wet. If it’s dry and fluffy, then down might be the best option.

Choosing the right temperature rating can be tricky. Think about the coldest temps you might encounter on a trip and go with something that works in even lower temps than that. Another option might be to go with a colder, lighter bag and then wear warmer clothes when sleeping inside it. Take into account how cold you tend to run when outside, and know that you’ll be even colder when asleep. If you run cold, opt for lower ratings. If you run hot, you can go for something that corresponds to the temps you think you will encounter. Keep in mind that a bad night’s sleep can drastically effect your performance the next day, so insure you bring a bag that’s warm enough to allow you to sleep all night.

Check out Mountain Hardwear’s cold weather bags here

For really extreme conditions, a bag like the Phantom™ Gore-Tex® 0F/-18C Sleeping Bag can offer warmth and protection from wetness with a Gore-Tex® shell.

Winter camping can have more objective hazards than summer camping, such as avalanches, rockfall, and falling trees. It can be harder to find level terrain, and you won’t have outlined sites like you would in the summer.
Pine Beetles
Pine Beetles? You might be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with winter camping?” In the last few decades, pine beetles have wreaked havoc on ponderosa, lodgepole, and other pines throughout the Western U.S. and Canada. Large portions of forests have been decimated due to beetle infestation. As these trees die, the weight of heavy snow in the winter can cause dead or dying trees to fall. Be aware in the thick forests; falling trees can block the trails or, worse, fall on you or your tent. Keep in mind the location you choose to pitch a tent. Avoid areas with a heavy concentration of dead trees.
Avalanche Terrain
The last thing you want is to have your camp destroyed by an avalanche, especially if you are still in the tent. Avoid setting up in or below terrain traps, like gullies, narrow couloirs, or steep, open slopes. Avalanches will funnel into gullies, and the debris can be significantly deeper than on slopes. Watch out for avalanche paths, which are slopes devoid of trees or vegetation, or slopes or sections of forest where all the trees have been flattened from previous avalanches. If you are camping on a glacier, probe for crevasses before setting up your tent. The dangers of winter camping might not be immediately obvious, especially if setting up camp at night. Make sure to use a topo map to help identify objective dangers if setting up at night, and use caution and sound decision-making to select your campsite. See the avalanche safety article for more info on avalanche info in your area.
If you are camping near a cliff face, look around in the snow near your campsite. Is the snow littered with rocks on the surface? If so, look for another spot. In the winter, the rockfall hazard is drastically increased. Water freezes in cracks, or under boulders and rocks and expands. The expansion can break rocks loose, and once it warms, the bond between the ice and rock will weaken and gravity will send this debris raining down.
Once you've selected a safe, flat site, start packing the snow down. You can use a shovel or your feet to stomp the site flat. If you are in a windy area, you can also dig down a bit to create additional shelter from the wind. Use snow to build a wall on the side of the tent that’s facing the wind. Once your tent is set up, dig a small trench at the opening to make getting in and out of the tent a bit easier. Keep your shovel inside the vestibule for quick and easy access during a storm. You might need to shovel out the entrance in a heavy storm and you don’t want to have to search for a buried shovel.

The tent stakes provided with your tent usually won't work in the snow in the traditional way. You will need to use them as a "deadman anchor" instead. Tie the guylines to the middle of the stake and bury the tent stake horizontally. Stomp the snow down on top of it to help lock it into place. Alternatively, you can use rocks, pieces of wood, or stuff sacks filled with snow in the same way.

Once you have your tent set up, spread your climbing rope over the floor of the tent to provide extra cushion and insulation from the snow. Place your inflatable pad on top of the rope, then a closed-cell pad on top of that. The closed-cell pad will help keep you warmer as the air in the inflatable pads will become colder throughout the night.

If you are using double boots, keep your liners inside your sleeping bag with you. Some like to sleep with them on; others like to let them air out. One trick alpinists use is to slide feet into your mittens› for extra warmth. They won't go all the way on, but they can be helpful if you already have them with you.

Keep any batteries inside your bag to keep them warm at night. Batteries will fail quickly in the cold, so keeping them warm is important. You should also place the next morning’s clothing inside your bag so it’s quick to find and nice and warm to put on in the morning. If you are shorter, stuff the bottom of your bag with fleece, down jackets, and other clothes to fill in the space, so it doesn't fill with cold air instead.

In the winter, it can be difficult to get outside of the tent to go pee at night. Keep a well-marked Nalgene next to your sleeping bag that is designated just for peeing in. Products like a Freshette or Shewee can also be extremely useful for individuals to be able to pee into the bottle inside a tent. If you are in an expedition basecamp and have a second smaller sleeping bag for on the route, throw that bag on top of your basecamp bag for additional warmth, or if you are really cold, you can use it as a bag liner and put in inside your larger bag. Utilize the gear you have with you to keep warm.

Before bed, fill a Nalgene bottle full of hot water and place it in your sleeping bag. It will help add heat to keep you cozy. Bring all of your water bottles or hydration bladders inside your tent and make sure they are insulated with extra clothing or place them inside your bag so they don’t freeze solid at night. Be sure the lids are tight, the last thing you want is for your water to leak inside your sleeping bag.

Try to get a meal with protein and fats in before going bed. Your body will generate heat processing the meal as you sleep. For the morning, have all your food items prepped the night before and easy to locate. You can also pre-rig your coffee maker the night before, so you can save time when it’s really cold pre-dawn.
There are a lot of options for winter stoves, but overall, you are better off using a liquid fuel stove in the winter. Fuel is supplied to the stove through pressure. With a liquid gas stove, you pressurize the fuel by pumping, so regardless of the temperature, you are able to constantly keep it pressurized, where a canister stove will rely on the pressure inside the canister. As the temperature drops, so will your pressure in the canister. You can also make better estimates on the output needed for your meals and portion out the fuel beforehand with a liquid stove, where you might always be guessing on how much fuel is left in a canister.