"He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter." — John Burroughs, "The Snow-Walkers"
Wilderness is no less majestic in winter, but its natural wonders tend to be subtler. And even if you can appreciate the bleak beauty of a snowy forest in February, you may still be understandably reluctant to spend the night there.
There are good reasons why camping is widely associated with summer, when weather is warmer, daylight lasts longer and everything seems easier. Camping in winter can expose you to dangerously cold conditions, not to mention the potential hardships of hiking through and setting up camp in deep snow.
With the right equipment, clothing and planning, though, winter camping can offer some unique advantages over warmer-weather excursions. Not only are there fewer bugs, sparser crowds, and less competition for space and permits, but you get to experience a forest or other wild place in a way many people never do.
Still, cold-weather camping is not something most people should do on a whim. Almost any camping trip requires preparation and planning, and that's especially important when you're thinking about braving the elements in winter. Before arranging any such outings, here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Pick the right time and place.
Be realistic when choosing a destination, accounting for factors like your physical fitness, camping skills and experience in cold climates. Even if you're a seasoned summer camper, it might be wise to start small in winter. That could mean car camping at first, before working your way up to deeper backcountry, or at least testing your mettle in temperate climates before tackling Acadia or Yellowstone.
Know the local climate for the time of year you'll be there — including day and night temperatures, for example, or wind and precipitation patterns — and research the area to get a sense of topography, trail layout and potential risks like avalanches.
2. Pick the right people.
Don't go alone, especially in backcountry. "As alluring as the empty wilderness might sound, nature is unforgiving. That's why you should always share the adventure with a camping buddy or two," points out camping-reservation site ReserveAmerica.
That said, try to invite friends who are physically and mentally suited for this kind of challenge. You've presumably planned a trip that's within your own abilities, but that won't matter much if you bring people who can't handle it. Ideally, your fellow campers will have "an assortment of winter skills," ReserveAmerica suggests, "such as navigating through snow, finding routes and making shelter." And in case you get lost or stranded, leave behind a detailed trip plan with someone who doesn't join you.
3. Check weather forecasts early and often.
Snow can make winter camping more fun, but don't let a big storm catch you by surprise. (Photo: Masa Sakano [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)
Beyond researching the climate, it's a good idea to regularly check the weather forecast for wherever you're going. Even if you're ready for typical winter conditions at a particular place, you may be in trouble if your trip happens to coincide with a severe blizzard or polar-vortex breakout. Also, if you'll be in a mountainous region with deep snow, stay up-to-date on local avalanche forecasts, and be sure you can recognize and avoid risky areas (more on that below).
4. Bring the right clothes.
Pack so you can dress in layers, which makes it easier to control your comfort by adding or removing layers based on your activity or the weather. You obviously don't want to be cold, but it's easy to underestimate the importance of also staying dry.
"Your biggest problem isn't getting cold," polar explorer Eric Larsen told Backpacker Magazine in 2010. "It's actually getting too warm and sweaty, because once you stop moving, hypothermia can strike in less than five minutes on cold, windy days."
Layers fall into three or four basic categories. The base layer should be something lightweight (not cotton), to help wick sweat toward the outer layers where it can evaporate. This includes shirt, pants and socks. Next is an insulating middle layer to retain body heat; ReserveAmerica suggests an expedition-weight fleece, microfleece or goose-down jacket, plus a second pair of socks, depending on conditions. Finally there's the outer shell, which should be waterproof or water-resistant and breathable. For more specifics, check out this in-depth layering guide from REI.
You'll also want a windproof hat and gloves or mittens, ideally with an extra pair stowed away in case they get wet. Other useful clothing may include: glasses or goggles, a face mask, gaiters and suitable boots. (Boots should be waterproof for trudging in deep snow, the Sierra Club points out, but if you're hiking atop packed snow, normal hiking boots with some waterproofing treatment may be enough.) Store boots and other clothes in your tent at night to keep them warm and dry.
5. Bring the right gear.
As with clothing, the equipment you'll need varies widely by where and when you're camping. Consider a three- or four-season tent, preferably the latter if you'll be in high winds or heavy snow, since it offers sturdier poles, heavier fabric and less mesh. You may also want a tent that can fit one more person than will be using it, so you have more space to stow your stuff away from the elements.
Another key item is a cold-weather sleeping bag; REI recommends using one rated for at least 10 degrees (F) colder than the lowest temps you expect to encounter, since "you can always vent the bag if you get too warm." Sleeping pads are also important, providing both a cushion and insulation from the frigid ground. For winter camping, REI advises using two full-length pads to avoid losing body heat, with a closed-cell foam pad against the ground and a self-inflating pad on top of that. Sleeping pads are rated by R-value from 1.0 to 8.0, with higher scores indicating better insulation.
Most liquid-fuel stoves work well in winter, according to REI, but the cold can cause pressure issues with canister stoves. If you use a canister stove, opt for one with a built-in pressure regulator, and keep the canister warm in your sleeping bag at night or in a jacket pocket around camp during the day. It's also wise to bring a backup stove and extra fuel. All these extra supplies may warrant a larger backpack than you'd use for summer camping, but make sure it's still light enough for you to carry. Other potentially helpful gear includes snowshoes or skis, snow stakes, a pickaxe, avalanche-safety equipment, and a sled for hauling stuff on longer trips.
6. Seek the morning sun.
Look for a campsite with morning sun exposure, to help your tent (and you) warm up as quickly as possible once the sun rises.
7. Fend off the wind.
Campers built this snow wall to protect their tent from wind at Chugach State Park in Alaska. (Photo: Paxson Woelber [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Look for an area that offers some protection from cold wind, via a natural windbreak like trees, rocks or a hill (but not underneath damaged or unstable trees), or enough snow to build a DIY wall. Per Sierra Club: "Avoid the bottom of hills, where cold-air troughs form, and the tops of hills, which can be exposed to wind." (Avalanche risk is also a good reason to avoid camping on or below hills and cliffs.)
8. Sculpt the snow.
You can use snowshoes, skis or just boots to pack down snow for the footprint of your tent. Depending on the depth of the snow, you may also want to clear a vestibule and pathway. (Photo: Sanchik/Shutterstock)
If you aren't trying to camp on snow, just set up your tent like you normally would, on flat, bare ground without vegetation. If that isn't an option, though, you'll want to make sure the snow is packed down before setting up your tent, since loose snow is more likely to melt underneath you. You can do this by stomping around in snowshoes, skis or just your boots. Depending on the snow depth, you could also dig out a vestibule and pathway, as seen in the photo above. As an extra luxury, REI also suggests building a "winter kitchen" out of snow at your campsite, complete with cooking surfaces, seats, tables and storage areas.
You could even try to build an igloo, but unless you're already an accomplished igloo builder, you should probably still bring a three- or four-season tent, too.
9. Respect the snow.
Research avalanche safety precautions and local risks before you arrive, and don't camp in avalanche-prone areas. Keep this in mind as you plan hiking routes, too.
10. Look for landmarks.
Try to set up camp in a place with clear landmarks, to help you find your way back in darkness or a snowstorm. Look for larger landmarks, like distinctive trees or rocks, that are less likely to be hidden by freshly fallen snow.
11. Eat for heat.
Eat food for warmth, since digestion generates body heat. Don't make yourself sick, but you may need to eat more than you'd expect depending on the weather and your physical activity. At least 50 percent of your diet should be carbohydrates, according to ReserveAmerica, since they're easiest to convert into energy, which warms you up. Fats and protein are valuable, too, but try to keep your meals simple, REI suggests, "so you're not stuck cleaning lots of dishes in the cold." Eating a low-maintenance snack before going to bed can help you stay warm overnight.
12. Melt snow for water.
Because its water content is frozen, snow is not a good place for pathogenic microbes to survive, so it's generally considered a safe source of drinking water in the wilderness. That's no guarantee, though — aside from potential pathogens, snow could be contaminated with other pollutants, especially if it's near a road, trail, campground or other high-traffic area. If you're going to use it for drinking or cooking, try to find an untouched patch of white, clean-looking snow.
Eating clean snow should be safe in most situations, but it's often discouraged in a backcountry context, since your body must expend energy to melt the snow. That can work against your efforts to stay warm, and may even contribute to hypothermia. Instead, try melting the snow first. There are various ways to do this, but one of the simplest it to put some snow in a cooking pot, then use your stove or campfire to melt it down. For maximum safety, boil it for 10 minutes to kill any lingering pathogens. If you already have liquid water, you might want to add some to the pot first, Outside Magazine suggests, "unless you like the taste of burnt snow."
13. Drink water, even if you aren't thirsty.
The need to stay hydrated tends to be more obvious in summer, especially if you work up a sweat while hiking. But even if you manage to avoid sweating during a cold winter hike, hydration should still be a high priority. Remember to take regular breaks to drink water, regardless of whether you feel thirsty.
REI cautions against using hydration bladders for winter camping, since water can freeze in the tubes, cutting off your water supply. Instead, try an insulated water bottle that can be attached to the outside of your pack for convenient access.
14. Store water bottles upside-down.
There are also other ways to prevent your water supply from freezing. It may seem counterintuitive, but since snow is an excellent insulator, SectionHiker suggests burying your water bottles in snow while you're at camp. (Use brightly colored bottles to help you find them in the snow, and remember to mark the location, too.) You could also keep them in your sleeping bag to prevent freezing overnight.
Bottles or bladders with a wide mouth also hinder freezing around the top and at the threads, SectionHiker adds, or you could just stow your bottles upside-down while hiking. "Water freezes from the top down, so by stowing bottles upside down, the bottle tops are less likely to freeze shut," according to REI. "Just make sure your bottles lids are screwed on correctly and won’t leak."
15. When nature calls, answer.
Pee promptly when you need to, since "your body will burn up valuable calories to heat any urine stored in your bladder," cautions the Sierra Club. To avoid going out into the cold at night, keep a (clearly labeled!) bottle for urine inside the tent.
16. Make a space heater for your tent.
Before putting out your fire at night, create a space heater for your tent by heating up some extra water to fill a bottle. "If you put a hot, non-insulated stainless-steel water bottle in your sleeping bag at night, it will radiate heat like a sauna stone," according to Backpacker Magazine. REI recommends using a hard-plastic bottle instead of stainless steel, however, since the metal could become too hot and burn you.
17. Cover the floor for warmth.
Your sleeping pad should help insulate you from the cold ground below, thus hindering heat loss, but what about the rest of your tent's floor space? Since an empty tent floor can be a significant heat sink, you might want to bring your backpack and other gear inside at night, filling up unused floor space to help insulate your tent interior. (Just be careful with sharp items that could rip your tent.)
It's already a good idea to stow clothing and gear in your tent overnight to keep it warm, but this is also a convenient way to dry off any items that might have gotten damp during the day. If you have wet gloves or socks, for example, tuck them somewhere warm in your sleeping bag to help them dry out during the night.
18. Sleep in clean clothes.
Try to wear clean clothes to sleep when possible. Body oils, sweat and dirt can reduce the insulating effect of a sleeping bag over time, according to REI. For more guidance on how to dress for warmth overnight, check out this guide from Backpacker.
19. Bundle up your batteries.
Keep electronics warm, REI says: "Cold temps can zap battery power. When not in use, stow things like your headlamp, cell phone, GPS and extra batteries in your sleeping bag or a jacket pocket close to your body."
20. Warm up with awe.
The northern lights gleam above a winter campsite at Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River in Alaska. (Photo: Bob Wick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Camping in cold weather may involve extra work, but there are rewards for your effort. Don't get so immersed in the logistics of winter camping that you forget to zoom out every once in a while to appreciate where you are and what you're doing. Awe is good for your health, and experiences like this can be rich sources of it.
Take breaks to hear the eerie quiet of a snowy forest, marvel at ice formations along a creek bed, stare into the night sky, notice the winter activities of wildlife and generally soak in all the scenery you might not see in other seasons.
But don't linger for too long out in the cold. Awe and wonder may be good for you, but they're no substitute for a warm sleeping bag.