When done safely, winter camping and backpacking can be fun. It’s cold, but it guarantees interesting dinnertime conversation and entertaining anecdotes for years to come.
I spent a bit of time winter backpacking and camping. I’ve even been hiking in temperatures below -40F / -40C and have developed a thorough understanding of how to keep warm, even when the temperature is sub-arctic.
Here are winter camping tips and winter backpacking tips to keep your winter outing safe, fun, and crucially warm.
Let’s start with the most basic of tips. The more layers you wear, the warmer you stay.
Less obvious is that you want to avoid bulky sweaters and heavy overcoats. These can be cumbersome and make it difficult to move. That’s important because one of the best things you can do to stay warm while winter camping is to exercise.
Instead, prioritize lots of thing layers like merino or synthetic base layers. They don’t restrict your movement, and they keep you warm.
Less Is More
In direct contradiction to our first winter camping and backpacking tip, sometimes you should keep layers to a minimum.
Especially on your extremities, layering too much restricts circulation and blood flow. Six pairs of socks sound clever until you develop a case of frostbite.
Instead, stick to two pairs of thermal hiking socks per day. One should be a thin, insular sock, and the other should be thick and bulky enough to help fill your winter hiking boots. That keeps your feet warm and your blood moving.
Dig a Pit Under Your Shelter
One of the most important cold weather camping tips for novice campers is to dig a pit in front of your shelter.
Many campers forget that when considering how to stay warm in a tent, the best thing you can do is keep the inside dry.
Since winter weather ranges from wet on a good day to snowy on a bad one, you need somewhere you can keep your shoes. That’s especially true for people who go winter hiking or backpacking because they experience more snow than other campers.
Ideally, you want that somewhere not to be inside your tent because the slush and rain can dampen your bedding.
Preparing a makeshift ‘vestibule’ where everyone takes off shoes and wet coats before entering the tent helps keep your sleeping quarters dry.
As you dig, ensure the tent fly extends over the pit. That way, even without your coat, you won’t have to worry about being rained or snowed on.
Earlier, we said movement kept you warm.
That fact is still valid. However, lots of exercise makes you sweat, and in extreme weather, that cools you down quickly.
That’s why one of the best winter backpacking tips is to avoid overexertion.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, you should stick to brisk walks and light cross-country skiing-type activities instead of racing around campgrounds or trails.
Change Out of Sweaty Clothes Promptly
If you embark on an energetic activity, like shoveling snow for a quinzhee, your next step should always be to change out of your sweaty clothes immediately.
That’s because damp clothes lower your core temperature. The colder you get, the more at risk you are for frostbite. So, once your shelter is set up, crawl inside and change your layers.
Don’t Wait To Go to the Bathroom
Another unlikely winter camping and backpacking tip are that you shouldn’t hesitate to go to the bathroom.
Understandably, many people are reluctant to take advantage of outdoor toilets in winter because of the inclement weather. But when you go hiking in the snow, the energy required to contract your muscles and hold your bladder has better uses.
While you resist going to the bathroom in the woods, that energy could be circulating more blood and keeping your fingers warm.
So, cold as it will inevitably be in the short term, you are always warmer in the long run when you stop for bathroom breaks as necessary.
Use more than one sleeping Pad
A more obvious winter backpacking tip is to layer your bedding. Since winter camping often means camping in the snow, you need a waterproof groundsheet first and foremost.
But while waterproof, those groundsheets aren’t warm. So, you want to layer something more comfortable over top of that before setting down your sleeping bag.
A useful trick for backpackers is to use two insulated sleeping pads to increase the r-value of your sleeping pad. The best option is one foam pad and one insulated inflatable sleeping pad. The use of two sleeping pads adds a surprising amount of warmth. The use of a closed cell foam pad acts as a failsafe in case the inflatable mat gets a hole and deflates when winter camping in cold weather.
Don’t Place Your Hot Water Bottle on Your Feet
Another thing inexperienced winter campers may not realize is that you shouldn’t put your hot water bottle on your feet when inside your sleeping bag.
It’s a tempting thing to do, especially if your feet run naturally cold.
But you are better off placing it on your core or even on your thigh. Unlikely though that sounds, there’s a sizeable vein in the human thigh that circulates significant amounts of blood. Placing the hot water bottle on that vein ensures the circulating blood is extra warm.
Consequently, all your extremities stay warm throughout the night.
Put a Midnight Snack inside Your Sleeping Bag Pocket
Another winter camping and backpacking tip is to go to bed with what an old camp scout called a ‘pocket warmer.’
These are midnight snacks you can wake up and eat if you are cold in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t sound like it will make a difference, but we always felt warmer after something to eat. That’s because certain foods take longer to digest. While you metabolize them, your body temperature rises, so you are physically warmer than when you don’t eat. I regularly do this when camping in cold weather.
However, not all foods are equal. You want to avoid anything alcoholic and stick to things containing:
Combine Quilts and Sleeping Bags
Earlier, we discussed the importance of layering your groundsheets. But it’s equally important that you layer your bedding. Most people simply use a Winter Sleeping Bag but there are other options to stay warm.
When winter camping or backpacking, a sleeping bag is vital. A standard-issue sleeping bag lacks the necessary insulation to keep you warm.
For extra warmth, combine your 3-season sleeping bag with a backpacking quilt. If you are backpacking in the snow, you might balk because quilts sound bulky. But they don’t have to be. Modern featherweight quilts are light, compact, and excellent for trapping air. If you need another layer for your sleep system you could consider an insulated sleeping bag liner.
Protective Eyewear Is Essential
When you go winter backpacking, you are on the receiving end of a lot of inclement weather.
For many people, that means their eyes naturally tear up in the cold and snow. That affects your visibility. The best way to prevent this is to wear protective eyewear. In many situations, a good pair of hiking sunglasses will be enough. But many people will need a pair of glacier glasses or ski goggles.
A bit of weeping in windy weather doesn’t sound serious, but it becomes urgent when you can’t spot hazardous branches or your campsite.
Sleep in a Beanie
Another winter backpacking tip is to sleep in a beanie or toque.
It sounds silly and can feel that way too. But you lose significant amounts of heat through the top of your head. How much sometimes gets exaggerated, but it would be untrue to suggest hats weren’t an effective way of preserving body heat.
It’s even more effective if you pair your beanie with a sleeping bag with a built-in hood.
Set Up Wood Shelter
Another thing to remember when hiking through the snow is that you need to leave time to set up a wood shelter at your destination.
You don’t want to do this in the dark because it can be fiddly.
The best way to set up a shelter is by tying a tarpaulin to several sturdy branches and amassing your wood underneath it.
It’s tricky to keep snow 100% dry when backpacking in the snow, but this way, you can ensure that no new snow falls on it. That helps it burn better and produces a better fire for you to warm up in front of.
Seek Out Wind Protection
Another thing to consider when you go winter backpacking is that you should find rest places and campsites with wind protection.
They keep you warmer, and once you start a fire, no one has smoke blowing in their eyes.
The other advantage of wind-protected sites is that you don’t have to worry about drifting snow creeping under your wood shelter.
A good quality 4-season tent and 4-season sleeping bag with a quality sleeping pad can keep you warm on the cold ground and keep your body temperature warm enough.
Eat and Drink Regularly
Winter backpacking and hiking take energy. And as discussed, eating is an effective way to build immediate warmth.
So as you hike through the snow, take regular breaks to drink plenty of water and eat energy-building food. GORP (a combination of raisins, nuts, oats, and grapes) is popular, but bananas, oat bars, and chocolate are also effective.
And, of course, a hearty meal at lunch and dinner is a must if you want the energy to keep tramping through the snow.
Be Wary of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
When it comes to how to stay warm in a tent, the most popular way of generating heat is by using a tent heater.
There’s nothing wrong with this; No one wants frostbite, much less hypothermia. But if you go down this route, you must keep your tent ventilated.
Effective as space heaters are, they produce substantial amounts of carbon monoxide. If you don’t ventilate the tent, you risk carbon monoxide poisoning.
Another effective way to avoid this is to always turn the heaters off at night. That way, you can trap the heat they generate during the day and still breathe easily.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Chest pain
- Sudden weakness
If you detect any of these, turn the space heater off and open the tent or shelter door immediately.
Leave Plan and Contact Details
This is less a winter camping and backpacking tip and more common sense. Because winter weather is so variable, you must leave a thorough plan or itinerary with at least one person.
You should also leave contact details so they can try to reach you in an emergency. If you won’t be able to keep your phone charged, leave an emergency contact, like a camping site scout or a specific destination.
Hopefully, you won’t need either of these things, but the one time you forget to tell someone where you are going, you can bet something will go awry.
Always Check the Forecast
Obvious though this winter camping and backpacking tip sounds, you should always consult the weather forecast before leaving your campsite.
Weather can change suddenly, and you don’t want to be caught off-guard by whiteout conditions, avalanches, or other wintertime hazards.
Know the Warmest Parts of Your Body
Ideally, you want to get through your camping expedition without experiencing frostbite or hypothermia.
But it never hurts to be prepared. And if you want a fast and effective way of warming up hands and feet that don’t have frostbite, it’s still helpful to know where the warmest parts of your body are.
- Back of the neck
- Under your arms
- Back of your knees
If your core temperature drops too low for these places to be effective, get a fellow camper to lie down. Then place your hands or feet on their stomach.
You should still ensure they are protected by layers. But the stomach, and indeed, the area around a body’s core, is one of the warmest parts of the body. It won’t be so warm that it shocks your system, but it’s warm enough to increase your temperature.
Above all else, winter camping should be fun. These winter camping tips aim to help you stay warm and make the most of your experience. Take extra winter camping gear to ensure you stay warm.
Remember to eat often, set camp out of the wind, and don’t hesitate to go to the bathroom. Most importantly, enjoy yourself. No one sets out on a camping trip to be miserable, and that’s true whether you backpack through sun or sleet and snow.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, you should take camping equipment that can keep you warm and dry. You should take extra layers of clothing, extra food, and you should aim to set up camp in an area protected from strong wind.