A Guide to Winter Camping
Winter camping brings new challenges to novice and beginner campers. If you’re unsure of what’s required, keep reading our handy guide to learn about the different materials, clothing, and winter camping gear that will make your adventure a success.
Prepare For Your Climate
Always have a good understanding of the camping area’s average weather conditions, whether you are hiking in Colorado or your local state park. This includes temperatures, wind, and precipitation. During the cooler season, snow, wind chill, and freezing temperatures can easily hinder a camping trip, so be sure to look up the historical data on a weather website before planning for your trip.
The length of your trip is important because the longer you are outside in the elements the more likely you will encounter dangerous temperatures. If you have never camped in the winter before, you might make your first few outings short before building up toward longer trips. Aim for clear weather if possible too; this allows you to gradually build camping skills and experience toward harsher conditions like snow, ice, and wind chills.
Know Basic Survival Skills
Can you start a fire in the wind, rain, a snowstorm, or while ice pelts you? Do you know how to keep that fire going in severe conditions? While you might not be able to cozy up to a roaring fire, you should be able to produce enough heat to keep warm.
You might consider a portable campfire. They burn for about 4.5 hours, and companies claim they’re weatherproof, waterproof, and windproof. Buying and storing one for emergencies might be a good idea.
Re-think Your Personal Gear
When you sweat during the day the dampness seeps into your clothing, but it cannot evaporate fast enough. The trapped sweat can lower your body temperature in colder and below freezing environments and can lead to hypothermia. Sweat trapped in your sleeping bag can also do this. It can also leave you feeling clammy and feeling chilled to the bone.
Layers will become your best friend. Two common problems are not wearing layers at all or not peeling off your clothes before you sweat too much. Remember, you want to feel comfortable, warm but not to the point where your body sweats. You should also consider packing extra clothes in case you do sweat too much. This way you can change and stay in dry clothes at all times.
Make sure they are a lightweight breathable material that wicks moisture away from your body. Again, you want thin layers. You also want a snugger fit if you’ll be active so the moisture wicking fabric performs properly, but a looser fit will suit a leisurely camping trip fine.
Inside layering fabrics that wick moisture:
- Synthetic Blends
- Merino Wool/Wool blends
Avoid cotton or cotton blends that are mostly cotton because it absorbs moisture. You can use these on your outer layers, such as sweatshirts and sweatpants, if you wear a wicking fabric against your skin.
3-season vs. 4-season Tents
If you’re camping in an area with below freezing temperatures, you will need a tent that can maintain the higher indoor temperatures. Some tents do this through a series of ventilation while others provide thicker walls or built-in heaters.
A 4-season tent also stops the snow and ice from accumulating and allows it to naturally fall away. This prevents your ceiling from caving inward and leaks. Unless you’re looking at subzero temperatures, including wind chills, and/or snow, a basic 4-season tent will carry you through your trip and keep you warm and dry. Look for the best waterproof tent to keep yourself and your gear dry during those wet and rainy trips in later winter and early spring.
Few 3-season tents have the proper ventilation and construction to maintain a proper cabin temperature. One exception to this rule is camping in a mild winter climate, such as Florida, where the average nightly temperatures stay well above freezing. It’s important to know the area’s climate. Autumn is typically the last season you'll get out of a 3-season tent.
What to Look For In A 4-Season Winter Tent
Capacity: choose a tent that is as small as possible for the size of your group. Most times, you want room to move about and stretch, but for winter camping, the differences in your proximity to your sleeping partner can help you stay warm or make you too cold.
Steel poles: Lightweight tents need a lot of rigging to stay upright in strong winds, and they can collapse under the weight of ice and snow. Most lightweight and 3-season tents use aluminum or fiberglass, which aren’t the best choices for winter camping.
Double walls: a 3-season tent has a single wall construction because it doesn’t need to protect its occupants from below zero or sub-zero temperatures. Double walls give you extra insulation for harsher climates, but a single-wall tent will perform well in temperate areas.
Two entryways: you never know when or where Mother Nature will drop snow. Having multiple entries can ensure you’re never blocked inside your tent. Plus, no one likes tripping over other people.
Choosing the Right Sleeping Bag
Most sleeping bags come with a season rating and a temperature guide, but the industry doesn’t regulate this. Always rely on the actual temperature. For winter weather and harsh climates, you’ll want a 4-season sleeping bag with a proper lining and a warm, insulated down material. Synthetic downs work as well as animal based ones in most scenarios, and they cost a lot less. Synthetics also do better in wet environments, including your sweat.
Style of sleeping bag might seem like a personal preference. In any other season it will be, but you will stay warmer and drier in a mummy style bag with a hood. Opt for quilting or baffles as these pockets hold insulation in place while trapping in heat.
Sleeping pads offer you more than comfort; they also act as a layer of insulation and keep out the cold. You can purchase simple camping ones, use a yoga mat, or an exercise mat. The mats add shock absorption too, and they’re fairly inexpensive.
More Winter Camping Tips, Tricks, and Hacks:
- Invest in metal tent stakes. Most tents come with plastic ones. They won't hold down your tent during moderate or heavy winds.
- Make sure your tent has a fainfluy. Most 4-season tents come with one, but a handful of tents don't.
- Weatherproof your tent, even if it already came with protective coating.
- Don't forget to open your vents at night. Your tent still needs to breathe, and the vent designs optimize airflow without losing heat so that you stay warm and dry.
- Keep your next day's clothes in your sleeping bag. This stops you from putting on cold clothes and lowering your body temperature. If possible, change inside your sleeping bag.
- Use hand warmers as needed. They're safe to use inside your sleeing bag too, and some companies even make larger ones specifically for sleeping bags.
- Store matches in a metal container. Plastic shatters, even the shatterproof variety. Have you ever dropped a cold or frozen container from the fridge and watched it’s pieces and contents scatter? Don’t attempt that with your matches.
- Embrace the pee bottle. Camping can strip away so many comforts. If you need to pee, don’t hold it or traipse through the cold. They make pee bottles for men and women, and you should have at least one for every camper.
- Purchase extra tarps to quickly erect makeshift wind walls to protect you and your tent. You’ll need extra rope and possibly stakes too, but rigging a tarp between two trees to block wind can make a huge difference in warmth.
- Don’t forget lanterns and extra batteries.
- Investing in a small weather radio and bringing a cell phone can also add a layer of safety should fouler weather strike.
Winter camping should be an adventure, and you should pitch your tent without worries about the cold or weather. Luckily, the 4-season tents, sleeping bags, and other cold weather equipment can ensure your winter camping trip is a complete success. Check out our camping tent buying guide before making any decisions!