An Intro To Winter Camping - Mountain House Blog
Born in Oregon 1969
Mountain House®

Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.

An Intro To Winter Camping

WINTER CAMPING – THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR!

The temperature has dropped and snow has begun to fall across the country. With summer adventures in the rearview mirror, camping gear is rolled up and tucked away, waiting for warmer weather when camping season begins anew. But wait! There is no camping season! You can go camping ALL YEAR LONG. The trick of course, is to know before you go.

Sir Edmund Hillary may have summited Everest without Smartwool or Gore-Tex, but that doesn’t mean that modern-day adventure-seekers need to compromise comfort for less ambitious expeditions. Advancements in gear tech have made cold-weather camping far more accessible. But before you head out to load up your shopping cart with all-season everything and complex layering systems fit for the Antarctic, let’s look at a few different types of winter camping opportunities, so you can get a feel for what may work best for you.   

glowing red tent with the aurora in the background

TENT CAMPING

Though many campgrounds close for the winter season, there are many more that are still open! Closures generally are based on accessibility and road closures, though some may be closed simply because they don’t have on-site camp managers in colder months to maintain the campground. So you’ll want to do some research before heading out with the hatchback loaded with all the winter toys. These are a couple of reliable online options for researching campgrounds:

  1. The Dyrt – Basically, it’s like Yelp for campgrounds. Download the app, scroll through campgrounds, read camper reviews, and get all the info you need to find the perfect spot to park and play.
  2. Recreation.gov – Thanks to a recent refresh, the Recreation.gov website is easier to navigate than it used to be, offering maps of areas you may like to explore, ranger station contact information, campground info, as well as backcountry conditions for those who may like to explore winter on foot, skis, or snowmobiles.

GEAR BASICS 

If camping at a campground, there will likely be a groomed area for pitching a tent. If there is not, read below under “Backcountry Camping” for snow camping. But if we’re assuming you can drive to the campground with clear road conditions, your campsite will be fairly accommodating as well. And the bonus of car camping is, of course, you’ll have your vehicle, and you can fill it to the brim with all the cozy things. Just don’t forget these:

  • Tent – A 3-season tent is perfectly sufficient for most situations. If you’re making camp below the tree line, and the weather isn’t predicted to be particularly stormy, then you won’t require the additional durability of a 4-season tent.
  • Sleeping pad and bag – It’s a good idea to have a sleeping bag that’s rated for 10 degrees colder than the anticipated weather of where you’ll be camping. And a sleeping pad, while adding cushion, will also elevate you off of the cold ground, providing essential insulation.
  • Daypack – Chances are you’re not going to want to hang out at the tent all day when there’s so much to explore! Bring a small daypack for carrying hydration, snacks, extra layers, and a small emergency kit.
  • Layers and layers – Even with car camping you’ll want to make sure you have the proper layers for staying warm morning, noon, and night. Avoid cotton and instead choose synthetic blends, wool, and other insulating technical fabrics, as well as waterproof layers. Start at the top and work your way down: head, neck, body, hands, and feet.
  • Camp stove and fuel – Just because you can bring the kitchen sink, doesn’t mean you need to. But make sure whatever stove you bring is in good working order, and that you have more fuel than you think you’ll actually need.
  • Camping food – The luxury of car camping is you can bring all the ingredients you need to serve up home-cooked goodness no matter where you land. But keep easy-to-prepare options on hand, like freeze-dried Mountain House meals, or even ramen noodles, so that if a hot meal is needed quickly, it’s only a few minutes away.
  • Extra water – Campgrounds usually have running water, but it’s a good idea to keep an extra few gallons in your vehicle in case of emergency (like getting stuck on a snowy road that should have been cleared!).
winter campground with two tents, a picnic table, and snow on the ground

photo credit @robherr via The Dyrt

BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING

Just a reminder that this is an “intro” to winter camping. Camping in the backcountry comes with a near-infinite list of variables, and if you’re eager to give it a try, please do more research and go with someone experienced in backcountry camping. But basically, if you’re going to be carrying your gear with you instead of driving up to your campground, you’ll need to prepare differently, and very thoughtfully. Learn more about setting up a winter campsite here.

GEAR BASICS

  • On Foot – If there’s little to no snow on the ground, you’ll be good to go on-foot with a pair of warm, sturdy, and waterproof boots. If there’s ice, you may want additional traction with micro-spikes or similar traction device. And if you’re headed somewhere that accumulates more than a few inches of snow, you’ll likely be headed to your camping destination on skis or snowshoes, and you’ll want well-insulated boots. (TIP: You can carry more if you tow a sled behind you! Not a good idea on super steep slopes, though.)
  • Tent – If you’re going to be camping above the tree line where you’ll be more exposed to the elements, or if you’ll be camping on accumulated snow, a 4 season tent is the way to go. You’ll likely need to “prepare” your area with care. Pick a spot that’s sheltered from the wind and safe from avalanche danger. Then prep your tent site by tamping down the snow (and digging down if needed in order to hit hard pack). 
  • Snow shovel – A shovel will come in useful in preparing your tent site, but also for building a show shelter if needed.
  • Sleeping pad and bag – While a warm sleeping bag is a no-brainer, what might not seem as obvious is bringing two sleeping pads. Having an extra sleeping pad between you and the cold ground provides critical insulation in freezing temperatures.
  • Clothing layers – The right layers are critical! Start from the head and work your way down: beanie, neck gaiter, base layers, insulated puffy, waterproof pants and over layer, weatherproof gloves (plus an extra pair), gaiters, and several pairs of non-cotton socks. You’ll need to be able to remove layers easily when warm (like when you’re hiking to your campsite) and add them when cold (like when you stop moving!).
  • Goggles or sunglasses – Snow can be remarkably blinding! Protect your eyes!
  • Backpack – Winter backpacking will require a higher-capacity pack. It is better to be able to carry all the essentials to stay warm, then to skimp in order to save space.
  • Hydration – Plan on packing in enough water for your hike (depending on how far, it could be 2-3 liters just for the hike). You may need to boil snow for additional water, but just remember you’ll also need a proper water filter.
  • Navigation – Compass, GPS, maps.
  • Backpacking Stove and Fuel – Carry an extra stove (and fuel) for winter camping in the backcountry. Liquid fuel stoves tend to work better in extreme cold, but are heavier to carry than canister stoves.
  • Food – Because you’ll be carrying so much more gear, food is where you can save space by choosing lightweight, easy or no-prep meals like Mountain House. Winter treks will consume more of your energy, so be sure to pack calorie-dense meals (and chocolate, of course).
glowing red tent on snow with the aurora in the sky

photo credit Paxson Woelber

VAN OR RV CAMPING

Van life in the winter? Heck yes. The emerging share economy of camper van and RV rentals has made it incredibly easy to nab a 4-wheel adventure mobile and head out on wintry roads. While some folks may think that camping only happens in a tent, we disagree. You’ll still need to plan for almost all of the same elements as with car camping, the only difference is you’ll be sleeping inside a van, and maybe preparing meals on a built-in propane stove. Winter tends to be the “off-season” for camper van rentals, so chances are if you head to a rental site like GoCamp or Turo you’ll find the perfect vehicle for your winter camping adventure!

GEAR BASICS

You won’t need a tent, and if you’re renting a vehicle you likely won’t even need bedding as they usually come stocked. You’ll likely even have a propane stove in the van or RV. But, just in case the propane goes out, or there’s an electrical or mechanical issue with the vehicle (it happens!), here are some things to keep with you:

  • Camping or backpacking stove plus fuel – As a back-up to the vehicle stove.
  • Chains –  In case traction is needed.
  • Emergency car kit – Just in case.
  • Daypack – You’re going to want to get out of the van eventually …
  • Warm layers – A van is not a well-insulated house, so you should be as prepared to layer up just as you would with car camping.
  • Camping food – You’ll likely have a small refrigerator in your vehicle, so food options can be as homemade as you want them to be! Keep a few easy to prepare staples on hand for quick meals, or as a part of your vehicle emergency kit.
  • Water – Some camper vans and RVs have small water tanks, but you should plan on having a gallon or two of emergency water just in case.
  • Tunes – Because what’s a winter road trip without the perfect playlist?
Drone shot of a camper van on a snowy road with trees on either side

photo credit John Waller/Uncage the Soul Productions via GoCamp

NEED MORE INFO? YES YOU DO.

As we mentioned, this is an introduction to winter camping, and we have several more informative articles on our blog (this winter checklist might come in handy!). But if you’ve never gone before, please read more, chat with others, and head into your local sporting goods store for expert advice on the right gear for you. Then head out into the woods and the wilds for a winter wonderland camping experience!