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Winter Camping Basics

When the first subfreezing night temperatures hit and the first real snowflakes start falling, some outdoorspeople hang up their packs and camping gear for the year and settle in for a winter of trip-planning for the following summer, maybe with some skiing or snowshoeing thrown in as daytrip adventures. But as many of our Mountain House readers know from experience, winter camping can be amazing: quiet and solitude abound, the snow-draped scenery can be transcendent, and you can justify an extra cup or two of hot cocoa around the campfire.

Newbies often find the idea of winter camping intimidating, but with the proper planning and packing, and a couple easy, close-to-home practice rounds or a guided introductory outing, the pursuit is liable to become a favorite one—and a highlight of the whole outdoor-recreation year.

Choosing Your Winter Tent

Select four-season tents for cold weather and snow camping. Three-season tents may be fine in mild winter climates, but if you’ll be contending with chilly temperatures, decent amounts of the white stuff, and the threat of storms, the more robust protection and durability of a four-season model make a huge difference. Characteristics of a typical winter tent include solid fabric, strong aluminum or carbon-fiber poles, a wraparound ground-hugging fly and ample vestibules, and a wind- and snow-resistant dome shape.

You’ll usually be paying more for a four-season tent and hauling more weight, but c’mon: You don’t want to be skimping on shelter when it comes to snow camping.

Snow Shelters

It’s a very sensible idea to learn how to make a variety of snow shelters if you’re interested in winter camping. These constructions can make tenting out in winter generally more comfortable; they can also save your life if Old Man Winter throws a multiday blizzard your way.

Building a snow wall around your tent shields it from biting wind and snow. And in the face of a bad storm, a snow trench, snow cave, igloo, or quinzhee can serve as a warmer, drier, and more resilient refuge than a tent—and one surprisingly quick to create, if you know what you’re doing, and if you’ve got a snow shovel (and perhaps a snow saw as well) on hand.

Other Winter Camping Sleeping Gear

Your winter sleeping bag should be rated for temperatures at least 10 degrees colder than the coldest you expect. A down bag offers the most warmth, while synthetic fill is better-insulating when soaked. A sleeping bag liner adds significant extra warmth.

A good snow-camping practice is to sleep atop two layers of sleeping pad: a self-inflating one just beneath you, a foam one below that—an efficient double-whammy of insulation.

Consider packing a bivy sack for emergency shelter; a bivy also ups the comfort level inside a snow cave or trench.

General Cold Weather Camping Gear

Besides your shelter and sleeping equipment, you’ll of course want to pack the Ten Essentials. Fire-starting materials in a waterproof sack can make the difference between life and death in a serious snowstorm. A compass can become your entire world in a whiteout. Summer weather often forgives an underprepared backpacker; winter tends to be less generous.

Clothing-wise you’ll have your base, middle, and shell layers, coupled with a wool hat and/or balaclava, gloves and mittens (the latter warmer, the former useful for around-camp tasks), and synthetic or merino-wool socks (a thin one beside your skin, a thicker one outside). Your boots should be winter/mountaineering-style, unless you’re skiing of course.

Useful year-round, gaiters are lifesavers in wintertime: They keep out snow and water and buffer your shins from sharp crusts and buried logs and other obstacles.

In snowy conditions, you’ll likely want some mobility aids. Snowshoes are the most versatile for winter backpackers; cross-country or randonnée skis make covering a lot of drifted-over ground a joy. The crampons that mountain climbers rely on can also serve a winter backpacker negotiating steep terrain well, as can an ice axe. You’ll definitely want ski/trekking poles with baskets.

Given the additional and heavier gear snow camping demands, the winter backpack needs to be bigger than your average summer one. You’re likely looking at a 70 to 80L bag, especially for multiple days out in the wintry wonderland.

A sled can help the snowshoer or skier tote extra equipment and supplies, though obviously some landscapes are more sled-friendly than others.

A super-helpful but often overlooked winter-camping equipment? The good old whisk broom, useful for brushing off tents, boots, and other gear.

Food & Water

Winter camping food stores must take into account the greater energy expenditures of backcountry travel in the cold season: You may well be requiring something like 5,000 or 6,000 calories a day depending on the nature of your trek and the conditions. It’s all about taking advantage of the differing fuel properties of carbs, proteins, and fats. The latter provide great evening calories given their slow-burn digestive release, which’ll keep you warmer overnight.

Mountain House meals make stellar breakfast, dinner, and emergency fare on winter-camping adventures. That’s not only because they’re lightweight, packable, and chockfull of balanced nutrition. It’s also because of their just-add-hot-water preparation, which means you conserve fuel and minimize cooking time: no small consideration when the wintry elements aren’t at their friendliest. The same goes for cleanup, which can be a real drag in the post-dinner cold and dark, and which is next-to-nothing with Mountain House pouches.

(Lunch, incidentally, is often worth substituting with steady snacking on a winter trek: Stopping to prepare a midday feast takes up precious daylight and cools you down quickly.)

Drink plenty of water: Dry winter air and the extra exertion of moving over snow dehydrates you quickly. Protect your water bottles and hydration tubes from freezing.

Melting snow to obtain water isn’t an efficient use of stove fuel, but it’s certainly an option. Just remember to add a small amount of water to the snow in your pot before heating; otherwise the pot can scorch. You can also melt snow by packing it into a water bottle or leaving potfuls of snow in the sun at the campsite. Pathogen-wise, you’re probably OK drinking meltwater from freshly fallen snow, but the snowpack can easily be contaminated by animal droppings and urine. Whether you want to boil or otherwise purify melted snow is your call.

Liquid fuel is better than compressed-gas canisters for winter camping because it performs better at low temperatures, white gas in particular. Remember: If you’re going to rely on melted snow for your water, you’ll need to bring along additional fuel.

Setting Up Winter Camp

Wisely selecting a campsite for snow camping ups the likelihood of a cozy night toasting the brilliant winter stars and enjoying a deep, warm, well-earned snooze—as opposed to enduring a miserable nocturnal marathon of sleepless shivering, regular trips outside to clear off the accumulating snow that threatens to collapse your tent, and generally trying to will that slow-to-rise winter run into coming up.

As we’ve already mentioned, a snow wall helps protect an otherwise exposed tent from wind; you can also take advantage of natural windbreaks such as groves and large drifts. Hard-packed, sculpted snow suggests a wind-scoured site, whereas heavy, soft drifts imply a leeward zone of accumulation. Camping in heavy woods can shelter you from wind, but your tent may also be doused by snow-shedding boughs following precipitation.

You must know the basics of avalanche safety if you’re roaming the winter backcountry: That applies for your daily travel and also for finding a good spot to camp. (Bone up on snow slides—from the weather, terrain, and snowpack conditions that make them more likely to best practices for surviving them—at the National Avalanche Center website and through the training centers it recommends.)

Tamp down your campsite, leaving extra room around the tent to allow for brushing off snow. Creating a flat bed for your tent helps you avoid (or at least minimize) the discomfort of rock-hard lumps under your sleeping pad once the snow consolidates into an icy cast within the tent footprint.

A shallow pit at the tent entrance and under the vestibule makes a convenient place to wrangle footgear and cook in inclement weather.

More Winter Camping Resources

For more information on successful winter camping, check out our Mountain House checklist from earlier this year as well as these informative writeups from REI and Princeton University’s Outdoor Action program. And, as always, feel free to share your favorite