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Winter Camping - First Timer Needs Advice

Hello everyone!

My wife and I are planning on doing some winter camping this season and want to be sure we are as prepared as possible. I know it is a whole different ball game and we understand the consequenses of bad planning can be much more severe in the winter.

Initially I am thinking we will just do a car campsite so we have a security blanket and can bail out if things go wrong. We will do our best to treat it as backcounrty; no getting in the truck and running the heat; no driving to get breakfast, no campfires, etc. I think this will give us the opportunity to educate ourselves without much risk.

It would be greatly appreciated if everyone who has winter camped could provide input so we can do our best to similate a backcountry trip. Your persoanl stories of your own trips and mistakes you might have made will help us avoid the same.

We have the tent and I believe we might need to get shells for our sleeping backs to bring the temp rating into acceptable levels. other than that I am a sponge ready to soak up your knowledge.

As you will see from my first quesiton, I am completly ignorant on all aspects of winter camping.

Question: Do you clear the snow to tera firma before you set up your tent or does it go right on top of the snow?

Thanks for the help everyone.

I pack the snow down by walking/skiing/snowshoeing, etc. Then set the tent up right there on the snow.

Just be sure you have a good pad to insulate you from the snow.

I suggest doing as much reading as possible on winter gear and techniques. Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book is a good place to start. There is apparently a new version-go to Amazon to see it. This book is as much about camping as it is about skiing-it is cheap, with easy to follow tips and cartoons for illustrations. Lots of good info and a fun read.

There are many winter camping websites. The Lightweight Backpacker( has a winter forum with threads on every aspect of winter camping and a winter gear list. I am a member there as well and you'll see pictures of my winter gear on the site in the winter forum. I have two extensive trip reports posted there and there are some other good ones as well. Look in either the winter forum or the trips forum.

Many other sites also have gear lists and camping tips; it is just a matter of doing a lot of searching.

The basics are pretty simple-figure out a way to stay warm, stay dry, cook your food, make water and don't get lost. The choices for gear are almost as varied as for any other season. My gear list is pretty short because I don't own a lot of gear. Other people seem to own one of everthing. I have gone winter backpacking on skis and towing a sled (pics on TLB), but car camping is a good way to start.

A few hints-take extra gloves or mitts, including liners and outer waterproof shells; get warm boots-Sorel, Baffin, TNF, whatever works for you; get good socks-I like Patagonia or Smartwool; make sure you have sunscreen or you will get fried if the sun is out; layer your clothes-light for hiking and other exercise, heavier insulation for sitting around at night; get a Turtlefur beanie or something like it, maybe a balaclava if you like those; get a headlamp-it gets dark earlier than you think; get a cheap blue foam pad and cut it up to make pieces you can sit on; get a breakdown shovel, like the Voile Mini-it will be invaluable for all kinds of things; gas cartridge stoves don't work that great in cold weather (they work, just not all that great the colder it gets)-get a liquid fuel stove or a Coleman Extreme; taking two stoves is not a bad idea; learn to make water from snow (yes, there is a method)-don't worry about taking a water filter, freezing may crack the filter,just boil your water.

Make sure you eat enough. If you run out of energy, I pretty much guarantee you'll wake up shivering in the middle of the night.

Buy decent chains. Two years ago in Yosemite, I saw the tracks left by a car that went over the side right before the bus I was on went by. Fortunately, no one was hurt from what I found out later, but that's no way to spend your holiday.

A few tips --- When melting snow for water, be careful not to burn the snow. The resulting melted water tastes bad. Correct technique is heat some water (that you remembered to pack in) and add snow to the water.

Also, hot jello is a great treat and nice switch from hot chocolate.

Have some dry base layer to sleep in. Underwear that is wet from sweat will chill you inside your sleeping bag.

As mentioned elsewhere, read some articles on snow camping.
If you have snow in your backyard try out your gear there.

You do not have to clear the area of snow, but as remix suggests, pack it down. This can be done by just stomping over it with your feet. If you do not, all will be well when you lie down and the snow is comfortably shaped to your body form. You sleep comfortably for awhile, then you roll over. The snow that was just underneath you has softened somewhat from your body heat, but as you changed into your new position, the area you just rolled out of begins to harden and freeze. Your former comfortable body position is now as hard as a rock and lumpy. End of your comfortable snoozing. Choose a nice wide-mouthed gator aide bottle or the like to use as a pee bottle. You will not have to leave your warm bag in the middle of the night. Hopefully your significant other won't reach for OJ in the AM. Get used to wearing thin liner gloves. Practice doing zippers, lighting stoves and other small motor tasks with them on. They will help prevent frostbitten fingers. Use boots with removeable felt liners or other liners and put the liners into the bottom of your sleeping bag as yopu sleep. Use a garbage bag or some similar container to gather snow if you plan to melt it for water. It takes a large pile of snow to melt to fill a water bottle. Collect the snow a good distance from your tenting area to avoid yellow snow. Remember you need to take a lot of extra fuel if you plan to melt snow. When you have melted the snow, leave a little bit of water in the pot before you add the next round of snow. Wear a hat that will stay on to bed. Use a bivy sack and sleep under the stars. A tent probably adds 10 degrees of warmth, but try sleeping outside of it when you first test your gear. Double up with your sleeping pads. You need insulation from the cold ground. Keep flames away from your tent. Nylon is very flammable. Read some books on the topic! When you do cook, remeber that the bottom of your stove might be warm enough to melt the snow underneath and this might cause the stove to tip. Make a nice platform for your stove to sit on. An aluminum pie plate is usually enough, but paltforms are made commmercially.
You will not need to wear much clothing when you are hiking, so layering it critical. Try to avoid sweating as you hike, because the sweat will freeze when you stop. Clothing wet from sweat will freeze up, too. A good rule of thumb is to be a bit cold as you start to hike, or soon you will be stopping to take off your warm layers. Hiking a bit slower than your usual pace can also prevent you from overheating. That way you can maybe take fewer breaks. The more you stop, the more you will get cold as you stand around. Slow your pace 10 minutes or so before you stop to camp, so your body and clothes are not too sweaty when you have to start standing around. Carry your water bottles upside down. Water freezes from the top. If the bottle is carried upside down, the bottom freezes first, so the top or mouth will not be iced over when you go to drink. Hmm.... that is clear, right? Do not plan on big mile days. It gets darker earlier, and everything just takes longer to do in the cold. Look for the day after a good snow fall to be clear and cold and a joy for hiking.

PS.. If you do stop and the snow is deep enough, stomp out a trench about knee deep, not much wider than your foot length. You will have created a bench to sit on..butt on snow, feet in the trench. Do this just outside the door of your tent and you can sit comfortably at your tent door...butt just inside, feet just outside in the trench.

Another trick...if you are having trouble getting your tent stake to hold, tie the guy line around its middle. lay it flat in the snow and bury it, tamping the snow down on top. The snow will soon harden up. This is also a good way to lose a stake in the morning when it's buried in iced over snow. To avoid this, use a stick instead of your stake and just loop the guy line around it with the end out of the snow. That way you can just pull out the guyline and forget about having to dig up the stick. Remember, too, there are tent satkes designed for winter use. To start winter camping, hike into an area where you can spend time setting up a base camp and then hike to the summits with your day packs. Return to your base camp for the night. Just like Everest! You do not even have to go for summits. Snowshoing around in the woods can be fun, too. Think Yellowstone ( or any other place closer to home).

Yiikes... Looong paragraphs above.

Good advice: Bank snow around edges of whatever tent you've got.

My first bitter cold night of camping with a large rectangular tarp was around New Years of 1973 in Berkshires of Western Mass. with temps around zero and a strong breeze and some significant snowfall.

First night was utter misery. Second night we battened down everythihng with snow, a pyramid setup using sturdy tripod of wood found on the site... and a very careful use of poncho for a door....and it was quite tolerable.

Third night we finally made it to our rustic but tight little cabin that we'd constructed mostly with axes and a hand saw during preceeding couple of years. It was utter comfort.

Nice skiing during this trip, given cold snow and good waxes... and we were thankful for our very little and light stupid backpacks.


When I first tried winter camping in Algonquin Park, Ontario, in January many years ago I was well prepared for the cold. What did come as a surprise was the amount of darkness. I had never really thought about the long nights. It was dark from about 4:30 pm till 7am -- 14+ hours. So make sure you have plenty of candles and some entertainment.

I stomp out a camp area on snowshoes and pitch the tent on top of the packed snow. Extra close-celled foam pads on the floor of the tent for insulation. A small toboggan is great for hauling gear.

All chores take much, much longer in winter, such as getting firewood and water. Think about what your food may be like when it’s frozen - for example, frozen chocolate bars have the consistency of glass. Food, especially fatty foods, keeps you warm. Hot milk from powder before bed is a good idea.

If your schedule your trip around a full moon you may be rewarded with spectacular snowshoeing opportunities in the magic of the moonlit winter snowscape.

Pack the snow by stomping on it with your skiis or snowshoes.

You will want a free standing tent for winter camping...

A propane stove may not work well below 32F/0C, so plan on using a white gas or multifuel stove.

However, sleeping on snow is like sleeping on a waterbed and is much more comfortable than sleeping on th ground.

Bring extra food (you will need 5-6000 calories per day or more of food depending on your exercise and the temp).

Bring extra fuel for your stove -- snow makes a very good source for water but it takes fuel to melt it.

Bring a shovel along to dig out pathways and kitchen areas at your campsite, picnic tables, your car, snow caves, and anything else that you can think of.

Plan on things taking longer in the winter time. Plan on adverse weather and bring a day or so more of food and fuel than you would bring in the summer in the event that a storm delays you.

Good luck!


Don't let your boots freeze!!!! It is a BIG pain in the posterior (and your feet) to ski or snowshoe in frozen boots.

You can avoid this by placing your boots in your sleeping bag stuff sack and plaing this under your knees in your sleeping bag when you sleep.

Lots of great advice already posted. See if your local hiking club has a winter hiking seminar. I also want to emphasize how important food and hot beverages are. In addition, at the end are a few cold-weather tricks that really help me to stay warm.

FOOD: You should try to eat almost twice as much as you normally would, since your body will need a lot of fuel just to keep warm. Snacking as you hike is better than taking breaks to eat. Carry snacks cut up into small pieces in your pockets (your body heat will help to keep them from freezing). Pieces of cheese, nuts, pepperoni, chewy dried fruit (apricots), even pizza are great cold-weather snacks. Most energy bars get very hard to eat. I like Odwalla bars since they stay fairly soft, even in very cold weather. Keep meals simple - make quick one-pot meals that require only boiled water so that you're not waiting around getting cold before dinner is ready. I like cous cous with dried vegetables and cheese, Minute Rice with pepperoni and dried vegetables or Mac & Cheese (always good!). Add olive oil or butter to everthing for more calories. Have a snack (such as chocolate or candy bar) right before you go to bed so that your body has enough calories to burn in order to keep you warm all night.

BEVERAGES: Carry water bottles upside down in bottle insulators instead of Camelbaks or other bladders. Even insulated bladders will usually freeze below 20 degrees (I know this from experience). Adding Gatorade usually will help to keep the water from freezing. Carry a 16 oz. thermos filled with hot soup or tea to keep you warm during lunch or breaks. I fill mine at breakfast and have half with lunch, then finish the rest when I get to camp, since it's still piping hot even at 4pm. Make a hot beverage or broth as soon as you set up camp, since your body will cool off rapidly after you stop hiking.

Hot Water Bottle - Just before going to bed, fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water and make sure the lid is on VERY TIGHT. Bring the bottle to bed with you and place it between your legs or wrap your arms around it. This hot water bottle will keep you very warm for hours.

Down Jacket and Booties - Invest in a good lightweight, compressible down jacket with a hood for when you get to camp. I like the MontBell Alpine Light Parka. Do NOT hike in the jacket, since it will get wet if you sweat and the insulation does not work if wet. At night, put the jacket in your sleeping bag with your feet in the hood to keep your lower half warm. Also, take off your boots as soon as finish hiking and put on a pair of down booties and dry socks. This will keep your feet dry and very warm. Booties with rubber soles that you can walk in are great for late night "bathroom breaks."

Boots - As someone stated above, take out your boot insoles out and put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. In addition, put your boots in a stuff sack (your sleeping bag sack will work) and keep them in your tent so they will be less likely to freeze. Nothing harder in the morning than putting warm feet into frozen boots.

Socks - Try an insulated sock liner, such as a merino wool liner or wool/silk. Make sure that you don't put on too many heavy socks that will decrease your blood circulation. Blood needs to be able to flow to keep your feet warm.

Clothes - Always keep your set of sleeping/camp clothes protected in a truly waterproof compression sack. You must have warm, dry clothes ready to change into as soon as you stop hiking. For hiking, consider wearing base layers of merino wool, which is very soft, will keep you warm without a lot of weight and move sweat away from your body. When hiking in 25 - 40 degree temps, I wear a light wool (or fleece) hat and gloves, a lightweight wool tank top, a lightweight insulated zip-neck top and a fleece vest on top. That's it. I find fleece jackets cause too much sweat. If it's really windy, I'll put my rain jacket over the rest with all the vents open. For bottoms, I wear lightweight wool leggings under my rain pants or a lightweight pair of soft shell pants.

Extra garbage bags. These will help to keep wet items in your pack from getting other items wet. If there is frost on my tent in the morning, putting it in a garbage bag will contain any moisture as the frost melts.

Camp Activities - Gathering (dead and down) wood for a fire if there is a fire ring will help to warm you up. Playing charades after dinner is a fun thing to do with a group before bed. In the morning, pack up your sleeping bag and tent before making breakfast and you'll warm up quickly from all the movement and effort to stuff everything back in the stuff bags.

Winter is an amazing time to be in the woods if you're well prepared. Less crowds, open views, no bugs. Enjoy!

Mike Boersma said


A propane stove may not work well below 32F/0C, so plan on using a white gas or multifuel stove.

Not so. Propane's vaporization point is -40 (F or C, since this is the cross-over temperature). What you meant was butane, which has a vaporization point of +32F/0C. Butane is the primary chemical in most (but not all) backpacking canister stoves. Markill and MSR (and a couple others) use isobutane as the primary constituent (vaporization point is +10F), because it works reasonably well down to 10F. The vast majority of canisters with butane as the primary constituent add some propane (usually about 20%) or some isobutane plus propane these days. Read the label (as you should for any fuel).

He also said


You will want a free standing tent for winter camping

Not necessarily. Many of us use pyramid tents like the Black Diamond Megamid or similar tents from other manufacturers (like Integral Designs) in winter, particularly when ski touring and trying to keep the weight down. If you look in the Trailspace News, you will see the Posh Tent we used in Antarctica as our dining tent

You will also note in that News article that we used Kelty Windfoil 3's for our sleeping tents, which are hoop tents that require staking. While it is partially true that so-called "free-standing" tents are more popular, far too many people forget that if there is any breeze at all (and most especially in winter) ALL tents, including "free standing" tents MUST be staked down. Even full-on expedition tents will collapse under a heavy snow load if not properly staked and guyed.

The rest of his comments are ok.

debmonster makes a blanket statement that


insulated bladders will usually freeze below 20 degrees

That depends on whether you take proper care of your hydration bladder. There are simple techniques for keeping a Camelbak liquid. I have used mine on many occasions down to the -40 range with no problem (I did have a freeze-up at -30 in a 25 knot wind one time when I got careless and did not follow the basic rules). However, I would suggest that until you get a fair amount of experience with winter camping under your belt, you not use a hydration bladder. To be more specific on water bottles, if possible get a parka that has a water bottle pocket INSIDE the parka, plus keep the bottle inside a cozy. Outdoor Research's cozy (the one that zips closed) is the only one I have found to work fairly consistently. In experiments with various insulating methods, a 1-liter Nalgene in an OR cozy, starting with boiling water, had cooled to 50F at 11 hours in 0F temperatures. In the Nissan 1 liter thermos, the water was still at 100F after 27 hours, and in the Nissan 1/2 liter thermos it was at 100F at 20 hours. Several other brands of insulated bottles (non-Thermos brands) had frozen within 3 or 4 hours - so check any supposedly insulated bottles by testing before depending on them (the Thermos Nissan bottles are fairly hard to find, though I have seen them occasionally in some of the Big Box stores).

Most of debmonster's comments are fine.

Something that hasn't been mentioned yet in this go-round on winter (but has been mentioned in previous Trailspace discussions) is the use of a pee-bottle. Take a 1 liter wide-mouth bottle into the tent with you. It should be a different shape from your water bottles, so you can tell at a touch. This saves getting out of the tent to go tripping lightly across the snow when nature calls at 2AM. With practice, you can learn to use the bottle lying down in your sleeping bag (ladies - get yourself one of the funnels made for women. Campmor has several versions, with the Freshette being most popular among women on expeditions

Remember, for clothing, NO COTTON! Not even for underwear or socks. As the old saying among outdoors types who do lots of winter camping and climbing expeditions in sub-freezing conditions "Cotton Kills!". Wool (merino wool, particularly) will retain some warmth when wet (from sweat or from spilled water). Synthetics, like polyester, retain less water than wool, and similarly do not collapse like cotton does when wet.

The other basic rule for clothing, already stated, is LAYERS

There's lots more (I have a couple hundred page notebook I use for the students in my winter camping courses), but as already suggested, look for a course offered by an outing club in your vicinity.

One thing to remember is this-just as you have seen in the few posts here, different people have different ideas about what works and what doesn't. Some things you read here may or may not be true. Cross check whatever you intend to rely on with several sources. Be leery of "blanket statements" that are "one size fits all" recommendations. Unless they come from someone I believe knows what they are talking about, I tend to give them little weight until I hear them from several people.

Even experienced campers can differ about what tent to use, what sleeping bag to buy, what stove, etc. There is often no one right answer.

You can have fun winter camping with a modest investment in winter gear if you camp the way I do: in moderate weather, not far from help, with enough gear that will sustain me in a storm for a couple of days until I can ski back (or as I have done before, snowshoe back)to my car.

I think your car camping idea is great. I've done my winter camping in Yosemite, up by Badger Pass. Is it wilderness? Not really, I call it "wilderness lite." But, when 4 or so in the afternoon rolls around, all the day snowshoers and skiers have gone home and I'm pretty much alone. On my last trip, there was one group of schoolkids camping off a ways from me, but there just aren't that many people who like to winter camp, so you should be able to find someplace nice and quiet. Kind of like that old Motel 6 ad - once you close your eyes, all rooms look alike.

Lots of great advice above. My wife and I started doing some winter camping a few years ago and did exactly as you describe starting out. We drove to a campsite that allowed us to have the car there in case things went wrong, but camped as if we had hiked back in. It allowed us to fine tune our gear and techniques before the trips that included hiking back in. One item we always take now is a head-sock. If you are not familiar with them, they are balaclava made from fleece, so they cover not only your head, but neck also. It is a good improvement over a knit hat, especially if you do not use mummy bags. Not sure if someone mentioned this, but since we use rectangular bags, we put our boots in plastic bags and leave them in the bottom of the sleeping bag along with water bottles and some clothes. Good luck, it is a great time to camp if you are outfitted correctly.

See the results of our first winter camping trip included

January 19, 2021
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