No, winter camping isn’t for everyone, but for nature lovers who aren’t afraid of the cold (and who come prepared!), winter might just be the best time to adventure and sleep in the great outdoors. Not only do icicles, snow-covered forests, and frozen rivers make for stunning scenery, but colder weather also means fewer people are out and about. Here’s what you need to know about winter camping so you can stay warm, have fun, and enjoy especially uncrowded winter wonderlands.
First off, know that winter camping isn’t only for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. Anyone can have a great time cold-weather camping—you just need to plan ahead and pack properly. Campers may need to invest in winter-specific gear in some scenarios, but in many cases, you can keep things easy and repurpose items you already own.
If it’s your first time or you’re especially nervous about tent camping during really cold weather (or if you don’t own a winter tent…yet!), consider booking a cabin, yurt, heated canvas tent, or even a treehouse like the Tatanka Mountain Treehouse in New Mexico. Not only will this allow you to test out the waters on your own terms, but many Hipcamp Hosts with unique properties like these typically also provide the right gear with essentials like sleeping pads, blankets, or heaters.
In addition to traditional campgrounds and tent campsites, wooden shelters can be found in some backcountry areas as places to sleep. In some spots, it’s possible to set up your tent right inside a gazebo-like shelter (like at Willow Hill Farm and Mountains Camp) but in other cases, you sleep without a tent inside a three-sided, wooden structure like this lean-to in the Adirondacks. Even without a tent, wooden structures provide additional protection from high winds and snow and may actually prove warmer—and easier—than setting up a tent on the ground.
It’s pretty widely known that weather forecasts are not exactly 100% reliable, so while you should definitely check winter conditions before heading out on your trip, you should also be prepared for the unexpected—potentially colder temperatures and/or more snow than has been forecasted. Pack accordingly and remember that snow and cold temperatures can also affect how you’ll get to and from your destination. Be sure to double-check your campsite’s listing description for any potential vehicle requirements and road information.
The last thing you want is to have your car break down, run out of gas, or have a low tank of gas freeze over while you’re out in the middle of nowhere, so plan ahead and make sure your car is in good shape. Should your car break down, pack extra snacks and some blankets to keep warm. If there’s frozen ground or snow on the road, be sure to drive slowly and allow additional time to stop. Unless you have a lot of experience driving in heavy snow (and your vehicle is equipped to do it safely), it’s best to avoid routes that would require you to drive up and down steep, icy hills.
No matter what kind of spot you’re booking, review the listing description and check in with your Host about their amenities, offerings, and area recommendations. There may be no need to haul a portable heater from home or drive out of your way to find bundles of firewood if they’re already provided for free or for a nominal fee as a Hipcamp Extra. In addition to basic amenities like bathrooms and hot showers, Hosts can offer goods, rentals, and experiences—think breakfast or hand warmers, cross-country ski rentals, or guided snowshoeing outings. If you’re looking for all the adventure of a daytime outing while still sinking into a real bed at the end of the day, opt for a Hipcamp Day Pass.
Just like with running, cycling, or any other outdoor activity, layering is key to staying comfortable when camping. Winter temperatures change throughout the day, as does your own body’s temperature, depending on how much you’re moving. Being able to quickly add and remove layers will help you stay warm without overheating. Avoid cotton at all costs, as it absorbs sweat, snow, and other liquids, holding onto it for dear life. Instead, opt for wool or synthetic fabric, which wick away moisture to keep you dry and comfortable.
Layers also come in handy for unexpected wet clothes. If you’re going on a day hike, throw an extra pair of clean, dry socks and an extra insulating layer shirt or fleece in your backpack, just in case your threads get wet. In addition to waterproof hiking boots and gaiters, warm gloves and socks are essential in the cold, but you should also keep several packs of hand and foot warmers with you (they’re widely available at adventure stores and gas stations). If your socks, mittens, and sleeping bag aren’t enough to keep you warm at night, try using foot and hand warmers inside the sleeping bag.
Camping hack: To warm up even more on winter nights, try a DIY “heater.” Boil some hot water before bed, then pour it into a hard plastic water bottle, close it up securely, and slip it in at the bottom of your bag to go with your own body heat. You can always melt snow for this purpose to save your drinking water.
It may take some experimenting to find out how many layers—and which fabrics—work best in different temperatures, but the following are a good start: a wool or synthetic long-sleeve shirt, a puffy down jacket, and a windbreaker rain shell. Instead of the puffy down jacket, you could also opt for something like Black Diamond’s ultra-warm Element Hoody, which functions either as a mid-layer fleece or a stand-alone, water-resistant outer layer. Keep in mind that much of the cold you experience in winter is not just the temperature—the wind chill is often the coldest. Wearing a windproof, waterproof jacket over your base layers will keep you warm and dry without adding a lot of extra weight.
Bedding: It’s no surprise—staying warm and dry is especially important while cold-weather camping. Ensure your tent is a proper 4-season tent, like Black Diamond’s Mega Snow four-person tent. Your sleeping bag should have a temperature rating at least 10-20 degrees colder than whatever temperature you’re expecting—consider the Big Agnes Lost Dog 0˚ sleeping bag, rated for zero-degree nights. Sliding an insulated sleeping pad or foam pad under your sleeping bag will not only help you snooze more comfortably, but the pad will also absorb cold from the ground to keep you warmer. A camping blanket is another great way to add warmth inside the tent or while cuddled around the campfire (if you plan to bring dogs, also consider a pet blanket!)
Electronics: The sun sets earlier and rises later in winter, so you’ll get more use out of a headlamp. Sure, you could get by with your phone’s flashlight in a pinch, but it’s easier to get around in the dark (especially if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night) if both hands are free. Speaking of electronics (think your phone, camera, power bank, etc.), you may want to invest in protective cases for these items during ultra cold nights. Cases like the Phoozy TechCapsule are not only waterproof, but also protect against the battery-draining cold.
Cooking gear: Consider what type of cooking you’ll be doing and pack accordingly. If you’re only camping for one night, you may be able to get away with packing some hot soup, chili, or pasta from home in insulated canisters (like these from Klean Kanteen), but if you’ll be out there for a few days, you should have a way to heat up. Consider a small, wood-burning stove like the Solo Stove Lite or a propane stove like the Jetboil Stash.
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