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11 Tips for Winter Camping and Backpacking

by Austin Campbell November 12, 2015

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Winter is a great time of year to go camping or backpacking

11 Tips for Winter Camping and Backpacking

Winter can be one of the most beautiful times of the year to go camping or backpacking. For those less experienced with winter camping, the idea of braving the cold can be daunting, but with a little preparation and a few tricks winter camping can be an epic adventure. We've gathered 11 of our favorite tips and tricks that have helped us stay warm and happy on many winter camping and backpacking trips. 


1. Pre-Trip Safety

Use the buddy system with camping, hiking, or backpacking in the winter

We are big fans of solo backpacking and the chance it offers for solitude and reflection. However, for winter adventures it is best to bring a friend. The added element of cold means that the unexpected can become life threatening much more quickly than in summer months. You should also be sure to give a detailed itinerary to someone you trust, with an expected return time and instructions to send help if you are past due. Make sure to check the weather, avalanche reports, and avoid areas where avalanches could occur unless you have the proper equipment and training. 


2. GPS for Trail Finding

Use a GPS for finding the trail in when snowshoeing

A blanket of winter snow can make even a familiar trail look foreign. Be sure everyone in your group has a map and is familiar with backcountry navigation. We highly recommend bringing a GPS with extra batteries (lithium batteries work best at cold temperatures). If you loose the trail your GPS and map can help you get back on track. 

Warning:  Do not simply follow the tracks of another hiker. They may not lead to your destination. 


3. Warm Clothing and the Layer System

Be sure to pack enough layers and clothing to stay warm. Feeling cold can be miserable, not to mention the risk of hypothermia and frostbite, so pack more than you think you need. You should dress in 3 layers: a base, a mid, and outer. While hiking you can take off a layer as needed so you don't overheat and start to sweat. Then when you take a break or get to camp put back on a layer to stay warm as your body cools down. 


4. Keep Your Feet Warm

Invest in a pair of insulated winter boots and extra warm heavy weight merino wool socks. Make sure that your insulated boots are waterproof and fit a little looser than your summer hiking boots. You want to have room for thicker winter socks, or for doubling up a couple pairs of hiking socks for warmth. Lastly, bring extra pairs, just in case your feet get wet. 

 Pro-Tip:  If your boots have a removable liner or insole, remove them and sleep with them in your sleeping bag. If not, place your boots in a waterproof bag and sleep with the bag at the bottom of your sleeping bag. Stuffing your feet into frozen boots in the morning is miserable. 


5. Snowshoes, Cross Country Skis and Sleds

Use snowshoes for deep snow when backpacking or camping

No, not that kind of sled, but a sled that can carry your gear. One of the great things about backpacking in the snow is being able to carry less gear on your back. Combine a sled with a pair of cross country skies or snowshoes and you are ready to cover some serious ground in the snow.


6. Compact the Snow Under and Around Your Tent

Winter Camping Tent Setup

Before you set up camp, be sure the area is free of avalanche danger, then pack down an area of snow big enough for your tent and gear. If you are wearing snowshoes or skis it will be fastest to use them to stomp the snow until it is compact. This will make your camp easier to walk around, keep your gear dryer, and prevent uncomfortable depressions from forming under your tent. 

Pro Tip:  After compacting the snow, wait 20-30 minutes and the compact area will start to harden and freeze allowing you to walk around without creating sink holes.


7. Invest in the Appropriate Sleeping Bag and Pad

Bring a sleeping bag that is rated 10°F or more below the coldest temperatures you will encounter. Warmer is always better. You will also want to bring a good sleeping pad to insulate your body from the snow. Sleeping pads are rated with R-values from 1.0 - 8.0. The higher the R-value the better. Winter sleeping pads usually have an R-value higher than 4.0.  We pack an inexpensive closed cell foam pad and an inflatable sleeping pad, then double them up for maximum insulation and comfort. 

Pro Tip:  For extra warmth, invest in a sleeping bag liner. A good liner can add up to 15°F of warmth to your sleeping bag. 


8. Boil Water or Snow for Drinking

Melt and boil snow for drinking

Boiling water or snow is the best way to purify drinking water in the winter. Freezing temperatures will crack your mechanical backpacking filter, rendering it useless. The cold also slows chemical water treatments and reduces their effectiveness. Don't just melt the snow, be sure to boil it for at least 1 minute (if you are above 2,000 ft boil for at least 3 minutes) before drinking. 


9. Boost Calorie Intake with Butter

Add calories by adding butter to stay warm for winter camping

In the cold, your body will burn more calories to stay warm. One easy trick to add calories is to add a few tablespoons of butter to your warm meals. This works great with Oatmeal at breakfast or Dehydrated meals at dinner. 

Pro Tip:  For vegan adventurers substitute coconut oil. 


10. Bring a Candle Lantern

Carefully hanging a candle lantern from the ceiling of your tent will add warmth and reduce condensation. Be sure that the candle is far enough away from the ceiling to prevent the risk of fire. You can find specially designed tent lanterns at your favorite outdoor store. Just be sure to read and follow the safety precautions listed on the packaging! 


11. Use a Pee Bottle at Night (Trust Us It's Not Weird)

You're tucked snuggly into your warm sleeping bag, it's 3am and nature is calling, the last thing you want to do is gear up and leave the tent to pee. Pee Bottle to the Rescue! Just be sure it is clearly marked, and preferably a different style bottle from your water bottle. The only thing worse than having to brave the cold to pee, is accidentally drinking from your pee bottle!

Pro Tip: Using a pee bottle is a little more tricky for female campers, but there are a variety of specialty products available to address this. 


Stay Warm Out There

We hope these tips help keep you warm on your next adventure. Remember that winter camping and backpacking is serious business and prepare thoroughly, dress warmly, check the weather, and most of all have a great time!


Do you take hiking photos with your iPhone? Read 15 Tips for Better iPhone Photos. 

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Austin Campbell
Austin Campbell


Austin lives in the Pacific Northwest where he enjoys hiking and backpacking in the Olympic and Cascade mountains.

4 Responses

Gerilja Karlsen
Gerilja Karlsen

December 14, 2015

Some good, basic tips here. But why boil the water if you’re melting snow? As Frank Zappa said, don’t eat yellow snow. And if you melt clean white snow it should be good enough to just melt it. If you gonna boil a minimum of two liters a day ( you need at least so to stay hydrated, probably a lot more) you will need to bring a LOT of fuel.
I’ve got about ten years of excperince from Norwegian Army, doing SF and long range recce operations in cold weather, never bothered with boiling the water. In fact, we used to melt snow in a bottle that we kept under the jacket while skiing.


November 13, 2015

Seriously! Winter camping isn’t a major deviation from the rest of the seasons unless one isn’t taking their back country experience serious.

Deaun Hansen
Deaun Hansen

November 12, 2015

Great information.

Deaun Hansen
Deaun Hansen

November 12, 2015

Great information.

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