Heading out to winter camp but worried about staying warm? Join the club. Winter camping has increased in popularity in the last 20 years, and more people than ever are exploring the fourth season. There is a stillness, a quiet, that is utterly unique to the winter woods. There are fewer people, and bugs.
Your snowshoes fall like a whisper in the powder. And your body, your breathing, are all brought into focus. Camping will take your winter experience to a whole new place. But how best to keep the chills away through the night?
Managing your body’s heat and moisture is critical to maintaining comfort (and safety) in the winter, and this begins even before you step onto the trail. Ensure you’re physically fit for the demands of winter hiking. You are carrying extra gear, and likely pushing through the snow, so you will be working harder than in the other three seasons.
Once you’re on the trail, they key is to stay as dry as possible. Try to maintain a minimum level of comfort while you are moving, in order to minimize perspiration. You may be wearing more layers to protect against wind or precipitation, so as your body warms-up, that heat can get trapped.
If you do have to wear a shell while you’re on the go, be sure to ventilate as much as possible to expel that moisture. And if you do sweat-out some layers, just be sure you have others on-hand for sleeping comfortably.
Now you’ve made it to your campsite, dry and reasonably warm, how best to maintain that warmth you’ve built-up? You will see that by being aware of your energy level, physiology, food consumption, hydration, and a few winter hacks, you can make it through the night safe and warm. So, as you make camp in the snow this season, try these…
18 ways to stay warm camping in cold weather:
1. Choose a Sheltered Tent Site
Wind will remove heat fast from you and your companions. Choose a site that has natural wind protection, like evergreens, boulders, or ledges. If the snow is deep enough, stamp out a depression or pile up snow to block the wind. This is your first line of defense against the winter cold.
2. Stay Hydrated
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dehydration will reduce your body’s circulation efficiency and leave you feeling cold, and causing your body to use up valuable energy trying to stay warm. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to keep the blood flowing. Water is always best, and mixing in some electrolytes can help.
3. Calorie-Rich Foods
Eat plenty of calories at meal time, and don’t skip dessert. Some healthy fats and sugars will get your metabolism going, and help your body warm-up. Be sure you have plenty of hearty food planned for meals, as well as snacks for on the go. Try peanuts, chocolate, coconut oil, or ginger.
Fresh ginger is best, but I often add candied ginger to our trail mix, too. That added sugar is a nice boost. Pop-tarts are a favorite with Everest climbers, so reward your hard winter work with a couple of the frosted variety. Of course, energy bars always work, too. Just make sure they are packed with the ingredients that your body will crave to stay warm.
Related: What can you Put in a Trail Mix?
4. Add a Layer When You Stop
You’ve just walked several miles through fresh snow, don’t lose all that valuable heat. While you may be hot and exhausted, adding a layer immediately when you stop will save that heat, and you’ll have to work less to get that warmth back later.
This can be as simple as throwing an insulated parka over your shoulders as you prep camp. It’s also a good idea to do this when you take any break on the trail longer than a minute or two. Cold and hypothermia can, and do, set in quickly.
5. Use a Smaller Tent
Much like your sleeping bag – a smaller space means less air you have to heat up. Keep the tent minimal in size, and fill it up with people and gear. If you’re traveling in a group, consider sharing tents to reduce gear and benefit from each other’s warmth at night.
6. Use Layers to Sleep
Make sure you have plenty of clothing layers with you, and use them strategically. If you’re cold in your sleeping bag, try adding a thin layer to your core or extremities. Sometimes even a pair of socks will do the trick. Our body prioritizes heat for our core, so the hands and feet and often the first to get chilly.
A sleeping bag liner can be useful too, adding valuable degrees to your bag’s temperature rating. Leave it inside your sleeping bag when you head-out, and it won’t take up valuable extra space.
Sea to Summit makes a thin & light liner that can add up to 15 degrees: ems.com
7. Hot Water Bottles in the Bag
Classic technique. Fill your water bottle with boiling water and toss it in your bag before you climb in. If you’re lucky enough to have a campfire, hot rocks work the same way and are good for drying out wet boots, too.
8. Sleeping Pad
Use a high-quality sleeping pad with sufficient thickness to keep you off the cold ground. You lose a lot of heat through conduction, so make sure the pad is fully inflated and that none of your body is pressing through to the ground. If one sleeping pad is not enough- try using two. Some sleeping pads have extra layers or metallic films to reflect heat, making them more suitable for winter camping.
The Nemo Tensor Alpine Air Pad is popular among cold-weather campers: rei.com
9. Sleeping Bag – Insulation and Shape
Make sure your bag has the right insulation rating for your weather, and that it still has its loft. Older bags will often lose their loft, severely reducing their insulating ability. Also, make sure the bag is properly sized for your body. A narrower, mummy shape means there is less space you have to keep warm. Just remember, you’ll likely share the bag with your water bottles, electronics, boot liners, and the next day’s clothes!
Also read: Does A Bivy Sack Add Warmth?
10. Snuggle Up
No, not that kind of snuggle, sorry folks. But, do share your tent with someone and sleep close together for warmth. Even Ed Viesturs wrote about spooning with his mates on Everest. There’s no shame in it. And even if you aren’t spooning, just sleeping next to each other can help share valuable body warmth.
11. Use a Space Blanket
They’re thin, weigh almost nothing, and will help you radiate valuable heat back towards your body. Try placing it beneath your sleeping pad to add to its effectiveness. Just don’t wrap yourself inside it, or you will risk overheating and building-up dangerous perspiration.
12. Stay Ventilated
Wrapping yourself up in a thick sleeping bag and a tent full of friends is great, just don’t zip your face all the way in the bag. You exhale a lot of moisture when you breathe, so leave a breathing space to stay ventilated. Chances are you’ll find that moisture frozen on the inside of your tent in the morning, which is far better than having it trapped inside your bag.
13. Stay Dry
Seems obvious, but change into a dry set of clothes before you head to sleep. Moisture build-up will reduce insulation effectiveness as well as make you cold, and in some cases, it can be downright dangerous. If you have a campfire, try to dry-out those layers for the next day.
14. Wear a Hat to Sleep
There’s a reason people in past centuries wore caps to bed. You lose a lot of heat through the top of your head, so try wearing a hat to sleep to retain that warmth.
15. Keep Your Circulation Going
While sleeping, avoid any clothing or gear that restricts your body’s natural circulation. Blood flow is key to getting both oxygen and warm blood to your extremities, and any restriction can leave you feeling cold.
16. Hand & Toe Warmers
They’re small, lightweight, and make nice little heaters when you need them. You can stuff them in your bag like the hot water bottles, and they’ll help keep it cozy for you.
17. Sleep with Your Clothes
Put the next day’s clothes in your sleeping bag with you at night. You’ll thank yourself the next morning when you get dressed, and you’ll preserve the valuable internal heat you retained through the night.
18. Don’t Go?
This is always an option, and certainly increases your chances of staying warm, but if you’re curious what it’s like to camp in the snow then why not give winter camping a try. Tucking yourself into that insulated cocoon as the temps drop around you, seeing your breath crystallize in the air, then waking to a bright snow-covered mountainside? It’s exhilarating.
And by paying attention to your body, your diet, bringing the right gear, and following a few simple tips, you can be both safe and comfortable while winter camping.
For further reading, check-out these titles on winter hiking and camping:
- AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping, Lucas St. Clair & Yemaya Maurer, AMC Books, 2008.
- NOLS Winter Camping, Buck Tilton & John Gookin, NOLS, 2005.
Happy winter trails!
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Bryce is a freelance writer and preservation consultant who lives in Southern Maine with his wife and their two awesome kids. Previously from Upstate NY, he climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks before discovering the mountains of New England. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Bryce can be found writing, teaching, photographing old buildings, or getting crushed by his daughters in Monopoly.