When I think of winter, I picture frosted peaks, frozen lakes, naked trees, and a wonderland of snow-covered terrain. Although I love the heat, I believe winter is one of the most beautiful seasons of the year, when nature puts on its finest white cloak and the contrasting colors of the environment seem to pop.
There’s nothing quite like waking up to the glitter of sunlight across fresh snowflakes, watching alpenglow radiating pink across a pure white backdrop, hearing the sound of snow crunching beneath your feet as you break trail, or breathing air so fresh it takes your breath away.
But there’s a reason why people start packing away their camping gear in the fall. Winter is cold; let’s face it, the thought of being outside in frigid temperatures isn’t the most inviting.
Having grown up in Australia where I thrived in the heat, moving to Canada was a challenge, and I figured the cold would drastically shorten my window for outdoor activity. But after being introduced to the wonders of winter, I not only learned that four-season camping is possible but that exploring the backcountry during the coldest season of the year can be the most exhilarating and rewarding.
The biggest lesson I learned was how to keep warm during winter camping. Gear and clothing choices are essential, but there are other tips and tricks you can learn to optimize your gear and ensure you’re comfortable in the backcountry when it drops below freezing.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the items you’ll want to consider when planning your next winter camping adventure, including:
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Other tips & tricks
This guide will teach you how to experience the wonders of winter camping without being a fully kitted-out, world-class mountaineer, and we’ll explore how to get the most enjoyment out of your experience.
Winter camping doesn’t always require a four-season storm-proof tent and a -40°F sleeping bag. It’s important to gauge the overnight temperatures and plan accordingly. You will also want to determine whether you’ll be sleeping directly on snow.
If you’re not up for digging yourself a snow cave, you will require a shelter. While I have slept in lightweight 2-3-season shelters on top of snow in the past, you’ll want to ensure that the roof and walls of your tent are sturdy enough to hold snow if you get dumped on in the night. Snow is heavy, and the last thing you want is your tent collapsing on you.
You also want to make sure you have decent wind protection. Most 1-2 season tent interiors will be made predominantly from mesh. While your rain fly will block out the wind, when you’re winter camping it’s helpful when the doors of your tent have a nylon lining at least halfway up to block the wind. Some doors also have the versatility of a double-walled system where you can zip open the nylon layer depending on your required ventilation.
Using a ground sheet will add an additional layer between you and the snow and keep the floor of your tent dry. It won’t add additional insulation, but keeping dry during winter camping is your number one goal.
Ventilation is also essential to consider. It’s tempting to close up your tent entirely to prevent wind and cold air from entering. But allowing hot air to escape is crucial! If not it will create condensation in your tent, where moisture and water droplets coat the inside of your tent walls. These droplets can drip on you in the night or freeze, forming a frosty inner layer on your tent. It’s also easy to get gear like your sleeping bag wet if it’s rubbing up against the walls. Wet gear will not only make you colder but makes packing up a whole lot more difficult.
While a four-season tent is ideal if you’re planning an expedition to Antarctica or sleeping at high elevations on glaciers, a three-season tent will generally suffice for more basic winter camping.
Some of the best 3-season tents you can use for winter camping include:
Most people think your sleeping bag is the critical piece of gear that will keep you warm while camping. But your sleeping pad is a vital piece of equipment because it creates an insulated barrier between you and the freezing ground.
When you’re lying down, your sleeping bag is compressed beneath your body, reducing its ability to provide insulation. A sleeping pad will not only supply cushioning between you and the hard ground, but it also provides the necessary insulation to keep you warm.
Sleeping pads come in a variety of lengths, widths, and thicknesses. But the most important factor you want to look out for when winter camping is its R-value. R-value relates to a measurement of thermal resistance (R), which is essentially how good the sleeping pad is at preventing heat transfer. The higher the R-value, the higher its thermal resistance, which keeps heat escaping from your body into the ground. A lower R-value means you will lose heat through the sleeping pad and feel the cold temperatures of the ground through the pad.
Here is a basic guide to R-values:
1 – 2: Summer camping
2 – 4: 3-Season camping
4 – 6: 4-Season camping
7 – +: Extreme cold temperatures
Though there are variations on R-value scales, I believe pads with an R-value of four and above are suitable for winter camping unless you’re traveling in freezing temperatures for multiple days. You can also increase insulation by using a foam mat like a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Camping and Backpacking Sleeping Pad beneath your inflatable pad. You can also use the Z Lite to sit on when you’re cooking food and taking breaks, and it helps to stop your pack from toppling over when you have it strapped to the outside.
Some of the best sleeping pads for winter camping include:
Even though your sleeping bag won’t provide much insulation between you and the ground, it will keep the hot air you generate trapped inside.
There are two main types of sleeping bags on the market: down and synthetic.
Down sleeping bags are a lot lighter, have a higher weight-to-warmth ratio, and pack down much smaller than a synthetic bag. Down doesn’t retain its warmth when wet because the feathers clump into balls and lose their insulation. Down also requires more effort to clean because you need to use a specific down wash like Grangers Down Wash that is gentle on the feathers, and you may need to throw it in the dryer for multiple cycles until the down puffs up back to its original loftiness.
Despite these downsides, I highly recommend a down sleeping bag for winter camping. A synthetic bag with the same temperature rating would likely take up twice the space in your pack and weigh much more than a down bag. In winter, you’re carrying more gear, clothes, and food, so saving space and weight with your sleeping bag is important.
Synthetic sleeping bags are generally made from polyester and keep you slightly more insulated from the ground because polyester doesn’t compress as much as down. For this reason, however, a synthetic sleeping bag is much bulkier and heavier than a down bag. The most significant benefit of a synthetic bag is it will maintain some insulation and warmth if it gets wet compared to down. Synthetic materials like polyester are also easier to clean than down and don’t require a special detergent.
Sleeping bags come with a temperature rating, which tells you the lowest temperature the bag will keep an average sleeper warm. I am a cold sleeper, so I will generally opt for a bag with a lower temperature rating than the conditions I’ll be camping in. If you only want one sleeping bag, I recommend purchasing a bag with a 20°F rating, which will keep most sleepers warm if the temperature dips below 30°F. If you’re winter camping, you can buy a silk or fleece liner or take a second quilt or sleeping bag to add warmth.
Some of the best 3-season sleepings bags for winter camping include:
Nemo Disco Insulated 15/30 Down
Sierra Designs Cloud 20 Degree
You can also read our Guide to the Best Sleeping Bag for information on the different types of bags, how to care for your bag, storage, and more.
Stoves are a vital piece of gear for winter camping because the best way to warm up is by having a hot drink or meal. You can also use stoves to melt snow for drinking water, which can be necessary if you’re far from a water source or the water is frozen.
You can read our Guide to Backpacking Stoves for information on the types of stoves available, fuel types, and which stoves work better at higher elevations and in cold temperatures.
Generally, white gas stoves work better for winter camping because you can regulate the pressure of the gas. But you can also improve the pressure of canisters by warming them up in your sleeping bag or on your body prior to use.
Some of the best stoves for winter camping include:
MSR Whisperlite Universal Stove
MSR XGK EX Stove
BRS Huaye Outdoor Kerosene Stove
MSR Dragonfly Compact Liquid Fuel Camping and Backpacking Stove
Temperature regulation is an essential skill for the backcountry, even more so when traveling and camping in sub-freezing temperatures. The two biggest lessons I learned about regulating my temperature are to never cool down too much and avoid sweating.
Finding a balance between being too hot and too cold can be difficult, especially when traveling across various terrain. This is why dressing in layers is important because you’ll be generating heat when going uphill and exerting yourself, compared to descending or standing still.
It can be very tempting to strip down to minimal layers when you reach the top of a climb, and your core temperature is at its highest. The problem with this is it’s easy to cool off too quickly, especially if you’ve been sweating. Once your core temperature drops, it is tough to warm up again, and if you’ve just reached the summit, you will descend soon after you’ve cooled down.
It’s better to be a little colder when you’re climbing to avoid sweating and add on layers when you stop moving. If it’s raining, you want to ensure you stay dry while having as much ventilation as possible. That’s why pit zips are invaluable in less-breathable jackets you choose to travel in.
Layers that can easily be taken on and off are the best. Choose items with a front zipper, so you don’t have to take a layer on and off over your head. The easier it is to layer and de-layer, the more likely you will regulate your temperature correctly.
Typically layers include:
- Base layer
- Lightweight hoodie
- Puffy jacket
- Rain jacket
Your base layer should be made from a moisture-wicking material like:
- Merino wool
Avoid wearing a cotton base layer as they hold onto moisture and take a long time to dry. You can look at our reviews for some of our favorite base layer bottoms to get you started.
Vests are a great versatile option that helps to keep your core warm without making you sweat.
The best materials for vests are:
A lightweight hoodie, with a front zip, that sits between your base layer and puffy jacket is a great layering option. This layer adds warmth and protects your puffy jacket from sweat, which is especially important if your puffy is insulated with down.
The best materials for lightweight hoodies are:
- Merino wool
I generally avoid vigorous activity in my puffy jacket as I like to save this layer for when I’m stationary at camp. There are generally two types of puffy jackets: synthetic or down (similar to sleeping bags mentioned above).
Synthetic jackets made from polyester are a great option if there’s a chance the jacket might get wet or sweaty. Synthetic jackets will maintain their heat better than down jackets when damp and will generally dry faster.
Down jackets are much lighter than synthetic jackets and pack down a lot smaller. They have a better warmth-to-weight ratio and will often outlast a synthetic jacket, provided you care for the down. If they get wet, however, the down will clump into balls and will not provide you with any insulation. Down jackets also require more attention when washing and drying.
Windbreakers are a handy piece of gear as they can be paper thin, lightweight, and pack down to almost nothing. Despite their minimal size, they can add a tremendous amount of warmth by simply cutting out the wind chill.
Windbreakers are often made from:
- Ripstop polyester
- Stretch nylon
- Poly cotton
Be aware that your windbreaker will trap in heat like your rain jacket and make you sweat if you don’t have enough ventilation.
Rain jackets are often your most expensive layer, along with your puffy jacket. It’s worthwhile to invest in a good rain jacket that is made from a high-quality waterproof membrane and is DWR (Durable Water Repellent) treated, so it won’t saturate when wet. You also want to make sure it is seam-sealed, breathable, and has pit zips so you can regulate your temperature. Here are some of our favorite waterproof jackets.
Rain jackets can be made from:
- Polyurethane laminate
Essential accessories to pack when you’re winter camping include:
- Winter hat or Beanie
- Bed socks
Winter hat or Beanie
The majority of your body heat escapes through your head, so it’s essential to pack a beanie to prevent that well-earned heat from escaping. The best beanies are often made from merino wool, fleece, or even down. You also want to choose a beanie that has good coverage over your ears.
Balaclavas are a fantastic accessory that prevent heat from escaping through your head and keep your face and neck warm. Balaclavas are also useful for sleeping in because they won’t fall off at night like beanies. Balaclavas come in various fabrics, including nylon, polyester, merino wool, spandex, bamboo, and fleece. I prefer a looser-fitting balaclava that doesn’t fit too tightly over my nose and mouth because the warmth of my breath condenses on the balaclava making the material sitting over my nose and mouth wet.
Gloves are essential in helping you maintain dexterity in your fingers when it’s cold. Your extremities (fingers and toes), are the furthest from your heart and the quickest to get cold. In the winter, I prefer to wear a waterproof or water-resistant glove that won’t soak through when I pack down my wet tent in the morning and push branches aside that are covered in snow.
You can choose between regular gloves, mittens, and lobster claw-style gloves, which are a mixture of both. Mittens work well because your fingers warm up faster when touching, but regular five-finger gloves will provide more dexterity. Here are our favorite winter gloves and mittens.
I love packing an extra pair of socks for sleeping in. Your bed socks should be kept clean and dry while hiking and only be used when getting into your sleeping bag. Bed socks should be looser fitting than your standard hiking sock, as they will allow for greater airflow and circulation and keep your feet warmer. Loose-fitting fleece bed socks or thermal insulated socks like DG Hill are my favorite.
You can also check out our Best Heated Socks to keep your feet even more toasty.
Booties are a step up from bed socks. Booties usually have a thin rubber sole that can be worn in winter huts or directly on the snow. Booties are either made with synthetic insulation or down. My favorite booties include the Outdoor Research Tundra or the North Face Thermoball Traction Bootie.
Your body burns more calories in the winter, trying to keep you warm, which is why it’s essential to pack more food on a winter camping trip than in the summer. Calorie-dense foods like cheese, protein bars, nuts, and chocolate are the best. If you’re planning on packing dehydrated meals, check the calorie count on the packet. Traveling with a backpacking stove will allow you to cook hot meals, warming up your body in the morning and before bed.
Eating carb-rich foods like oatmeal, baked beans, pancakes, and potatoes in the morning will keep you fueled throughout the day. You can also boil or fry up eggs, and pre-boil additional eggs and potatoes for you to eat throughout the day.
For dinner, you’ll want to eat food with a higher fat content to keep you warm throughout the cold nights. Adding butter and oil to your meals will increase the fat content, as well as cheese and sour cream. Deserts are also a great idea for winter camping like rice pudding, pumpkin pie, peach cobbler, and apple tarts. Winter camping is a guilt-free time for eating your favorite treats!
Eating food helps to keep your body warm. Thermogenesis refers to the process of your body producing heat when you’re metabolizing food, and the longer your food takes to digest, the warmer your body will feel. I always sleep with a snack beneath my pillow in the winter for this reason in case I wake up cold at night.
Other tips & tricks
In addition to packing the correct gear, clothing, and food for your winter camping trip, there are several other tips and tricks that can help you to stay warm and comfortable when you’re camping in the cold.
- Fill a Nalgene bottle with boiling water before bed to use as a hot water bottle, and keep it close to your core.
- Do star jumps before you get into your tent or sit-ups when you’re lying down to raise your body temperature before getting into your sleeping bag.
- Have a warm drink like tea or hot apple cider when you take breaks.
- Sleep in fewer layers. This may seem counterintuitive, but your body generates heat, which heats the air in your sleeping bag. Wearing too many layers or layers that are too tight constricts your blood flow and will prevent your body from warming your sleeping bag.
- Sleeping in the same tent as someone will keep you warm, but sleeping in the same sleeping bag skin-to-skin will keep you the warmest.
- Don’t camp directly on top of snow unless you have to. Look for bare areas under trees, or if the snow is shallow enough, you can create a clear patch of ground before setting up your tent.
- Always aim to position your tent out of the wind.
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Frequently asked questions
There are a number of ways you can keep warm when winter camping. The essential items to consider are your gear, clothing, and food. Regulating your temperature is important as well as keeping your gear and clothing dry.
The most important gear to consider when winter camping is your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. You will want to choose a tent that is sturdy enough to hold snow, a sleeping pad with a high R-value, and a sleeping bag with a minimum of a 20°F rating.
Although counterintuitive, you want to keep your tent well ventilated to prevent condensation from forming on the walls. You can do sit ups in your sleeping bag before going to sleep and ensure you have a snack under your pillow if you wake up cold in the night. Check out our other tips & tricks for keeping warm while winter camping.
If you’re planning to camp on snow it’s important to ensure you have a well-insulated sleeping pad, a ground sheet beneath your tent to keep the floor dry, and a 3-4 season sleeping bag.
It’s possible to winter camp in a 3-season tent if you have a high-quality sleeping pad and sleeping bag. You also want to ensure your tent is strong enough to hold snow if you get dumped on in the night.
The R-value of a sleeping pad refers to its thermal resistance. A high R-value with better thermal resistance will prevent hot air escaping from your body through the pad and cold air from traveling up through your pad.
Determining how cold is too cold for winter camping depends on your gear. If you’re traveling with a one-season tent, a sleeping bag with a low R-value, and a summer-rated sleeping bag, too cold could be 40°F. If you are equipped with a four-season tent, a sleeping pad with good insulation and a high R-value, and have warm clothing and a sleeping bag rated to 20°F and lower, you can safely camp in freezing temperatures.
While it’s warmer to sleep in a car than a tent because you’re more shielded from the elements and aren’t sleeping directly on the ground, cars can get extremely cold in the winter and require you to travel with similar gear like an insulated sleeping pad, 3-4 season sleeping bag, and warm clothes. When driving long distances in the winter you should always pack a winter-rated sleeping bag along with your other emergency gear.