7 Tips for Cold-Weather Camping
Written by Ellen Jaworski, founder of Triple Peak Wellness
So, you're thinking about a winter camping adventure? Awesome!
Just because the temperature is getting colder, doesn’t mean you have to hit the pause button on your outdoor adventures.
In fact, there are several prime advantages to camping in the winter months versus the summer:
- Fewer people: Since the vast majority of campers stay indoors during the winter months, that means you won’t have to fight for a campsite, especially at the more popular destinations like our National Parks. Plus you’ll get to enjoy the scenery without a hundred other people there.
- Unique scenery: Have you ever seen a mesa dusted with snow? It’s magical. Whether you’re in the mountains or the desert, winter changes the landscape and offers an opportunity to experience nature in a way that most people miss.
- A new way to challenge yourself: It’s true, winter camping is more challenging than fair-weather camping, but it’s a great way to build new skills and learn something new about yourself! Trust me, you’ll feel super hardcore after a successful cold-weather camping trip!
Despite these incredible benefits, winter camping can be intimidating.
It’s hard to know exactly what gear you’ll need and how to stay feeling your best… and the stakes are high because if you overlook something, the result is a cold, miserable camping trip.
When done right, however, camping in a winter wonderland is a truly unforgettable experience.
To help set you up for a successful cold-weather camping trip, I’ve taken my own experiences as a backpacker and search and rescue volunteer and boiled them down into these seven pro tips so you can lay the foundation for the best winter camping trip ever!
1. Dress in Warm Winter Layers
Dressing in layers is the cornerstone of a successful winter trip, whether camping, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, or participating in any other winter sports.
Layering is essential because it allows you to remove or add pieces of clothing to modulate your temperature and dress appropriately for the elements.
Each layer of clothing serves a different purpose:
- The base layer or long underwear layer wicks away moisture
- The mid-layer or insulation layer retains body heat for added warmth
- And the outer layer or shell protects you from snow, rain, and wind to keep you dry and warm
In addition to these layers of clothing, you’ll also want to be sure to pack a wool or synthetic hat, insulated gloves, and wool socks.
Fabric type plays a crucial role in keeping you cozy and warm, especially when you’re outside all day long.
Never pack layers made from cotton because when cotton gets wet (from sweat, rain, condensation, melted snow, etc) it gets cold and it takes a long time to dry. Spending a day or two in cold, damp cotton clothing is a recipe for a cold, miserable winter camping trip!
Instead, choose layers that are made from wool, synthetic, or polyester material. These fabrics are the best choice because they dry quickly and/or stay warm when wet.
When camping in the winter, it’s also crucial to pack a second set of base, mid-layers, and wool socks. If you’re hiking all day to reach your campsite or just playing around in the woods, you will likely sweat. Though wool is fantastic at keeping you warm when wet, your body oils can compromise the insulating integrity of your clothing. Before hopping into your sleeping bag for the night, always change into a dry set of clothes to you stay warm all night long!
2. Pick the Right Sleeping Bag for the Conditions
There are many different types of sleeping bags so when camping in cold weather, make sure you have the right one! The right sleeping bag is the difference between a sleepless night spent shivering or a comfortable night of restful sleep.
Each sleeping bag has a temperature rating that tells you what season it’s best suited for, so be sure to check your existing sleeping bag or purchase one that meets your needs:
- Summer sleeping bag: 30* or higher rating
- 3-season sleeping bag: 15-30* rating
- Winter sleeping bag: 15* or lower rating
A good rule of thumb to ensure comfort is to use a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10* lower than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter on your adventure.
There are certainly more considerations to make when choosing the best sleeping bag for you, but for cold weather camping, temperature rating is most important.
Pro tip: It’s also critical to keep your sleeping bag dry during your camping trip so make sure to pack it in a waterproof stuff sack or wrap it in multiple trash bags.
3. Select a Winter-Worthy Tent
Like sleeping bags, some tents are more suited for winter than others. Since your tent is your primary shelter, your winter camping trip will be much more enjoyable if you’re prepared with the right one!
For most winter camping, a standard 3-season tent will work just fine. But, if you’re going to be exposed to high winds or heavy snowfall, you may want a 4-season tent instead.
4-season tents are made with heavier fabric and have strong poles, which will keep your tent standing in the worst of the winter elements. These tents are also specifically designed to keep gusting snow out of your shelter so you stay dry and warm.
Pro-tip: Pack a tent that has extra room. If you’re camping solo, bring a 2-person tent, or, if you’re in a party of two, bring a 3- or 4-person tent. This will give you enough room to store your gear so you don’t have to dig it out of a snowdrift the next morning!
4. Eat Hot Breakfasts and Dinners
One of the biggest risks of winter camping is hypothermia. That’s when your body loses heat faster than it can be produced, causing your body temperature to drop to dangerously low levels. If untreated, hypothermia is fatal… and that would put a real damper on your winter camping trip.
One easy way to maintain a healthy body temperature (or raise your body temperature if you’re too cold), is to bookend your day with hot meals by eating a hot breakfast and dinner.
Pack a lightweight, freeze-dried backpacking meal like Wild Zora’s Paleo Meals to Go, and when you’re ready to eat, simply boil water, add it to the backpacking meal, and in 5-10 minutes, your delicious, healthy hot dinner will be ready!
Not only will a hot meal warm you up from the inside out, but digestion actually generates heat in your body. Have you ever heard of metabolism referred to as fire? Yep, that’s one reason why!
5. Maintain Your Energy with Quality Snacks and Meals
When it’s cold out, your body has to expend a lot of energy to maintain its body temperature, so eating high-quality hot meals and other snacks throughout the day is also essential for maintaining strong and steady energy levels.
I want to draw attention to a keyword in that last paragraph: “high-quality.” Most of the backpacking food brands on the shelves contain a plethora of artificial ingredients, preservatives, and chemicals.
In fact, it’s a backpacker rule of thumb that “one should never have more than one Mountain House meal in a 24-hour period”... or risk digestive distress. And let me tell you, you don’t want to have “disaster pants” out in the woods.
That’s why I love Wild Zora’s Paleo Meals to Go, Real Food Soups, Real Fruit Snacks, and Original Meat and Veggie Bars.
Each of their products is free of artificial ingredients and preservatives, and instead, made with grass-fed or pasture-raised animals protein, and organic fruits, vegetables, and spices.
All of their products are lightweight and durable, and they keep my energy levels high and my body feeling good every single time I camp, hike, backpack, road trip, or travel!
Here’s what a sample day of high-quality winter camping food:
Breakfast: (Hot) Wild Zora Paleo Meals to Go - Cliffside Coconut Berry
Morning Snack: Wild Zora Original Meat & Veggie Bar + Wild Zora Real Fruit Snack
Lunch: (Cold) 3 Wild Zora Original Meat & Veggie Bars + trail mix OR (Optional Hot) Wild Zora Paleo Meals To Go - Caldera Chicken Curry
Afternoon Snack: Wild Zora Original Meat & Veggie Bar + Wild Zora Real Fruit Snack
Dinner: (Hot) Wild Zora Paleo Meals To Go - Mountain Beef Stew
Pre-bed Snack: Wild Zora Real Soup, Real Quick - Tuscan Chicken with Tomato, Spinach, & Sweet Potato
With a winning winter camping meal plan like this, you’ll stay feeling your best so you can focus on soaking up every second of the gorgeous winter wonderland you’re surrounded by!
6. Keep Your Electronics Warm
This isn’t just about keeping your phone battery full so you can snap all those Instagram-worthy pics (but as a wellness travel Instagrammer, I’m not going to lie, that’s definitely important)!
Though most lithium batteries do well in freezing temperatures, alkaline batteries (standard AA and AAA batteries) will drain quickly, which could put you in a precarious situation.
To extend the life of your batteries, make sure that critical electronics like your GPS, phone, and headlamp, and your extra batteries are kept warm.
Store them in your jacket pockets or put them in the center of your backpack, surrounded by insulating materials like your sleeping bag and layers of clothing.
Pro tip: Pack more batteries than you think you need. I also recommend bringing a portable charger if your phone is your primary camera!
7. Wear 50 SPF Sunscreen
This is one I’ve had to learn the hard way... with many, many winter sunburns.
“It’s cold out, so I won’t burn, right?!” WRONG.
Even on cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays pass through the clouds to hit your skin. And snow doesn’t help the situation.
Snow cover provides a big white reflective surface, which can reflect 80% of those UV rays, and lead to too much sun exposure... followed by a really uncomfortable sunburn.
Though 30 SPF sunscreen might seem adequate, don’t take the risk! Choose the 50 SPF.
This will protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays, prevent sunburn, and keep you feeling your best in the winter weather.
Happy Winter Camping!
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: staying warm and dry are the keys to a successful winter camping trip.
Warm layers, a good sleeping bag, a winter-worthy tent, and hot meals are what will keep you warm, dry, and energized when the temperature plunges and the snow or rain is falling.
When your basic needs are met, that will allow you to focus your energy on being present and immersing yourself in all the beauty, solitude, and magic of the winter wonderland that surrounds you!
Have a great trip!
Ellen Jaworski is a Seattle-based holistic health coach, speaker, and the founder of Triple Peak Wellness, and she helps busy, professional women lose weight and relax without adding another to-do to their list. With an individualized approach rooted in nutrient-dense, real foods and self care, she empowers her clients to replace their bad habits with new, healthy habits, so that feeling energized and radiant, both inside and out, becomes an effortless lifestyle!
Ellen is also a passionate traveler and loves sharing her unique approach to staying healthy while backpacking through National Parks, road tripping around the US, or jet setting internationally.
To get Ellen's free guide, 10 Healthier Meals at Fast Food Chains, go to www.triplepeakwellness.com