Warm Winter’s Night: A Guide to Winter Camping

December 8, 2014

Winter camping has long enticed me into the frosty backcountry. The landscape is beautiful, a world at rest beneath a glittering blanket of snow. Plus, two major hassles of summer—crowds and blood-sucking insects—are nowhere to be found.

But for me, the greatest reward of winter camping transcends these things. It’s the deep satisfaction of taking on the cold and the snow, of staying cozy and warm despite the icy temperatures, of successfully using my skills and gear to fully enjoy the winter experience.

Whether you’re an accomplished four-season adventurer or a first-time winter camper, this play-by-play of the recommended process and gear for establishing camp will help you get the warmest fun, deepest satisfaction, and coziest experience out of your overnight foray into winter.

1. Select Your Site
One of the delights of winter camping is a snowpack that covers rocks and roots—and greatly expands camping options as a result. To find a good site, first look for a location sheltered from winter winds and blowing snow. This is seldom difficult in the mostly forested landscape of the Northeast; surrounding trees usually offer ample protection. If you are in exposed terrain, take careful note of wind direction and select a sheltered site, such as in the lee of a rock formation or below a small rise in the terrain.

Deeper snow makes it easier to create and secure a good tent site, whereas a thin or nonexistent snowpack increases the challenge. (It’s impossible to sink a stake into frozen dirt, for example.) Don’t forget to look overhead—snow-loaded trees can drop a crushing pile, and dead branches and standing snags are more likely to fall under snow loads and strong winter winds.

Lastly, consider proximity to potential water sources. Even in the depths of winter, water is often still accessible from springs and streams, which can save you the significant time and fuel needed to melt snow. Be careful, however, to select a location with a safe access point; potentially dangerous ice and snow banks often overhang water and can send the unwary plunging into the frigid drink. (As always, follow Leave No Trace guidelines and establish your camp at least 200 feet from any water source.)

Tips and Tricks: Backcountry shelters provide an excellent winter camping option in the Northeast. They can be used as sleeping accommodations (though the open air will be colder than inside a four-season tent) or as a group cooking area and communal space.

2. Layer Up
Site selected, drop your pack and immediately put on an extra layer or two of warm clothing. When it comes to dressing for the cold, there are three general rules. First, it’s much easier to stay warm than to get warm. Always add a layer before you get chilled, particularly when you stop moving. Second, if it’s cold and you’re not exerting yourself, it’s almost impossible to overlayer—so bundle up while in camp. Third, if you are active, it’s easy to overheat and compromise your insulation with sweat. Drop layers the second you start to warm up—you need surprisingly little insulation when you’re working hard, even in deep cold.

Two winter garments are particularly useful and recommended. First, a warm puffy jacket—synthetic or down—large enough to fit over your shell jacket, which allows you to quickly add extra warmth without having to first shed a layer. Second, a pair of insulated pants with full side-zips, which makes it easy to layer up without having to force oversized winter footwear through the legs.

For your hands, opt for a two-part system: liner gloves that provide full dexterity and a pair of thicker gloves or mittens with a cuff, or gauntlet, that extends over your jacket sleeve and fully seals your wrists. With this two-layer system, you can perform all necessary tasks around camp without ever having to expose your bare digits to the cold. For your head and neck, a liner balaclava, neck gaiter, and toasty hat provide maximum warmth and flexibility.

Tips and Tricks: Multiple winter layers often create pocket overload, which can make locating your gloves, hat, headlamp, lip balm, knife, and other small items a challenge. Designate specific pockets for specific items—and always keep them there for quick retrieval.

3. Prepare the Tent Site
A variety of winter shelters exist—bivy sack, snow cave, quinzee, and more—but most winter campers opt for a fully enclosed four-season tent or, for the weight-conscious, a floorless design such as a pyramid tent.
To prepare your site, first pack down a smooth, level platform roughly twice the size of your tent. If you’ve got snowshoes or skis, put them on and start stomping. Use your snow shovel—an essential tool for winter camping—to fill in low areas as they occur. Try hard to get the snow as firm and smooth as possible—once your tent is up, it’s difficult to fix that dastardly lump that somehow ended up directly underneath you.

After flattening the snow, let it sit for a while before pitching your tent. Why? Snowflakes are delicate structures with lots of thin points radiating from a central node. Stomping breaks off the points and compacts the snowflakes together. The energy from this disturbance briefly melts the edges of the squashed flakes, which then freeze together to create a firm and cohesive snow mass. This process, known as sintering, is also what happens when you compress snow to make a snowball in your hands.

In most conditions, the snow will start bonding within minutes and fully sinter in well under an hour.

Tips and Tricks: Look for a snow shovel with a D-shaped (rather than T-shaped) handle, which makes it much easier to use when wearing mittens.

4. Fire up the Stove
While your tent platform sinters into shape, use the time to set up a cook station and get your stove going for hot drinks or to melt snow. Staying hydrated is one of the biggest challenges in winter camping; warm drinks provide an excellent and tasty way to keep dehydration at bay.

The most reliable winter stoves run on liquid fuel (typically white gas), which burns well even in bitterly cold temperatures. Canister stoves that run on a compressed blend of propane and butane work poorly in subfreezing temperatures and fail entirely once temps drop into the teens and below.

Expect to burn 5 to 8 ounces of liquid fuel per person per day, especially if you’re melting snow for water. Keep in mind that you’ll need to place the stove on something solid; using it directly on the snow quickly sends it melting into the abyss. Avoid cooking inside the tent or vestibule; the risks and worst-case scenarios—including asphyxiation, uncontrolled fire, and irreparable tent damage—are serious.

Tips and Tricks: If the snowpack is sufficiently deep, consider digging out a circular kitchen area—a particularly good option for groups. Dig a large ring around a central pile of snow, which you can shape into a table. Carve benches around the perimeter, and hollow out shelves and other storage spaces for easy access to your food and cooking gear.

5. Pitch Your Tent
Once your immaculately smooth platform has sintered into shape, it’s time to pitch the tent. A four-season tent differs from its three-season brethren in two important ways. First, all the mesh can be sealed up, both for warmth and to keep out blowing snow. Second, four-season designs feature stronger pole structures that better withstand snow loading and stiff winds. These features both come at the expense of weight—a two-person variety can easily tip the scales at 6 to 8 pounds or more.

A lightweight floorless design can easily save several pounds. Pyramid tents that feature a single central pole are rock-solid in heavy weather, shed snow easily, and offer plenty of room. The big drawback, of course, is that you’re sleeping directly on the snow; keep your sleeping bag dry with a lightweight bivy sack or other protection.

To secure your tent, you have two primary options: snow stakes and deadmen. Snow stakes are convenient and work well in packed snow, but are heavy. It’s often worthwhile to carry a small number for securing the tent body, but use deadmen—objects buried in the snow—for guylines and other anchor points. Just about any item can work—rock, branch, stuff sack filled with snow, etc.—but keep in mind that you will eventually need to dig them out; be careful when using objects easily damaged by a shovel blade.

Tips and Tricks: Dig a hole in front of the tent door inside the vestibule, which makes it easier to get in and out and take your boots on and off.

6. Set Up Your Sleep System
Once your tent is up, lay out your sleeping pad and unstuff your sleeping bag. This gives it time to regain the loft it lost while compressed. For winter camping in the Northeast, a sleeping bag rated between zero and minus-20 degrees provides ample warmth for all but the most Arctic conditions. A down-filled sleeping bag will be significantly lighter—and radically more compressible—than a synthetic-fill version, and will also last many more years without losing any of its warmth.

In terms of sleeping pads, you need more insulation than in summer to protect you from the ice and snow. Bringing two pads—an inflatable pad for comfort and a closed-cell foam pad for additional warmth—allows you to double them up at night, while giving you the flexibility to use the foam pad as a seat around camp.

The insulating power of a sleeping pad is indicated by its R-value. Look for a pad, or combination of pads, with a minimum R-value of 4.0 (ideal is 5.0 or more). R-values are roughly additive: two pads with R-values of 2.5 will together provide an R-value of approximately 5.0.

Tips and Tricks: When you lay out your sleeping bag, break open a chemical heat warmer and place it in the toe box to enjoy pre-warmed comfort when you hit the sack.

7. Chow Down
Your body needs a lot of fuel to keep the internal furnace going in the cold—it’s easy to burn more than 4,000 calories or more a day while winter camping. To supply that energy, you need to eat. A lot.

The basics of good winter food selection are mostly the same as in summer—high-calorie items that provide a mix of carbs, fat, and protein—with a few important differences. First, try to avoid snacks that turn into rock-hard bricks in the cold, such as energy bars and chocolate, and opt instead for items that don’t freeze solid, such as fig bars and nuts. Second, choose high-fat dinner items, which provide longer lasting heat and energy during the night. Lastly, make your dinners as easy to prepare as possible. You don’t want to futz around prepping ingredients in the cold. Pre-packaged, just-add-hot-water meals are a good option, or you can prep your own meals in advance in the comfort of your home.

Continue to drink as much water as possible—keep those hot drinks flowing throughout mealtime and take regular sips from your water bottle, which should be stored in an insulated container to prevent it from freezing.

Tips and Tricks: Avoid hovering over the steam from your cook pot; the moisture can rapidly penetrate your clothing and reduce its warmth. Down jackets are particularly vulnerable.

8. Sleep Tight, All Night
Upon entering your tent, adjust your clothing system for the night. If you haven’t yet changed out of your base layer, do so now—a completely dry layer will be considerably warmer than one moist with sweat. Cozy up your feet with a fresh pair of extra-toasty (and completely dry) socks. Having a designated set of sleepwear helps ensure that you always have dry clothes to slip into each night.

If your winter boots feature removable liners, take them out and place them inside the foot of your sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing. Containing them in a plastic bag keeps the moisture out of your sleeping bag while still ensuring they will be warm in the morning.

A few key items deserve special placement for ready access during the night. In addition to your headlamp, these include a high-energy snack (if you wake up cold, those heat-fueling calories can make a huge difference) and a pee bottle if you’d rather not get out of the tent at night (choose an option with a different shape than your water bottle!).

Tips and Tricks: Avoid breathing into your sleeping bag hood. The moisture from your breath can rapidly compromise the insulation.

9. Rise and Shine
As the new day dawns, emerge from your tent, rested and refreshed, inspired and invigorated, ready for the day’s adventure—and for the many winter camping experiences that await you in the months and years ahead. Happy camping!

*****

LEARN MORE

Several AMC chapters offer instructional workshops on winter hiking and camping. You can also:

Matt Heid is the author of AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd ed., and writes regularly about gear in his AMC Equipped blog at equipped.outdoors.org.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.