How to Stay Warm While Winter Camping - 32 Tips and Tricks
When it comes to winter camping, staying warm is not just a matter of comfort—it's a matter of safety. The chilling winds and frosty landscapes can be breathtaking and offer a unique serenity, but they also demand preparation and smart strategies to maintain warmth. In this guide, we'll share some tried-and-true tips on how to keep warm, even in the heart of winter's icy grip. So, whether you're a seasoned camper or a complete beginner, get ready to embrace the winter wonderland with confidence and comfort!
My winter camping experience
It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I'm a wimp when it comes to winter camping. Actually, make that any winter weather. I'm a born and raised southerner so I can handle the hottest of heat and most humid of conditions, but when it comes to cold weather, I'm pretty much useless. When we moved to Seattle, Washington when we first got married we quickly saw a whole new way to enjoy winter weather. Rather than just hunkering down inside for months like we would do in the south, everyone in the PNW would get out and about in rain, snow, or sun. We learned, and experienced, that with the right gear winter could be more than bearable, it can be enjoyable!
While much of our winter camping is done in a truck camper or a van these days, we've certainly done our fair share of winter tent camping. Both have their own advantages and offer similar but different experiences. This blog post information is applicable to both types of winter camping, although some of the points will obviously not apply to any type of RV/van/truck camping since those types of camping generally come with more amenities.
Buy vs. renting gear for winter camping
While so much of winter camping is in choosing the right gear, that doesn't mean you should rush out and spend all your money on brand new outdoors gear. Thankfully, winter rentals are often readily available for much of the gear you'll need. Big chain stores like REI offer a wide range of options- from snowshoes to crampons, tents to stoves, there's an option out there for whatever it is you're looking for.
We've also been fortunate enough to have outdoorsy friends who were generous enough to loan us a bit of gear for a few different adventures so we could try out different items and find out if we even enjoy winter camping. If you, too, have friends who enjoy winter camping, ask if they'd have any gear you could give a try and always be sure to ask them to show you how to properly use and care for their gear so that you return it in as good of condition as you first borrowed it.
Gear is expensive and we'd always recommend investing in quality gear, but that can be really expensive. We never recommend buying everything all at one time, but rather we'd recommend adding to your kit bit by bit to go easy on your wallet ensure that you're putting in the time to find the right gear that you'll truly love for many years.
Layering is a fundamental aspect of keeping warm while winter camping. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer to keep your skin dry; synthetic materials or merino wool are excellent choices. Next, add an insulating middle layer, such as a down jacket or a fleece, to retain body heat. Finally, your outer layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant to shield you from the elements. Remember, the goal is to stay warm but also to manage perspiration during physical activity. So, don't forget to adjust your layers as needed throughout the day!
Choose the right sleeping bag
One key aspect of staying warm during winter camping is selecting a sleeping bag with the appropriate temperature rating. It's important to remember that each bag is rated for the lowest temperature at which it will keep the average sleeper warm. Therefore, it's recommended to choose a sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the expected lowest temperature of your camping location. For instance, if the lowest temperature is projected to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit, opt for a bag rated for 10 degrees or colder. This will ensure that you stay comfortably warm throughout the night, even if temperatures unexpectedly drop.
Do note that because women tend to get cold faster than men, women's sleeping bags are rated more generously meaning that a woman's sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees would be something like the equivalent of 10 degrees for a man's sleeping bag. Obviously these ratings are subjective since everyone's bodies cool and warm differently, but if you're a woman planning to borrow a sleeping back from a guy, make sure you keep these rating differences in mind.
Prepare lots of hot drinks
Hot beverages are more than just a comforting ritual—they play a crucial role in keeping your body warm during winter camping. There's nothing quite like holding a steaming cup of drink while you take in the crisp, winter scenery. Instant coffee is a winter camper's best friend as it doubles up as a warming mechanism and an energy booster. It's lightweight, easy to prepare, and provides a much-needed caffeine kick to start your day or keep you alert during a long hike. Just pour some hot water into your cup, add your instant coffee, stir, and you have a warming, invigorating drink right in the heart of the wilderness. Also, keeping a thermos with hot coffee ready can act as a portable heater, providing warmth whenever needed.
Insulate your tent
Insulating your tent is a crucial step in ensuring a warm and comfortable winter camping experience. Consider using a tent carpet or a thermal ground mat inside your tent to provide an extra layer of insulation between you and the cold ground. You could also use foam tiles, the kind you see in children's play areas, which are lightweight and easy to pack. Another tip is to hang a thermal blanket around the inside of your tent; this will help to reflect your body heat back into the tent, rather than letting it escape through the tent walls. For the tent's exterior, use a waterproof and wind-resistant tarp to provide an extra barrier against the elements. Space permitting, setting up your tent with the door facing away from the prevailing wind can also help maintain warmth inside the tent. Remember, every little bit of insulation goes a long way in keeping you warm and safe during winter camping!
Eat fatty foods
Consuming fatty foods is a great strategy for staying warm while winter camping. Fats take longer to digest, which means they provide a slow, steady source of energy and help maintain your body temperature. Opt for food items packed with healthy fats, like nuts and seeds, cheese, and keto-friendly trail mixes. Don't forget about meals: a hearty peanut butter sandwich, or a dish cooked with olive oil or coconut oil can make for a warming, satisfying dinner. And remember, an occasional bar of dark chocolate can be both a morale booster and a valuable source of fats during your winter camping adventure!
Use hand and foot warmers
Hand and foot warmers are invaluable additions to your winter camping gear. These compact, disposable packets generate heat when exposed to air and can provide warmth for several hours. Position them inside your gloves or boots to keep your extremities cozy, or in your sleeping bag to create a warm sleeping environment. Remember, your extremities are usually the first body parts to feel cold, so keeping your hands and feet warm is crucial to your overall comfort. Additionally, choose warmers that are environmentally friendly and non-toxic. With these little packets of warmth, winter camping becomes an even more enjoyable experience!
One essential tip for staying warm during winter camping is to avoid sweating. When you sweat, your clothes become damp, and damp clothing can dramatically lower your body temperature, making you feel colder. It's always better to remove layers before you start to sweat, even if this means taking off your jacket while hiking or setting up camp. Remember, it's easier to stay warm than it is to get warm after you've cooled down. So, manage your layers effectively and keep dry to ensure a comfortable and warm winter camping experience. Following our tips for layering properly is essential for managing sweat when winter camping.
While it may seem like a good idea to sip on a flask of your favorite alcoholic beverage to keep warm during winter camping, it's actually counterproductive. Alcohol gives a false sense of warmth by causing your blood to rush to the surface of your skin, but this also means your body is losing heat faster. Moreover, alcohol can impair your body's ability to shiver, which is its natural way of generating heat when cold. Furthermore, alcohol can dehydrate you, which can exacerbate the effects of cold weather conditions. So, it's best to avoid alcohol when you're out in the wild during winter. Opt instead for hydrating and warming drinks like instant coffee, herbal tea, or hot chocolate.
Change your clothes before bed
Changing into dry clothes before bed is an often overlooked but critical step to staying warm during winter camping. Even if your clothes don't feel damp, they might have absorbed sweat and moisture throughout the day, which can lower your body temperature once you're no longer active. Always pack an extra set of sleepwear, preferably made of moisture-wicking and insulating materials like merino wool. Don't forget to include a fresh pair of socks, as cold feet can make for a very uncomfortable night. Not only will changing into dry clothes help keep you warm, but it will also improve your overall comfort, helping ensure a good night's sleep even in the chilly winter air.
Wear a beanie
Wearing a beanie while winter camping is a simple yet effective way to retain body heat. As a significant amount of heat can be lost through the head, covering it with a warm hat is essential for maintaining your overall body temperature. Opt for beanies made of insulating materials like wool or fleece for maximum warmth. Some beanies even offer additional features like ear flaps or a fleece lining for extra protection against the cold. Remember, staying warm while camping in winter isn't just about the major pieces of gear; sometimes, it's the small accessories like a beanie that make all the difference!
Use thermal socks
Just as a beanie helps keep your head warm, thermal socks are essential for maintaining the warmth of your feet during winter camping. Feet often feel the cold first, particularly when you're inactive, so a good pair of thermal socks can make a substantial difference. Look for socks made from materials like merino wool or thermal yarn for the best insulation and moisture-wicking properties. Keep in mind that it's worth investing in a high-quality pair of thermal socks; cold feet can quickly ruin an otherwise enjoyable camping trip. Remember to change your socks before bedtime, just like your clothes, to ensure they are dry and to maximize warmth during the cold winter nights.
Wear a down jacket
A down jacket is an essential piece of winter camping gear. In fact, this is one piece of gear we keep with us all year around because of its versatility. Renowned for their exceptional insulation properties, down jackets are filled with the warm feathers from a bird's protective outer feathers or synthetic down. The jacket fill traps the heat emitted by your body, effectively preventing it from escaping into the cold winter air. When selecting a down jacket, consider factors such as fill power, which indicates the jacket's insulation capacity, and whether it's water-resistant, as down loses its insulating abilities when wet. The benefit of synthetic down is that it dries much faster when wet making it the better option for damp conditions.
Use a balaclava
Wearing a balaclava serves as an effective strategy to stay warm during winter camping, especially when the temperature drops significantly or during windy conditions. This headgear not only covers your head, much like a beanie, but it extends to cover your face, neck, and sometimes shoulders, providing a comprehensive defense against the biting cold. Opt for a balaclava made of insulating and moisture-wicking material like merino wool or synthetic fibers, ensuring that the material is breathable to prevent discomfort from moisture buildup. A balaclava can make a substantial difference when it comes to maintaining your body heat, making it a worthy addition to your winter camping gear.
Wear mittens instead of gloves
While gloves can keep your hands warm, mittens are a superior choice for maintaining the warmth of your hands during winter camping. Mittens work by keeping your fingers together, which generates and retains more heat as compared to gloves, where your fingers are separated. The design of mittens allows for a higher concentration of insulation over the fingers, thus providing better protection against the cold. When choosing mittens for winter camping, opt for ones made of waterproof, wind-resistant material on the outside, and insulating materials like goose down or synthetic fibers on the inside.
Fill a bottle with hot water
Filling a bottle with hot water before you retire to your sleeping bag for the night is a classic winter camping hack. Just before bed, boil some water and fill a durable, leak-proof bottle. Place this bottle in your sleeping bag, and it will act as a mini heater, providing extra warmth throughout the night. Be sure to tightly secure the bottle's lid to prevent any accidental leaks. This simple and effective tip can make a significant difference in your comfort level, helping you to stay warm and get a good night's sleep while camping in the winter.
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Staying hydrated is critical when winter camping. Though you might not feel the urge to drink as much in cold weather, your body still needs plenty of fluids to function optimally. Dehydration can make you more susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite, so it's essential to take in enough fluids throughout the day. Hot drinks, such as instant coffee or herbal tea, are excellent options because they not only hydrate but also provide warmth and comfort. Always remember to melt snow or ice for drinking water; never consume it as is. The cold can lower your body temperature and strain your body's ability to generate heat. So, keep your water bottle handy, sip frequently, and make sure you stay well-hydrated during your winter camping adventure.
Pick the right tent for winter camping
When winter camping, choosing the right tent can make a significant difference in your level of comfort and warmth. You'll want to consider both size and season compatibility for your specific camping plans. If you're like us and your winter camping isn't usually in the snow or in extremely harsh conditions, a three season tent will do just fine as long as you follow many of the tips here in this travel guide. If you tent camp regularly in the winter, consider getting a four season tent.
Four season tent vs. three season tent
Most tents are classified into two main categories: four-season tents and three-season tents. Three-season tents are designed for the relatively mild conditions of spring, summer, and fall. They tend to prioritize ventilation to reduce condensation and keep the interior comfortable in warmer weather. On the other hand, four-season tents are built to withstand the harsh conditions of winter. They are made with stronger, more durable materials, and generally feature less mesh, more substantial canopies, and rainflies that extend close to the ground, providing a better shield against snow, high winds, and cold temperatures. When considering a tent for serious winter camping, a four-season tent is your best bet for staying warm and protected from the elements.
Large tent vs. small tent
While large tents might seem like a good idea for their space and comfort, they are not the most practical for winter camping. Large tents have more air volume, which can make them harder to heat effectively, leaving you feeling colder. Smaller tents, on the other hand, are easier to warm up, helping you maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the night. A smaller tent, especially one designed for cold weather with appropriate insulation and wind protection, is a more effective choice for winter camping. So, when packing for your winter camping trip, opt for a smaller tent to stay warm and cozy.
Plan your campsite location wisely
Careful selection of your camping location also plays a crucial role in staying warm while winter camping. A well-chosen site can offer natural protection against the elements. Look for a spot that's sheltered from the wind, such as within a ring of trees or near a geographical feature like a hill or a large rock formation. Avoid camping in low-lying areas, where cold air and frost are more likely to settle. Also, consider the direction of sunrise when setting up camp. A spot that gets early morning sun can help warm your tent sooner, making those chilly winter mornings a bit more bearable.
Use a windbreak
In addition to choosing the right campsite location, using a windbreak can significantly improve your comfort level when winter camping. A windbreak is essentially a barrier designed to reduce or divert the flow of wind around your campsite. This barrier could be a natural feature such as a line of bushes, a rock formation, or a slope. Alternatively, you could create a makeshift windbreak using a tarp or some spare tent material. By blocking the wind, a windbreak helps to maintain the temperature around your campsite and reduces the chances of wind chill inside your tent. It also provides additional protection for your camping stove, making it easier to cook or boil water. When setting up your windbreak, ensure it's secure and unlikely to fly away or collapse in strong winds.
Fluff your sleeping bag
Before settling in for the night, take the time to fluff up your sleeping bag. This simple action can significantly increase its insulation capacity. The idea is to create as much space as possible between the bag's fibers, thereby trapping more air and thus more heat. To do this, shake your sleeping bag vigorously or simply use your hands to separate the individual fibers. You'll find that it's much warmer to snuggle into a fluffed-up bag than one that's been compressed and left flat. Remember, the more air your sleeping bag can trap, the warmer it will keep you on those cold winter camping nights.
Note: Always remember to store sleeping bags hanging up rather than in their stuff sacks. This will keep the down or synthetic down more separated and better for warmth.
Use a sleeping bag liner
A sleeping bag liner is another essential item for winter camping that can substantially increase your sleeping bag's warmth. Acting as an extra layer of insulation, a liner can add several degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag, making it invaluable in cold conditions. They are typically made of materials like silk, fleece, or microfiber, each offering different levels of warmth and comfort. Apart from adding warmth, a liner also helps to keep your sleeping bag clean and can extend its lifespan. It's lightweight, small, and easy to pack, making it a no-brainer to include in your winter camping gear.
Insulate yourself from the ground
When winter camping, it's essential to insulate yourself from the ground. Cold ground can quickly drain warmth from your body, making your camping experience uncomfortable or even dangerously cold. Choosing the right sleeping pad with a high R-value (a measure of thermal resistance) can significantly help to maintain your body heat. In addition to a good quality sleeping pad, consider placing a mylar emergency blanket underneath your sleeping pad for an extra layer of insulation. If you're car camping and have a little more space, using a camping cot can also effectively help keep you off the cold ground. By implementing these measures, you can ensure a warm and cozy sleep, making your winter camping adventure a pleasant experience.
A couple of years ago we splurged and upgraded our sleeping pads to these awesome ones with a much higher R-value than our old sleeping pads and I couldn't believe what a difference those new sleeping pads made! Obviously finding a good, compact sleeping pad with a high R-value is going to make the sleeping pad more expensive, but it was well worth the money to us. I now sleep through the night when tent camping in cold places like the mountains of Washington or camping in Iceland.
Ventilate your tent
While it may seem counterintuitive to let cold air into your tent when you're trying to stay warm, proper ventilation is crucial in winter camping. Condensation from your breath and body heat can build up inside the tent, dampening your gear and making you feel cold. To combat this, ensure you have a slight opening in your tent flaps to allow for the passage of air. This will allow the moist, warm air to escape, keeping your tent environment dry and more comfortable. Before you vent your tent on your own, check to see if your tent was crafted with built in vent. Many tents designed for winter camping have built-in vents that you can adjust to balance between minimizing heat loss and maximizing condensation management.
Light exercise before bed
Engaging in light exercise before bed can help you stay warm when winter camping. By getting your blood circulating, you generate body heat, which can be trapped inside your sleeping bag to keep you warm throughout the night. Simple exercises such as jumping jacks, squats or even a brisk walk around your campsite can be effective. Do remember not to overdo it as sweating can lead to moisture build-up that can eventually make you colder. Always remember, you're not aiming to work up a sweat, just get your blood pumping. This simple trick can make a significant difference in how warm and comfortable you feel during your winter camping experience.
Keep your gear dry
Keeping your gear dry is paramount when winter camping. Store your gear in waterproof bags or containers to prevent them from getting wet while you're out and about during the day. Remember, staying dry is just as essential as staying warm when you're camping in winter conditions. Moisture can significantly reduce the insulating properties of many materials, making you feel colder. Always ensure your clothing, sleeping bag, and any other gear are thoroughly dry before you turn in for the night. If any item gets wet, try to dry it by the campfire or inside your tent using body heat.
Warm up your clothes in your sleeping bag
Before you get into your sleeping bag for the night, consider warming up your clothes. This can be as simple as bundling them up and keeping them in your sleeping bag while you're not sleeping. Your body heat during the night will warm up these clothes, making them nice and toasty when you put them on in the morning. Remember, starting your day with warm clothes can make the difference between an enjoyable winter camping experience and an uncomfortably chilly one.
Pack extra blankets
If you're car camping instead of backpacking, we'd highly recommend packing extra blankets in addition to your winter camping gear. They offer additional warmth and can be used in various ways - as an additional layer over your sleeping bag, as a ground insulator, or even wrapped around you while you sit around the campfire. An emergency blanket or space blanket can be particularly useful. These blankets are compact, lightweight, and designed to retain heat effectively. By reflecting your body heat back towards you, they provide substantial warmth without the bulk. If you have the room for a more comfortable blanket than an emergency blanket, we'd highly recommend a Rumpl blanket. We always tent camp with ours and even take it on planes with us. It packs small but is very warm since it's synthetic down. We usually end up keeping our dog, Kramer, bundled up in it when we're tent camping.
Keep a midnight snack handy
Having a midnight snack within your reach can be a secret weapon to staying warm while winter camping. As your body metabolizes food, it creates heat, helping to keep your body temperature up. Ensure you have a small, non-perishable snack, such as a protein bar or nuts, stored in a safe area of your tent. If you wake up feeling cold during the night, a simple snack could give your body the fuel it needs to generate some extra heat and get you through the rest of the night comfortably. Remember to store your food appropriately to avoid attracting wildlife into your campsite.
Use a heat source
Bringing along a portable heat source can be a game-changer for camping in the winter. Portable heaters designed for camping, such as propane heaters, can offer an additional source of warmth within your tent. However, they must be used with caution to prevent carbon monoxide buildup inside the tent. Never leave such a heater unattended, and ensure there's ample ventilation, and never fall asleep with the heater on for safety reasons. Personally we love our diesel heater in our truck camper but we've never been desperate enough for heat while tent camping to use a portable heater. If you're car camping and have the space, it might be worth your time and space to bring along a portable heater. If you're backpacking obviously you're not going to want to lug a heater up a mountain but if you're desperate you could always warm your hands around your portable backpacking stove (but please be careful of carbon monoxide poisoning and burns!). Another alternative to a portable heater would be to light a candle lantern which will put off a decent about of heat.
Sharing a tent with a buddy is an effective way to stay warm while winter camping. The combined body heat can significantly increase the temperature inside the tent, making it cozier. If you're camping in a group, consider sleeping close to one another for added warmth. While it might be a bit of a squeeze, this old mountaineering trick can be a lifesaver in freezing conditions. Remember, heat is lost faster when you're sleeping alone, so buddy up for warmth and enjoy the shared experience of braving the winter wilderness together.
Invest in insulated clothing
Investing in insulated clothing is a wise decision when preparing for winter camping. Insulated clothing, such as thermal socks, gloves, hats, and jackets, can provide extra warmth by trapping heat close to your body. Materials such as down, synthetic fill, and fleece are commonly used for insulation, each offering different advantages in terms of warmth, weight, and performance in wet conditions. It's important to consider the specific conditions you'll be camping in when selecting your insulated gear. As we've already talked about, layering is also key in cold weather - wearing multiple layers can help you regulate your body heat and adapt to changing weather conditions. Remember, it's not just about wearing a single, ultra-warm layer, but rather assembling a versatile, layered outfit that can keep you comfortably warm in any situation.
Winter camping is indeed a rewarding experience that connects you with nature in its most serene and majestic state. By implementing these tips - packing extra blankets, keeping a midnight snack handy, investing in insulated clothing, using a portable heat source, and sharing a tent - you can stay comfortably warm and enjoy your winter camping adventure to the fullest. Remember, preparation is key, always be mindful of your safety, and don't let the cold deter your adventurous spirit. Happy winter camping!
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!