7 Things to Think About When Planning a Winter Camping Trip
Updated: Apr 16
Just because snow might be hitting the ground soon doesn’t mean you have to stop hitting the trails!
Winter camping for the first time can be daunting and requires serious preparation. However, once you’ve done your research and pitched your tent in a pristine winter wonderland, you’ll likely be asking why you waited until now to take your first winter camping trip. We’re here to help you actualize your snow globe dreams, complete with chugging hot cocoa rather than shaking with hypothermia and wondering why snow exists.
Here are 7 things to think about when planning your first winter camping trip to get you off the couch binge watching Hallmark and into the backcountry!!
1. Location, Location, Location
Picking a prime location is always an important part of planning a camping trip. With National and State Park campsites closed during the winter months, you’ll likely be hiking into and out from a primitive campsite carrying everything that you need on your back. For your first winter backpacking trip, we recommend that you pick a trail leading to a campsite that you are familiar with. Avoid hazardous routes, i.e. those with frozen waters and lakes which could have unstable ice. What may be a simple river crossing in warm weather, can easily turn into a dangerous and technical route.
Additionally, it's good to keep in mind that hiking in the snow usually takes longer, there are fewer hours of daylight and it's easier to get lost since snow cover can hide trail intersections. If you can, bring along a GPS system to make sure that you don’t stray off the trail when it is obscured by snow. Once you figure out where you’re going, get GPS coordinates and share them with a trusted friend and family member as well as a summary of the route you’ll be taking and how long you plan to stay there. Lastly, make sure to check the weather forecast before heading into the backcountry. Look out for any storms around the corner or high winds.
2. Choose Your Gear Wisely
Packing the right gear for your trip is an essential part of planning a safe and comfortable winter camping trip. Let’s start with the basics: tent, sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Make sure you have at least a 3 season tent, although we recommend a 4 season tent for maximum comfort. Pack a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you may experience while camping. Bring a full length sleeping pad that will keep you off of the cold ground and if you feel like glamping, bring a second pad to provide an extra barrier between you and the snow. Make sure you pack enough clothes and layers to keep dry and warm throughout the trip. Layering is the key word here. Invest in a warm baselayer, like long johns or fleece leggings, an insulating layer, like a puffer, and a shell layer that is waterproof and will act as a windbreak. Lastly, depending on where you are camping, it's a good idea to bring avalanche safety equipment, such as an avalanche transceiver, a probe, and a snow shovel.
3. Choosing a Campsite
Once you make it to your destination, it's time to set up camp and pitch your tent. However, before even reaching your campsite, you should have already taken the time to educate yourself on avalanche safety, consulted with an avalanche forecaster and preferably picked to camp in an area that is not prone to them. If you are camping in an avalanche prone area, your first step in setting up your campsite should be to pick a spot away from the base of a hill and look for signs of potential danger, such as snow sluffs. Pick a spot that is sheltered from the elements so you won't be shivering all night long from howling winds. Make sure that your tent isn’t under any unstable trees or suspect branches carrying a heavy load of snow that could drop a cold surprise on you in the middle of the night. We also recommend setting up camp within a safe distance of a stream or river so that you won’t have to use up a ton of gas on melting snow for drinking water.
4. Setting up Camp
The cool part about winter camping is that you have this magic white stuff called snow that can actually be super helpful in setting up your dream campsite. First, make sure to pack the snow under your tent. Loose snow is more likely to melt due to body heat, which can make for an uncomfortably frigid night. If wind is being a pest, build a wall around your tent for an added barrier and windbreak. Perhaps, most importantly, make sure you have snow stakes. Unlike traditional tent stakes, snow stakes are made out of aluminum and are 9-inches long with large holes and an inward curve. This design allows snow to accumulate and freeze in the holes, which anchors the tent to the snow. Without them setting up your tent with regular stakes will be really difficult. Now to the fun part, which is building the campsite of your dreams. Tables made out of snow? Check! Chairs made out of snow? Why not! A snowman or two? An Igloo? Do. Your. Thing.
5. Eat Well and Warm
Make sure you pack more than enough food for your stay. Warm food is always in a plus when camping in frigid temperatures. We recommend hot chocolate, soup or pasta. Calories are especially important when your body has to spend a ton of energy keeping itself warm! Something that you can cook in one pot is always a good idea when camping to minimize dish washing in freezing temperatures. Last but not least, always make sure to bring something to savor like a bit of chocolate or some coffee that will bring life back into those frost crusted eyes first thing in the morning.
6. Listen to Your Body
This is a given whenever camping or on an outdoor adventure. Yes, it is always amazing to push past those mental barriers when sending it outdoors, but when recreating in harsh conditions it is important to listen to your body's queues. Make sure to pay attention for signs of frostbite and hypothermia in yourself and members of your party. The first sign of frostbite is the onset of frostnip. Signs of frostnip include your skin turning red, feeling cold to the touch and/or numb and prickly. Common signs of hypothermia include, excessive shivering, slowed breathing, slowed speech, clumsiness, stumbling and confusion. If you feel yourself getting cold, add a layer immediately!
Also, pro tip: pee before bed! The last thing you want to do when nestled in a cozy sleeping bag in sub zero temperatures is to get out to pee. Also, going to the bathroom actually helps your body use a little less energy and stay warm.
7. Be Aware of your Footprint (and Snowprint)
Learning how to recreate respectfully and responsibly in the outdoors is a prerequisite to stepping into the backcountry. No matter the season, experiencing the outdoors responsibly includes not littering, vandalizing or creating uncontrolled fires. It is also recommended to camp in areas with deep snow cover so that no damage is done to delicate environments below the surface. Speaking of snow cover, when a couple feet of snow separate the ground and you, you won't be able to dig a hole to do your morning business. Make sure to bring a wag bag and maybe an extra ziploc or nylon bag to pack everything out including toilet paper. And of course, respect those who you share the environment with, both human and non-human. Take the time to educate yourself on the environment and its wildlife as animals can be in very fragile states during harsh winter months.