June 23, 2021

Winter camping tips

Does the thought of being outside in the cold give you goosebumps? Do dropping outdoor temperatures induce chills down your spine? Do you make excuses to stay home or at distant hotels just to avoid a little shivering? You’re not alone. Many people, myself included, often struggle between the allure of winter camping versus staying in the warmth of one’s own bed.

What if I told you that there is a way to enjoy these dark cold nights under the stars? Through many failed experiments and lots of perseverance, I found a few ways to make those winter nights worthwhile. Here are my top 10 winter camping tips to get you through the longest nights of the year. Don’t despair, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Note: These are general tips for camping in winter for men, women, couples, and families. See my next blog article for woman-specific camping tips.

sunset colors in winter
Sunset over Bryce Canyon in winter

Winter camping tip #1 – Don’t sweat

Seriously. During the day, when you’re wearing a bunch of layers and hiking about, you might actually break a sweat. It may feel good at first – after all, it is a sign that you’re actually warm – but it will soon become a source of cold moisture on your clothes. Even the smallest amount of perspiration on your shirt can cause a drop in body temperature. At this point, the best thing you can do to warm up is to replace your wet shirt with a dry one. Since this isn’t always an option, I recommend that you avoid sweating in the first place. How do you do that?

Layer appropriately

When you start to feel the slightest hint of heat in your core, resist the temptation to keep moving. Stop wherever you are and remove a layer of clothing. This is the reason everyone in the winter outdoor industry recommends that you layer appropriately. You can gradually remove and put on layers of clothing as your body temperature changes.

What is appropriate layering? This is the conventional wisdom:

  • Base layer (aka polypropylene thermals/long underwear/ninja suit)
  • Mid layer (i.e., long-sleeve wool t-shirt)
  • Outer layer (i.e., fleece jacket)
  • Shell (i.e., GoreTex rain jacket)

NOTE: For pants, skip the mid layers. It will only make it harder for you to move. Check out fleece-lined pants.

Winter camping tip #2 – Once you sweat, dry quickly

Who are we kidding? If you’re doing any sort of physical activity, you’re going to sweat. The best way to deal with it, as mentioned earlier, is to change your clothes. But you’re not going to do that seven times a day. So the next best way to deal with sweat is to wear quick dry clothing.

Invest in synthetic clothing and gear

You’ve heard this one before. Say goodbye to the down and the cotton. Synthetic clothes and sleeping bags are just as comfortable. They pack down small enough and weigh light enough for your winter adventures. And if they get wet, they dry very quickly and will not get as cold.
Disclaimer: They do get cold to the touch when wet, but not as cold and not for as long as down and cotton.

Winter camping tip #3 – Protect your extremities

Clothing size matters.
For each layer of clothing, I recommend getting one size bigger than your regular size. This will ensure you’re not cutting off any circulation to your extremities, which will actually cause you to stay cold. You may even try jumping up two sizes for the outer layers.

If you’re like me, and your core starts sweating while your extremities are still frozen, consider investing in arm warmers, hand warmers, down booties, and mittens. If you have lots of money, try the Black Diamond Solano heated mitts.

people hiking down steep snowy path marked by chains
Hiking Angels Landing in winter – Zion National Park

Winter camping tip #4 – Warm up before going to bed

Find your way to get warm right before going to bed. Do this after having brushed your teeth, put the fire out, gone to the bathroom, changed into your sleeping clothes, and done whatever else you do for your nightly ritual. I go for a brisk 10-minute walk around the campground. Remember, don’t sweat! When you feel warm, down to your extremities, get back to your tent immediately and go to sleep.

And yes, you should absolutely change from the long underwear you had on during the day into a fresh pair of long underwear for sleeping. The reason: Dirt aside, your used clothes are likely holding on to small amounts of moisture that will make a big difference in your comfort level.

The Nalgene bottle trick

This is possibly my favorite winter camping hack of all times.

Do this a few minutes before going to bed to warm up your sleeping bag. Prepare it, for instance, right before heading out on that 10-minute warm-up walk. Here’s what you do: Boil water. Fill up your 32oz Nalgene bottles with it. Stick the hot water bottles in your sleeping bag. Now go on your short walk. When you return, your bag will be nice and cozy.

Keep the bottles in the bag with you overnight. Watch out not to touch the bottles to exposed skin, however tempting! If a bottle is too hot, you can wrap it in thin clothing or insert it in a sock.

I use at least two bottles, sometimes three, depending on my desperation. In the morning, you have unfrozen water you can drink or cook with.

Winter camping tip #5 – Use the right gear for winter camping

If you dislike the cold as much as I do, then you have to get the right things to deal with it. They don’t have to be the best items out there, but they have to be able to do the job right.

Use an insulated sleeping pad

If you have an inflatable air pad, make sure it has some supplemental foam insulation. Otherwise, you’ll be sleeping on cold air the entire night. Alternatively, sleeping on thin foam is like sleeping directly on the cold hard ground. Neither of these will provide you with a good night’s sleep. Together, however, they work wonders. If you’re low on space and weight, try Big Agnes Air Core Insulated Air Pad. If you’re unconcerned about space and weight, look into Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Self-Inflating pad or even the Deluxe version.

Tent size matters

The smaller the tent, the better (but not too small or you’re better off getting a bivy sack). If you have a lot of space in your tent, fill it up with your luggage. The less space to heat up, the easier it will be to keep it warm.

You can also get a winter tent, which has thicker waterproof walls. However, that’s unnecessary unless you’re camping on a glacier. If you are camping on a glacier, you should definitely refer to other blogs for snow camping tips.

Get a sleeping bag liner

Sleeping bag liners are a great investment for traveling in general. They are lightweight and very compact, meaning that you can basically take them anywhere you go. You never know when you’ll need a liner. If you ever stay in a cheap hotel or hostel, these could replace your bedsheets. Hot summer nights may require only a sleeping pad and a bag liner, so you can leave the sleeping bag at home. And in winter, these could add up to an extra 20F of warmth to your sleeping bag!

low visibility, snow and mud, hiking trail
Bright Angel Trail in winter – Grand Canyon

Winter camping tip #6 – Avoid condensation

All of this is counterintuitive, but it makes a huge difference:

  • Open the tent vents
  • Don’t touch the walls of the tent
  • Keep your mouth and nose out of your sleeping bag
  • Use the rainfly and guylines

Winter camping tip #7 – Cuddle up with everything you have

That is, all of your clothes. This will fill in any excess space in your sleeping bag, and it will keep your clothes warm for the following day.

The backpack trick

If you have a backpacking pack, you can empty its contents and pull it over your feet. This way, your sleeping bag will be inside of the backpack, up to your knees, or even your thighs.

Winter camping tip #8 – Keep your batteries warm too

Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures will drain your phone battery. You can keep your phone warm by cuddling up with it in your sleeping bag. Most sleeping bags have a pocket about chest-level exactly for this purpose. If your sleeping bag does not have this, you can keep your electronics at your feet or with the other clothes you’ve shoved into your bag.

Winter camping tip #9 – Store water containers upside down

Especially those with spigots. Water freezes from the bottom up. This means that in the morning, when you flip the container back on its right side, you should be able to get any water that didn’t freeze yet.

Winter camping tip #10 – Eat a calorie-heavy diet

Indulge in the cheese and the chocolate. This, along with beautiful night skies, makes all of the above worthwhile!

Snow on bush with majestic view
Grand Canyon in Winter

Sorry, but now you have no more excuses

So get out there and give winter camping one more try before you swear it off for good. Don’t forget, if you’re headed to the American Southwest, Basecamp Outdoor Gear has a variety of winter camping gear for rent. Check out gear reviews and things to do.