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11 Cold Weather Camping Tips for Staying Warm and Safe

Last Updated: September 3, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

What sounds like an absolute nightmare to many can turn into a snowy, wintery dreamscape for some. The season for cold weather camping is here, and if you know how to do it right and stay warm, you’ll find yourself surprised at how incredible it really is. 

Being able to get out into the woods even in the winter allows for the casual weekend warrior to get a breath of fresh air amidst the long cold months of winter. Not only will it rejuvenate your soul, going out in colder temps means seeing a drastically different landscape with a much lower number of fellow users.

To help you get out, here are some cold weather camping tips and tricks that you can put into use on your next camping trip. 

Key Takeaways
  • When camping in cold weather, keep everything you need inside your sleeping bag at night so it doesn't freeze or get wet.
  • Be aware of moisture buildup in your tent and take steps to prevent it.
  • Dress in layers of synthetic or merino wool fabrics to stay warm.
  • Eat calorie dense foods to keep your body heat up.
  • If you have to pee in the middle of the night, just do it!
  • Protect your electronics from the cold by keeping them next to your body at all times.

Essential Cold-Weather Camping Gear Checklist

A flat lay composition with different winter camping gear on a wooden floor
  • Sleeping pad (insulated inflatable or foam)
  • Synthetic and wool base layers
  • Plenty of extra pairs of socks
  • Insulated boots
  • Fleece neck gaiters
  • Sleeping bag rated at 0 degrees or below and sleeping bag liner
  • More layers
  • 4-season tent (if you’ll be getting snowed on)

Cold Weather Camping Tips

With the right moves and tricks to staying warm, no cold ground or cold temperatures will be keeping you inside in the winter. You'll become a master of winter camping and surviving long cold nights in your sleeping bag with these tips for staying warm and staying safe while winter camping.

Check Weather Conditions and Hazards

A green camping tent in a heavy fog on a mountain meadow after a storm

Even when the weather looks sunny and beautiful, any seasoned camper can tell you how quickly the weather can turn. It may look like you’re in the clear for a night out without any harsh conditions, but strong winds and snow can appear out of nowhere. Make sure to read the forecast thoroughly and be prepared for anything. 

Set Up a Proper Sleeping Spot

Scenic view of green tent on mountain inside snow

Camping on top of snow can be tricky, but when you know the secrets to it, it ends up being comfortable and warm. Once you’ve found a spot, you may need to clear the snow away from your spot and find the dirt below. If you’re on top of too much snow, utilize your boots or snowshoes and pack the snow down to make a flat spot. Snow is surprisingly a great insulator and you won’t melt your way to the bottom. 

Use a Sleeping Pad Made for Cold

On a mountain spot in winter, a camper arranges his sleeping pad near his orange tent

Luckily, we don’t need to say goodbye to sleeping comfortably in the cold. Inflatable sleeping pads are insulated to give them the capacity of keeping the air under your body warm while you sleep. If you want to use an inflatable pad or air mattress, try and find something with an R-value of at least 5 for cold weather camping. If you don’t want to risk it, grab a closed-cell foam pad and you’ll stay plenty warm. 

Prepare Your Tent 

Polar landscape with orange 4-season tent on snow

Before you head out, you need to ensure that you have the right tent for the job. Smaller tents trap heat and keep you warmer at night, but you won’t want to spend a long time cramped up in there. Be on the lookout for a 4-season tent as they are built to withstand a considerable snowfall without caving in on you.

Sketch of a tent heater and rug for camping
A portable propane heater and a foldable tent carpet

Lastly, look around for some tent rugs or a tent heater that can help you warm up your small space and have you sleeping comfortably. 

Warm Up With a Hot Water Bottle

During a winter tent camp in a snow forest, a camper boils water on a canister stove

Using other sources for warmth rather than your body heat is sometimes necessary. One of the all-time greatest tricks in the book is warming the water up and putting it in your water bottle. Take this warm buddy into your sleeping bag, make sure the lid is tight (or there will be a lot of cold, wet sleeping bags), and it will keep you toasty and keep your feet warm for hours.

A senior hiker holds a pocket-sized electric hand warmer while camping in winter
A pocket electric hand warmer

You can also invest in hand warmers to keep in your gloves or boots throughout the day and keep easily accessible at night. A cold night can bring extremely cold temperatures that require some way to not only retain body heat but provide more heat.

Sleep With Everything

Hiker lying in a sleeping bag with a phone while inside a tent in the winter

Cold weather camping can make for a crowded sleeping bag at night. You should keep your water bottle, batteries, insoles, and most of your layers inside your sleeping bag with you every night.

This way your water won’t freeze, your batteries won’t die, you’ll have warm(ish) boots in the morning, and your extra layers help insulate your body (plus, no cold clothes in the morning).

Embrace the tightly-packed burrito you have become and you will sleep wonderfully. 

Be Aware of Moisture

During the winter, a tent in the mountains has frost on its rain fly due to condensation

Moisture is one thing that can quickly ruin any trip in the cold. That means you need to watch out for moisture buildup in the most unlikely of places, like your tent.

For starters, if you don’t vent your tent at night, you can end up with icicles hanging from the roof.

It may seem counter-intuitive to leave a gap in the tent and rain fly to let cold air in, but it actually keeps you warmer. 

Dress Like You Mean It

Senior camper standing in snow-covered winter nature

Just leave cotton clothing at home. Always. It’s a material made for lounging at home, not exploring the arctic tundra.

Utilize a layering system of synthetic or merino wool fabrics that wick moisture, and always keep yourself warm.

These clothing layers are only trapping more body heat, so once you start to get cold, it’s harder to warm up.

Keep your core temperature high and make sure you have extra clothes for extra insulation.

High-Calorie Foods

A top view of a mix of assorted nuts (almonds, filberts, walnuts, cashews)
Nuts and seeds are great high-calorie foods

Calorie-dense foods are one of the most important pieces of camping gear, especially in the winter. Think of your stomach like a furnace. You need to feed the furnace in order to get heat out to the rest of the house.

The more calories you give the furnace, the better it will be at warming the house. Hot drinks like hot chocolate can help you stay hydrated and up your body temperature.

A true pro tip is guzzling down a giant spoon of peanut butter right before slipping into bed for the night. 

If You Have to Pee, Just Do It.

Feeling your bladder cry for relief just after you’ve gotten cozy and warm can be one of the most irritating and disappointing feelings that are found on this planet.

It feels like championing a marathon to get out of your bag, then the tent, then put on boots, and go pee. Here’s what you might not want to hear though, you have to do it. 

Keeping a full bladder isn’t only uncomfortable or unhealthy, but it will make you colder as you sleep. Your body will direct a lot of heat towards your bladder rather than the rest of your cold body.

Find a way to motivate yourself and make it quick like pulling off a band-aid, doing some jumping jacks to stay warm, and getting straight back in the tent.

Protect Your Electronics From the Cold

A camper charges his smartphone with a power bank while walking on a suspended bridge during winter

As a lot of us may already know, the winter is a killer on electronics. Batteries will die quickly and can be drained without ever being used.

If you’re using any GPS system or any other electronics that you are truly relying on, make sure you are body-packing everything throughout the day and night while winter camping.

That means keeping batteries, or the full device, in a pocket next to your body. 

Cold Weather Camping FAQs

Here are our answers to your most commonly asked questions about camping in cold weather:

What Temperature Is Too Cold for Camping?

You can sleep outside and be comfortable to most temperatures. With the right equipment, you can camp into the negatives without too much discomfort, but that doesn’t mean it’s an overnight at a local resort. Camping below freezing starts to make it less enjoyable to get out of your sleeping bag, but it’s still doable. 

How Cold Can You Survive in a Tent?

Survival in the cold really relies a lot on your tent as well as your sleeping bag. There are sleeping bags designed to keep you alive down to extremely low temperatures. Pairing the right sleeping bag with a good single walled tent can keep you surviving into the extreme negatives, but it won’t be very fun.

How Do You Camp When It’s Cold?

Camping in the cold requires the right preparation with the right clothing and sleeping gear. Bring lots of layers to wear when you’re up and moving, but have a sleeping bag that will keep you warm and toasty throughout the night. Another major factor is keeping yourself dry, which then keeps you warm.

Ian Standard is an outdoor educator and wilderness guide based in Anchorage, Alaska. Most recently, he worked part-time at Alaska Crossings, a wilderness program for at-risk youth, and is currently studying for a Master of Science in Outdoor & Environmental Education at Alaska Pacific University.
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