When we talk about backpacking and camping, we often think about sunny and warm days in the mountains. Camping and backpacking in winter is a whole other kind of adventure. To untrained ears, it can sound a bit risky or uncomfortable. In fact, winter camping doesn’t have to be painful, yet it requires preparation and getting the right gear. When I started, I read a lot about winter camping, and I found it a bit overwhelming, especially when you look at the gear list and realize you don’t have anything yet. Keep in mind that no one started as a pro winter camper, and it’s well known we learn by making mistakes out there.
Here are the questions and concerns that most people have about winter camping:
- What if I’m getting too cold?
- The winter camping gear I need sounds expensive
- I’d like to try, but I don’t know where I would go and with whom
In this short guide, I address these concerns by introducing you to the basics of winter camping, but more importantly, I’ll try to show you it is more accessible than people think.
Note that my advice is based on the type of camping I do here in Coastal British Columbia. I rarely have to deal with temperatures falling below -15 °C, and in other regions, you might have to experience much colder temperatures.
Why trying winter camping?
This is the first thing you should ask yourself. What are the reasons you are tempted by this experience? What brought you here?
Here are the reasons why I love winter camping:
- The views: snowy landscapes are magical, and admiring the mountains at sunset and sunrise has something unreal. The mountains look even more majestic during alpenglow. Camping in the mountains allows you to witness such beauty.
- Fewer people: only a few people camps in winter, so usually you’ll have a whole area you’ve decided to camp for yourself (or your party). It brings me that sense of peace I look for in the wilderness.
- The challenge: I like to step out of my comfort zone. Let’s face it; we are not spending the best nights of our lives out there in the cold. At least not the comfiest ones. Sleeping outside in winter requires preparation and the acceptance that it can be tough. And that’s why it’s good. That pride you feel when you come back from the mountains is powerful.
Where to go
It will depend on your transportation: snowshoes, skis, or crampons. If you are not a skier, I recommend starting with snowshoes. It’s slower but less exhausting and much cheaper. Here are some general tips to help you find a spot.
- Look at the snowshoe trails on apps like All Trails or Fatmap. You’ll likely find one with designated campsites or where it’s allowed to do wild camping. Read the comments from people who hiked the trail in winter, they might mention where they camp, and you’ll have helpful information about current conditions.
- Check local mountain resorts: they might have a backcountry area next to the resort where you can camp. They are more accessible than remote alpine areas.
- Ask the community: read blogs, ask questions in Facegroup groups, reach the Mountains Clubs in your area. You’ll likely find people who’ll be thrilled about sharing their winter camping stories. Here is the list of the Mountain Clubs in BC.
- If you are located in the South Coast region of British Columbia, contact me. I will be happy to give you some itinerary ideas.
Snowshoeing and Winter Camping in Elfin Lakes
Elfin Lakes is a popular snowshoe trail and backpacking area, offering stunning views of nearby mountains in Garibaldi Provincial Park. It is also an excellent spot for beginner backcountry skiers. Here’s a guide and a trip report to help you prepare for…keep reading
Safety in winter
Check the weather
The higher risks in winter are weather-related. The main one obviously is getting cold. Hypothermia and frostbite must be taken seriously; learn about them to recognize the signs before getting out there. You’ll need to check the weather conditions ahead and as you go. The conditions can shift quickly in the mountains, so you must be prepared and bring extra layers. Also, it is easier to stay warm than rewarm your body, so the key is to try not to get cold in the first place.
You’ll also need to be aware of the avalanche risk. The first thing is to ask yourself whether you will cross avalanche terrain. In many regions, you don’t have to go to the alpine to find snow, so you could stay below treeline and still camp on snow. If you think of navigating treeline or alpine terrain, you should take an avalanche skill training course level 1 (AST-1) to learn about terrain assessment and companion rescue. Small avalanches (but sometimes deadly) can happen below the treeline. Check the avalanche ratings and avoid going if the avalanche rating below treeline is above considerable.
To get started, have a look at Avalanche.ca. They have helpful information to help you know if you might navigate avalanche terrain.
What to bring & what to wear
Besides the essentials to bring on every hike and your winter day hiking gear, you’ll have to bring appropriate gear for winter camping. The two most important things to invest in are a warm sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping mat.
Note: I don’t earn any commission through the links. All the products I recommend below are the ones I’m currently using. And because I’m on a budget and always try to buy secondhand to limit my impact, I only own what I consider essential or make a huge difference in the outdoors.
A warm sleeping bag
To stay cozy – and alive -at night, you need to bring a warm sleeping bag. The companies indicate 3 levels of temperature: ‘comfort,’ ‘limit of comfort,’ and ‘extreme.’ You should refer to the limit of comfort temperature to choose your sleeping bag. Also, there are two types of fill: down or synthetic. I prefer down, as it has a better ratio of weight/warmth. The only thing is it’s less efficient when wet, so if you choose a down-filled sleeping bag, you’ll have to make sure it stays dry at all times, which might be tricky in very wet regions like British Columbia.
I use the Valandré Lafayette down sleeping bag, -15°C / 5 F° (limit of comfort -12.5°C). You can also add an extra liner – I like to use a silk liner – it adds warmth and keeps your sleeping bag clean.
An insulated sleeping pad
The cold comes from the ground mostly, which is why it’s so important to get a properly insulated pad. The pads come in different types and shapes, but the most important is the R-value, which is the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow, and it goes from 1 to 10. For winter camping, an R-value of 4.5 or higher is recommended.
I use a Thermaflex sleeping pad with an R-value of 6 that I bought secondhand. Some people prefer to bring two sleeping mats, one regular they use all year round, and an extra insulated pad, and this way, they add the insulation value.
It’s technically possible to camp in winter without a tent by building an ice cave, an igloo, or even a pit with a light tarp over it. These winter shelters are efficient but can be complicated to make if you’ve never done it before, so I’ll go with the tent.
A 4 season tent has more resistance and keeps the cold air coming in. A 3 season tent is lighter and allows the air to flow, avoiding condensation. I use my 3 seasons tent all year round, and it’s fine. Unless you plan to camp in extreme winter conditions (heavy snowfall, hail, or strong winds), you don’t need to invest in a 4 season tent. Here is an excellent article if you want to learn more about 4 season tents.
Other useful gear
An emergency bivy: I always carry an emergency bivy in my essentials. When I camp in winter, I use it to add an extra insulation layer between the tent and the ground.
A shovel to build your camp. You already have it in your avalanche kit if you cross avalanche terrain.
A camping stove and a thermos, to eat and drink hot.
A hot water bottle: a little extra that makes the difference. When preparing dinner, I boil excess water to fill my bottle and place it in my sleeping bag. By the time I go to sleep, it’s warm and cozy.
Layering is the trick to staying warm in winter. You’ll have to make sure you are not extra sweating by wearing breathable clothes and using additional warm layers when you are not moving.
A base layer: it will get the sweat off your skin. It needs to be close enough to your body and make sure there is no air. I recommend a merino base layer, at least for the top, because it’s warm and dry quickly. A merino leggings base layer it’s the best, though I opt for cheaper warm leggings that do the job.
An insulated jacket (middle layer) will trap your body heat and keep you warm, especially when not moving. I use two intermediate layers: a Trespass microfleece and a RAB down jacket (the Microlight Alpine) on top of that.
A waterproof jacket (outer layer) will protect you from rain, snow, and wind, with a waterproof liner, like Gore-Tex.
Waterproof pants or ski pants. When it’s sunny, and the snow is not too deep, or if I stay on the trail and only hike on packed snow, I prefer to wear leggings with gaiters only.
Winter hiking socks: I use merino socks because they are anti-odor and blister-proof. My favorite brand is Darn Tough. Always bring an extra pair. Even with waterproof boots, your feet can get wet if you walk in deep snow for long.
Waterproof hiking boots + gaiters. I have the Aku Gore-Tex Women Hiking Boots, and I love them.
Gloves and a hat. I recommend wearing 2 pairs of gloves, one as a base layer, that will allow you to use your hands (making fire, cooking, using your phone, etc.) and waterproof ski gloves pair on top of that.
Toe and hand warmers: when camping in arctic conditions, or if you noticed you are specifically sensitive to cold, you can add them to your list.
Note: this list is an addition to your 10 essentials that you should always carry when hiking.
How to set up your camp
Finding a spot: Take your time to find a good camping spot. Look for a relatively flat and sheltered area. The most important is to find natural wind blocks (trees, hills, rocks) to make your experience more comfortable. Also, make sure you’re not standing on unstable terrain or below a slope that could slide. Avoid camping on vegetation or too close to a water source.
Pitching a tent in the snow: pack down the snow using your snowshoes or shovel. Loose snow is less comfortable and could melt with your body heat. If the terrain is not perfectly flat, you can even the ground using a shovel. If possible, build a wall around your tent to block the wind or dig the snow and pitch your tent below the snow level. You can also build a vestibule that you will use to cook, store gear, and make your way out of the tent easily.
Leave no trace: please follow the LNT rules that apply when you camp, whether in winter or summer.
Stay dry: rule number one is to stay dry at all costs. If you get wet, you’ll get cold way faster, and unless it’s a hot and sunny day, it’s unlikely that you will dry during a winter hike. Use waterproof gear and bring an extra pair of socks. Avoid cotton, and prefer merino wool.
Don’t hold your pee at night: when comfortably tucked in your sleeping bag, you might be tempted to hold your pee and stay in the tent as long as possible. It would be a mistake, as we know that a full bladder requires more energy to your body – the energy it needs to stay warm.
Enjoy hot meals (and hot drinks): eat simple and hot meals. Some people say it’s better to eat some fat before going to bed. My favorite winter meals are the Mountain Chili by AlpineAire and the Veggie Pad Thai by Backpacker’s Pantry. Use a water bottle instead of a water reservoir, as the latter can freeze with cold temperatures.
Keep your shoes inside the tent: there is nothing less annoying than finding frozen hiking boots in the morning. Also, I like to keep the base layer I wear the next day in my sleeping bag.
Share the tent (if you’re not solo adventuring): sharing other people’s body heat is the most efficient way to warm up. If you are camping with a group of friends, bundle and ensure everyone has a tent buddy.
If you have more tips and advice for beginner winter camping, please share them in the comments!