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Camping in the wintertime is one of the most enjoyable things you can do, but it can also be extremely dangerous if you’re not well prepared for the harsh conditions. Learning how to camp safely in the winter should be your highest priority if you decide to take on this style of camping.
There are many things you can do to prepare for the worst when it comes to winter camping. From my experience, there’s no such thing as over-preparing in times like this.
Quick Links To Info On This Page
Planning Is Critical
In order to camp safely during the colder months, you need to think about every aspect of camping. This includes but is not limited to: the type of tent, what it’s made out of (heat retention), the color (UV reflection), where you’re camping, food preparation, ways to stay warm, water supplies, firewood, toilet and bathing options, and the type of weather you’ll be facing. These are the bare essentials you should research before tackling your next trip.
One of the first things I did before I got into winter camping was to find as much information as I could beforehand. Whether it was from online resources such as this one or from other campers I’d met over the years, both are full of information that is useful for keeping you safe.
Before you take on any camping trip, I’d suggest telling people where you’re going and if applicable what tracks you’ll be going on. This is just a preventive in case there is a worst-case scenario and you find yourself. This way, at least people will have a rough idea as to where to find you.
Safest Tent To Use During Cold Winters
Before you go winter camping you’re going to need a tent and not just any old tent, you’ll need a high quality 4 season tent (all-weather tent). These tents are designed to handle extreme weather, so they’re a requirement for any form of winter camping.
Try taking a 3 season tent winter camping and you will quickly regret the decision. You will either freeze to death or lose your sanity. 4 Season tents also have the added benefit of being able to be used year-round, making them good value for your money.
The material the tents are made of is crucial to safely camping in winter. During the colder months, you want a tent that retains the heat inside the tent, not one with an open mesh ceiling which lets any heat inside the tent escape. A good quality canvas tent is the best choice for winter camping.
A canvas tent will be suitable for most family campers, but for backpackers, the heaviness of canvas will mean you will need to find a lighter polyester or nylon 4 season tent to endure the coldness of the mountains.
Not only does the tent you choose needs to keep the warmth in and cold out, but it will also need a high amount of ventilation. This is crucial if you’re planning on using a heater or a camping stove inside your tent as you don’t want the carbon monoxide building up.
Heating The Inside Of The Tent
Once you have selected a heavy-duty durable tent suitable to handle the harsh winter environment, its time to consider whether you want to go the extra mile and provide interior heating for your tent.
The safest possible way to heat the inside of your tent would be to use battery-operated tent heaters. Unfortunately, the option for common household batteries is non-existent, so you will need to rig up a 12v system utilizing an external battery or power bank.
The next obvious choice is using propane heaters inside your tent. But it’s critical that you ensure the heater you choose is safe to use inside a tent. The link above elaborates in more detail about which tent heater is safest for tent camping during winter.
What Color Tent Is Best For Winter Camping
One thing a lot of beginner campers don’t realize is that bright colored tents are ideal for being found in remote places. They make them a bright color so you can see them in the snow, so they’re easier to find in an emergency.
However, bright-colored tents are not the best for colder conditions where the aim of your tent is to retain heat. The darker the tent is, the more heat it can retain. So while a bright tent is great for emergencies and keeping you cooler during summer, in winter they don’t retain the heat as well.
If you’re lucky enough to get a few hours of direct sunlight each day on your winter camping expedition, a dark or black tent would be the best. As the darker colors, black to be specific, absorbs the light and energy from the sun’s rays. This will ensure you are giving the inside of your tent the best chance to stay warm.
Quality Durable Frame
You’ll want your tent to have a really durable and quality frame. You want it to be able to handle the weight of snow falling on it without collapsing in on itself. This is a difficult thing to find out as companies make their poles out of a lot of different materials which makes it difficult to tell what the quality is like.
So working out what the poles are made out of and how durable are is crucial. Most reputable companies won’t try and hide what they’re made of and use quality fiberglass for their tent poles.
Remove Excess Snow From The Tent
You’ve spent the night winter camping and it snowed or the cold left a morning frost over the tent. It sounds crazy, but I’ve known people who just ignore this and leave it on there tent and complain about how cold it is inside their tent. You should remove this kind of thing every morning as it can melt over the day and soak into your tent which is as bad as it sounds!
Plus, think of the extra layer of snow of frost over your tent as an icebox. It’s insulating your tent to keep it as cold as possible. So do yourself the favor and remove any snow and frost you see from the exterior of the tent.
Cherish Your Wellbeing?
If you’ve been camping for as long as I have you’re sure to have come across someone who has said it doesn’t matter what type of tent you use when camping in winter. Often followed up by them showing you the dodgy additions they’ve done to their own tents.
This person is wrong and is the type of person you see on the news lost in a park recovering from frostbite! The tent you use is crucial and one of the most important things to keep you safe while winter camping.
Camping Items To Keep You Safe During Winter
Now you’ve got your all-season tent designed to handle the winter months, there’s still more you’ll need in order to safely camp in the coldness of the winter months. There are certain extra things you can get that will make winter camping more enjoyable and keep you warm enough so that you don’t die.
There are 3 necessities I think every winter camper needs, these are: a good winter sleeping bag (or insulation for your current bag), a thermal mat, and warm clothing. Adding these extra things will keep you warmer which will in turn, help you get a good night’s sleep.
The Sleeping Bag
Your sleeping bag will be essential in getting a good night’s sleep. There are a lot of them on the market so finding the right one is a difficult task. One of the more crucial things to look for in your sleeping bag is finding what its temperature rating is.
Getting one designed for the colder temperature will drastically improve your warmth. Compare the R-value of the sleeping bag to the predicted temperatures in the region where you will be camping. Ensure the sleeping bag is rated to such temperatures for maximum warmth.
If you already have a sleeping bag and don’t really want to go out and buy a brand new one, then there is an option for you. This is getting a sleeping bag liner that will keep your sleeping bag warm. This is a good option for some people who are looking to keep the budget down, but just make sure you get one that will suit the temperature you will be in.
Sleeping on the cold ground is a good way to drain all the body heat out of you. Even if you have a well-insulated sleeping bag the cold ground will still affect your overall temperature. So getting a high-quality thermal mat will make a massive difference and will keep the cold from taking your body heat.
Even if you’re sleeping on an air mattress, ideally you want a layer of protection between you and the airbed and another between the earth and the airbed. Without this, the air inside the airbed becomes incredibly cold and makes it almost impossible to get to sleep on.
Your body heat has no chance of trying to warm the inside of the airbed when the bed is in direct contact with the freezing cold earth. So I highly recommend you add one of these thermal mats to your next winter camping trip. You’ll notice the difference almost instantly.
Wearing The Right Clothes
This does seem like it goes without saying but wearing the right clothes will make a massive difference to your warmth. It’s a fine balance of getting the temperature right, if you’re too hot then you will sweat, which will add moisture to your sleeping bag. This can cause your body temperature to drop which is something you don’t want.
There are certain fabrics that you will want to avoid such as cotton. Cotton is great in most situations but it doesn’t work too well for winter camping. It holds onto moisture really well which can be bad in cold situations especially if it’s something like your socks.
Take thermal undergarments if you are anticipating extreme cold weather. One can never be too over-prepared in harsh conditions like this, especially if you have kids with you. If your feet are prone to the cold, which most are, pack thermal socks and a beanie to help protect the areas that attract the cold the most.
Where To Store Your Gear
Most people will find this fairly obvious but some people don’t know because they’re just starting out. Some people like to store there gear outside the tent because they have either a smaller tent or got told the wrong thing. For your camping gear like carry bags, camping cupboards, and so forth, you’ll want to keep it inside your tent with you just to keep it from getting moisture and frost on it.
You can put your gear on the inside of your tent, but around the rim of the tent itself if you have space. This will act as a form of homemade insulation that will keep you that little bit warmer and a good way to make your gear more useful.
Is The Weather Safe To Camp In?
While you can’t fully predict what will happen at any given moment during your winter camping trip, you can give yourself a better chance of survival if you are prepared for the worst. Part of the preparation process is to check the weather forecast for the period of your stay.
Knowing if it’s going to snow, rain, or have high winds before going camping will help you prepare. For example, it’s easy to get lazy on the first day of setting up the tent and unpacking. There’s no wind around so you do the bare minimum in regards to staking the tent down.
After 2 days into the camping trip, the winds pick up drastically. By this stage, you’re well into your adventure and have totally forgotten that you didn’t stake down the rainfly or tent to its full potential. I think you know what happens next, you return from your day fishing from the comfort of your insulated ice fishing shelter to discover that your tent is barely hanging on by a thread.
Its time like this you regret being that little bit lazy. So always stake down your tent 100% when camping in the wintertime, it’s not worth the risk of losing it all.
Finding A Safe Location To Pitch Your Tent
Just like when you go camping in the summertime, you need to evaluate the area you’ll be setting up your tent. Doing it in winter is even more essential, especially if you’re expecting snow. Finding the best location in the snow to set up your tent is mandatory, which is something any expert in winter camping will tell you.
Avoid areas directly under trees where branches and piles of snow can fall onto your tent.
Setting Up A Tent In The Snow
Depending on the conditions there are a few things you can do to make winter camping better. If the snow is only lightly over the area and you can clear it out before setting up your tent, then you absolutely should do it. This is something that is highly recommended if you have the option.
If the ground doesn’t allow you to remove the snow to show the actual ground then there is another option, this is to pack the ground down so that it’s solid and flat. You can do this in a number of ways such as using some skis and stomping to pack it tightly.
Without skis, this can be difficult but there is an option you can do which is you can set your tent up and not stake it. Then get inside the tent and use your knees to pack the snow tightly then get outside and stake it. Doing this is important as it will help any accidents involving soft snow.
Prepare For Strong Winds
Once you have set up your tent in the snow, the next thing you need to consider is the winds. Strong winds can cause havoc to any tent if the site hasn’t been planned well. When strong winds gush in, they can blow surface snow in under your tent’s vestibule or fly.
To minimize this, you need to know how to position your tent in the snow to reduce the amount of surface snow blown into your tent. This video below gives a real-life demonstration of how to achieve this.
The Toilet Needs Some Thought
One of the best winter camping tips is something you may not expect. The last thing you want to do in the cold is hold in your urine when you need to go. This is because your body will have to work harder to keep your urine warm, which is energy better spent trying to keep your body warm. There are a number of things you can do to make this easier, especially since it can be cold enough that you will want to keep your pants on!
There are a number of products designed for this type of thing which is something you should consider getting before going on your next trip. Something like a urine funnel will make life a bit easier and essential if you’re a woman camping in the colder areas. Men are a little bit luckier as they can use a spare bottle if necessary, just make sure to put something like tape on it as a warning!
Camping Safe Is All About Being Prepared
Bringing the appropriate gear will make a big difference to your overall trip and help keep you safer in the long run. However, you can never be fully prepared for everything as there will be times you forget something or realize that you need something during a future trip.
Your tent will be able to protect you from the most extreme winter weather, as long as you pack accordingly. Thankfully most four-season tents are made with these kinds of conditions in mind provided its a premium quality tent.
But it never hurts to be too prepared in my opinion, so go over your tent in advance to check for leaks and potential areas where cold air can enter.
With the right amount of preparation and planning, anyone can safely camp in winter. But it goes without saying that you need to check the weather forecast in advance. Camping in a snowstorm is not everyone’s ideal camping experience.
Equipment Checklist For Camping In Winter
I can’t stress enough the importance of being prepared before you go winter camping. A huge part of being prepared is having the correct gear for the conditions. Below you can find a basic winter camping checklist so that your next journey is the safest possible.
- Maps – Including GPS and a compass
- Sun protection – Yes, even in winter. Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses.
- First aid – Whether it’s camping in the snow, or on a powered car camping site, first aid is a must!
- Shelter – Bring an additional shelter or tarp to put over your tent for extra protection from snow and rain.
- Headlamps – I find headlamps are the best source of light when you’re camping in such extreme conditions
- Emergency foods that don’t need to be cooked before eaten – Jerky, tinned food etc.
- Ample supplies of water
- Knife and ax
- Snow shovel
- Insulated ice fishing shelter for the keen anglers.