Winter camping can be cold, dark, wet and windy, maybe even snowy. Many of us are fair-weather campers. We aim to be out in the elements when the weather is almost guaranteed to be favourable, but there are real joys to camping in winter. The trick is to stay warm and dry.
Camping when there can be snow on the ground is possible with the right equipment and preparation. This equipment can be expensive. People do sometimes go winter camping in North America or Europe, or in mountainous areas when there is snow, but this is serious trekking. Most of us look at other options, such as a wilderness cabin or similar.
In many other places, winter camping can mean short but beautiful cold crisp days or more chance of wind & rain. Camping can be very doable and enjoyable for most of us during this time.
Wear layers of clothes to keep as warm as you need to be. A base layer of thermals or fine merino wool is the go, then one or more layers of polar fleece or similar above. When sitting around, a down-filled jacket or vest is fantastic: face it, it’s just like wearing a sleeping bag. Just be careful not to get it wet or it will never be the same. Rain jackets can provide good protection against the cold wind as well as rain. Wear a warm hat as 10% of body heat can be lost through the top of the head. Gloves are great, but mittens keep fingers warmer and are easier to get on and off. The ideal is a pair of short-fingered gloves with a flap over mitten top to cover the fingers most of the time.
Sturdy and warm equipment
It’s important the tent and bedding is good quality and able to keep people warm and dry.
Tents should be able to withstand wind and be waterproof. Tents can be re-waterproofed, but it’s no fun to find out it needs it in the middle of the night. Consider an extra tarpaulin or similar under the tent floor.
Sleeping bags and camping mattresses are crucial for keeping warm at night. Sleeping bag manufacturers give an indication on the minimum temperature for a comfortable night’s sleep, but that’s usually just for the brand new sleeping bag. If you’re likely to get cold, wear thermals and other clothes to bed, including a beanie. If you are winter camping in your car consider taking extra blankets. Polar fleece blankets are light and relatively cheap.
Camp mattresses provide insulation from the ground as well as comfort. Put a blanket underneath your sleeping bag as well as on top.
Winter Camping At night
Choose a sheltered campsite that is unlikely to flood. Steer well away from any depressions that might pool water and try and place the tent so it gets the sun in the morning. Forget the view: chances are it’s windy.
There is always condensation in the tent when it is cold. Reduce it by making sure there is adequate ventilation through the tent at night, no matter how cold and wet it is outside. A decent tent should be able to have airflow without letting rain or snow in. Make sure there is a gap between the inner tent and the outer fly and the fly can be unfastened from the bottom.
Nights are long in winter. Take decent lights and spare batteries. As well as a shared light in the tent, it’s good if everyone has a small head or hand torch.
Evenings in a tent can be cosy – take a pack of cards, games, light handcrafts that don’t need fine eye-work, something to read or whatever takes your fancy.
If you are able to have a campfire outside, songs and stories can be magical for everyone. Tents are flammable, so make sure fires are down-wind. Never use a camp stove in a tent.
Food to warm the body as well as the soul
The two coldest times when winter camping are usually bedtime and first thing in the morning. It’s a good idea to eat something substantial just before going to bed when camping to help warm up. Sleeping bags only trap heat. They can remain cold if a cold body slips in. If you are freezing just before bedtime, try a few star jumps or other exercises to warm up before slipping into the sack. They may not help the sleepiness, but going to bed when freezing is worse.
Food for winter camping is pretty much the same as for summer camping, except it’s more enjoyable if it’s warm and hearty. Don’t forget that food cools quickly during winter, so make so it’s something that can be served quickly. Food does keep slightly warmer in bowls or cups rather than plates.
Hot drinks of any sort warm people up from the inside, and make a great hand warmer before going down the hatch. Try instant soups, tea of any description, hot chocolate, gluhwein or whatever: as long as it’s warm. They’re great in the morning before the day and its activities warm-up and in small quantities at night. Remember getting up in the middle of the night while camping is something to avoid.
If it’s freezing overnight, water in any container might turn solid. Have a camp stove with a pot ready with water to go in the morning. Get that first hot cup of whatever even if the water starts as a block of ice. The other advantage is that you can quickly light the stove then snuggle back in to bed until the hot drink is ready.