How to Camp in Winter – A Beginner’s Guide to Sleeping on the Snow

Call me crazy, but I love winter escapades in the mountains and camping on the snow. I have had so many great experiences as an all-season backpacker. Weather doesn’t stop me from having an epic adventure!

Winter camping is something I look forward to every year. Sleeping on a blanket of snow presents a whole new set of challenges, but if prepared, winter camping is always a rewarding adventure!

I realize I won’t be convincing too many people to join in my quest or pursue sleeping on the snow, but if winter camping is something you’d like to try, I do feel there are a few pre-requisites before you head up the mountain.

First things first, get outside in the snow.

I’m not talking about taking a trip to the mountain (although, feel free if you’re close and able), I’m talking about going for a walk around your neighborhood when the weather is frigid, snowy and everyone else is watching Netflix sipping cocoa indoors. Getting bundled up and going for a walk in a familiar, comfortable place is great place to start because you want to have time to test out your warm gear and challenge your mental game. You have to learn to embrace the cold weather, so get out in it often.

Snow shoes are essential.

If you don’t own a pair of snowshoes, don’t let that stop you. You can rent snowshoes at your local sporting goods store or REI (if you live close to one). Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a larger area in order to keep you on top of the snow so you can hike with ease and go further. REI has a great Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing if you’re interested. Another great option to stay on top of the snow are cross-country skis. It depends on how much of an adventure you’re up for.

There’s no doubt, you have to have the right gear.

The coldest night I’ve slept on the mountain was -20 degrees. It was a crazy experience in very harsh conditions to say the least (check out a video of our -20 degree trip at the end of this blog!). However, because I was prepared and had the right gear, I didn’t have too many troubles keeping warm through the night.

Here is my personal gear list with everything my husband and I take for one night of winter camping:

TENT – The North Face Mountain 25

SLEEPING PAD(s) – My husband and I use the Exped Synmat Duo sleeping pad and then bring two seperate roll up sleeping pads to put underneath us. I highly recommend doubling up if you’re sleeping on snow.

SLEEPING BAG(s) – We take a total of three down sleeping bags. We each take an individual 20 degree rated bag and top it off with our 30 degree Tango Duo Sleeping Quilt.

BACKPACK – Osprey Aurora 50L

GARMIN INREACH MINI – Always let someone know where you are before you go.

BACKPACKING SNOW SHOVEL

SNOWSHOES + SKI or HIKING POLES – If you decide to take hiking poles, make sure you have snow baskets.

WARM WINTER BOOTS

CLOTHING – Heavy down jacket , waterproof shell jacket, fleece, warm hat, warm mittens, two pairs of warm socks, thick base layer top and bottoms, fleece pants, warm neck gaiter/buff, insulated snow pants.

HAND/FOOT WARMERS

WATER BOTTLES – We pack at least 4-5L of water with us for one night using regular Nalgene bottles. Be prepared for your water to freeze. Once at camp, we boil snow and pour hot water into our water bottles to melt the ice.

ALCOHOL or REGULAR FUEL STOVE – we prefer to use our MSR white gas stove because it works better in colder temperatures.

Be prepared to carry a heavy pack.

Hiking long trails, my husband and I have learned a lot about packing light and taking only what’s absolutely necessary. Winter camping is not the appropriate time to pack light – although it can be done. It’s important to be prepared and make sure you have everything you need. During Spring, Summer and Fall seasons, my pack weight is somewhere around 14lbs with food and water. During the winter season, my pack weight nearly doubles increasing to 23-25lbs with food and water.

Tips and tricks to keep warm.

Here are some of my personal tips that have helped me stay warm and sleep comfortably throughout the night:

DOWN BOOTIES My feet are always the first to freeze up. Down booties are lightweight luxury! Try these on for size from Enlightened Equipment.

EAT BEFORE BED – Especially high fat foods as these calories will help generate heat to your core as you digest. A nice hot meal before bed warms the belly. Jake and I also like to bring tea bags or hot chocolate to sip on after dinner.

YOU WON’T WANT TO, BUT GO PEE! It’s uncomfortable holding a pee. You also are not sleeping well when you hold a pee. Just do it – get up out of your tent, do your business and crawl back into your warm sleeping bag. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

HYDRATEIt is so easy to forget to drink when you’re cold. Keep reading – my next tip will also help keep you hydrated.

SLEEP WITH A HOT WATER BOTTLE Boil up any water you have left and pour it back into your water bottle to sleep with at night. The bonus to this trick is that you guarantee your water will not be frozen in the morning and you can cook breakfast quickly without having to melt snow first thing when you wake up!

CUDDLE BUDDY One major benefit to sharing a double sleeping pad and sleep quilt is body heat. By simply sharing space with another warm-bodied human being, naturally you stay a whole lot warmer.

Winter camping requires being able to brave the elements and challenge yourself. Human beings are wired to be comfortable, but the reality is we don’t grow or experience any success in comfort. Being prepared is key to having a positive experience winter camping. If you pack smart, welcome challenges and step outside your comfort zone, winter camping will be your new favorite outing!

Still not inspired? Check out this video of Jake and I winter camping in the Bighorn mountains in -20 degree conditions. You will also see a better visual of our gear in this video.

Happy hiking!

Christina Rose

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