Part 2- Almost Everything You Need To Know About Winter Camping
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
There is so much to learn as you get into winter camping we had to break this article up into multiple parts. I've been sleeping in the snow (Not Literally) for 30 years and I'm still refining my approach. There are so many ways to approach winter camping depending on your trip goals, the environment, and your skill level.
How To Choose A Camp Site In Winter
When looking for a place to make camp in winter you have slightly different considerations than you will in the warmer seasons. Rather than a nice view, you want to find a spot that is sheltered. As much as possible you want to get out of the wind. A stand of conifer trees often offers great options if you can find an open area within them. The land features can also be used as a windbreak such as a hill or larger boulder between you and the wind. Just keep in mind that wind direction will often change during the night so try to find an area that has protection from more than one side. As with any campsite always look up and around you to make sure there are no dead trees or branches that can fall on your camp.
To prepare your camp you will have to dig down with your shovel or snowshoes to get close to the ground. Then stomp around with your snowshoes to level it out. You don't want to set up your tent on the snow as will compress and melt making it likely you will tear through the bottom of your tent. If the snow is more than 2 feet deep it is a good idea to dig out a walkway so you don't have to jump down into your camp. Use the snow you dig up to make a windbreak around your camp if you don't have enough protection from the trees or terrain.
If you have a nylon tent make sure your fire is at least 4-5 meters away. The embers from the fire will easily burn holes in nylon if it is too close. Just make sure that you position your fire far enough from the trees as we so as not to be at risk of starting a forest fire.
Can You Use A Three-Season Tent In Winter?
Depending on the severity of your weather you can definitely use a three-season tent. The two conditions that challenge a tent are high winds and heavy snowfall so on quiet days without snow you will get by just fine.
If you find a sheltered place to erect your tent it often is enough for all but the windiest conditions. Most tents have a number of the extra tie out points that can be staked out to added support. You can use either metal tent pegs or use small logs to make a deadman's anchor. This is when you wrap the guyline around the log and bury it in the snow. The snow will solidify and it will make for a secure anchor for all but the highest winds.
To help with the snow you can hang a tarp over your tent in an A-frame configuration stopping the snow from building up. The snow hitting the tarp will be diverted to land on either side of the tent rather than on it. If it is a particularly heavy snowfall you should be getting up and shoveling it away from the base of the tent to maintain airflow.
Cold Tenting VS Hot Tenting
Whether you use a three-season backpacking tent or a dedicated winter mountaineering tent when you are cold tenting you relying on the insulation of your sleeping bag and your body heat to keep warm. The tent will act as a windbreaker and retain a bit of heat especially if you have more than one person in the tent.
Compared to three-season tents, winter or mountaineering tents are built more ruggedly to handle heavy snow and high winds. The fabric will be more durable, the inner will be solid fabric rather than bug netting and the pole system will be stronger. The poles will tend to be thicker and there are more of them. This translates into more weight than a three-season tent.
Usually, a non-heated tent is lighter making it easier to carry in a backpack. This makes them well suited for trips that you want to cover more distance or are in steeper terrain like the mountains.
So far I've talked about camping in a 3-season or winter nylon tent without additional heat, but you can also get a canvas tent that is designed for running a small wood stove.
Hot tents are heavier and require a stove to function as designed but they offer the lap of luxury when it comes to backcountry camping. Rather than just relying on your body heat and sleeping bag to keep warm, the heat from the stove will keep the tent warm enough that you can sit comfortably often in just a base layer. Since you have a contained campfire within your tent you can hang your clothes to dry. Another bonus is since most of the stoves are flat-topped you can put a pot on for cooking and melting snow for water. Some stoves have a side-mounted water heater option making it easy to always have hot water.
The setup of the tent will require you to clear a campsite of snow and then stake it out as they only use one pole in the middle and rely on the tension. Once erected you will backfill the skirt of the tent with snow to keep out wind and drifting snow. This takes longer than setting up a nylon tent. Additionally, you will have to process enough firewood to last the night. The pieces will have to be broken down small enough to fit in the stove. This means budgeting much more time to set up camp and prepare for the night.
The combo of stove and tent can be quite heavy and bulky so you will be limited to pulling your gear on a sled rather than carrying it in a backpack. This will limit you to mainly flatter areas as pulling a sled up mountains and steep terrain can be unwieldy. Hot tent systems are also much more expensive than even high-end cold tents but you can get away with a much lighter sleeping bag which will help offset some of the cost.
I view hot tenting as a relaxing and comfortable way to winter camp. You won't tend to cover as much distance as you can cold tenting and are limited to pulling a sled. I find the process of making camp and processing wood to be relaxing so while it is work it is the kind of work I don't mind doing. It can be a great way to get your family into winter camping as it doesn't present the same challenges and potential discomfort as cold tenting.
Warmest way to sleep in the backcountry
The stove will allow you to dry clothing and melt snow for water
Larger than most cold tents so great for groups to hang out on a cold winter night
Heavy. The tent and stove usually weigh over 45 lbs
Expensive. Unless you make your own tent you should expect to pay well over $1000 for a tent and stove.
You will need to process enough wood to last the night. This will mean carrying both an ax and saw as the wood pieces have to be small enough to fit in the stove.
- Less expensive than a hot tent system.
- Lighter and smaller, making it well suited for trips where you want to go longer or approach steeper terrain such as the mountains.
- Easier to set up. Since the kit comes with poles and a plan, setting up the tent usually only takes a few minutes.
- Colder than hot tenting. At best you will have a candle lantern in addition to body heat so you must have your systems dialed in.
- Generally not as big as a hot tent so it doesn't make for a comfortable place to get in and out of. Not as good for group hangouts.
- Condensation. Since the tent walls will match the outside temperature, your breath and body moisture will condense on the inner walls of the tent.
Can You Heat A Tent Without A Stove?
You can add some heat to your tent with a candle lantern hanging from the ceiling. UCO makes single and three candle options that can help warm a tent, add some light and reduce condensation. The three candle Candlelier model will add about 5000 BTUs of heat which can warm a tent by about 8 Celcius or 15 Fahrenheit.
Since the candles produce carbon monoxide make sure you have ventilation and don't go to sleep with the candle burning.
Building A Shelter Bushcraft Style
Another option for winter shelter is to build a bushcraft style shelter. This can be a lean-to, A-frame or even a wigwam. Both natural and manmade materials will be used. It requires a knowledge of tool use, knots and construction techniques. This isn't a great approach if you are trying to hike long distances but it is fun and relaxing to get out and work on your bushcraft skills.
I am fond of building a lean-to and covering it with clear painters drop cloth including the front opening. The back of the lean-lo is backfilled with snow for insulation. I will then build a fire about four feet in front of the shelter to heat it. The plastic covering will help cut the wind and retain heat like a greenhouse. Plus the front covering will stop embers from the fire from landing on your expensive nylon shelled sleeping bag.
What About Snow Shelters?
There are a number of shelters you can build from snow if there is enough of it and it has had time to compress. An advantage of snow shelters is once they are built they can last for a number of days and can be quite insulated. It is not unusual for the inside temperature to warm to just below freezing due to retaining body heat and the heat of a candle lantern.
Like a bushcraft shelter, anything you need to build will take time and energy so it is important to plan to start building camp earlier so you don't run out of daylight. Like the bushcraft shelter, snow shelters are a unique experience and better suited for shorter hikes leaving you plenty of time to make camp. It can be fun to be in the snow in the coldest of nights playing cards by candlelight.
Here are a few types of snow shelter to research how to build:
- Snow Cave
- Snow Trench
Can You Hammock Camp In Winter?
If you use a hammock for three-season camping then you can adapt it to winter use fairly easily. Just like tent camping, you will need to increase your insulation and cut the wind.
Hammock insulation does the same job as in a tent only instead of protecting from the cold ground, you need insulation from the cold air swirling under you. This can be accomplished with an under-quilt wrapping the underside of the hammock or a sleeping pad inside. In winter I often recommend both. The Therma-Rest Z-lite foam pad is one of the best options as its egg-crate pattern doesn't slip around in the hammock and it offers good insulation for the weight.
To get an under-quilt that is warm enough for winter you will have to order for a custom manufacturer as the quilts from Eagles Nest Outfitters or Therma-Rest are only rated to freezing. Hammock Gear and Warbonnet are just a few of the companies that make ultra-insulated under-quilts that would be great for winter camping. They make the under-quilts custom so you can get just about any temperature rating you would like.
A larger tarp with doors on the end will help block more wind and retain more heat. Eagles Nest Outfitters and Hammock Gear have hammock specific tarps that can fully enclose your hammock for maximum protection.
I find my comfort level in a hammock in the -25 Celcius range. Anything below that is beyond the gear I have. I can extend much lower when tent camping especially when you are sharing it with other people which adds heat.
The Wrap Up
Now that you have an idea about where to camp and your shelters read Part 3 (coming soon) to delve into further details of sleeping bags, cooking and full packing lists.
Go to Part 1