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January 2017

Winter Camping: Tips and Tricks!

camp stoves
Mountain Hardwear
sleeping bag
winter camping

There are very few chances to experience more joy than during a winter camping trip. No crowds, the landscape is blissfully quiet, the winter night sky is incredible, and the snow affords endless opportunity to get creative with your campsite. For many of us, there is no ‘camping season’. If anything, we enjoy getting out in the winter even more. Of course, the difference between a great time and a very long, cold, uncomfortable sufferfest is a fine line, and you will find the correct gear choices make all the difference. So what do we do a little differently in the winter?


Most tents on the market are what are known as three season tents. These tents are usually double-walled and designed to optimize air flow before warmth, which makes sense when used in warm, humid weather. Three season tents also tend to be lighter (and lighter duty) than their heavier, winter capable counterparts. In the winter the priorities change, and the focus turns toward keeping the occupants warm, and creating a rugged shelter capable of handling snow loads and heavier storms. These four season tents generally have stronger pole structures, a full nylon body, flys that extend right to the ground, and heavier duty vestibules. These come with a modest weight penalty, but the comfort cannot be overstated in cold, wintery conditions. Some excellent examples of 4-season tents include the classic Trango 2 from Mountain Hardwear, The North Face Mountain 25, and the Nemo Tenshi from Nemo Equipment

"Tip: dig a hole in the snow at the entry to your tent, so you can sit in the tent, like a chair."

The great thing about camping on snow is you have the ability to get creative with your campsite. Use your shovel to create a nice flat spot to set up your tent. Ideally dig it out a bit so the snow surrounding your shelter provides a natural barrier to the elements. I like to dig out a spot to set up a place to cook (if you are brave enough or stuck in a snow blizzard, you might cook inside your tent), and a little cave to function as a ‘fridge’ for any perishable foods I may have taken along. A snow table and a nice snow chair or two don’t hurt either, and make for a nice place to lounge after a long, hard day of skiing. Tip: dig a hole in the snow at the entry to your tent, so you can sit in the tent, like a chair, and put your boots on. It’s so nice to be able to put your feet below your hips!

When playing around in all that lovely snow, be careful to not bring it inside your tent. Your nice warm tent will melt it all and you will wake up in a puddle! Use your awesome bench at the entrance of your tent to shake off all that snow before crawling into your cozy home.

[caption id="attachment_409" align="aligncenter" width="984"]Winter_Camp_Gear_Collection Some of the gear that will make all the difference when camping in -20 celsius.[/caption]

Sleeping Bag

In the winter, down is king when it comes to sleeping bags. Not only are down bags lighter and more comfortable, they are a far more efficient form of insulation. In sub-zero conditions, the moisture management concerns that worry those down sceptics all but disappear, and given the fact that you will be carrying a heavier tent, as well as the need for a much warmer sleeping bag, down cannot be beat. To be extra safe, a bag with DWR treated down, or a hydrophobic shell can provide a bit of protection against any melting snow that may make it into the tent. High end bags usually have an endurance or some sort of coating on the outside near the hood and footbox. A good idea when deciding on a bag is to think about the coldest temperatures you may experience, and plan for a bit colder. I suggest something in the range of at least a -14 to -20 rated bag, but it is all dependant on the trip. My most recommended bag options are the Rab Neutrino Endurance 600 (which contains hydrophobic down and a Pertex endurance face fabric to shed moisture), as well as the Rab Andes 1000 for when temperatures get extreme and lightweight remains a priority. You can find more detailed info on sleeping bags in our blog post Sleeping Bags: ratings, insulation and design.


The mattress is often overlooked when planning a sleep system, but it is absolutely critical to keeping you warm at night. When inside a sleeping bag, the insulation beneath you is compressed and fails to keep you warm without an insulated mattress underneath. If you use a summer mattress on the snow, chances are you will have a cold, restless night. Look for a pad with an R-value of at least 4.5 to keep you warm. There are countless options on the market, but a few stand out. Exped makes some great lightweight mattresses with down insulation, such as the Downmat 7. Therm-a-Rest has one of the world’s lightest winter mats in the NeoAir Xtherm. It is a 6 cm thick pad with an R-Value of 5.7, in a package that packs smaller than a 1L water bottle and weighs less than a pound!

"The mattress is often overlooked when planning a sleep system, but it is absolutely critical to keeping you warm at night."


Warmth in winter is all about proper clothing choices. A comfortable base layer, warm mid-layers, and an insulated jacket provide an efficient layering system allowing one to thermo-regulate and maintain comfort throughout the day and night. Merino wool leggings and a long sleeve crew neck first layer form the foundation for this system. Merino wool is a great natural fibre that is highly breathable, lightweight, extremely comfortable, and can be worn for days due to its natural ability to resist build-up of odour causing bacteria. Ibex, Icebreaker, Arc’teryx, Patagonia, and many others all make fantastic base layer options in a vast variety of styles and options. On top of this a wool or synthetic fleece mid-layer provides another barrier to the cold, and a synthetic or down jacket forms your main insulation piece. Your jacket choice will depend on your own needs and ability to stay warm, but look for a heavier, thicker piece designed for colder weather. I would recommend pieces like the Arc’teryx Atom AR (Synthetic), Rab Neutrino Endurance Jacket (Down), or Montane Black Ice and White Ice (Down). In the extreme cold, take an insulated pant as well. These can make a big difference if spending lots of idle time, or if the temps dip dramatically. My personal choice here is the men's Montane Flux pants. I love these. They are a great price, warmer than you think they will be, and the full side zipper makes it easy to pull off without removing your shell pants. Finally, the ultimate and often forgotten hero of winter camping is the modest camp bootie. This is a lifesaver in cold conditions. Cold feet are frustrating, and having something to slip them into in camp is absolute bliss. Camp booties are light, inexpensive, and worth their weight in gold. Check out the Montane Prism bootie for a great example of these little lifesavers. Last but not least- always make sure to have an extra pair of dry gloves and socks with you. It can be really hard to dry out wet gear in the winter, and there is nothing worse than throwing on a wet pair of gloves or socks in the morning. Find more info on dressing for the outdoors in our blog post Layering: stay warm and make winter about fun, not survival!

Stove, food, and water

Proper hydration and eating are crucial to staying warm (and alive!) in the winter backcountry. All too often a trip goes south due to a stove failure, poor hydration, or lackluster food planning. Can you imagine waking up in -30 conditions and not being able to make coffee? A situation so terrifying is best avoided. Stove choices are easier in the summer, pretty much anything goes and any stove on the market will work if you tailor it to your needs. In the winter it is important to find something that works in the deep cold. As a general rule, it is best to avoid canister stoves and go for a liquid fuel (White gas or kerosene) stove. Canister stoves tend to not function well or at all in the cold, and this can be a big problem when freezing through those long nights in the mountains. When it comes to really extreme conditions, you can’t really beat the MSR XGK EX stove. It is built like a tank and will boil water in 3.5 minutes in -20 conditions.

"As a general rule, it is best to avoid canister stoves and go for a liquid fuel."

One bonus of winter camping is that you have a natural refrigerator! Ok maybe more like a freezer. But what this means is that you can bring more perishables like meat, cheese, and fruit that may otherwise spoil in warmer temps. I often take bagged soups, cured meats, a block or five of my favourite cheese, maybe even eggs if feeling extra brave. Eating well helps keep you warm, and if your food won’t spoil then stock up the snow fridge and eat like kings. Just remember to hydrate! It is all too easy to forget to drink water when you are cold, but hydration remains just as crucial at -30 as at +40. A hydrated and well-fed camper is a happy camper!

Camp life

Winter camping is a blast, but one thing you can’t get away from is the fact that the days are short, and the nights long. This means lots of time in camp, and unless you sleep for 14-16 hours at a time, lots of headlamp socializing. I like to bring a deck of Basecamp Cards with me on all trips, but find I use them a lot more in the winter. These are a standard, waterproof deck of cards with a twist: each card poses a question that inspires conversation. Sometimes silly, sometimes philosophical, they can turn a starlit game of rummy into a late night of deep conversation. GSI, and Snow Peak make great little pocket flasks to provide some nice liquid warmth, and are a staple for me on ski trips. And make sure you don’t forget your Black Diamond Apollo lantern to illuminate your campsite and provide a nice ambient lighting instead of the constantly moving headlamp beams. On a safety note, and for that extra restful peace of mind, make sure to bring your Spot or inReach device when you’re camping in the backcountry.

"Basecamp Cards can turn a starlit game of rummy into a late night of deep conversation."

There are endless options when it comes to winter camping. So much of this is dependent on conditions, personal preference, location, and activity. However, the basic needs remain constant: shelter from the cold, lots of great food, and a restful night sleep. Once you get these dialled in, you are ready to enjoy the sheer bliss of winter camping. There is nothing like sipping a hot drink under the starry winter sky in the snowy backcountry after a long day on skis. Especially when you know you have a cozy warm camp to step into after staring at the cosmos.