Tips and Tricks for Cold Weather Backpacking and Winter Camping

Winter is here, but you don’t have to pack the tent and sleeping bag away for another season quite yet (or at all.) By altering a few strategies, backpacking can be enjoyed year-round. Below are some of the best tips I’ve learned over the years in an effort to learn to enjoy camping in any season, including winter.

man standing in snow with tent

Fun? Maybe. It depends on how you do it. Photo: Tanya Koob

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1. Start small and work your way up to bigger trips

If you were to go backpacking in the middle of summer, how far would you hike in a day? Take that distance and cut it in half. Now you’re looking at a more reasonable distance for cold-weather trips. If you’re making the trip with children or if you’ll be breaking trail through deep snow, you may want to chop off a few more miles still.

The goal at this time of year isn’t about gigantic adventures. Instead, it is about just getting into the backcountry and enjoying the solitude at a time of year when most others are house and city-bound.  By late fall, I’ve started missing our summer wilderness trips and am always itching to get away from the city. At this point, I don’t care how far I journey into the wilds as long as I find a place to call home for the night and I can’t hear the highway anymore.

Read More: Ten Tips for Making Snowshoeing Fun With Kids

man pulling sled with kids and mountain in background

Start small for your first winter camping trip, especially when bringing kids. Photo: Tanya Koob

2. Start fall and winter trips early in the morning

I will never forget the ski trip I did one November where we didn’t start quite early enough in the morning to reach our cabin before dark. We’d forgotten how early the sun goes down, and we hadn’t budgeted enough time with the trail breaking we were doing in deep snow. So we never did reach that cabin, and it was a long ski back to the cars by headlamp as we finally arrived at the vehicles near midnight.

Lesson learned! Short days require a very early start if you have many miles to cover before reaching camp. (And another reason to choose a trip that’s short and easy)

Also, if there’s snow, bring a sled.  My motto is, “why carry a heavy pack if you can pull it.”

Read More: What to Bring When Snowshoeing: Top Accessories for the Day Hiker

several people trekking through snow with backpacks

We never did make it to our cabin that night because we didn’t start early enough! Photo: Tanya Koob

3. It’s still camping if you choose to use a wilderness hut or backcountry cabin

Don’t be afraid of seeking out additional comfort in the form of a cozy backcountry cabin or shelter of some kind in the cooler months. It doesn’t make you soft, and you don’t have to sleep on the ground to call it camping.

In the Canadian Rockies, check out the Alpine Club of Canada’s website to learn about their incredible backcountry hut system. In the U.S., hut lodging is organized by state. For an overview of backcountry yurts, huts, and reservations, check out this excellent article by Backcountry.com.

Read More: Easy Ways to Stay Overnight in the Canadian Rockies Backcountry Year Round  as a Family

cabin in deep snow in the mountains

Home for the night in the Canadian Rockies. Photo: Tanya Koob

4. Fire is your friend in cold weather

If you have your heart set on cold-weather tenting, try to find a campground that allows fires and provides firewood. There are few things so miserable in the backcountry as huddling under a tarp in the rain or snow, eating your freeze-dried chicken and rice out of a bag while wishing you had a warm fire. And yes, I’ve been there, and I don’t plan on repeating the experience anytime soon.

Unless you’re camped on a glacier doing an epic ski traverse, you might as well look for a campground with fire pits and add some comfort to your fall or winter trip. (And if you have to carry in a long-burning fire log (like this one) or two, I’d do it!)

Read More: The Winter Campfire:  A Primer for Snowshoers and Campers

people setting and eating while fall camping

Pretending to be happy – but I really wanted a fire! Photo: Tanya Koob

5. Don’t skimp on gear when winter camping

Now is not the time to skimp on gear. Don’t go light or save money with that tarp or hammock that weighs five pounds less than your tent, the three-season sleeping bag that was so much cheaper than the winter bag you really wanted, or the short Therm-a-Rest mattress that again cuts off a few pounds of weight but provides no warmth for your legs.

If you don’t have a thick insulated mattress, rent or borrow one. If you don’t have a winter bag and a four-season tent, rent or borrow them as well. You won’t be happy if you’re freezing the whole time. And if you’re not happy, there’s a good chance you won’t be repeating this experience anytime soon.

Also, remember that if it freezes, put it in your sleeping bag! Gear that freezes may include boot liners, camera batteries, phones, and contact solution.

mom and son sitting in tent while winter camping

Bundled up for a cold night in the tent. Photo: Tanya Koob

Ways to Stay Warm While Winter Camping

Cover that backside with a down skirt. Skhoop out of Alaska has a great variety of insulated skirts, and I love mine for cold weather camping.

Bring an insulated bum pad (or heated seat cover) for sitting on around camp. Rocks are cold. Winter is cold. Your bum doesn’t have to be.

Change into dry clothing as soon as you get to camp and layer your sleep clothes (if different from camp clothing) underneath so that you don’t have to undress before bed when it’s coldest.

Sleep with a hot water bottle to help keep toes warm.

Eat lots, eat constantly, and don’t worry about the fat. A snack before bed will also help warm up your inner furnace.

Exercise before bed. A good friend of mine swears by doing 50 sit-ups in her sleeping bag before sleeping. This exercise warms up the body and helps you stay warm all night.

Wear a down jacket (like the 650 Down Jacket 2.0 from REI) to bed if you like to stick your arms out of your bag for more comfort while you sleep.

Always wear a hat to bed. You really will be warmer if your head is warm.

Bring a pair of down booties to change into at camp (like Baffin’s Cush Slipper). Not only will they keep you warm, but a good pair of booties will have a thick sole suitable for walking around camp on rocky terrain and will be much more comfortable than wearing your hiking boots 24/7.

woman standing on bridge while backpacking

Cold-weather backpacking in my down skirt. Photo: Tanya Koob

For more tips on fall and winter camping, check out this great article by the Wilderness Society, 45 Tips for Foolproof Fall Camping. Or, if you’re new to camping, Smart Exploring provides a comprehensive camping overview in Camping 101.

See you on the trails!

What recommendations do you have for fall and winter camping? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

This article was first published on November 10, 2014, and was most recently updated on December 20, 2021.  

Read Next: Upgrade Your Winter Camp Kitchen With These 6 Great Items

About the author

Tanya Koob

I am the mom of a spunky 10-year-old boy and I live in Calgary, Canada at the doorstep to the fabulous Rocky Mountains. Our family makes it a priority to get out to the mountains most weekends for big adventures from hiking, camping, biking, and paddling in summer to skiing and snowshoeing in winter. I am the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com.

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2 Comments

  • The hammock is the ultimate way to winter camp. It doesn’t mater how deep the snow is because you’ll always be above it. Winter rated gear for the hammock is no more expensive than for tent camping but it’s just so much more effective because you’re not crushing it all beneath you. Instead you’re cocooned in 5 inches of duck down as you rock gently to sleep. Zip that down jacket up around the foot end of the hammock for feet that stay extra toasty…

    • You’re so right! We focus on tent camping in this article, but using a winter hammock is a great alternative to tent camping, especially for one or two people. Either way, it’s so important to bring the right clothing so you and your toes can stay warm. 🙂 Thanks for sharing! -Susan, Editor