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.
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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.
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.”
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.