Snow Camping 101

Beat the summer crowds—learn the joys of snow camping

Imagine sleeping in the middle of a snow globe. That’s just what snow camping can be like. There’s absolutely nothing like camping in the snow. It’s quiet and calm like no other experience you’ll ever have.

The shadows, sunsets, sunrises and sheer beauty of the white room are, for lack of a better word, breathtaking.

Sure, you have more moving parts to deal with than warm/dry-weather camping, but the views of landscape blanketed snow, with long, silvery shadows at sunset, the faint glow of the moon reflecting off white blanket, and a lingering dawn that brings to life millions of sparkling diamonds as sun hits the fresh flakes will literally take your breath away. Of course, so could the chilly weather.

First, start out with car camping.

There are literally thousands of campsites on local, state and federal lands where you can camp year-round. Having a car nearby gives you that extra cushion of comfort and safety. With car camping, you can bring water (we love those instant portable water heaters that produce boiling water in a matter of minutes), chairs, a big stove and cook table. Also, gourmet, pre-cooked food paired with your choice of adult beverage.

This goes without saying but…plan for cold weather.

During the day, temps can get pretty warm, but once the sun drops, things can get more rugged. Bring gloves, a neck gaiter or scarf, hat, long wool socks, and lots of warm layers. A half dozen hand and foot warmers can go a lot way in your sleeping bag at night.

Pack extra food.

Staying warm in cold weather takes more calories than in warm weather. Energy exertion when you are exercising is about equal for hot vs cold weather, but once you start shivering, you’ll burn about 400 calories an hour. Keeping warm in cold weather depletes your glycogen levels—a great excuse to pack up on cookies, chocolate and sardines.

Add an activity.

Sure you can drive to a trailhead or campground and plop your tent right next to the car but consider adding to the fun with a ski, snowshoe, or even hiking approach. Circumnavigating a lake, ascending a peak or traversing a ridgeline is always fun. You can always head straight to your “basecamp” site, set up camp, and then go and explore for a few hours before campfire and cooking.

Take advantage of popular summer camping destinations that are always too crowded during warm months. Generally, you’d have to head deep in the backcountry to escape the crowds—but in the winter, you’ll have your pick of plum sites.

Build a bonfire.

Double-check to see if you can have a fire and then plan accordingly. Bring your own wood or gather dry branches if rules (and weather) permit. While many places have strict fire regulations about campfires in the summer, winter rules are generally looser.

Pick a site that is sheltered by an alcove of trees or rocks. Always look up and around before you pitch your tent to make sure you’re not under dangerously-snow laden branches or below an unstable cliff band armed with missile-like ice icicles and rocks. The nice thing about snow is that you can customize it for a flat sleeping platform. Bring a shovel; you might get creative and dig out a table and benches or build a windbreak out of snow.

Snow Camping 101

Keep things dry.

This is your number one priority. Always have a dry, warm layer in a waterproof dry sack for sleeping. Keep your sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack as well and keep snow out of the tent.

Avoid cooking in your tent.

In addition to the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, there’s the risk of burning down the tent and spillage. Alpinists and mountaineers have all sorts of tricks and tips for melting snow and cooking in extreme conditions. But for starters, plan on cooking outside of the tent.

Bring plenty of granola bars and water in case the weather turns bad and you decide to hang out in your sleeping bag rather than around a campfire or stove.

Bring some hand and toe warmers (you can put them in your sleeping bag).

The old-timers trick is to pour boiling water into your water bottle and stash that at the foot of your sleeping bag (it keeps water from freezing and keeps you warm). But hand warmers do the trick too. Fill your water bottle up with hot water. Put it in your sleeping bag (ideally in a waterproof stuff sack).

Bring cards, a good book, or massage oil. Winter months mean more hours of dark. Pack a big, thick sleeping pad (some have down layers for extra protection against the cold ground) and a sleeping bag that’s rated for freezing weather. This is not the time for ultralight gear.