Winter Camping: Pro Tips on Staying Warm and Savoring the Solitude

Winter camping done right means you can enjoy some delicious solitude in the outdoors.
Winter camping done right means you can enjoy some delicious solitude in the outdoors. Tommy Lisbin
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Winter doesn’t mean the camping season is over. With proper gear and planning, savvy outdoor lovers can immerse themselves in nature year-round—and savor the solitude and serenity of a winter landscape almost all to themselves. Cold weather camping is quiet and peaceful, and comes at slow, even introspective pace, since most other campers are long gone, but the sunsets are every bit as beautiful, and the campfires are even more comforting. Here’s how to do it, without dropping a bundle on gear.

1. Remove the Fear.

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Our instincts are a major obstacle to winter camping—and for good reason. Hypothermia and frostbite are very real threats for the ill prepared. Luckily, staying safe and comfortable does not require much beyond some solid planning and prep, and you’ll find that camping solo with your family or significant other is a blast.

For first-time cold-weather campers, try a test run in a safe environment. Set up your car bed or tent near your home or a place where you can easily retreat to warmth. Spend the night and make adjustments to your equipment and setup as needed until you are ready for a more remote experience.

2. Build a Sleeping Nest.

Building your bed in layers makes it easy to adjust and control your temperature. Start with a comfortable base for padding. Any camping or backpacking sleeping pad will work. Lay a thick sleeping bag (unzipped) or blanket on top of your pad with the soft side facing upward, which creates a nice, insulated base layer. Next add several unzipped sleeping bags and/or blankets on top of your base layer. If it’s really cold, try sleeping unzipped mummy bag with another cheap sleeping bag and three warm blankets laid on top.

Claustrophobic types like me might prefer not to zip bags, but you can zip yourself in if desired. Leaving everything unzipped, however, leaves room to move around and adjust during the night. Sleep in your thermal underwear and socks and keep your clothes for the next day in the bed. This keeps everything warm and makes it way easier to dress and get out of bed in the morning.

3. Cozy Up in Your Car.

A car, truck, or SUV makes a great winter bed. Most vehicles fit two people comfortably, making them ideal for solo campers or couples. Just fold down the seats or set up in a camper shell.

Condensation is the enemy for car campers, a lesson I learned the hard way in the San Juan mountains of Colorado while living in pickup with a camper shell. Every morning in February, I woke up with a beard covered in ice. The interior windows would also have a thick layer of ice. Eventually, I discovered that cracking the windows actually created a warmer environment by reducing condensation. It’s counterintuitive, but you should always leave the windows open a few inches while camping in your car during winter.

4. Do Tent Camping the Right Way.

Sleeping in a tent is surprisingly comfortable during the winter. First, choose your gear wisely. Four season tents are worth the investment, and tipi-style tents are excellent as the steep walls shed snow easily. Many of the tipi-style tents also come with a stove jack and you can sleep by a warm fire. Tents are ideal for families as you can sleep several people.

In addition, choose your site carefully. Pick one that’s sheltered from the wind. Dig down in the snow a foot or two to insulate around the tent walls. Bring all of your clothes for the next day into the tent and build a giant nest style bed with layers of blankets. More people means more body heat to keep the tent warm and cozy.

5. Start the Day Off Right.

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Making a great bed is simple, but getting out of that bed is not always easy, especially in single digit or negative temperatures. Get dressed in bed to avoid the morning chill. Portable catalytic propane heaters are a great way to stay warm for the first hour of daylight in your tent or car. Make a fresh pot of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to warm up and get the day started. Stretch out in bed and jump right into activities to elevate your heart rate. Following this routine is a great way to avoid almost any discomfort from the cold.

6. Make Easy Winter Meals.

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Camp meals are much different in cold weather. I love bacon and eggs for breakfast during the summer and fall, but eggs freeze in the winter and cooking outside is difficult. Simplify your meal plan with a single burner stove and quick and easy meals. Soups, grilled sandwiches, instant noodles and oatmeal, and dehydrated meals are easy to prepare. Supplement with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bagels, trail mix, and your favorite snacks.

And don’t forget the Thermos—it’s a game changer. I carry two of them, especially on days when I’m exposed to cold for long periods of time. One holds my coffee and the other has soup for lunch.

7. Wind Down While Staying Warm.

You’ve been out hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing, and working up a good sweat. As soon as you arrive back at your camp, be sure to change into dry clothes and prepare for the cold evening. When you stop moving and are covered in sweat, you risk being chilled. Once your internal temperature drops, it becomes increasingly difficult to warm back up. I always carry a few hand warmers and place them on my chest after changing clothes. This keeps my core comfortable while I dry out and wind down for the day. Add a cup of tea, hot soup, and a good book, and you’ve got a recipe for a cozy winter night.

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