Oh March… I’m not sure about where you live, but here in the rainy PNW this month is when I start to daydream about warmer days and going camping. Especially now that we live at the foothills of our fave mountains! But here’s the thing: it is still very much possible to stay cozy and enjoy yourself while winter camping… you just need to be prepared. We’ve done quite a bit of winter camping, so I wanted to put together some of my best tips for you. Definitely leave a comment with any tips that you have, as well!
Before I dig in, I wanted to remind you of another related and awesome blog post: Our car camping essentials. That’s a really good overview of all the gear we typically use in case you want a shopping list!
How to Go Camping in the Winter Like a Pro
Invest in a van
I know. I am a smug van owner. I’m sorry! But it really makes a world of difference because you literally have a cozy place to curl up when the temperature drops. We insulated our van with sheets of foam and spray foam to make it even cozier. Then we use this heater if we need extra warmth — but always always always make sure you have proper ventilation if you do this, too!
I always recommend having a solid tent in your collection of outdoor gear, too. We use an REI Half Dome tent which is a great all around 3-season tent. Depending on your climate, it could be worth looking into a 4 season tent if you plan to do a lot of winter camping. Otherwise, you can just layer up and adjust your sleeping bag and pad situation to be warmer.
Be aware of your sleeping bag’s rating
When you buy a sleeping bag, it comes with a temperature rating. This is the temperature that is the lowest recommended conditions for using the bag. For example, mine is rated to 23° F so I am in the market for a new one that allows me to camp at colder temperatures.
Also use a sleeping pad or pads to insulate your body more from the ground while you’re sleeping. I am a princess and like to layer my sleeping pads even when it isn’t super cold. Again, the Therm-a-Rest is an awesome addition to your sleeping system to provide more insulation. I pair it with my NEMO sleeping pad and it’s great.
Build a campfire
Thankfully during the winter months the danger of having a campfire is lower if you live in a damp area like us. Always check if there is a burn ban in place before you go anywhere and plan accordingly. But there’s nothing cozier than gathering around the fire!
Pro tip: we upcycled an old Therm-a-Rest pad into an sitting cushion. You can lose a lot of heat through your butt while sitting on the ground or a camping chair. I always sit on an old cut off bit of Therm-a-Rest to avoid this. Plus, you can take it hiking for a lightweight spot to sit and rest anywhere. It’s super light and straps easily to a backpack.
Learning how to layer technical fabrics properly is one of the most important things you can do as a budding outdoorsperson. This is the layering formula I follow starting from the bottom (closest to my skin):
- Base layer — this is your wicking layer so that you stay warm and dry. I like natural fibers like super-fine merino wool or synthetics. Make sure whatever you choose fits snugly and is soft.
- Mid layer — this layer is all about providing insulation for your base layer. Typically for me that means a fleece and/or puffy down jacket. I always opt for the lightest possible mid layers so I can shed them and add to my pack without adding much weight. When I’m really going for it, this is the first layer I shed.
- Outer layer — this layer is what keeps you dry. Make sure your outermost layer is windproof, waterproof, and very durable.
- Hat — always wear a hat to retain your body heat. I usually bring two: one that is fleece lined for extra warmth and one that is merino wool.
This system typically works for me when I’m hiking, snowshoeing, backpacking, climbing… pretty much most of my outdoor activities! Keep in mind that the best part of layering is that you can customize your layers and remove as needed. I’m considering doing a dedicated blog post about layering clothing, let me know if you’re interested in that!
Drink warm things — and not booze
I know it is so tempting to have a nip of whiskey to warm up your belly, but science has shown that drinking actually doesn’t help warm you up! Instead, drink warm stuff like tea or even hot water with lemon in it. I’m not saying to abstain entirely, but just be aware.
Eat a lot of calories
It’s hard work for your body to stay warm, so fuel it properly. I like to make sure every meal is warm and full of protein. Plus, I always keep some bars on hand to eat as needed. As always, be sure to secure your food properly!
The best way to start warm while winter camping, hiking, and adventuring is to stay warm. If you’re going for a multi-day camping trip, plan activities during the day to keep you moving. Even if you’re just hiking, when you stop for a snack or water, keep moving to keep your muscles warm.
When you hold your pee, your body uses energy. Instead, let your body conserve energy and use it to keep you warm instead of holding your pee.
I’m sure there are a bunch of other ways to stay warm while winter camping! These tips are my go-to that always work. I hope they work for you! If you want a bit more camping inspiration, here are related blog posts from the archives: