After a whirlwind Thanksgiving weekend with my family, Niecie and I were driving home to La Crosse when she asked about camping in the winter.

Growing up, we did most of our camping in the spring, summer and fall.  On occasion, we ventured out into the cold Minnesota winters to practice shelter building. My brother and I would build intricate snow caves and shelters together.

I even spent a few hours sleeping in a snow cave once, but that was in a 40-below-zero mil-spec sleeping bag from Sweden — thanks, dad and your irrational love for Sportsman’s Guide.

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about cold weather camping. To me, cold weather camping sounds like a recipe for either great adventure or a complete disaster. Planning would probably decide on which end of the spectrum I’d end up, so I decided to do a little research.

Camping in the cold

It turns out, cold weather camping is actually a lot like camping any other time of the year, just colder.

Trying to camp like it’s the middle of July, in cold weather is going to end poorly or worse. Unprepared for it the cold can at best make you miserable and at worse kill you.

Enjoying yourself while camping in cold climates depends on a few basic principles most of us already know from outdoor activities during this time of the year.

Here are a few quick tips for enjoying yourself on your next winter camping trip.

Layer up:

It seems obvious, but a lot of people don a winter jacket over their t-shirt and call it good. It might be good enough for a trip to the supermarket, but it’s not ideal when camping in cold weather.

The right thing to do is layer up. Start with a light thin layer that wicks moisture away from your body. Avoid cotton. In cold weather, sweat is your enemy, and when cotton gets wet it loses its insulating properties. Wool or other synthetic materials are better.

Keep adding layers, each additional layer should be bulkier. Think wool thermals, a sweater or a fleece sweatshirt.

Depending on how cold it is outside you’ll need more or fewer layers. The thing about layers if you get hot, you can, and should strip down until you are comfortable.

Your outermost layer should be a wind and waterproof layer. Depending on the temperatures, this can either be a parka or a windbreaker or something in between.

Eat a snack or two

Believe it or not, your stomach makes a lot of heat while digesting. A warm meal can keep you warm for hours long after you’ve finished the last bite.

In cold temperatures, cooking can be tough. Consider preparing your food before heading out. It’s easier to pour a baggy of pre-chopped carrots into a stew pot than cutting a frozen carrot.

An easier alternative to cooking are MRE (meal ready to eat) style meals. Many of these simply require boiling water and reconstitute in a matter of minutes. Some even feature chemical heating elements so even cold water will work.

We plan to test out Mountain House’s MRE style meals the next time we head out.

If you’ve been out hiking during the day, it’s important to stay nourished. Your body will have an easier time staying warm on a full stomach, so eat a snack, or two.

Hydrate but not before bed

Obviously, staying hydrated any time or the year is important, but in the winter, you might not feel as thirsty because you aren’t sweating, but that doesn’t mean your body isn’t working hard or doesn’t need the water.

Warm liquids are the best when possible, but any kind of hydration is going to help.

Some people recommended not drinking water an hour before going to bed. This way your body isn’t trying to keep both you and a full bladder warm. Whether it’s true or not, there is one thing I know, I hate having to get out of my warm sleeping bag to go to the bathroom.

Stay high and dry

Speaking of sleeping, where you sleep is just as important. A good sleeping bag isn’t going to be enough. The higher you can get off the cold ground the better.

Foam sleeping pads, air mattresses or a cot, it doesn’t matter as long as you are up and off the ground.

This is because without additional insulation you will not only be uncomfortable sleeping on the cold hard ground, but it will steal heat away from you as you sleep. I’m no fan of thieves, so we use lightweight self-inflating sleeping pads.

Once you’ve got yourself up and off the ground its time to get yourself dry. Changing into a fresh set of dry clothing is a quick and easy way of staying warmer as temperatures fall in the evening.

Even if you think your clothes are dry, it’s a good idea to change anyway. As clothes get damp they don’t insulate as well.

Comment and share

Share your tips for cold weather camping in the comments section below! We want to know:

  • How your last cold weather camping trip went
  • Where you’re going next
  • What are your biggest concerns with cold weather camping
  • What gear do you use in the winter that you don’t use the rest of the year.

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