Winter Camping: A Comprehensive Cold Weather Survival Guide
Winter camping is something truly spectacular. Snow-veiled landscapes and blissful silence make the perfect retreat for genuine adventure lovers. Camping in the winter doesn’t have to mean freezing from the bitter cold and experiencing discomfort. However, you must be thoroughly prepared for your winter camping trip, whether you’re planning a week-long expedition or camping for a single night.
Continue reading to learn about the most essential winter camping gear that will help make your winter camping comfortable and safe. Also, we’ll share our top winter camping tips.
But before we go any further, let’s get clear with the terms. In this article, a ski trip should be considered as a multi-day (expeditionary) type of trip across tundra (i. e. mountains) that doesn’t technically aim at ski descents.
By equipment, we mean personal items that provide the most comfortable conditions in an expedition lasting from one to three weeks with travois weighing no more than 50 kg.
Longer, autonomous trips mean increasing the weight of travois up to 100-150 kg and more, however, the winter camping packing list remains the same. The list of equipment for this type of winter camping trip is almost identical to arctic expeditions.
Remember that one of the fundamental rules of autonomous winter camping trips is duplicating critical equipment.
The key differences are the sleeping arrangements in a winter camping tent: “cold” or “warm”, as well as in the life-saving equipment.
Winter Camping Equipment and Gear
It’s a no-brainer that trees don't grow on sea ice. That’s why two-layer four-season tents are typically used for cold weather hiking trips (including ski trips to the North Pole).
Also, you’ll need the warmest synthetic (arctic) sleeping bags with extreme temperature ratings from -35°C to -50°С, vapor barrier liners for your sleeping bag, multi-layer footwear, and liquid fuel burners that work in any frost. The sleeping bag liner may be replaced by a bivy bag used over the sleeping bag to reduce condensation and maintain comfortable temperatures inside the sleeping bag in case of drafts and high humidity (including inevitable condensation on the inner-layer walls of an all-season tent in winter conditions).
Most frequently, the vapor barrier liner of the sleeping bag is replaced with a bivy (bivouac) bag placed over the sleeping bag (don’t confuse it with a shelter used instead of a tent).
A bivy bag performs some important functions:
- preventing condensation in the sleeping bag
- protecting the sleeping bag against wetness from external sources, primarily from contact with the inevitable condensation on the tent ceiling, floor, and mats
- protection against drafts
- maintaining and increasing the temperature inside the sleeping system
During arctic trips, characterized by high humidity and unpredictable weather, a bivy bag makes sense year-round. Such bags are manufactured from different synthetic fabrics ranging from thin nylon to membrane. Bear in mind that it’s hardly possible to keep a sleeping bag dry without using a tent stove or a waterproof bivy bag.
During trips across tundra and forest tundra (tundra is a toponym for mountains) unheated semi-barrel tents and their variations are replaced with two-layer tents for camping in winter with stoves, which provide the temperature gradient with the surrounding air of 20-60°С (up to 120°С in sauna mode). Arctic winter (synthetic) sleeping bags weighing 3-4 kg are replaced with lighter ones weighing 1.5-3 kg, and liquid fuel burners are replaced with continuous-burning camping wood stoves or gas burners. For mountainous areas, multi-layer expedition footwear is frequently replaced with two-layer ski-tour or telemark boots.
For the forest-tundra zone, you can use specialized two-layer tents for camping in winter like Cuboid 2.20, Sputnik-3, or UP-5. These tents allow for the safe installation of a wood-burning stove and can even be used as a camping sauna, which is super cool in winter conditions.
As heating appliances, it’s best to use continuous-burning double-chamber camping stoves like Caminus S, Caminus M, or Caminus L. Each is equipped with four protective shields including removable side shields and a very important bottom shield.
Wood smoldering in these stoves gives the energy conversion efficiency of 75-85% for at least four hours (11 hours with sawdust briquettes). When fuel is flaming, the energy conversion efficiency reaches 35% and more. For comparison, the energy conversion efficiency of a campfire is 1-2%. Night firewood smoldering uses significantly less fuel than a campfire.
Side shields can be removed to increase heat emission, with the most heat emitted through the glass shields, so they’re used for more than viewing the fire inside the tent.
The average fuel consumption rate of camping stoves 12-15 litres in volume in smoldering mode is:
- 5 kg briquettes per 10 hours or
- 10 kg firewood
In other words, 0.5-1 kg per hour with an efficient heat transfer of 2 kWh.
Smoldering mode heats the surface of the stove to 80-100°С, flaming up to 650°С. If you wish, a wood stove can convert your tent into a sauna with an air temperature of 80-90°С under the dome.
Removable protective shields of the tent stoves allow you to sleep close to the stove and remove them when necessary. The bottom shield allows you to use the stove in tents made from nylon and to avoid ice melting below the tent.
For comfortable sleeping in heated winter camping tents, it’s convenient to take two three-season sleeping bags weighing about 1.5 kg each instead of one winter sleeping bag weighing 3 kg. The sleeping bags should be of different types (for instance, mummy and rectangular). In this case, the second sleeping bag functions as a single or additional blanket depending on the stove's heating efficiency.
In addition, you should include the following items to the list of the “warm” equipment:
- a saw
- a camping ax
- a gas burner for quickly making a fire
Having used both types of equipment for many years and spending several years in winter camping tents, we can say that stove-heated tents are much more comfortable, although previously, we used only light burners.
A camping ax allows you to split firewood, which accelerates firing up stoves, although their draft allows for burning wood that doesn’t typically burn in an open fire.
Before we started using tent stoves, we experienced cold nights we’ll remember for a long time even though we used high-quality equipment for polar expeditions. The most amusing memories are connected with the times we pulled out the poles but the tent remained upright, frozen solid.
Winter Camping Checklist
Here it is — our ultimate winter camping checklist. Having broad experience in winter camping, we drew up this checklist that covers all the aspects of winter camping: camp, winter camping clothes and footwear, first aid kit, navigation and communication, food, hygiene, and much more. So let’s get down to business.
- Two-layer winter camping tent with stove heating for extreme conditions to protect you against heavy snowfalls and high winds
- Continuous-burning wood stove with protective shields 12-17 litres in volume
- Saw in a scabbard or folding saw
- Camp axe - a hatchet weighing 650-1200 g
- Fire-resistant mat for the camping stove
- Avalanche shovel
- Stainless steel pot with flat bottom, 230 mm, 6 L (used for hygiene purposes as well) - 1 piece
- Stainless steel pot with flat bottom, 230 mm, 3 L - 1 piece
- Light Teflon frying pan, 230 mm - 1 piece
- Lid for pots and frying pan - 1 piece
- Pan gripper - 1 piece
- Grate for grilling and toast - 1 piece
- Frying pan spatula - 1 piece
- Gas burner with a capacity of about 3 kW for 2-3 persons + 100 g gas for one person per day
Note: if there’s no winter camp stove, you’ll need a liquid fuel burner and 170 g fuel per person per day.
- Backcountry/ski tour skis or snowshoes
- Ski wax
- Ski skins
- Ski bindings + ski repair kit
- Dural ski poles with big rings
- Travois with rigid hitch, harness, and luggage fastening straps
- Expedition backpack 80-90 L (100-140 L) with straps for attaching skis (60-80 L for women)
Note: with a reliable large travois on plain routes, a backpack of 25-40 L in volume is sufficient for one day.
- Waterproof backpack liner
- 2 or 3 reliable sources of fire protected with plastic and kept in different places
- Gas burner and gas cartridge
- Wind protection for the burner
- Paper tissues in plastic bag
- Maps of the location (printed and protected with plastic)
- Compass showing your current location
- Orange compression sack or any other bright emergency color sign
- Snow shovel (any cheap shovel you can get from a supermarket or petrol station)
- Headlamp and extra set of frost-proof batteries
- VHF radio transceiver plus extra batteries (especially convenient in the mountains and if there are many hikers)
- Cup, spoon, bowl, knife
- Individual small pot (0.5-1 L) or a thin stainless steel cup of 0.5 L
- Some wire or a hook to hang the pot (if you use a cup, make two holes in it beforehand)
- 2 or 3 floating candles for emergency fire kindling
- Personal first-aid kit;
- Multi-tool with a knife, a pair of pliers, and screwdrivers for your bindings
- Knife and ax sharpener (a small fisherman’s type)
- Thermos flask (1 L) with sweet hot tea
- Food thermos with wide mouth for meals en route
- Plastic container for your snack or meal
- Foam seat pad
- Foam roll mat
- Strong adhesive patch
- Multipurpose adhesive glue (30-50 ml) and/or superglue
- Emergency food supply (“Snickers” or natural chocolate)
- Hiking food supply for a day
- Extra hiking socks
- Extra gloves (mittens)
- Synthetic hooded alpine puffer jacket
- Airtight packaging for extra clothing
- Airtight packaging for first-aid kit
- Airtight packaging for food
- Airtight packaging for gadgets
- Airtight packaging for fire sources
- Protection against water for the radio transceiver’s push-to-talk switch (you can use a balloon or condom)
- Waterproof push-button mobile phone and extra batteries
- Avalanche equipment (in the mountains)
- Red flare
- Smoke flare in an emergency color
Note: A powerful gas burner with a 3.5 kW capacity and collet gas cartridge gets warm quickly so you can make a fire of any capacity or boil 1 L of water in 5 minutes. However, keep in mind that it’s impossible to boil water in an aluminum pot with a gas burner as the temperature reaches 1000°С and higher.
Winter Camping Clothes and Footwear Recommendations
The main rule for cold weather camping is to dress in layers. Here’s the full list of clothes and footwear for your winter adventure:
- Ski hiking hat
- Hat with earflaps (windstopper helmet cap for severe frost)
- Thin, synthetic balaclava (polypropylene, fleece)
- Thick synthetic balaclava (“Power Stretch”, fleece, windstopper fleece);
- Windstopper face mask (or neck & face tube)
- Ski expedition leather boots with replaceable liners
- Cold-protective waterproof boot covers
- Extra boot liners
- Extra insoles
- Camping footwear (cold-protective boot covers plus extra boot liners)
- Synthetic thermal base layer for high activity levels - 2 sets
- Polartec Power Stretch synthetic thermal base layer for low activity levels - 1 set
- Hiking socks for a ski tour - 3 pairs
- Outer machine knitted thick woolen socks - 1 pair
- Thin liner socks - 3 pairs
- Vapor barrier socks (not necessary with plastic footwear)
- Windstopper fleece gloves - 1 pair
- Extra Power Stretch gloves - 1 pair
- Wind-protective or membrane top mittens with large cuffs and removable fleece underlining - 1 pair
- Fleece jacket with a density of 200-300 g/sq. meter or a liner jacket with synthetic fiber underlining with a density of 100 g/sq. meter
- Fleece pants with a density of 100/200 g/sq. meter or liner pants with synthetic fiber underlining with a density of 100 g/sq. meter
- Wind-protective foul weather jacket with good neck protection and hood made from breathable fabrics
- Wind-protective foul weather zip-off pants made from breathable fabrics
- Mountaineering synthetic puffer jacket with a rating of no less than -25°C worn over or under the foul weather jacket at the camp
- Leather work gloves to use with firewood, wood stoves, gas burners, and pots
- Work gloves (the best ones are automotive work gloves)
- Silicone gloves (for washing up with snow or icy water)
- Neoprene belt (helpful for back pain)
- Neoprene knee protection pads like ORTO or tactical knee pads (not obligatory).
- Ski goggles (not too dark, with filters for reading in fog)
- Attached sunglasses (and also protective sunglasses for using with an ax)
- Synthetic mummy sleeping bag weighing 2.5-3.0 kg, tested, and certified in compliance with the standard DIN EN ISO 23537 (previously ЕN 13537) for extreme temperatures — 35°С (lower limit temperature rating -15-19°С)
Note: sleeping bags with the extreme temperature rating of lower than -35°C aren’t tested by this standard
- 10 mm thick foam sleeping pad (to be placed under the basic pad) that will insulate you from the frozen ground and help you stay warm at night
- Self-inflating basic sleeping pad, 38-50 mm thick, or foam pad 20-30 mm thick (the second one is much more reliable but less comfortable)
- 2 reliable lighters
- Waterproof matches - 1 pack
- Floating candles for emergency fire kindling or fuel tablet
- Gas burner with a capacity of about 3 kW plus 100 g of gas per person per day (without a wood stove - 170 g). One burner for 2-3 persons but no less than one burner in one tent
- Extra gas burner (one for the expedition)
- LED headlamp with high beam and flashing modes
- Frost-proof batteries supply for the entire route
- LED lamp for each winter tent
- Floating candles (2-3 per tent)
- Paper tissues, at least 25 pieces for a day
- Wet wipes, at least 10 pieces for a day
- Small bar of soap
- Bath sponge
- Feminine pads (they can be used as boot insoles for absorbing moisture)
- Toothbrush in a container
- Protective silicone hand cream
- Nourishing night hand cream
- Anti-fungal foot cream
- Protective wind and weather cream for face and neck
- Vaseline lip balm
- Roll-on band-aid
- Waterproof band-aid
- Blister prevention and relief products
- Skin glue
- Anti-diarrheal medicines
- Headache remedies
- Broad-spectrum antibiotics
- Skin burn remedies
- Eyewash drops
- Diclofenac (Voltarol) ampoules plus syringes
- Diclofenac (Voltarol) pills
- Strong painkillers
- Bleeding control kit
- Any prescriptions
- Surgical forceps
Navigation, Communication, Photo, and Video
- Maps of location, laminated or wrapped in plastic
- Pencil (pens don’t work in the cold)
- Magnetic compass showing current location
- Satnav with previously uploaded high-resolution maps
- Extra frost-proof batteries for the satnav
- Waterproof push-button mobile phone
- Extra battery for the mobile phone (keep it warm)
- VHF radio transceiver with other members’ frequencies (check in advance)
- Extra frost-proof batteries for the radio (or keep the regular ones warm)
- Satellite phone (one per group)
- Camera for photo and video, airtight packaging, and frost-proof power supply
- Chargers for all gadgets, satnavs, and radio transceivers (including car chargers)
Note: smartphones last no more than one or two days in the cold.
Emergency and Survival Equipment
- See Must-Have Items
- Avalanche equipment
Winter Camping Food Ideas
A reasonable goal is 840-1050 g of food per person per day. You should consume at least 3500 calories per day and about 4800 calories if you don’t want to lose weight. You’ll lose up to 6000-6500 calories per day during a ski trip, and your food needs to provide the correct source of energy for staying warm and active. As experienced winter campers, we have a winter camping food list that we use in our expeditions, and we’re happy to share it with you.
- Semolina/Oatmeal/Millet/Rice/Buckwheat - 50-60 g (one packet)
- Powdered milk - 20-25 g
- Raisins for semolina - 10 g
- Or condensed milk in flexible packaging - 40-50 g
- Cheese - 30-50 g
- Butter - 20-25 g
- White bread croutons/sushki/hardtacks - 25 g
- Sweets - 25 g
Total: up to 235 g.
- Instant soup - 30-35 g
- Noodles for the soup - 15 g or mashed potatoes/noodles - 40-50 g
- Salami/salo/bacon/pork brisket - 30-50 g
- Brown bread croutons, hardtacks
- Garlic, onion - one piece for 8 persons, about 5-10 g
- Dried fruit - 50 g
- Nuts - 30 g
- Chocolate - 25 g
- Baked goods (gingerbread, pastries, bagels, wafers) - 50 g
- Or other sweets like fudge or halva - 30-50 g
- Or chocolate bars like Snickers or Mars - 50 g
Total: up to 265 g.
- Buckwheat, rice, millet - 80 g (one packet)
- Or pasta - 120 g
- Meat (canned stewed meat) - 100 g
- Confections for tea - 50 g
Total: up to 270 g.
For the whole day
- Sugar - 50-100 g
- Tea/coffee - 8 g
- 3-in-1 instant coffee - 2 sticks per day (unhealthy, but really helpful in the cold)
- Salt - 5 g
- Brown bread croutons, hardtacks - 35-50 g
- Mayonnaise - 50 g
Total: up to 250 g
Altogether, up to 1020 g of food per person per day.
Note: for two-week ski trips, daily intake typically ranges between 680 and 750 g of food with weight loss of 2-3 kg.
Understand this: it’s necessary to stay hydrated even in the winter. The daily intake of water for women should be about 2.2 L, for men - 3 L. However, winter hiking requires additional water intake because of water loss through heavy respiration and increased energy output. Your body needs up to 1 L of water for each hour of trekking through the snow.
If you’re going to get water by melting snow, bring the melted water to a boil to be safe. However, that takes time and will increase fuel consumption. That’s why you need to take an extra 230 g of fuel per person per day if you’re going to melt snow with a gas burner stove.
Tips for Winter Camping: How to Stay Warm
Camping in the winter can be challenging, so you need to double-check your equipment to make sure you haven’t overlooked anything. Since the biggest challenge of winter camping is staying warm, we’ve decided to focus on this issue. Of course, you need appropriate cold weather camping gear to survive the cold. In addition, there are a couple of tips that have helped us multiple times during our expeditions. Let’s jump right in.
- Put your sleeping pad close to your partner’s: body-to-body warming is highly effective for staying warm in winter conditions and prevents body heat loss.
- Put a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag at night.
- Put your hiking boot liners in the sleeping bag to keep them warm and avoid unnecessary stress in the morning.
- Urinate as soon as you feel the need — it will prevent you from losing heat. Your body has to remain at a steady temperature and, as a result, wastes energy keeping your bladder warm.
Make sure you insulate anything that could freeze. Also, turn your fuel and water containers upside down. You might wonder why, and here’s the answer: ice forms from the top down, so if you keep the opening of your container at the bottom, you’ll still be able to use the liquid even if it has already started to freeze