Tips for a Happy Winter Campsite

Here at the Mountain House blog, we’ve lately been providing advice on winter camping for beginners. To augment this introductory winter camping advice, we thought we’d serve up some tips specifically focused on staying warm and comfortable around the winter campsite: obviously, a top priority as a nippy (or downright frigid) evening unfolds in the backcountry.

Selecting a Good Winter Campsite

If you aren’t camping in a designated campsite, be sure you give yourself enough time in the afternoon to find a promising place to bed down. The shortness of winter days can easily catch you off-guard, and this season especially it’s definitely best to be setting up camp before nightfall.

You want good light, first and foremost, because selecting good winter camping spots requires careful inspection of the setting. Here are some terrain-related things to consider:

  • Look for signs of a location’s relative exposure to wind, such as a shallow, scoured snowpack or sculpted ridges or banks of snow: These would be places to avoid camping if possible, or where you’ll want to erect snow walls (see below) as a windbreak.
  • Heavy, soft snowdrifts, on the other hand, may reveal a zone of notable snow accumulation, also not an ideal place for camp during snowfall and/or wind. If it’s the best available option, realize you may have to regularly clear snow from on and around your tent.
  • Look for natural protection from wind and drifting snow, such as ridges, tree groves, or hillocks. Again, though, also check for evidence of significant snow deposition, and if you find it give yourself some space from the feature in question’s immediate lee.
  • The worst sort of snow accumulation? Avalanches, naturally. In mountain country, beware of camping in the runout zone of these slides, often betrayed by plentiful deadfall, flagged trees, and/or hummocky terrain below slopes or bowls.
  • It’s sometimes a little counterintuitive to many people, but low ground (all else being equal) tends to be chillier than uplands or hillsides at night because it’s where denser, heavier cold air settles; cold air will also roll down canyons, ravines, and draws. So avoid pitching camp in valley bottoms or hollows unless other factors make them the safest or easiest option.
  • Thick woods can be a nice, sheltered location for a winter campsite, but if it’s snowed recently beware of big whumps of the white stuff abruptly shedding from boughs.
  • As at any time of year, keep Leave No Trace principles close in mind when selecting a winter camp, bearing in mind that snow itself is a good choice for both traveling and camping upon in this regard. Keep at least 200 feet from water sources, don’t cut standing wood, pack out all trash and solid waste (or properly bury the latter), and confine urination to one area in the snow you then cover upon leaving camp.

Winter Camping Setup: Shelters

Many winter backpackers favor four-season or mountaineering tents, which have the tough construction, wraparound fly, domed profile, and other features necessary to provide durable shelter and warmth.

If you’re going to base-camp it awhile, you might decide to go a more luxurious route by using a winter camping hot tent: a large (8×10 feet or more) shelter, typically canvas-walled, equipped with a woodstove for maximum interior comfort. The downside, of course, is the significantly greater gear-haul required, for which a vehicle or sled may be warranted.

In stormy weather or exposed settings, you might opt for a snow cave or igloo: two snow shelters that can be substantially warmer and more resilient than a tent in such conditions. These demand practice and careful evaluation of snow quality to ensure your building material will safely stand; temperature is a big factor, too, an igloo, in particular, requiring quite cold weather to safely construct.

Setting Up Winter Camp

Plop your tent down in the snow willy-nilly (at a not-willy-nilly-chosen campsite, of course), and you’ll likely end up sore and cranky by the time you head out. You want to prepare a snow bed so that the pack beneath your tent doesn’t glaze rock-solid into the contours of your sleeping position and the weight of gear inside. Tamp down and smooth as much as possible the snow over which you’ll set up your tent; snowshoes work nicely for this task. Let your stomped- and smoothed-out bed settle for a while before setting up.

As alluded to earlier, if you’re camping in a potentially windy spot you’ll want to consider building snow walls around your tent: either a complete perimeter or a horseshoe-shaped barricade against the wind and opening to the leeward. Make the wall at least three feet high and give yourself room inside so the tent isn’t right up against the shelter, as some snow will accumulate in the wall’s immediate lee.

Tenting in snow usually requires deadman anchors. If the snowpack’s firm enough, you can simply wrap guylines around the stakes and bury these; otherwise, ski poles, branches, or snowshoes work handily. Bury the anchors a foot deep or more if possible, and make sure the guylines remain tight as you pack the snow down.

A couple of housekeeping tips for the snowbound tent. Dig pits in front of the doors, under the vestibules. As Backpacker suggests, use one door for entry/exit to minimize tracked-in snow; the pit at this door will serve as a comfortable nook for putting on and pulling off boots. The opposite vestibule can function as a sheltered spot to wrangle gear—and, during nasty weather, to cook in.

Winter Camping Attire Around the Site

Given the exertion of snow-hiking or snowshoeing or skiing, there’s a good chance you won’t be fully layered up when you reach your campsite, and smoothing out your snowbed and setting up your tent will keep the blood going. Wait till you’re done before suiting up in your warmest outerwear for dinner and downtime at the campsite: You don’t want to excessively sweat during your winter camping setup routine, as afterward, you may become quickly, deeply chilled.

Gloves are helpful for pitching tents, making and eating dinner, and cleaning up, but in cold temperatures, you’ll want to keep those mittens handy for when dexterity and fine motor skills aren’t called for anymore.

Staying Warm in Winter Camping Spots

This bundling-up talk makes a good segue for a more general discussion of keeping the shivers and numb extremities at bay while in the winter campsite. We’ll note that Mountain House meals, with their minimal cooking and cleanup fuss, help you conserve warmth (not to mention fuel): When a cold winter night’s falling fast—or when an all-out blizzard’s howling outside—it’s a relief to only have to boil water in order to enjoy a hot, delicious meal in the comfort of your tent.

And as long as we’re on the subject of your winter camping food list, make sure you bring along some chocolate or hot cocoa for a pre-bedtime treat: Besides tasting darn good, getting a cheery injection of energy before hitting the hay will keep you warmer overnight.

Use a double-layered sleeping-pad system under your sleeping bag: a closed-cell foam pad at the bottom and an inflatable one above that. Make sure you’re using a sleeping bag rated to at least 10 degrees F colder than the temperatures you expect; you can boost your bag’s warmth (by as much as 20 or 30 degrees F) by using a sleeping bag liner—which, conveniently, can double as a lightweight standalone summer bag.

For even toastier snoozing, you can slip a non-insulated bottle filled with hot water inside a sock or shirt and nestle this in the foot of your sleeping bag for the night. The inside of your bag’s also a good place to dry out small clothing items such as socks, gloves, or hats.

Choose your camp location wisely, take the time to set it up comfortably, and follow an efficient routine that minimizes exposure to the elements: the recipe for a happy winter campsite!