Sunday 21 December 2014

Twenty Tips for Winter Camping

A winter camp high in the Cairngorms

Another one from the archives. This piece was written for TGO over ten years ago. The advice still stands though so here it is again, with a few modifications (stoves designed for use with inverted canisters didn't exist then, nor did e-readers, smartphones and tablets). Apologies for the wonky formatting - there's a limit to how long I can stand trying to get Blogger to align things!

Winter camping might seem a pursuit for the hardy, the ascetic, even the masochistic. Severe cold, blizzards and long dark nights sound most unattractive. With the right skills and equipment winter camping can be enjoyable though, especially when the frost is sharp, the mountains white with snow and the skies clear with bright stars shining in the blackness. Lying in a warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the winter world is a wonderful experience. In fact freezing weather is the best for winter camping. It’s easier to keep warm when it’s dry and cold than when it’s wet and cold. In Britain wet cold is more common of course and when it rains rather than snows winter camping can seem just like summer camping, only with longer nights and cooler temperatures and, a major factor, no midges. 

1)   Remember that keeping warm is easier than getting warm. When you stop to make camp put on  
      warm dry clothing before you start to cool down. 

 2)  Valley bottoms and depressions are likely to be chillier than hillsides as cold air sinks. Flat areas on the sides of hills are the warmest places to camp.

A good winter camp site
3)   Wind whips away warmth. Look for sites protected from the wind by crags, boulders, banks or trees. A snow shovel can be used to build snow walls on the windward side of the tent and to heap snow round the base of the flysheet to reduce the effects of wind. 

4)   When camping on deep snow stamp out a platform then leave it a short while to harden before pitching the tent. This helps prevent the snow from giving under you when you get in the tent, which results in a lumpy bed. If you have a snow shovel – which I recommend carrying when there’s more than a thin cover of snow – then it can be used to flatten the snow.

Moonlit winter camp with skis and poles used to support tent
5)   Standard tent pegs pull straight out of soft snow if used as normal. Instead tie the guyline round the peg and bury it horizontally, stamping the snow down on top. Lengths of cord can be attached to pegging points without guylines. Better than standard pegs are long wide curved snow stakes, though these are only worth buying if you snow camp frequently. Buried pegs will freeze in place and can be hard to dig up. An ice axe helps with this, though be careful not to damage the tent. An ice axe can also be used as a tent peg, as can trekking poles and skis. 

6)   It’s very important to keep moisture out of the tent. Brush off snow before getting in and strip off any wet garments in the vestibule.

7)   Condensation can be reduced by leaving vents and, if the weather permits, tent doors open. The tent will be cooler but moist air will be able to escape.

8)   A candle or gas lantern can help dry out condensation and also gives off a little warmth. The soft light is soothing too. Make sure that any burning light is kept well away from tent fabric or any other flammable items. Keeping a lantern in the vestibule rather than the inner tent is wise.

9)  Winter nights are long and dark. An e-reader, smartphone or tablet for music or radio, paperback book or a pack of cards helps pass the time.

A comfortable winter camp
10)  Your sleeping bag can make an excellent warm garment. If you feel chilly get in it and pull it up under your armpits, using the shoulder baffle or hood drawcord to keep it in place. In sub zero temperatures you can cook, eat, read, write and watch the landscape while in your sleeping bag.

11)  Hot food and drink warms you up so eating and drinking immediately before going to sleep can help ensure a warm nights sleep. Fatty foods are good as these release heat slowly and so keep you warm for longer than sugary ones. Eat plenty too. If you’re hungry you’re more likely to feel cold.

12)  If you feel chilly during the night and your sleeping bag is fully done up don some dry clothing. A warm hat and socks can make a big difference. If there isn’t room in your bag for bulky clothing such as insulated or heavy fleece jackets spread them over the top.

13)  Most heat is lost to the ground, especially when it’s frozen or snow covered. If you feel cold where you touch your mat put clothing under you. If your mat is only a three-quarters length one put clothes under your feet. Mats that are warm most of the year may not be thick enough when camping on snow or frozen ground. Two mats are often better. A foam mat under a self-inflating one is a good combination.

14)  When you wake in the morning bring your clothes inside the sleeping bag to warm them up before you put them on. 

Insulating a stove from the snow

15) Insulate your stove from the ground with a piece of closed cell foam, the blade of a snow shovel or even a book. If the fuel canister or bottle is separate from the stove insulating it is more important than insulating the stove.
16) Butane/propane gas doesn’t vaporise well in below freezing temperatures so many gas stoves can be very slow or even not work at all. The best for winter use are ones where the canister can be inverted to turn them into liquid feed stoves. With other stoves heat output can be increased by warming cartridges inside clothing or your sleeping bag. You can warm them by putting your hands round them when they are being used too – it’s best to wear thin gloves when doing this as cartridges can get very cold. Heat exchanger pots also speed up boiling and snow melting times. Meths, petrol and paraffin all work fine in the cold though the first can be slow when melting snow.

An inverted canister stove

17)  Avoid melting snow whenever possible, as it takes a long time and uses lots of fuel (as much heat is needed to produce a litre of water from snow as to boil that water). Dig down to a stream or pool if the snow is really deep or look for open sections. Carrying water a half mile or so is still quicker than melting snow. Take care not to fall in when collecting water.
18)  When melting snow put a little water in the bottom of the pan first. Otherwise the pan may scorch and the water will taste burnt. If you haven’t any water start with a small amount of snow and stir it rapidly until it melts. Don’t pack a pan tightly with snow – this will soak up any water and then the pan with burn.

 19)  Water will freeze overnight unless insulated from the cold. Fill thermos flasks in the evening so you don’t have to melt snow in the morning. Water bottles can be insulated by wrapping them in clothing and keeping them off the ground. In your rucksack or in your boots are good places. Standing bottles upside down means the mouth shouldn’t freeze even if some of the water does. Wide mouthed bottles are best in winter as any ice that forms can easily be shaken out. Insulating covers for water bottles can be made from duct tape and closed cell foam. If the snow is deep burying your water bottles in it will stop the water from freezing as snow insulates well. Fill pans with water during the evening. If the water freezes just pop the pan on the stove to thaw it out. Breakfast cereals like porridge oats or muesli can be added to the water in the evening and then cooked in the morning.

20)  Use a pee bottle so you don’t have to leave the tent during the night. Make sure it’s marked clearly so it isn’t mistaken for a water bottle. When you pee into snow cover the place up as yellow snow looks unsightly. Digging through deep snow or frozen ground to make a toilet pit may not be possible (though an ice axe can break up the latter). Consider packing out faeces in doubled plastic bags. If you do leave faeces on the ground site your toilet well away from any water sources (check with the map if these aren’t visible), anywhere someone might camp and any footpaths. Burn or pack out toilet paper or else use snow.


  1. I always take a hot water bottle camping, Obviously they are heavy to carry when hiking but I make room for it!
    Miss Tulip x
    The Thrifty Magpies Nest

    1. No need to carry an extra water bottle. You can make a hot water bottle (awesome in the sleeping bag) by boiling water and adding it to a Nalgene bottle - all the way to the top, no air pocket to vacuum seal it. Screw the lid on. Hold it upside down for a few moments, upright & unscrew it, then re-screw it to be sure no ice crystals formed in the threads (they create space for water to leak out later in your sleeping bag). Stuff the bottle into a couple thick socks or an insulating "kozie" to last the whole night long. Put it into your sleeping bag immediately after preparing the hot water bottle to prewarm your bag and not waste the heat. =)

    2. Thanks Chris I would never have thought about re-screwing the bottle to prevent ice crystals forming. Coming from the UK I can really identify with the whole wet and dry cold thing. Probably why I only go in the summer now.

  2. Cold weather hiking tips can be found in practical while selecting for you to pack in addition to go for a ideal hiking excursion. Why not? Winter months is usually when the snow-draped hill is usually shiny beneath moonlight and once campers come in escape giving you extra area on your own in addition to business.

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  8. I appreciate your blog, you have put forth your points in a better way, winter camping is an exciting challenge. these are useful tips for winter camping. i will keep it in mind.

  9. I'm not that much used to camping during the winter because of the climate conditions, but reading your tips on how to keep warm during the season is helpful.

  10. A late spring outdoors outing is a perfect action for families and singles alike. The sun is warm and the breeze is cool, making a perfect climate for outdoors and climbing. Going outdoors amid the winter time is not almost as mainstream, but rather it can be pretty much as charming in the event that you recall to bring the right hardware. In the event that you can keep your body warm and stomach encouraged, outdoors amid the winter can give a one of a kind ordeal that can't be found amid the late spring. Recorded beneath are a few variables to recollect when get ready for a winter trip.

  11. A lot of great pointers in this article mate. I would just add this, make sure you don't cover yourself too much as sweat is your worst enemy in this case. If you want a good read I have just posted this camping in the rain tips article to my blog. Best. Mark J.

  12. Owen Dabrowski2 June 2016 at 15:58

    What a post

  13. Good review! Thank you.

    May be you and your winter hiking friends like to see my "Winter Stoves" video (15min). Free to share and free to link.