Warm/Cold Winter Backpacking

A tent with a woodstove! Winter backpacking is an adventure. The woodstove makes for warm evenings, but you still have to be prepared to play and sleep in the cold. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

Many people go backpacking in the summer, some in the spring and fall, far fewer through the winter. That’s a shame because winter offers instant adventure to anyone bold enough to set up a tent or build a snow shelter and spend the night outdoors. There aren’t any bugs, it rarely rains. You enjoy quiet and solitude that you simply can’t find at other times of year. With modern camping gear, sleeping cozy, even in bitter cold, is not difficult. In fact, its part of the fun.

There are two types of winter camping: cold camping and warm camping. They aren’t as different as they might sound. . . .

Cold camping means camping without a heat source, relying on a tent or tarp to shelter you from wind and falling or drifting snow, and warm clothes and a good sleeping bag to keep you comfortable. Though “cold camping” doesn’t sound all that appealing, you can be surprisingly comfortable in a “cold” camp.

The big advantage of cold camping is that your pack is lighter and you are more mobile. Almost any trail you’d backpack on in the summer is fair game for a winter cold camping trek. With a free-standing tent, it’s easy to travel on snowshoes or skis, reach your destination and, an hour later, be well fed and snug in your sleeping bag for the night. The only moment of potential discomfort unique to cold camping is hauling yourself out of that cozy sleeping bag in the morning and breaking camp. But, if you planned it right, you’ve already had something warm and comforting to eat and drink before you have to get up and get dressed for the day.

If you can find sufficient firewood, a campfire can make for a warm evening in camp. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

Warm winter camping is something of a misnomer, since it isn’t warm all the time. You spend your days and nights in the same cold as cold campers. Typically, the only warm in warm winter camping is in the evenings  and perhaps again in the morning when you are awake and in camp to tend to some sort heat source. That heat source might be a campfire in front of a tarp shelter, a woodstove inside a tent or even a candle lantern inside a snow cave or snow shelter—which can be surprisingly cozy. It would seem that gas-fueled catalytic heaters would be ideal inside a tent, but I’ve never found a stove/fuel combo that’s light and efficient enough to carry backpacking.

The advantage of warm camping is obvious—you aren’t confined to your sleeping bag when you aren’t moving. You get to dress and undress, eat and relax in a warmed space.

Warm camping also has its disadvantages. Warm setups are usually—but not always— heavier than cold camping. And it usually takes a lot more time to set up a tarp-and-campfire site or a woodstove-heated tent or to build a snow shelter than it does to pop up a free-standing tent. Then there’s the time and effort it takes to find wood for a campfire or stove—not always easy when the snow is deep.

A woodstove in a lightweight tent keeps you cozy on a long winter evening, lets you do camp chores in your shirtsleeves. (David Shedd/EasternSlopes.com)

Warm camping works better when you spend more than one night at a campsite rather than moving camp every day.  A warm camp is perfect for a long weekend. Pack in and set up camp your first day, leaving plenty of time to find wood if needed. The following days you can explore out from there, knowing you can return to a snug haven.

Warm or cold, winter camping is something everyone should try at least twice. Why twice? Because the second try is almost always easier and more fun than the first.

The Most Common Mistakes

Warm or Cold, here are the most common mistakes winter campers make (I speak from experience—I’ve made them all . . .)

Mistake 1: Insufficient planning. Think carefully about every item of gear you take. Then make sure you take it! Unless you are super-organized, chances are you are going to forget something. Forgetting something important in the summer is inconvenient; in winter it can mean BIG trouble! Make a very detailed checklist and keep it handy. If you don’t have a checklist started, write to me and I’ll send you one, or you can go to EasternSlopes.com and search “checklist”.

Mistake 2: Overextending. Until you are experienced at winter camping, don’t try to go too far. Travel on snow is almost always slower and more arduous than on bare ground. It also takes longer to set up a camp on snow. So until you know what you can do, deliberately choose to go shorter rather than longer. On an untracked trail, three miles is about my personal limit.

Mistake 3: Not eating and drinking enough. Food is heavy to carry, often more difficult to prepare in cold weather. Water is hard to find and often freezes in winter–and getting up to pee in the night isn’t a lot of fun. So it’s tempting to eat and drink less than you need. Force yourself to eat high calorie foods and drink water (not alcohol or sugary drinks) constantly. The more solid fuel in your furnace and the more hydrated you are, the better your whole body will function in the cold.

Mistake 4: Not getting out.  This is the worst mistake of all. Winter camping is fun, healthy, great exercise. Put on your pack and your snowshoes and try  it.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.