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13 Essential Winter Camping Tips

Don't let cold temperatures and snow keep you from camping this season.

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Photo: Noah Wetzel

Quick Tips for Winter Camping

Just because the temperature drops doesn't mean you have to say goodbye to camping for the season. With the right knowledge and gear, you can camp comfortably in the cold. You may even come to prefer it. Familiar landscapes look magical in the winter, and even a short backpack trip can seem like a great adventure in the snow. Here are a few basic tips for those interested in cold-weather camping.

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Photo: Noah Wetzel

Home Sweet Home

Tents obviously keep the snow and rain off and provide protection from the wind. Using the rain fly will trap some warm air, but tents typically are not that much warmer than the outside air. Your three-season tent will probably work just fine, even in the snow. Companies such as Big Agnes offer both three- and four-season tents, the difference being four-season tents are built to withstand higher winds, and the fly edges are flush with the ground to better keep out snow. Any waterproof tent can be used for winter camping, however. Unless the tent is specially vented, never cook in your tent as carbon monoxide build up can make you sick. Or worse. A larger tent should be considered when winter camping to allow for bringing gear inside. If there's snow on the ground, you'll want to pack down the snow by doing a dance before pitching your tent. If you need to stake your tent in the snow, fill small stuff-sacks with snow, tie your lines around them, then bury the bags in the snow as you would your stakes.

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Sleeping Bag, You'll Want Your Mummy

Your sleeping bag is your most critical piece of gear when winter camping. Bags are rated by temperature, so a 20-degree bag is rated to be comfortable when it's 20 degrees F outside. It's advisable to use a bag rated at least 10 degrees warmer than what you'll think you'll need. Down bags are considered the warmest bags and are lighter, though down can clump and lose its insular properties when wet, even from your breathing at night. You'll hear the term "mummy bag" in reference to cold-weather bags. These snug sleeping bags have an insulated hood and tapered body to decrease the amount of space to heat, and resemble a sarcophagus. A favorite winter camping trick is to boil water and pour it into a Nalgene bottle before going to bed. Roll the hot bottle into the toe box of your sleeping bag to preheat your bag, and as a bonus you'll have a liter of water ready to go in the morning. Sleeping bag liners such as those from Sea to Summit are a simple way to add even more heat retention to your sleeping bag.

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Layering Is Key

Layering clothing is key to staying warm when winter camping. Cotton clothing should always be avoided as once wet it stays wet, and keeps water close to your skin instead of wicking it away. Start with non-cotton underwear and a base layer top and bottom (long underwear), then a fleece and /or midlayer and finally a waterproof shell. Layers can be zipped or taken off as needed.

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