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Winter Camping

Don’t Just Survive in the Cold—Thrive in it

Don't fear the freeze: Learn to love the cold and feel the whole winter wilderness open up to you.

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Want more? Outside+ members get access to the full version of this story, with tips for hiking in the rain, wind, and heat. 

If you live somewhere with four distinct seasons, cold is just a fact of life. Learning to thrive in it is the key to unlocking winter adventures. Get ready for a chilly trip with this advice.

On the Trail

Lose layers. If you overdress at the trailhead, you’ll soon be sweaty. Instead, do jumping jacks or jog in place so you’re not chilled for the first 10 minutes.

Stay dry. In extreme cold (below zero), manage your layers and pace with this legendary Arctic adage in mind: You sweat, you die. Starting to perspire? Slow down or strip.

Keep layers handy. You’ll take them on and off frequently. When you’re not wearing a hat or gloves, stow them in pockets, down your shirt, or clipped to a shoulder strap. Stash your puffy jacket and a shell in the top of your pack.

Breathe through your nose. In temps below 20°F, some hikers experience chest pain from cold air. Inhale through your nose and the air will warm up before it hits your lungs.

Take short breaks. Maintain the body heat you’ve already generated by resting briefly (and more frequently if needed). At breaks, put on an extra layer right away–don’t wait until you’re chilled.

Eat fast. Stash snacks in each pocket of your puffy jacket, so that when you put it on during breaks you can refuel without digging around. Keep energy bars from freezing by storing them with a hot-water bottle or hand warmer.

Sit on your pack. Conserve energy during rest stops: Sit on your pack (read: insulation) with your back to the wind.

Keep your feet warm. Prone to cold toes? Cut a square from a closed-cell foam pad (light and cheap) to insulate your feet during breaks. Always change into dry socks if your feet get sweaty.

Use chemical hand warmers. These have myriad uses beyond saving cold digits: Stuff them in interior pockets to increase core temp; pre-warm a sleeping bag by tossing one in an hour before bed; thaw frozen boots in the morning; boost stove output by taping one to the canister.

In Camp

Change and sip first. When you hit camp, swap wet layers for dry to limit heat loss. Then brew a hot, sweet drink to refuel, rehydrate, and reheat. (Get inspired with our favorite hot chocolate recipes.)

Limit breezes. Dig or stomp a tent platform six inches deep, so the edge of your rainfly is below the snow’s surface. Then cinch the fly as low as it will go.

Wear your bag to dinner. You’re suddenly sedentary, and temps are falling: Bring your sleeping pad and bag to the kitchen area, or retreat to the tent while your rice is cooking.

Cook before you camp. In extreme cold, break up your sedentary evening hours by stopping for dinner an hour from camp. Cook and eat, then warm up again as you finish the miles to camp.

Bring an extra pad. Double up on ground insulation: Put a closed-cell foam mat under a full-length, inflatable pad.

Go to bed warm. Do sit-ups inside your bag to generate body heat. Wear a hat and make sure your bag is sealed.

Add insulation. 1. Spread extra layers over you in the bag instead of wearing them, says Fierer. That way, you won’t crush their insulating power. 2. Drape a puffy jacket or vest around your shoulders, like a giant neck gaiter. 3. Wrap a shell around the foot of your bag for extra warmth and condensation protection. 4. Really cold? Cover the bag’s hood opening with a puffy jacket. (Just don’t cover your mouth, or risk waking up with a wet, frozen layer over your face.)

Have a midnight snack. Wake up cold? Eat a candy bar.

Prevent condensation. Open fly vents or crack the door to allow a cross breeze. Pack a camp towel to wipe any frost and water droplets and frost that do form on the tent ceiling.

Snowshoers near Mt. Hood
(Photo: thinair28/E+ via Getty Images)

Key Gear for Cold Hikes

Face shield Balaclavas are often overkill when you’re on the move. Alex Van Steen, a veteran guide from Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., advises a neck gaiter that you can pull up over your nose as needed; cut a dime-size hole over your mouth to keep your breath from fogging goggles.

Gloves On Rainier, Van Steen takes thin liners for dexterity, ski gloves for moderate warmth, and waterproof mittens for the worst weather. In extreme cold, never take the liners off.

Boots Whether or not you’re using insulated boots, make sure the fit allows wiggle in the forefoot when you’re wearing winter-weight socks. A tight fit can restrict circulation, causing dangerously cold toes.

Zipper pulls Extend zipper tabs–pants fly zipper included–by attaching three-inch lengths of cord. Now you can keep your thick gloves on while adjusting gear and layers.

Hot-water bottles Fill two, put them in socks (to avoid burning your skin), and nestle them at your feet and between your thighs, where the latter can warm the blood in your femoral artery.

Sleeping bag Too big and it’s chilly, but make sure it has extra space (about six inches at the foot) for clothes.

Hooded parka A mountain must, it’s way warmer than a hoodless parka and hat.

How a Guide Deals With the Cold

Your body needs extra calories in cold temps. When guiding in Antarctica and Alaska, Mountain Travel Sobek’s Ogilvy fuels up by putting peanut butter in ramen noodles and a hunk of butter in hot chocolate. She also adds heat to her diet with chili sauce and cayenne capsules: “Spicy foods just make me feel warmer,” she says.

campsite in the snow
(Photo: Mint Images – Michael Hanson via Getty)

Key Skill for Cold Hikes: Find a Comfy Campsite

Avoid low-lying areas in meadows and along rivers when it’s wet and cold. Lower ground tends to get soggy, and the coldest air settles there. But in hot weather, a riverside camp is often breezy and cool.

Camp behind natural windbreaks, such as on the lee side of boulders, or build your own out of rocks or snow.

Branches growing on only one side of the trees indicate frequent, strong winds. Check for widowmakers (dead trees or branches that could blow down) before pitching your tent. Also, wind typically moves down-valley in the evening and up-valley in the morning. Choose a site that’s sheltered from both directions.

Sheltered sites under alcoves and in dense stands of living trees protect from rain, cold, and heat. In winter, the cover reflects radiant heat back at you; in summer, overhangs and trees provide shade. Look for spots with good eastern exposure to catch the morning sun. In a canyon, sleep on a ledge to escape the cool ground breezes (just six feet can make a difference).

Read the full story with Outside+.

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