two tents sitting on the snow being illuminated at night with a snow mountain behind it

Ultimate Guide to Winter Tent Camping: Tips, Gear, and More!

Winter tent camping always intrigued me: the cold, the stunning snowy conditions, the solitude. But, growing up in Arizona, I never really had the chance to experience it.

Once I moved to Seattle, I knew my snow camping chances would skyrocket, and I finally jumped at the opportunity to do it at Artist Point, near Mt. Baker.

Inside this winter camping guide is everything I possibly know about winter tent camping, how to stay warm, and little tips to make it a fun experience. As always, thanks for reading!

Your Guide to a Successful Winter Tent Camping Experience

a close up of winter tent camping with a mountain peak in the background.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What you need to know before Winter Camping

Check the weather forecast

This one’s paramount. While you know it’ll be chilly for your winter tent camping; there is a limit to how miserable you want to be. If the weather forecast calls for a blizzard, choose another day and not risk it.

The same goes for freezing weather. If you’re new to winter camping, choosing a less risky weather window will make your experience more enjoyable and successful.

Make sure you want to do this

You don’t have to go winter tent camping. There’s no rule against saying no! So please double-check that you are ready for it and have the right gear. If you really want to, then go for it!

Do you have a satellite phone to call for help?

I recommend having a satellite device, like the Garmin inReach Mini 2, in case of an emergency. A winter storm could roll in unexpectedly while you’re snow camping and require assistance. Being caught in the cold could prove life-threatening.

Picking Your Winter Camping Gear

Choosing a Winter Camping Tent

Which tent is best for winter camping?

In most instances, your three-season backpacking tent will do just fine for winter camping. This is even more true if the weather is mild and there is little snow or wind in the forecast. Four-season tents are designed for “winter camping” because they are stronger, allowing them to withstand strong wind and heavy snowfall.

But if that’s not going to be an issue, you can totally go with a backpacking tent and then bring additional gear to make it warmer.

two tents sitting next to each other on the snow
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

I will add that while your ultralight backpacking tent might work, you may want to go with one that is a little heavier, even if the weather is mild. As the name conveys, ultralight tents are the bare minimum weight, and you may want to defer to something sturdier.

What is the difference between a 4 season tent and a winter tent?

A four-season tent and a winter tent are the same thing.

They are designed to be stronger to withstand heavy snowfall (like the kind that completely buries a tent) and fierce wind. Additionally, the walls are thicker, allowing them to retain heat and be warmer. These are heavier to carry but provide the necessary safety structure to keep you alive through the night or a severe storm.

How do you keep a tent warm on a cold night?

There are a few ways to help keep your tent warm on a cold night.

The first is to line your tent with unworn clothes. This will decrease the amount of cold air that seeps up from the ground.

Secondly, you can put a tarp or heavier emergency blanket inside your tent (or under it) to add one more layer between you and the cold snow/ground below. If you use the emergency blanket/tap, it has a reflecting side that should help keep your tent warmer at night.

looking through one side of the tent out onto mountains
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Freestanding or Semi Freestanding Tent

Freestanding Tents: Quick and Convenient Shelter Freestanding tents are a winter camper’s best friend because they are designed to stand on their own without relying on stakes or guy lines for support.

Their self-supporting frame system typically involves a combination of sturdy poles that create a freestanding structure. This design makes them ideal for quick setups, allowing you to pitch your tent swiftly and efficiently even in challenging winter conditions.

The convenience of freestanding tents shines in various terrains, especially where staking into the frozen ground might be impractical, such as rocky or hard surfaces. The ability to set up without relying on stakes can be a game-changer in unpredictable winter environments.

Semi-Freestanding Tents: Stability and Versatility If you’re seeking a balance between stability and versatility, a semi-freestanding tent might be the perfect fit for your winter camping needs. Like their freestanding counterparts, semi-freestanding tents have a self-supporting frame. However, they may require stakes and guy lines for optimal stability and to maximize internal space.

Semi-freestanding tents often combine poles and guylines to create a more stable structure, especially in windy winter conditions. While they may require a bit more effort to set up than freestanding tents, the added stability can be crucial when facing the challenges of winter weather.

Ideally, you should aim for a freestanding tent for your winter camping.

a snow covered mountains with snow clouds
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What tents should I choose:

I recommend these five tents that would be great for snow camping.

These are legitimate, four-season winter tents. If you’re going to do serious winter tent camping, I’d consider these.

Choosing a Warm Sleeping Bag

Is it warmer to sleep with clothes on or off in a sleeping bag?

It is often warmer to sleep with clothes on when inside a sleeping bag during cold weather. A sleeping bag’s primary function is to provide insulation by trapping and retaining body heat.

Wearing appropriate clothing can enhance the effectiveness of the sleeping bag by adding an extra layer of insulation.

Make sure to wear something on your head to help retain your body’s heat. This will make a huge difference in staying warm!

What temperature rating should my sleeping bag be?

I strongly recommend getting a 15-degree bag at the minimum for winter camping. Most of you will probably have lows in the 20s to 30s, and a 15-degree bag is perfect for this.

However, everybody’s temperature rating differs, so those “official” ratings are pretty subjective. If you run cold, I would opt for a 5-degree or even 0-degree bag.

Related Winter Articles:
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Must-Have Winter Adventure Gear
Adventure Gift Guide
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What sleeping bag should I choose:

Here are five sleeping bags to consider

a picture of mt baker in washington
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Choosing an Insulated Sleeping Pad

Your sleeping pad is one of the most important pieces of your winter camping gear. This is what protects you from the freezing ground and keeps your backside warm. You want a higher “R-Value,” which equals insulation.

This means your sleeping pad will be heavier, but this is an easy tradeoff for comfort. So, leave your ultralight sleeping pad at home and grab a thicker and warmer one for your snow camping.

What sleeping pad should I choose:

monring light on our winter tent camping set up there's two tent with a towering mountain behind us
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What Clothes to Wear for Winter Camping

Having the appropriate clothing to stay warm during winter camping is not only vital but can also be life-saving. The first part of being safe is understanding layering.

This is the understanding of how to wear your clothes (sounds strange, I know) to optimize your warmth and keep you dry.

Base Layers:

Base layers are the clothes that touch your skin. These are your wool shirts or long sleeves that help keep you warm but also wick away sweat and keep you dry. They should be exclusively wool or polyester (think dry-fit).

Leave the cotton clothes at home as they will do nothing but keep you cold.

Middle Layers:

Your middle layers are what you typically think of as “warm clothes.” These are your puffy jackets or fleece jackets. You wear these in the middle zone to keep you warm and insulated.

These, however, should not get wet as they will not work as well (or at all).

Outer Layers:

Your outer layer keeps you dry. These are your rain and wind jackets. They come in various styles and warmth levels. Some may be light jackets to keep the wind off you as you summit peaks, while others are heavy jackets to help keep you warm in the Arctic.

Winter camping gear: hiking and camping accessories

Beanie/Hat

Wearing a beanie or wool hat will make your winter tent camping experience much more enjoyable. Keeping your noggin warm keeps your entire body warm.

a hiker walks on the snow
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Gloves

Make sure to have something to put on your hands. You don’t have to get something super expensive. Just anything that protects your hands from the elements will do the job!

Glasses

As you hike in the snow, make sure to have sunglasses or glacier glasses. Walking on snow can be incredibly bright, and not protecting your eyes could lead to blindness or eyesight issues. So, protect your eyes with snow glasses or goggles.

Wool Socks

Wool socks are my favorite thing to wear while adventuring in winter conditions. They keep your feet warm and dry and do a great job of mitigating blister risks.

Winter Hiking Boots

I have a full article on winter hiking boots, but the gist is to make sure you’re exploring in waterproof boots. If not, your feet will be cold and wet, and you’ll be miserable!

What other gear do I need for winter camping?

Backpacking Stove

You’ll want a backpacking stove like Jetboil or MSR Pocket Rocket. On top of this, I always enjoy a nice hot meal, so I’ll bring a freeze-dried meal too.

Fuel Canisters

Depending on the length of your trip, you likely only need one canister. But if you’re worried about functionality in the cold, bringing two can’t hurt!

sunset colors in the sky while while winter tent camping
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Snowshoes/Skinning/Splitboard

If you’re going snow camping, you’ll need a way to traverse the snow. This is where your winter camping gear of choice comes into play. I personally love snowshoeing (also, it’s all I own), so I’ve opted for that route.

Others, though, will ski/snowboard, which offers much more thrill than snowshoes.

Snowshoe options: MSR Evo // MSR Ascent Men’s and Women’s

Avalanche Safety Gear

If you’re going into avalanche territory, it’s smart to bring Avalanche Safety Gear.

Random Tips for Winter Camping That You’ll Love

Hot water bottle trick

Before going to bed, boil some water and put it into your water bottle. Then, throw the water bottle into your sleeping bag.

It’ll heat it up, so you’ll have a warm sleeping bag when you get in and go to sleep. I might recommend wrapping it in a t-shirt at the beginning, just in case it could burn/affect the inside of your sleeping bag.

Keep your phone/batteries warm

I usually throw my phone and camera batteries inside of my sleeping bag or in one of my jacket pockets. This helps keep them warm during the night and decreases the chances that the cold temperatures suck the battery power.

Put more insulation under your sleeping pad

When I go snow camping, I also bring a foam pad to put under my blow-up air pad. The foam pad is an incredible insulator, and cold temperatures have a more challenging time getting through it. (Think of it as a tremendous defensive layer.)

Doing this is an easy way to stay much warmer during your winter tent camping.

mt baker in the evening light
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Quick exercise before getting into your sleeping bag

Another excellent snow camping tip is to do a bunch of jumping jacks, high knees, or squats immediately before going to bed. Yes, this will wake up your body, but it will also warm it up. In doing this, when you get into your sleeping bag, you generate heat, quickly warming up your bag.

Put excess clothes around your tent

During my snow camping experience, I put my unused clothes around the four corners and then spread them out. By limiting the amount of cold that can drift up from the ground, you’ll help keep the tent warmer.

Put your food in a bear box

While many animals are hibernating, it is still wise to secure your campsite. This means putting all scented items in your bear canister. However, because most large animals are not around, you probably can leave it in the middle of camp instead of hiding it as you’d do during summer.

But use your best judgment as this is location-dependent.

Keep your boots inside your tent

Keep your boots inside your tent while you sleep. While you may not want to track snow into your tent when you go to bed when you wake up, your shoes will likely be frigid and/or wet from dew- a possibility that is far, far worse, in my opinion!

a lone hiker walks out on the snow with a big mountain behind him
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

My Experience Winter Tent Camping

In May 2023, my buddy and I headed to Mt. Baker and Artist Point to check off a snow camping experience. While the temperatures were still hovering around freezing, it wasn’t exactly the winter camping that you read about in Alaska.

Still, it was fun to experience, and we ended up being the only ones up there. For those unaccustomed to the area, you only have to hike about two miles up for a stunning view of two towering peaks.

You can drive this in the summer, but the Mt. Baker area sees some of the highest snow totals in America, so the road is closed during the winter and spring months.

Once we figured out our tent locations, we did what I said in this article. We stomped around in our snowshoes, creating a flat area to pitch our backpacking tents. From there, we enjoyed the views, took tons of photos, and watched the sunset on the snowy peaks around us.

It was honestly some of the best views I’ve seen, and I cannot wait to embark again on a winter camping experience in the PNW.

Final light on the mountain while winter tent camping
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

FAQ: Snow Camping

How cold is too cold for tent camping?

I would say that anything below 15 degrees is too cold for winter tent camping. Now, if you’re going mountaineering, sub-20-degree temperatures are likely standard. But for everyday campers, extreme freezing conditions may not be what you feel comfortable with.

I’ve been in the low 20s, and it was very cold. However, 32 degrees (freezing) is honestly not that bad if you have the right gear.

Can you set up a tent in the winter?

Setting up a tent in the winter is not much different than in the summertime. The tent part is actually the exact same. However, you’ll want to clear a flat area to sleep on for winter tent camping. I’ve used my snowshoes to flatten out my area, both leveling it off and then stomping down on the ground to create a hard surface.

You may want to dig into the snow to create a wind wall if it’s windy. Furthermore, making this shelter system can keep you much warmer and increase the enjoyment of winter camping.

How do you camp in 0-degree weather?

Now, zero-degree camping is VERY cold, and I’m not sure most people would recommend it. Camping in 0-degree weather requires the appropriate gear, being knowledgeable about survival skills, and keeping warm through the night. Most people do not choose to do zero-degree camping, but it is possible.

If you follow the gear recommendations and tips in this article, you’ll be on your way to surviving the night.

a backpacker sets up his winter tent camping gear
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Should you put a tarp under a tent?

Yes, you should put a tarp under your tent when you’re snow camping. This will add another layer of defense against the cold and help keep your tent warmer throughout your camping trip. You don’t need anything fancy, but you could opt for a thicker tarp to increase your warmth potential.

Is it safe to use a heater in a tent?

The short answer is do not use a heater in a tent. Using a heater in a tent requires careful consideration and adherence to safety precautions. Tents often lack proper ventilation, posing a risk of carbon monoxide buildup. If choosing to use a heater, opt for models designed for indoor use with safety features like automatic shutoff.

Propane heaters, for example, should be equipped with an oxygen depletion sensor. Stability is crucial to prevent the heater from tipping over, and it’s important to keep flammable materials at a safe distance.

However, it is generally advisable to prioritize alternative methods for staying warm in a tent, such as appropriate sleeping bags and insulated clothing, particularly in extremely cold conditions.

two tents faintly glow as the sunsets
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final Thoughts on Winter Camping

Winter tent camping isn’t for everyone. It’s not the most pleasurable experience, and there could be moments of frustration, extreme cold, and anxiety. But there are also moments of joy, stunning sunrises/sunsets, and pushing the boundaries of what you thought was possible.

Overall, if you feel you are up for winter camping, go for it! But start small, have the appropriate gear as laid out here, and do your due diligence in preparing for your winter adventure.

If you do it right, you’ll have a fantastic time, and if not, hopefully, you’ll have some incredible stories to tell!

Until next time, adventures, stay safe!


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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside