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12 Essential Winter Camping and Backpacking Hacks

Winter camping and backpacking have a much steeper learning curve than three season hiking and camping because you have to carry a lot more gear and learn so many new skills. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve discovered or learned over the years that have improved the safety and comfort of my winter trips.

1. Dig a Pit under your Tent’s Front Vestibule

Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent
Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent

Dig a pit about 3 feet deep under the front vestibule of your winter tent so you can sit down in the front door when you take off or put on your winter boots. This also increases the amount of gear you can store under the vestibule fly.

2. Bring at Least Two Stoves in Case one Fails

Bring a foam pad to sit on when you melt snow and cook.
Bring a foam pad to sit on when you melt snow and cook.

Stoves can fail in winter. White Gas stoves can get gunked up and stop functioning if they’re not cleaned properly or use dirty fuel. Canister stoves can also fail when it gets too cold for their fuel to vaporize. You best bet is to bring multiple stoves when you go winter camping or backpacking in a group, preferably ones that share the same kind of fuel, so you have some redundancy in case a stove fails.

3. Wear Oven Bags Over Your Feet to Keep Your Socks Dry

Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for very cold winter hiking
Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for cold winter hiking

If you wear gaiters for winter hiking, your socks will get wet from foot and leg sweat. This is a problem when winter camping because wet socks will freeze at night unless you sleep with them in your sleeping bag. However, you can keep your socks dry if you wear oven roasting bags under your socks. Your feet will sweat less and stay warmer and your socks will stay dry because the oven bags contain all that sweat close to your skin.

4. Use Plastic Grocery Bags as Snow Anchors Instead of Tent Stakes

Plastic Grocery Bags
Plastic Grocery Bags

Use plastic grocery bags as snow anchors for your tent instead of carrying tent stakes. Fill them with snow and bury them so just their handles are showing above the surface of the snow. You can immediately guy out your tent with them without having to wait for them to harden up. The plastic bags are easy to remove in the morning and reuse. They’re also super lightweight.

5. Wrap Fuel Bottles with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite

Wrap Your White Gas Fuel Bottle with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite
Wrap Your White Gas Fuel Bottle with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite

In cold weather, the temperature of white gas, or liquid fuel as it is also known, can dip below freezing but still remain in liquid form. If it touches your skin, it will evaporate immediately, causing frostnip or a more severe frostbite. In fact, simply touching an uninsulated fuel bottle with the bare skin of your hand in sub-zero temperatures can cause a cold injury. You can prevent this by wrapping the bottle with duct tape to insulate it.

6. Eat Boil-In-Bag Frozen Food instead of Dehydrated Camping Meals

Jack Daniels Pulled Pork
Jack Daniels Pulled Pork

The nice thing about cold weather is that you can carry prepared frozen meals and eat them instead of cooking a crappy Mountain House meal which takes forever to rehydrate. Boil-in-a-bag stew-like meals work best, like this Pulled Pork meal from Jack Daniels, available in most supermarkets.

7. Sleep with your Boots or Boot Liners in your Sleeping Bag at Night

If your boots or boot liners at damp, they'll freeze overnight in winter unless you keep them warm.
If your boots or boot liners are damp, they’ll freeze overnight in winter unless you keep them warm.

If your winter boots or bootlines have become damp during the day, you need to sleep with them in your sleeping bag to keep them from freezing at night. If your boots do freeze, you may not be able to use them again until they are thawed out.

8. Carry your Water Bottles in Insulated Pockets

Carry your water bottles in insulated bottle pockets to keep them from freezing.
Carry your water bottles in insulated bottle pockets to keep them from freezing.

When hiking in winter, it’s best to use wide mouth bottles that you can pour boiling water into each morning. These should be stored upside down so the tops don’t freeze shut. Store the water bottles in insulated water bottle pockets on the outside of your pack or inside your pack, surrounded by insulating garments.

9. Wear Nitrile Exam Gloves as Glove Liners

Wear nitrile or latex glove liners under fleece gloves or mittens to keep them dry.
Wear nitrile or latex glove liners under fleece gloves or mittens to prevent sweating into them/

If your hands sweat when you hike and you have to carry extra gloves or mittens, you can cut down on the number of gloves you need to pack by wearing nitrile or latex gloves as glove liners. They prevent hand sweat from being absorbed by your gloves and will keep your hands warmer too. It’s the same principle as wearning oven roasting bags over your feet to keep your socks dry.

10. Carry Snacks in a Front Pocket so they’re Easy to Eat Eithout Stopping.

Carry snacks in a front pocket so they're easy to  eat on the go without stopping.
Carry snacks in a front pocket so they’re easy to eat on the go without stopping.

Clip a pocket or a small 16 ounce Nalgene bottle to the front of your backpack so you can snack without having to stop and get food out of your backpack. Winter backpacking takes an enormous amount of energy and you need to eat frequently to stay energized and warm.

11. Use Lithium Batteries instead of Alkaline Batteries in Winter

Lithium Batteries
Lithium Batteries

Alkaline batteries perform very poorly below freezing and in cold weather because they are made with a water-based electrolyte solution. Lithum batteries on the other hand are much more powerful than alkaline batteries and function very well in cold weather, making them ideal for headlamps and other must-have electronics.

12. Dig a Kitchen Area to Sit in While Melting Snow or Cooking

Dug Out Winter Kitchen Area
Dug Out Winter Kitchen Area

One of the great pleasures of winter camping and backpacking is sitting around at night, all bundled up, while you melt snow and eat together. This is best done in a kitchen area, that you dig out with an avalanche shovel. Who needs camping furntiture? All you need is an insulated foam pad to sit on and keep your butt from getting cold.

What are your favorite wnter camping and backpacking hacks?

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38 comments

  1. Toss a disposable hand warmer in your sleeping bag around dinner time to have a pre-warmed bag ready for you when hiker midnight rolls around.

  2. Keep your gas canister in a cozy and sit it on an insulating pad. Not like 2 on the snow

    • Insulating a gas canister in winter will actually backfire and make the canister colder than the outside temperature. Canisters cool when used – ever notice the frost that forms on the outside? Leaving them open to air temperature if warmer than 20 degrees or putting them in a pan of luke warm weather (by definition above freezing) is a much better method to keep them working.

      As for liquid fuel, there is no need to insulate it either for anthing warmer than 40 below. The vaporization occurs at the stove or in a pre-heating tube on the stove if your stove has one.

      • Agreed !!! Those mesh pockets work really good at holding propane tanks !!!
        If a fuel tank like propane is kept warmer then the air & then you hook it up & start cooking with it,
        You risk freezing things up !!!
        Good point bro !!!
        Thanks !!!

  3. An alternative is to go ‘Hot Tent’ camping: cook real food on wood stove, keep warm and stay up after dark.

  4. Is there an advantage to the Reynolds bags over bread bags for the feet? I always have a few bread bags with me. They also make great trash sacks.

  5. I really like this new series on hacks you are publishing lately! Keep them coming! I’ve never really liked using a vapor barrier on my feet, I get too sweaty and my feet get wet from the inside, even in colder temps. I’ll just try to avoid stream crossings so it’s a non-issue. I guess stuff happens, but I’d rather just keep an extra pair of socks on me.

    • Thanks Shawn. I’m trying a few new things.
      Vapor barriers are really only good in very cold temps (below 10 degrees or more), but they work really well on multi-day trips where you can’t get your gear dry enough at night.

  6. Great list! I’ve done a lot of winter backpacking and camping over the last few years and plan on doing more this year.

    #4 is one I’ll defiantly try ! I hate trying to stack down my tent in the snow!

    • #4 is a good one. You’ll still want to stomp down the snow under your tent, but you don’t have to wait for the tent stakes to harden (deadmen) when you use grocery bags for stakes. It basically means you can get into your tent faster and into dry warm clothes.

  7. I am a fan of boil-in-bag meals, despite the weight. Lithium batteries for your headlamps – essential, and have the advantage of being lighter than ordinary batteries.

  8. Nice list, Philiip, but we should recognize the chief drawback of #6, the boil-in-the-bag frozen meal: You’re schlepping the water component of that meal up the mountain. With a Mountain House meal, you’re only carrying the solids component, likely 1/4 to 1/2 (depending on the food) the weight. So maybe do this for one festive dinner?

  9. Great list – would have never thought about changing the batteries in my tourch

  10. Great list! Maybe add the hot Nalgene in your sleeping bag before bed trick? One of the true joys in life, IMO. I keep mine in its insulator so it’s not TOO hot and the heat seems to last longer that way too.

  11. Some of these are good tips. The lithium batteries are great down to about zero degrees, the trouble I have is with rechargeable batteries that are not lithium. I try to keep these items in my inside coat pocket and inside my sleeping bag at night.

    The idea of using bags on my feet and latex gloves on my hands is moronic. The first rule of staying warm is staying dry!if you have trouble with fleece not drying out fast enough switch to wool.

    I would add a few things like empty your bladder before bed. Your body uses energy to keep your full bladder warm. Eat a high calorie snack just before bed to keep your internal combustion engine pumping. Put your boots in a plastic grocery bag and put them between you and your tent mate then cover with your parka. When buying a cold weather sleeping bag, buy it longer to store some extra items at night like water, extra clothing, battery operated items or anything that might be severely affected by the cold.

    • Bags on the feet and the latex gloves sound moronic, but for extreme cold it’s a strategy often used by climbers, do a search for vapor barrier clothing and you’ll see it’s not only gloves and socks, but pants and jackets as well, the idea is keep your insulating layer dry by not dumping sweat into it. Unless it’s really really cold or you’re high on a mountain I would agree it’s not a very practical tip.

    • Not just for camping – I do this too when the home furnace hasn’t yet kicked in: a few minutes of jumping jacks or other aerobic exercise, not enough to sweat, but enough to get blood moving. Then jump into bed.

    • look up vapor barriers – which is basically what the bags on feet and plastic gloves simulate. It is very common for super cold conditions. not moronic

      Also – the bladder science is still just a myth. No research backs up the theory that your body requires more energy to keep a full bladder warm. It’s a fine wives tale we’ve all heard, but nothing to back it up.

  12. For those that are new, don’t forget to vent your tent at night and dont breath down into your sleeping bag when you go to sleep.
    For those that camp near a car and use an air mattress remember the air in the mattress will get as near as cold as the air outside. You will need insulation between the “air” mattress and your sleeping bag.

  13. Thanks for another great post, Philip. I have started using the vapor barrier approach last year and it does work. My feet were less wet than normal, which kept my socks dry. Once camp is set up, I immediately swap to my camp socks (just a heayweight snowboard/ski sock). Done. Warm cozies on the feet retainin their warmth from the vapor barrier and dry socks for the hiking next day.
    Will have to consider the latex glove idea. My hands sweat like crazy in winter.

  14. Hey Philip, what’s that Fred bag you’re wearing in hack #10?

  15. ‘Feed Bag’ I meant. :)

  16. I came here from a link on /r/CampingandHiking. Very well done blog. Plus there are smart, helpful, excited people posting in the comments section here – so refreshing to see compared to most blogs. Keep up the good work.

  17. I always have a bit of trouble with sweat in two areas, my feet, while I sleep, so I stay with smart wool or a sock that sucks the wet away very quickly. and no liners, in fact the biggest blisters I ever had came from wearing liners on the third week of a PCT hike in 1988…Nitrale Gloves do not breath, so again a sweaty hand issue. I use, if I use any line at all a light weight very thin cotton glove. The kind you see NASA scientists wearing in the clean room or Museum Docents wear when handling ancient artifacts…..We used to carry a Busen Burner heat diffuser to insulate the stoves from the Snow which was almost mandatory if using a SEVA 123R which is a 100% pure Blow Torch….And you are so right, bring two stoves and if liquid fueled, I carried the fuel in two small pint bottles instead of one big bottle, their easier to handle with Mitts and Gloves on or with cold hands.

  18. OUCH, we already of a ring of garbage/plastic bags in our oceans.

    Please reduce the impact of plastic bags in our forrests.

    Use dental floss as rope tied to snowballs which act as deadmans in securing tents.

    Cut the line if you can recover a frozen deadman. Dental floss should leave a minimal trace unlike a plastic bag as deadman.

  19. Camping this weekend and the temps are going to be around 0. I have a 15 degree down bag. So I was thinking about bringing my 50 degree bag to slip my bag inside of. Would this help? I have the pads and things I need. I have slept in 16 degrees very comfortably. Just don’t want to fight the cold in my bag. Thanks Katie

  20. Latex gloves under my “Florida winter” gloves I brought would have done the trick this week in the White Mtns. It was raining and hailing and cold. My fingers were on the verge of frostbite and this was the first week of June!

  21. Great series of tips! I absolutely love winter camping and backpacking, but you need to be so attentive to all those little details. It doesn’t take much for things to go sideways. And as a final thought: is there anything that duck tape can’t help? Keep up the great work!

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