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How to Select a Winter Tent Site

How to Pick a Good Winter Tent Sites

If you go backpacking in winter, you need to know how to select a good tent or camping spot. Three season rules do not apply!

Picking the right site will definitely increase your level of comfort, but can also protect you from serious injury. Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind.

Avoid Avalanche Zones

Before you pitch your tent make sure that you are not in an avalanche zone. Most avalanche zones have a slope of 40 degrees or higher, so avoid camping on them or in forest area below them. If you hear cracking sounds in the snow beneath you or see evidence of a prior slide, clear the area carefully.

Do Not Camp Under Snow Covered Branches

Snow covered branches can snap at night and fall on your tent. Avoid sleeping under them to prevent injury.

Avoid Valley Floors or Deep Canyons

Cold air flows downhill and pools at the bottom of valleys or canyons. To avoid this, don’t camp in a low spot.

Try to find Natural Wind Breaks

Moving air and wind will strip heat from you through a process known as convection. If possible, try to pitch your tent and dig your kitchen area behind a natural wind break such as a large boulder or small hill, or build one using snow blocks.

Camp Near Running Water

Melting snow takes a long time and burns through a lot of stove fuel. If you can find a tent site near running water, you can save yourself a lot of fuel and time by purifying existing sources. This can be done by boiling the water or warming it and treating it with chlorine dioxide tablets. Either way, you’ll save a lot of fuel.

Morning Sun

Sites that get morning sun will warm up faster in winter. They’re also useful if you need to dry out your sleeping bag due to internal condensation. In such cases, you should open the sleeping bag and drape it inside out over your tent. Many cold weather bags have black or darkly colored interiors to absorb more heat and accelerate the drying process.

Flatten the Snow under your Tent

Before you pitch your tent, flatten the snow under it by walking over it wearing snowshoes or boot. This will begin a process known as sintering, where the snow will harden into a firm platform. If the tent site you have selected is not level, you can shovel snow onto it and to adjust it’s pitch

Point Your Door Downhill

Point the front of your tent downhill when you pitch it. This will prevent cold air from flowing into your tent when you need to go outside.

Do you have any other advice I should add here?


  1. One way to get a feel for good spots is to look at where old cabins are located. Often on the morning sun side of a meadow, up out of the valley.

    And it is spelled "sintering".

  2. In winter you generally want south facing slopes, often there's a big difference in snow cover between south and north slopes as deciduous tree trunks add significant heat to the microclimate during sunny days.

  3. Do Not Camp Under Snow Covered Branches

    …and if they don't break they can still dump a lot of snow on top of you and your gear!

    Dramatically portrayed here:

  4. I take it you've experienced this.

    I have, he admits sheepishly. Luckily, I was in the tent…

  5. It was one of those perfect winter days. Six inches of fresh snow overnight, bright sun, no wind, temp in the 20's (F).

    I am taking a break during a snowshoe outing, standing there while gorging on my Nalgene. Since there is no wind, I have my shell wide open and pushed back to vent out some of the heat and persp.

    At that moment one of the branches above me hits its "tipping point" and scores a bullseye – about a cabbage head's worth of snow directly down my neck! I use the phrase "cabbage head" decidedly.

  6. Be careful of pitching tents in *too* much sunlight – they can reach some lovely temperatures during the daytime, which will dry out all your gear but also melts the snow underneath, which then re-freezes at night. I've seen people have to hack their tent out with axes because of this. Not fun…

  7. The best thing you can do is make a good platform. Snowshoes work great for this, and skies do too. You should make the platform at least 2x the size of your tent (if you have room) so you have a solid base with lateral support.

    If you use snow anchors (I do b/c I use a pyramid shelter), you will need to do the same with packing those in.

  8. I see that you have a Scarp in the photo, there. I will also be using a Scarp in a couple of weeks when I do a 3-4 day trip near my home in Alaska (Historic Iditarod Trail, west side of Crow Pass along Eagle River). There is still a copious amount of snow, and I was wondering about anchoring techniques. I did a solo trip recently using an REI Cirque ASL and ended up using trekking poles to guy out one vestibule and stake down one of the windward corners. I chose a campsite that was on top of some snow-buried trees, and on a slope-very stupid, I now know. This allowed me to guy out the other vestibule by running some 550 down the slope and tying it to a tree. After that trip, I bought some snow anchor’s from MSR, which I haven’t yet used. Considering that 1) the Scarp has more than four points of tension needed to set it up solidly, and 2) in the video on Tarptent’s website, the gentleman demoing the tent uses stakes, I’m wondering if the snow anchor’s are a superfluous investment. Also, come to think of it, I ordered the crosspoles as well, so anchoring might not be entirely necessary, though certainly preferred to add to the structural integrity of the shelter. The question, then, is how solid are the stock stakes in snow, and should I bring anchors to supplement? What are your thoughts on using plastic grocery bags doubled up as snow anchors as a low-cost, lightweight alternative to manufactured snow anchors.

  9. Great article!

  10. Too often I see winter campers pitch their tent right beside, or even right across, a trail. Maybe they are thinking they will have the trail all to themselves since there are usually fewer people in the wilderness in the Winter. But please don’t be rude. Back Country etiquette and LNT rules apply in the Winter too!

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