A Guide to Winter Camping

With the right equipment, cold weather camping can be a fun and enjoyable time. Why winter camp, you ask? Because there are no bugs, no crowds and there’s plenty do to; snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross-country skiing & snowshoeing.


What to Pack for Winter Camping


1. The right clothing.

Cotton is not your friend, so please leave cotton-based clothing at home. Cotton clothing tends to hold moisture next to the skin, which can make you colder. Instead, you’ll want to bring clothing made out of synthetic fibers, like wool. These material types will wick moisture away from your skin & help to keep you dry and warm.

Always be sure to dress in layers. This allows you to add and remove articles of clothing as needed to regulate your body temperature. Three layers of clothing is generally the norm. You’ll want to have a base layer against your skin (think long underwear), a middle layer that’s used for insulation to keep you warm (think fleece pants & jacket), and finally an outer layer that serves as a breathable wind and waterproof shell (think Gore-Tex or eVent).

Of course you don’t want to forget any of your accessories. Be sure to pack hats (and/or a balaclava), gloves, socks (& extras of all 3 in case they get wet), goggles or sunglasses, gaiters, and a good pair of boots; such as mountaineering boots. Make sure your socks & gloves aren’t too tight. If they are, this can restrict the blood flow to your toes & fingers, causing them to become cold.

winter socks & boots

2. Proper sleeping equipment.

When it comes to sleeping, the first piece of equipment you need is an adequate sleeping bag that will keep you warm down the 0° F (or lower). A down mummy bag is typically preferred for the most warmth. Next you’ll want a sleeping pad to go under your sleeping bag. Not only with this provide additional comfort, but it’ll create a layer of air and insulation between you and the ground, keeping you warmer. Looking for a sleeping pad with a minimum R-value of 4 (the R-value is a measure that indicates an insulation’s capacity to resist heat flow -the higher the R-value, the better you can expect it to insulate you from cold surfaces).

You’ll also need a quality tent for shelter. When choosing a tent, looking at four-season models that can withstand heavy snowfall and not collapse is a good place to start.  It’s recommended that you pitch your tent on top of packed-down snow, rather than on bare ground or rock, as this will provide further insulation. Snow flukes or special snow stakes are generally required for anchoring your tent in the winter.

winter camping tent with head poking out tent flap


3. What to eat & how to cook it.

When it’s cold outside your body will burn more calories since it’s trying to stay warm. That means you’ll need lots of fuel! For cooking food, a small cook stove is generally adequate. A white gas stove is often preferred since the liquid does not smell if spilled and it doesn’t leave a residue. Consider the following energy producing food types: proteins, fats and carbohydrates .

  1. Proteins (meats, dairy and eggs) help build muscles and body tissue.
  2. Fats (nuts and meats) are used primarily for energy.
  3. Carbohydrates (cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits, breads and candy) also provide energy.


Foods that don’t take much time to cook or clean-up are best. Consider 1-pot options and even freeze-dried meals. You should avoid caffeine since it restricts blood flow and cools your extremities. Alcohol should also be avoided since it increases blood flow and cools your core temperature.

packaged freeze-dried meals

Of course, always remember to stay hydrated, but never eat snow as that will bring your body temperature down and could bring on hypothermia. It is recommended that you melt snow and boil the water since chemical filters take longer to work in the cold, and mechanical filters can crack and fail in the lower temperatures. Bring coffee filters to to strain the melted water to remove bits of debris. If carrying a bottle of water, insulate it with a wool sock to help keep it from freezing. Additionally, water mixed with something else, such as Gatorade, will have a lower freezing temperature. A good rule of thumb for checking hydration is the color of your urine. Urine will be light colored or clear if you are properly hydrated.


Check-out this winter camping checklist for a full list of everything you should bring with.


Additional Tips for Cold-Weather Camping


1. Staying warm & comfortable while sleeping.

Long underwear are a great sleeping option for comfort and warmth when sleeping. For added insulation, tuck your day-time clothes into the sleeping bag with you (as long as they aren’t wet!). Your clothes from the current day will already be heated up by your body, while your clothes for tomorrow will be nice and warm when you go to change in the morning; this tip includes the liner from your boots. Another good tip is to stick a couple of hot water filled bottles into your bag with you. Placing one down by your feet, and one higher up near your torso will assist in keeping you warm. To prevent any leaks or drips, place the water bottles in Ziploc bags. Finally, vent your tent as much as possible at night to reduce condensation on the inside of the tent walls. The few degrees of warmth trapped by a sealed up tent are not worth the trouble of wet clothes, sleeping bag, etc that result from the condensation.

man wearing winter jacket near woods


2. Cooking

Never cook inside your tent due to the danger of fire as well as carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s best to cook outside, out of the wind. Use a foil base to prevent your stove from sinking into the snow as it heats up. Setting up a tarp can act as both a wind barrier for cooking & sleeping.


3. Weather & General Safety

Check the weather forecast before you head out and plan your trip for moderate weather. Remember, winter storms can come out of nowhere, so always be mindful of what’s going on around you. This is one benefit of “car camping.” Should an unexpected storm roll in, you’ll have a safe & warm retreat readily available as a backup. The NOAA-NWS Web site offers detailed back-country forecasts.

Always bring a cell phone (or satellite messenger), fire-starting material, & first aid kit with you in case of emergency. Additionally, always tell someone else about your travel plans, including where you’re going and when you plan on returning. Finally, always be aware of the signals your body is sending you. Be alert for oncoming signs of frostbite & hypothermia.

campfire in winter


4. Lighting & Batteries

Don’t forget that with winter comes longer hours of darkness. Be prepared with a headlamp and extra flashlight batteries. Lithium batteries are recommended since they perform better in colder weather than do alkaline batteries, plus they are lighter and last longer.


Ready to get out and enjoy winter in Wisconsin? There are 2 official campgrounds within an hour of Rice Lake, WI that are open during winter; Brunet Island State ParkLake Wissota State Park. Get outside and enjoy the crisp, fresh air!

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