Ten tips for a better winter campsite

Here are ten tips to make your snow camping experience a little more luxurious and trouble free.

1. Camp on snow

Be equipped to camp on the snow. Once you learn how to do it and how comfortable it is, you may never want to camp on the ground again. To do this, you need a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. The standard practice for snow camping in the Pacific Northwest is two mattresses, either one solid core and one air or two solid ones.

Snow is soft and clean, usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation. Sometimes you might need to stomp it down a bit with snowshoes or level it with a snow shovel. It is easy to level a spot even on slopes. Pitching a tent on the snow is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It also increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). And, it is often the only option if you want to camp in the winter season. So be prepared!

Winter sleeping system
My sleeping system consists of a roll-out solid core foam mattress, an air mattress, and a sleeping bag. The solid core foam mattress has an R-value of 2.8 (about $30) and two of these will do the job. Or one 2.8 foam pad coupled with an air mattress with at least 2.5 R-value and you’ll be comfortable. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad which has 5.7 R-value ($150–225). The patches on my sleeping bag are the result of some small critter eating through the bag to gather down stuffing.

2. Secure your tent without having to tie knots in cold weather 

The loops on the corners of your tent are too short for tent stakes in soft snow. This is true even with 4-season tents. So be prepared. You’ll need to add utility cords to allow the stakes to be put deep in the snow in order to secure the tent against high winds. A simple technique for doing this without tying knots in the cold is explained in How to stake a tent in the snow without tying knots.

3. Protect your air mattress

Eliminate your air-mattress’ exposure to all sharp objects and anything that gets hot enough to melt it, such as pots, cups, and stoves. Clip together any loose side-release buckles on your pack to prevent exposed sharp buckle ends from puncturing your air mattress. Leave microspikes, crampons, and trekking poles outside in the tent vestibule. If you don’t have a vestibule and need to put gear outside, have a way of identifying the gear’s location in the morning, such as looping the gear onto a snow shovel. Anything left outside may get buried under falling or drifting snow during the night.

If the air mattress fails, you must have a backup plan, which is why it is important to always carry an extra mattress—usually a solid one. However, solid mattresses have low R-value (2–2.8), so you’ll need to put the deflated air-mattress, your pack, and any extra clothing under it to help make up the difference. If you’re with other hikers, someone may be able to lend you an extra mattress if that still leaves them with one 5+ mattress. If you only bring an air mattress and it gets punctured or the value or seams fail—you’re in trouble. If you at least have a solid core backup, you’ll be uncomfortable, but okay. Remember—two Mattresses! It’s important.

4. Secure the food 

For me, all food and snacks go in a bear-proof container that goes outside. I’m usually not concerned enough about bears in the winter to put the container the recommended 100 ft (30 meters) away from the tent, even though black bears can be up and around in mild weather. A more common issue is smaller mammals that will eat through your gear to get at your food. With no trees around, food sacks just end up on the ground. Small animals can, in fact, eat through the lid of some bear-proof containers too, so you may want to flip the container over to protect the lid. To keep animals wild, we need to keep them out of our food.

mouse eating through food sack
This is late August, at around 6400 ft elevation. We’re camping on a snow-covered ridge with some exposed areas of rock. One of the team members left his food in a sack on the rocks. The mouse has eaten several holes in the sack. I was up late when I noticed this and was able to get this photo of the mouse before moving the food into my bear-proof container, which saved breakfast!
metal lunch boxes
This photo shows my blue bear-proof containers (the BV450). Next to it are two metal lunch boxes, which are NOT bear-proof, that I started uses recently when I just need a way of keeping out mice and other small animals. The large lunchbox is 11 ounces and the small one is 7.75 ounces. You can reduce the weight by half an ounce by removing the handles. Heavy, but much lighter than the BV450 and comparable in weight to animal-proof sacks, such as the Ursack.

The small bear-proof container known as the “Bear Vault” or BV450 (which I use) adds 2 pounds to my pack and costs around $70. Is it worth it? I keep telling myself I’m not going to take it anymore in favor of a critter-proof sack, but the convenience and effectiveness of the BV450 have persuaded me to keep using it. So far, I have never left without it. It is, of course, required gear in some locations, such as specific campsites in the national parks. I always figure that if there’s a good reason for a bear-proof canister in a national park, there’s probably a good reason to bring it when camping in the forest or wilderness areas near those parks—which is most all of the Cascade Mountains.

If you’re thinking of hanging your food in a sack, that method is certainly a problematic idea at high elevations in the winter. There are few or no tall trees and the trees are often more like snow sculptures with tree wells beneath them. Other hikers are coming to the recognition that the hanging method is ineffective, endangering people and wildlife.

Some people like bear-proof sacks because they are lighter, weighing 7.5–13 ounces. They cost around $85–135, depending on size. They are not approved everywhere and to be effective, must be securely tied to an object, such as a tree, which may be impractical. To me, the biggest drawback is the restrictions it places on where you can camp. When everyone is about to set up their tents on a ridge with a beautiful view, I don’t want to be that person who says, “I have to camp down where there are trees so I can hang my food sack.”

5. Don’t lose the gear 

Secure all your stuff sacks as you unpack. I usually put all the stuff sacks in my tent stuff sack as I unpack. Pull the tent out of the stuff sack and clip the stuff sack to a belt loop (I use a carabiner that holds my water bottle). Then put any additional stuff sacks in it as you set up your campsite (later, this can be a pillow). This helps prevent two problems—light stuff sacks blowing off the ridge in a gust of wind or simply not knowing where a stuff sack is when you need it to pack up in the morning. You don’t want to have to unpack gear to see if a small stuff sack ended up inside of your sleeping bag. 

If you are stopping to set up in high winds, put up the tent poles and throw your pack inside the tent to weight it and prevent it from blowing away. A tent can act like a sail, catching the wind and taking off instantly.

6. Have a gear distribution system

You don’t want to be searching for gear in the dark. Determine where your gear will go inside your tent before you head out to the trail. That is, prepare your tent at home in advance. Create a system for distributing your main gear (pack, boots, etc.) and small items (glasses, headlamp, ditty bag). Different tents have different features. Your system has to work for your tent. My 4-season tent, for example, has a small pocket that would work well for my eyeglasses except that it is located at the entrance and I sometimes want to sleep with my feet at the entrance. For this reason, I use to detach my pack lid and position it where I can easily reach it during the night. This way I have my glasses and headlamp where I can easily find them. Now, I rarely carry a pack lid, so I just set my glasses in the corner of the tent with my headlamp.

My gaiters (usually a bit wet and ice-encrusted) go under my pack, which is inside the tent by the door and under the solid core foam mattress. My air mattress goes between my solid core foam pad and my sleeping bag—which I think is the safest way to do it.

My boots go by the door if temps are above freezing and sometimes inside my the bottom of my sleeping bag in a dry sack if temps are below freezing. 

Trekking poles, shovel, ice ax, and snowshoes, are stuck in the snow outside the tent in a vertical position so they can be found in the morning. Or, if extremely high winds, next to the outside edge of the tent. Crampons or micro-spikes go at the base of the snow shovel. 

Electronics (transceiver, camera gear, cell phone) go in my pack lid or in my sleeping bag. I usually lay my puffy and rain jacket over my sleeping bag at night. 

One consideration is to keep gear situated so that there isn’t anything touching the tent walls and collecting moisture. Another consideration is high winds. If there is a threat of high winds that might compromise the tent, I want as much loose stuff as possible inside my pack to prevent items from blowing away.

7. Dig a cooking pit

Dig a small pit that will work as a chair. You can set up your stove with a slot in the snow to secure the fuel bottle. You can use your solid core foam pad as insulation for both your butt and your feet. Don’t use an air mattress because there are too many ways for it to get punctured or melted near your cooking gear.

Fill in the pit before you leave (i.e., leave no trace or hole for someone to stumble into).

Campsite cooking pit
A simple cooking pit in the snow. When the snow is deep (we were unable to touch the ground under us with a 9ft avalanche probe) it is easy to dig a pit like this, which makes a comfortable seat when preparing food. I prefer the roll-out solid core mattress, rather than the more expensive “Z” fold-out one, because it is easier to slide in and out of the tent.

8. Create a clothesline

A clothesline can be handy for airing out wet socks and sweaty clothes and hanging gear that you want to find easily, such as your headlamp.

Look inside your tent and see if there are any sewn loops that allow for a clothesline. Many tents have them. A clothesline is usually ineffective in winter, but if your camp is setup up long enough in the morning, the solar energy of direct sunlight can heat the inside of the tent and actually dry out the clothes. This is better than laying the clothing on exposed rocks when there is a risk that they might get blown off the ridge.

tent clothesline
A 2mm cord being used for airing out damp socks.

9. Make a pillow

Stuff sacks (tent, tent pole bag, air mattress bag) and sweaty clothes all go inside the tent stuff sack to form a small night-time pillow. 

10. Get the early sunlight

It is possible and worthwhile to identify where the sun will come up over the horizon and make sure your campsite is in line to receive the sunlight when it first breaks. Having the early morning sun shining on your campsite can make a real difference in temperature. It is a very fine experience to be warm and well lit when you’re preparing breakfast. 

snow camping sunrise
The first sun rays in the early morning shining in my tent.

Preparing for Winter Winds

Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. However, during the winter months, wind speeds increase significantly and trip planning needs to include clothing for wind protection to prevent discomfort, hypothermia, and even frostbite.

There is a thin line of protection between being a happy winter camper and being miserable and at risk. Always plan your kit so that you are fully protected and never cold for any significant length of time.

winter winds average speeds in Washington State
If you are use to three-season backpacking, you may be unfamiliar with the increased wind speeds of winter. Planning for the cold is not enough. You need to factor in wind as well to be safe.

Wind Forecasts

When planning a trip, bear in mind that a forecast of 10–25mph wind can fail to represent wind speed in specific terrain conditions, such as the crest of ridges or narrow saddles and valleys, where the wind can increase significantly. The Mountain Forecast website provides wind speed data for select elevations.

intense mountain winds
The forecast (February 9, 2019) included 10–25mph winds, but on this ridge we had trouble walking, indicating that the wind speed was around 40mph. The temperatures were 7–10ºF at 5000ft, making the wind chill probably –15ºF. Without the right clothing, this would place us close to the edge of frostbite danger.
Mountain Forecast web page example
This is a screen image of the Mountain Forecast web page. High winds and cold temperatures don’t just happen in the middle of winter. This examples is for October 26–27, 2019. It indicates that at 6400 feet (our planned elevation) we could likely expect 25–30 mph winds around noon Saturday and then diminishing to 5–0 mph by Sunday morning. The reality on the ridge was around 5:50 AM winds picked up to 20–30 mph and then dropped right after sunrise. With wind chill it was probably 1–4ºF. Later, after the wind went back down, we measured the temperature at 8 AM and it was 20ºF.

Judging wind speed and frostbite risk

It is often easier to get a temperature forecast than to know the wind speed you are encountering. If the wind is strong enough that you are having trouble walking and you know temperatures are below 10ºF, then you are at risk of frostbite on exposed skin. To make it easier to judge wind speeds, I have combined the Beaufort Wind Force Scale with a wind chill chart (see below). Note that the brackets for West and East Cascades are averages. Wind chills can exceed these averages.

Beaufort Wind Force Scale combined with Wind Chill Chart
The Beaufort scale is based on observation rather than actual measurements. These observable correlations allow the scale to be a practical guide to wind speeds. It was developed by Francis Beaufort of the Royal Navy in 1805 and first officially used by HMS Beagle. Here, I have combined it with wind chill information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and added some basic data about conditions on the west and east sides of the Cascade Range.

Except on the eastern slopes of the Cascade range, average temperatures and wind speeds do not pose a serious frostbite risk below 9,000ft. However, unusually low temperatures and high wind speeds can occur. The most likely risk would be in the 0–10º degree range with winds 15mph or above.  

Average winter temperatures in Cascade Mountains

Even without the risk of frostbite, wind robs your body of warmth and comfort. It can place you at risk of hypothermia. Always be able to cover all flesh if you encounter high winds, keep moving, and if you stop add layers and avoid staying in exposed areas.

Essential wind protection gear

  • Have a hardshell jacket with a hood to protect your core and head. Layers of Capilene and wool are not enough to prevent strong winds from robbing your body warmth. Even if there is no rain in the forecast, always bring your hardshell rain protection in case of high winds.
  • Use a Balaclava that is designed to cover your nose and mouth while allowing ventilation under your nose to prevent your goggles and/or glasses from fogging over.
  • Wear ski goggles. These are available in eyewear compatible designs.
  • Wear gloves with high-rise design to cover jacket sleeve ends 
  • Wear gaiters to seal the ends of your pants. In severe conditions bring hardshell pants as well.
Winter wind protection gear
Balaclava, goggles, and high-rise gloves. These with your regular winter layers will allow you to keep all flesh protected from high winds.

A hardshell jacket, gaiters, and gloves are standard gear for any winter weather trip. So the only added wind protection weight is the balaclava (2.45 oz) and goggles (5.40 oz), adding a half pound to your kit. I prefer several pairs of light-weight wool liner gloves and a mid-weight water-resistant pair, but in severe cold temperatures (below 15ºF), I’ll add heavier high-rise gloves too (7.80 oz). 

Costs: balaclava ($36), goggles ($65–85), and high-rise gloves ($25–100). Prices can vary a lot and you may be able to find these items on sale. I bought my goggles for $35.

A buff adds warmth to the neck and can be pulled up over part of your face but the thin fabric does not provide adequate protection in high winds and low temperatures. A winter weather balaclava is necessary.

Finding shelter from the wind

If you find yourself hiking on a ridge in hind winds, you’ll need to find a natural wind barrier to set up camp and reduce the windchill. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best and safest possible locations may be on the windward side of the ridge. The leeward side of the ridge will often be loaded with snow with increased avalanche danger. Look down the windward slope and watch for moving trees. The trees may be relatively still, indicating that the wind is gaining speed and peaking on the ridge. You can then head down the windward side (hiking into the wind) to a lower elevation, which may be all that is needed to escape the stronger winds. In the evening the winds will often subside. In my experience, winds usually die down a few hours after sunset allowing a better opportunity to come out of the tent and prepare a meal, hot tea thermos, or hot water bottle for the night.

Wind and tents

Tents add very little warmth while you sleep in winter, except when it is windy. Then a tent can add a lot because it protects you from the wind chill. My 4-season tent adds around 5–10ºF degrees in calm weather.

Many of the people I camp with in the winter use 3-season tents. This may not provide as much comfort as a 4-season tent, but it does work. Some 3-season tents are better than others.

If you are using a 3-season tent, high winds in very cold conditions can send both cold air and snowflakes through the mosquito netting, sometimes allowing drifts to build up around your sleeping bag. This can quickly (within an hour) reduce your warmth and the wind will also more easily penetrate the sleeping bag. In high winds, fine snow blowing in the wind can be hardly perceptible, but if you leave your tent door open the snow can build up quickly. Face the opening away from the wind and put snow around the edges of your fly for added protection.

Inside your tent, even a light 5mph wind will seem like a strong wind. A 20mph wind will cause a significant amount of noise. A high wind can seem like sleeping very near a passing train. Both my 3-season and 4-season tents have ridden out 15–25 mph winds, maybe 30 mph winds. I don’t know the exact speed, but I assume the speeds were in that range based on the forecast and observations. These tents could probably withstand higher winds, but the experience inside would be difficult to sleep through.

The primary reason to carry a 4-season tent is wind protection.

4-season tent used for wind protection
My 4-season tent on windward side of a ridge—safest wind-protected spot that still had a 5-star view.

What to do if your tent fails

If you experience high winds, stay calm. This applies to both hiking and camping. If you are hiking in high winds cover up exposed skin. Bring and wear a balaclava, rain jacket and rain pants (full zip rain pants are easy to put on), and goggles. Once protected, you will be able to stay warm while hiking in all but the most extreme conditions.

At night your tent protects you from the wind chill factor. Be aware that you cannot always position the narrow side of the tent against the wind, because the wind may change direction in the course of the night. When high winds occur it may seem like the wind will blow the tent apart, but be aware that a 10 mph wind is loud in a tent. The wind may not be as strong as it seems inside the tent. Even a 20 mph wind can seem terrifying, especially the first time you experience it in a tent.

Mountaineering tents, including the small ones using an “x” design (two bending poles that cross corner to corner in the shape of an X) are among the most wind proof. That said, I have seen quite a few 3-season tents ride out winds that were likely around 20–30 mph. Some 3-season tents use the same basic x-design as small mountaineering tents, such as the REI Co-op Passage 1 and the North Face Stormbreak 1. The only tent that I have actually seen fail is the 2-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL (twice with two different tents). The smaller 1-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL did fine. The larger 2-person tent puts more pressure on the poles than the smaller tent.

Wind damaged tent
The wind caused the pole to break and the pole then tore through the fly. The high winds lasted less than an hour and I think the tent failed after maybe 20–30 minutes. Notice though that the tent is still standing.

Having your tent fail in the loud roar of high winds is a disturbing experience. Remain calm and stay in the tent. Your body will anchor the tent and the tent will still provide some protection from the wind chill. Never leave a tent in high wind without first putting on your wind protecting gear. The worse case scenario would be to climb out of the tent and have the tent with your wind protective gear blow off the mountain.

I’ve never done this, but if I thought the tent poles were about to break, I might release the tension from the front grommets (easiest to access) and try to hold the tent close to the ground (while inside). Usually the wind will die down and you can later pack up and move to a lower elevation or more sheltered spot.

Know your gear limits

If the forecast includes gale force winds (scale 7–10), don’t go backpacking. With the right gear, I can remain comfortable in a wind chill down to around –15 while hiking, but if 30 mph winds are in the night time forecast, I wouldn’t go, because at night I rely on a tent and do not want to test it’s limits too far. While you can plan to be in a tent at night for protection, there is the possibility that some situation might require that you are not in your tent. A 20 mph wind at night is my usual limit and I would avoid that too if the forecast indicated that it would be sustained for many hours. The wind is often stronger than the forecast, so if the wind forecast is already 20–30 mph at night, you might be placing your tent in a situation exceeding its limits.

My coldest weather sleeping bag is an expedition bag rated –20ºF, which means it provides comfort for me down to 10º to 0ºF, and that is, therefore, my equipment comfort limit. However, at 10ºF water and food freezes so fast, that my usual trip planning preference is for temperatures above 15ºF. Fortunately, the milder weather in the Pacific Northwest rarely requires trip planning involving temperatures below 15ºF. If the temperature forecast is too cold, the trip can be moved a few days or a week until warmer temperatures occur.

20–30ºF is sort of ideal. This is cold enough that snow doesn’t melt, but not so cold that hot food freezes too quickly. Winter backpacking in colder places such as Alaska and Norway will require colder-rated gear and the need to adapt to colder temperatures than the unusually mild winter temperatures experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.

Backpacking in the Sublime Season

Before you decide to give up on the idea of backpacking in the more beautiful Wilderness areas because of the growing crowds of day hikers and lucky permit holders, consider snow backpacking.

Solitude and Snow

With the right gear and knowledge (know the hazards), you can head out and experience the beauty of the wilderness without the crowds.

To stay cozy and safe, you’ll need to add some pounds to your pack, making your ultra-light strategies even more important. And, sometimes you’ll Continue reading “Backpacking in the Sublime Season”

Winter Backpacking!

Most backpackers stick to three seasons—spring, summer, and early fall— avoiding winter and cold weather camping, but some backpackers keep going, year round. Why?

The things that make winter backpacking the best

Here are some reasons snow backpacking delivers a special and unique kind of backpacking bliss.

    1. Spectacular snow scenery.
    2. Solitude: There are fewer hikers in cold weather and fewer cars at the trail heads.
    3. Low-impact: When the snow is deep (6 feet or more) you can set up your tent most anywhere without impacting the meadows.
    4. Fewer restrictions: Campsites and trails are buried deep under the snow. You can hike off trail without damaging fragile vegetation. Areas that are restricted to permit holders are open in the winter and parts of the shoulder months of May and November.
    5. No bugs: The winter cold suppresses mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying bugs.
    6. Less sweat: The cool, usually dry air, helps minimize sweat.
    7. Less trail dust and mud. The bottom of your tent rarely gets dirty and the footprint (ground cloth) isn’t even needed.
    8. Bears are usually hibernating.
    9. It’s easier to have a level, smooth, and stick-free surface for your sleeping area
    10. Water is everywhere. You just have to melt it. In the winter there is no reason to carry a heavy load of water.
    11. Glissading


Very few hiking experiences can compare to traveling across pristine snow under a blue sky.

Before you head out, be sure to read my short post about the dangers of winter backpacking.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically for correction, etc.

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