While almost anyone can camp during the warmer months, it takes a special kind of person and a lot of preparation to camp in the winter. There are many benefits to cold-weather camping, such as fewer bugs, smaller or non-existent crowds, and the pristine winter beauty, but there are also other challenges to consider.
So what do you need to make it happen and how cold is too cold for camping in a tent?
For everyday casual campers temperatures under 40 degrees will be too cold without specialized equipment. Although temperatures under 40 degrees may be too cold for average equipment, if you get specialized cold-weather equipment, you can camp in temperatures below zero. This can dangerous if you are not prepared and is way too cold for most campers.
Keep reading for information on clothing, bedding and choosing the right tent for cold weather.
Here’s what we will cover to help keep you safe and warm.
Cold-Weather Camping Tips
Once you have a good tent and adequate clothing, the next thing to think about is a sleeping bag. In some cases, the sleeping bag can be more important than the tent because, even if you have a warm tent, it will still be cold inside during the night. So a sleeping bag that is properly rated for the temperature will be invaluable.
A mummy-shaped bag is the warmest option, but you should also take into account how hot you usually get when you sleep. If you run cold at night, then you might need a bag that is rated at a lower temperature. Regardless of normal sleep patterns, you should always choose a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10 degrees lower than the lowest anticipated temperature for winter camping. Also, make sure that the sleeping bag fits you because extra space will allow cold air to enter and chill you while you sleep.
For added insulation, get a sleeping bag liner which can increase the warmth rating of any bag. It will also keep the bag cleaner inside and can always be removed if you find yourself overheating at night.
Almost as important as the bag is the sleeping pad underneath. Opt for a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to protect you from the cold ground and provide additional comfort. Closed-cell pads are puncture resistant, lightweight, and warmer than uninsulated air pads. Although they can be a bit bulky, it’s usually worth it for the added insulation and warmth.
The location of your campsite will also play a big role in how comfortable and successful your winter camping trip will be. Take advantage of natural elements by choosing a site that is free of any avalanche danger and, if possible, provides natural shelter from the wind. If there is snow on the ground, use snowshoes to pack it down for a durable base. Try to pitch your tent where the morning sun will be able to shine on it to utilize the natural warmth.
In the evening before going to bed, air out your feet by wearing sandals or camp shoes around the tent while making dinner or relaxing. Wet feet will chill you in the night and siphon away body heat so make sure they are dry and put on fresh socks before going to sleep. Needless to say, remove any wet clothes, dry off, and put on new clothing before getting into your sleeping bag.
Another simple tip is to pack a water bottle and fill it with hot water. Then put it inside your sleeping bag for additional warmth. If you are camping with a companion or partner, consider sharing a sleeping bag to stay extra warm and cozy.
Make sure to keep your tent well ventilated at night even if it is very cold outside. This will prevent condensation from building up inside the tent and moisture can be dangerous in the winter. Keep a small vent open and don’t pull your sleeping bag over your head. Otherwise, your breath will condense inside and create the same problem.
Some campers also suggest bringing an extra layer of insulation to put down on the tent floor. Popular suggestions include layers of blankets, tarps, and also the rubber or foam play mats for children. By adding additional protection against the cold ground underneath, you can greatly increase the warmth inside the tent.
Which Tent Is Right for You?
If you are a casual camper, who will primarily use their tent during warmer months, opt for a quality 3 season tent. Investing in a good sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and choosing a good location will allow you to take your 3 season tent into the colder months.
You should be fine if you aren’t expecting high winds, snowfall, or freezing rains. Make sure to select a good campsite that is well below the treeline and out of danger. This will allow you to enjoy the beauty of winter camping without investing in another tent.
However, if you will be doing a lot of winter camping and want the flexibility to camp anywhere you like, then a good 4 season tent will give you security and peace of mind. The durability of the tent will protect you even if there is heavy snowfall or strong winds, making it easier to camp for longer periods of time.
Whenever you are camping, it is essential to choose a good campsite and do your research in advance. Knowing what to expect and packing accordingly will contribute the most to making your camping trip a success.
If you are unsure about your tents ability to withstand certain temperatures, you can certainly test it out in advance. Try going to a campground at a higher elevation that is not isolated, allows you to bring your car, and has warmer lodging options available.
Pitch your tent and see how it fares. If it’s too cold, you can have lots of backup gear in the car or leave the campsite and go to a cabin or hotel instead. Then you’ll know what your tent can withstand before getting stranded out in the backcountry during winter weather.
If you only want to buy one tent and want to use it year-round, then opt for a 3 season tent which will be most comfortable in the warmer months. You will still be able to use it in mild winter weather and enjoy camping in the cold by using quality sleeping bags for added warmth. A 3 season tent will also be lightweight and easy to take along on backpacking trips so you’ll be sure to get a lot of use out of it.
Choosing a Winter Tent
The most important thing to have when camping in cold weather is a shelter that can withstand the wind and snow. Most tents are categorized as either 3 season or 4 season tents. This refers to their durability and if they are suitable for winter temperatures.
3 season tents, sometimes called backpacking tents, are lightweight and designed primarily for camping in warmer weather. While the better made 3 season tents can withstand some colder temperatures, they cannot stand up against snow or high winds. If you will be camping below the tree line and plan to only have a few cold weather trips per year, then your 3 season tent should be enough.
4 season tents, also called winter tents, can be used year-round but are made to withstand winter weather conditions such as high wind and snow. These tents have more insulation and are made from more durable fabrics. Winter tents usually have stronger poles and steeper sides to keep the tent steady even during wind and prevent snow from collecting on the top. If you will regularly be camping in cold temperatures and want the best protection, then a 4 season camp is essential.
When camping during the winter, you should ask yourself how much snow is expected, how windy the campsite will be, and what the nighttime low temperature will be. If there will be 4 inches or more of snow, a 4 season tent is necessary because the durability will prevent the roof from collapsing. Additionally, if the wind will be 30 mph or stronger, opt for a 4 season tent.
Depending on the location and elevation, the temperature can vary greatly and impact the kind of tent you will need. For camping trips in the mountains, the lower air pressure can mean freezing temperatures at night even though it might get warm during the day. Typically the temperature will decrease about 5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet in elevation in dry weather and approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit when there is snow or rain.
Freezing rain or sleet are weather conditions unique to the winter that your tent will need to be strong enough to stand up against. If the water freezes on top of your tent, the tent must be sturdy enough not to collapse under the weight. The material should also be waterproofed enough so it doesn’t leak even after several hours of steady rainfall.
The number of people you will be camping with is also an important factor in choosing the size of a tent. Although it can be beneficial to snuggle up with your fellow campers for warmth, you still want enough space to move around and breathe. For adequate comfort, take the total number of people and buy a tent that can accommodate one more than that. You may also want to find a tent with multiple doors, so you don’t have to climb over each other to get out.
Although a smaller tent will keep you warmer, it is important to have enough space to fit everyone and any gear that needs to stay out of the elements. Larger tents can take longer to heat up and, although you can use gear to insulate and take up space, that may not be an option if you are backpacking and don’t have a lot of extra supplies. In the winter you will also be doing more activities inside the tent such as making meals, eating, and relaxing before sleep, so having enough space to comfortably do this will make for a more enjoyable trip.
Another factor to consider is whether you want a single or double wall tent. Those with a single wall are lighter and will be much easier to set up but don’t have a rainfly. However, double wall tents are much warmer but will also be heavier.
The materials of the tent are often what contributes to its durability and what makes a tent hold up well in cold-weather conditions. Look for a winter tent made from either nylon, which is durable and long-lasting, or polyester which has waterproofing abilities and provides sun protection.
Any tent that will be used in winter weather should also have a waterproof flysheet and groundsheet to keep the tent dry inside. Even if it’s not raining, the presence of snow means there is always a possibility of melting and having water come inside.
A good quality winter tent can be quite heavy. If you will be backpacking, then the weight is a definite consideration because you’ll have to carry not only the tent but also poles, rainfly, and groundsheet with you. A lighter tent may mean a higher price tag, but the tradeoff may be worth it.
An additional component that is nice to have in a tent is a vestibule or small space usually at the front or side where you can store wet gear. They are also useful because they provide a transition space to help you get used to the outside temperature without full exposure.
4 Season Tents for Winter Camping
Because 4 season tents are primarily used in the winter, they are made from much more durable materials in order to stand up to ice, hail, strong winds, and snowfall accumulation. Often the walls do not include mesh and will use a much heavier fabric to block the wind.
These tents will also have more poles and sturdier pole crossings to provide a strong frame for support and stability. While ventilation is still important to prevent condensation from building up inside the tent, there may be fewer vents. They may feature mesh windows which can be zipped closed as a barrier against the elements. These tents are often much heavier and can take longer to set up due to all the extra layers of protection. Their design often features an angled or other rigid shapes to provide durability.
If you are primarily camping in cold weather, take that into consideration when purchasing a tent and look for one that caters to your needs. Choose a tent in a bright color such as orange or red so it can be easily found should you need to be rescued. If this will be your only tent and you will also use it during the other three seasons, make sure it is versatile enough to meet your needs in warmer weather as well.
Some Good 4 Season Tents
There are many tents on the market, making it easy to get overwhelmed if you are a first-time buyer. Because you want a tent to last a long time and get the best value for your money, take time to research and find one that has all the features you want. Below are several suggestions for 4 season tents that may suit your needs.
Alps Mountaineering Tasmanian 3 Person Tent
This 4 season tent is suitable for 3 people and provides a lot of durability and protection. The continuous pole system reaches from one end to the other and has an additional pole to help stabilize the tent in windy conditions. It is easy to set up and has two doors for easy access and superior ventilation. The rain fly is made from water and UV resistant polyester, and the factory sealed seams provide additional protection. It features two vestibules, mesh pockets for storage, and a gear loft. It weighs a little over 9 pounds so it is better suited for those who aren’t backpacking, but it is spacious and reliable in cold weather.
MoKo Waterproof Tent
Suitable for year-round camping, this dome tent can easily withstand rain, wind, and snow. It is a 3-person family tent and can be quickly assembled with help from an installation video. Known for its strong construction, it features double layers, a 3-foot vestibule, and windows for ventilation. The waterproof flysheet and floor will keep you dry, and the spacious inside can comfortably sleep 2-3 people. The sewn-in groundsheet provides protection while the actual tent fabric is both breathable and resists mosquitos. This tent is affordable and under $100 making it one of the best values available.
Mountain Hardwear Trango 2
For extreme winter weather or mountaineering, this ultra-strong tent can withstand strong winds and a lot of snow by utilizing a unique Trident Corner design. It provides plenty of living space inside and conveniently has 2 doors and 2 vestibules. Incorporating DAC Featherlight poles to make the frame secure, this tent is sturdy and durable. The coated nylon floor and fly provide watertight protection while several vents allow adequate airflow. The window gives exterior visibility while interior pockets help with organization and keep things out of your way.
An Overview of 3 Season Tents
As their name implies, 3 season tents are designed for the following three seasons: spring, summer, and fall. The primary feature of these tents is that they are lightweight and built to protect against winds and rain. Because they will be used in warmer weather, ventilation is an important consideration to stay cool and allow adequate air flow.
If you’re not sure what season a tent is, look at the materials it is constructed from. If it has lightweight fabric, utilizes mesh, and is on the ultra-light side, then it is probably a 3 season tent. The majority of campers are most comfortable when nighttime temperatures are in the 50s-70s Fahrenheit so that is what many 3 season tents will be built for.
While there are many 3 season tents that are perfect for warmer weather, if you plan to camp with your tent year-round and don’t want to purchase a winter tent, look for one that is more durable than usual. Important features to include are waterproofing and wind protection. Make sure to get a tent that is made from quality materials and is sturdy enough to withstand winter weather.
Also, if you have a very high-quality 3 season tent and decide to use it during cold weather, be aware that it could get damaged. So make sure it is strong enough for the weather conditions because just one trip in winter may put your tent out of use the rest of the year or require expensive repairs.
Some 3-Season Tents for Cold Weather
Not all 3 season tents will be suitable for even mild winter camping. When camping during colder weather, you’ll need to make sure your sleeping bag and pad are warm enough to be used inside a less durable tent. Here are a few 3-season tents to consider when purchasing one to use during the colder months.
Coleman Sundome 6
This affordable tent is spacious enough to sleep 6 and is designed for quick and easy setup. Although it is a 3 season tent, it is made to be watertight and features a tub floor with leak-proof seams, a covered zipper, and their patented corner welds. The tent can also withstand 35 MPH winds, and the door awning gives added protection from the elements. It has 2 doors, and features LED lights overhead with three different modes. The flooring is durable and features polyethylene coating for water protection. It’s also very lightweight, and ground vents provide added circulation to keep you comfortable for longer.
Backcountry Lodgepole 2
Perfect for just two people, this tent is lightweight enough to take backpacking in warmer months but can also be used in cooler weather. The vestibules provide protection from the elements and extra storage for your gear. Setup is easy with the 6-pole clip-in system that can be done even if you’re camping alone. The two doors make for easy access for everyone while the sturdy taffeta offers waterproof protection should it start raining. An overhead canopy effectively ventilates the tent while offering beautiful views of the outside.
Kelty Outfitter Pro
With sizes ranging from 2 to 4 people, this tent has excellent waterproofing and was built with heavy-duty reinforced fabric on the floor. The oversized poles give sturdiness and durability while setup is fast and easy. The interior is roomy with enough overhead to sit up and features plenty of vestibule space too. Double doors allow air to flow when the fly is not in use, and the solid nylon on the first half of the tent gives privacy and protection from the elements.
Bedding for cold weather camping
In order to sleep comfortably and safely in cold weather, your bedding must be well insulated.
Down sleeping bags are ideal for warmth but keep in mind that a wool bag needs to stay dry at all times to be efficient.
Another great item to keep close is wool blankets. Not only can you wrap them around you in the day but at night they are perfect for padding under your sleeping bag and an extra layer of insulation over your sleeping bag.
When it is cold never lay directly on the ground without some insulating layers. The ground can draw warmth away making sleeping miserable and even dangerous.
Clothing for Cold Weather tent Camping
In addition to choosing a quality tent, another way to stay warm while camping in colder weather is to wear proper clothing. Ideally, you should wear several layers so you can manage your warmth easier. It’s also important to wear clothes that will keep you warm even while you’re not moving. It’s easy to stay warm while hiking or setting up camp, but once you sit down to eat or go to sleep, your body can significantly cool down.
Start with a base of thermal underwear on top and bottom that is made from either polyester, breathable fleece, merino wool, or a wool-fleece blend. Merino is a natural fiber that doesn’t itch and also won’t retain odors as much as polyester.
Wear a scarf or gaiter around your neck that can be easily adjusted and removed if you overheat. Other neckwear such as a buff or balaclava that can be pulled over your nose in frigid temperatures might also be a good option.
On top of your undergarments, you can layer a shirt and pants, then finish with a jacket that is waterproof and breathable. Try to use quality layers so you don’t have to wear five different tops just to stay warm. This will make you bulky, uncomfortable, and it may be hard to move around.
Don’t forget to layer on your hands, feet, and head either. Start with a thin cap and put something warmer on top. A wool or fleece cap can also be worn while sleeping to trap extra heat. Multiple pairs of socks in wool or a wicking polyester are also effective at keeping feet warm and dry. Finally, pack some extra glove liners and double up with a thicker pair of gloves or put some heating pads inside to make your hands extra toasty.
Footwear should be both comfortable but also lightweight if you will be doing a lot of hiking or walking. Boots should be insulated for warmth but also water-resistant when camping in areas with a lot of snow. Opt for a pair that comes up past the ankle and consider boot covers to prevent snow and ice from getting inside.
When camping it’s unnecessary to bring a separate change of clothes for sleeping. Changing out of your warm clothes will cause heat loss so it’s better to sleep in the clothes you are wearing during the day. You can remove a few layers if you start getting too warm, but it’s better to start off warm rather than try to get warmer in the middle of the night.