Everything You Need to Know About Camping and Blizzard Safety
There's no way around it. Camping in winter requires more preparation, planning, and gear than camping in any other season. You have to know your stuff.
Winter is significantly colder than any other month (unless you're camping in an equatorial country), and when you add in dealing with snow, ice, wind, and storms, such as blizzards, you realize that winter camping is an experience you never want to take lightly
That said, the splendor of a snow-covered forest or mountainside simply can't be matched. Winter camping also means fewer bugs, fewer crowds, less undergrowth (i.e. minimal chance of poison ivy, ticks, and so on, in addition to better sightlines for birdwatching and other practices).
Altogether, winter camping offers a unique, beautiful experience that you can't find if you're camping in other seasons of the year.
Before winter camping, you should have some experience camping in milder seasons. Make sure all your camping basics are covered. Ensure you know how to set up and take down your tent quickly and safely, cook meals properly in the backcountry, and so on.
Then, you'll need to take into account the added threats of snow and ice, cold temperatures, and the overall unpredictable winter weather. We'll go over all this information in this article so that you're covered before you head out!
How to Prepare for Safe Winter Camping
First, let's go over some basic cold weather camping tips, then we'll discuss some essential cold-weather gear, and finally dive into blizzard safety, before answering some frequently asked questions.
Preparing Camp in the Snow
When preparing a camp in snowy terrain, it's important to select a site that is safe and convenient. Avalanches, blizzards, and fallen trees are just a few of the hazards that can play a role in creating a dangerous situation, so when winter camping, it's more important than ever to select a good site.
When choosing a great winter campsite, think about factors including:
- Water Sources: Is there a river or lake nearby (and is it accessible, or will you need to drill with an auger to reach the water)?
- Wind Cover: Setting up camp behind a natural wind block, such as a close group of trees, a boulder, or a hill, will pay dividends if you encounter high winds, such as during a snowstorm.
- Vegetation: When camping in patchy snow, avoid vegetation and set up camp on the snow or bare ground, if possible. You should also be sure to avoid setting up underneath unstable or damaged trees that could potentially fall on your site.
- Avalanche: Make sure you're not situated on (or below) a snow-covered slope, which could be prone to avalanche.
- Sun: Finding a campsite with lots of sunlight will help you warm up quicker in the morning, and minimize freezing of supplies and gear.
- Landmarks: Before you set up camp, scan the area and find landmarks to orient yourself. This way you can find your camp in the dark, in case of a storm, or other low-visibility conditions.
Once you have your site chosen, pack down the snow around your tent by tramping around the site using snowshoes or skis, since loose snow will melt easier from body heat. While inside your tent, be sure to secure sharp items such as ice axes, ski edges, crampons, and poles. These may rip your tent material, which can spell doom for a winter camping trip and result in a seriously dangerous situation in case of a blizzard.
It's also important to build a snow wall around your tent, if possible, to protect it from high winds, particularly if you weren't able to set up camp around a wind block. If a snow wall isn't possible, dig out a trough in the snow before placing your tent, to provide some wind protection.
Whether you're building a wall or digging out a trench for the tent, be sure to not completely seal up your tent, as it still needs ventilation.
Tip: Normal tent stakes won't work in snow. Instead, use Woods Ice Shelter Tapping Anchors, snow stakes, or another similar tool. If you don't have dedicated snow or ice anchors, you can take stuff sacks, fill them with snow, and bury them to create a deadman anchor. Ice axes will also work as anchors.
Nutrition and Hydration
It's extremely important to stay hydrated and eat lots of calories when winter camping. This will help you stay warm and conserve energy. Here are a few nutrition and hydration tips:
- Hot and Basic Meals: Plan meals that are hot and hydrating, such as soup, oatmeal, and chili, but keep all your meal plans simple, so that your prep and cleanup time is minimal. You want to be out in the cold as little as possible, not stuck cleaning dishes or crafting complex meals for hours. Calorie-dense foods that cook fast, and can be made with one pot, are ideal. Freeze-dried meals such as Mountain House and Backpacker's Pantry are also excellent options since you only need to boil water to make them.
- Short Lunches: Basic sandwiches or easy snacks and energy foods that offer protein, carbs, and are the best move. When you're out on the move in winter, you don't want to stop for very long, or you'll cool down. Keep breaks short, or nibble while on the move.
- Drink, Drink, and Drink: When camping in winter, you might not feel thirsty like you do on a hot summer trip, but it's still crucial to stay hydrated. Sip on water throughout the day, and make warm drinks, like tea, hot chocolate, and coffee around camp (although go easy on the coffee unless it's decaf since caffeine dehydrates).
- Use Water Bottles: Avoid bringing Camelbaks or other hydration bladders when winter camping, since the thin tubes on these reservoirs can freeze easily, cutting off your water supply. Instead, bring a traditional water bottle or jug. Insulated water bottle covers can help keep your water from freezing, too.
Essential Gear on Your Trip
Winter camping requires different gear than camping in other seasons. You must bring proper gear, such as a sturdy tent, thick, layered sleeping pad, a warm sleeping bag, and a stove that can withstand the cold temps.
You also need to ensure you're wearing warm and snowproof clothes. Layering for cold weather camping is of paramount importance. Proper apparel includes midweight base layers, a puffy coat, fleece pants, and a waterproof jacket and pants. Thick socks, a beanie hat, gloves, and sunglasses or goggles are also crucial. (Learn more about "How to Stay Warm During Winter Camping").
4-Season Tent (Woods Pinnacle 4-Person)
It's possible to camp in winter using three-season tents if snow and high winds aren't on the forecast, but your safest bet is to use a four-season tent, like the Woods Pinnacle, which comes in both 4-Person and 2-Person models. Four-season tents are built with stronger poles and more durable fabrics than 3-season tents. This allows them to stand up under strong gusts of wind and heavy loads of snow. They also feature rainflys that extend closer to the ground to prevent wind and snow from blowing inside and less mesh in the overall design.
Sleeping Bag (Woods ARCTIC™ Logan Mummy Bag)
A warm sleeping bag might be the most important piece of cold-weather camping gear. If you're camping in extreme cold weather, a bag like the ARCTIC™ Logan Mummy Bag is what you need. This four-season bag is rated to 10 degrees, and sports a water-resistant, lightweight, durable 20D nylon shell. A mummy hood cinches around your head for maximum warmth. Every piece of Woods' knowledge and heritage (a legacy stretching back to crafting the original "sleeping robe" in 1906) goes into the construction of this stellar winter sleeping bag.
Snowshoes (See ALL Woods Snowshoes)
Snowshoes are critical for snow travel (Learn more about the "Best Snowshoes of 2022"), and as such, an important part of a winter camper's kit. When buying your snowshoes, it's important to think about their intended use, since there are many different types. Some are made for flat terrain, some for rolling terrain, and others are specially built to tackle steep, mountainous terrain. At Woods, we offer snowshoes for men, women, and children, as well as all weight sizes.
Blizzard Safety: What to Do in Case of a Storm
Camping in a blizzard (or camping in a storm of any kind, for that matter), is never fun or ideal, and you should never venture out into the wilderness if storms are viable on the forecast. That said, sometimes the worst occurs, and it's important to be ready if so.
The most important thing you can do, for starters, is to bring the right gear. Warm sleeping bags, snowshoes, and four-season tents are critical pieces of gear when you're heading on a camping trip in snowy, wintery conditions. If you are caught in a blizzard, a few tips you can use are below
Build a Snow Cave
If you don't have a tent or shelter, you should dig a snow cave. Look for a drift, bank, or slope that is at least six feet deep. Before digging, pack the snow down with your snowshoes, skis, or hands, to make the cave stronger. To build your cave, dig a tunnel that slopes upward, and then hollow out the insides. If temperatures are below freezing, pouring water on the outside will strengthen the cave (since the water will freeze into ice). Make the door and ceiling arch-shaped for maximum strength.
Ski poles or sticks can be used to make air vents, and you can cover the entrance with rocks or a tarp to block out the wind (but make sure fresh air can still get through).
Tip: Be sure to stay dry while building your snow cave (or doing anything around camp during winter). If you overexert yourself and work up a sweat, your sweat will cool and you'll lose heat fast. If you have at least two people who can help build the cave, try to work in shifts.
Build a Fire
Fires won't just keep you warm, they'll increase your visibility, so you can be found by rescuers faster. Make sure you have multiple ways to start and build your fire. Common choices are a flint-and-steel striker kit, a lighter, and matches. A good tinder kit is equally important. Tinder cloths, petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls, separated rope ends, or tree shavings all make for great tinder. Be sure to store them in a water-proof container. An empty Altoid tin zipped into a Ziploc baggie is one reliable method.
One of the hardest parts about building a fire in a blizzard isn't starting it, but keeping it going. Look for dead wood, such as tree limbs or tree trunks. Ideally, these will either be still standing or propped up by rocks or other trees beneath them on the ground (so that they aren't wet).
Use your knife to strip away the outer layers, which hold moisture, to get to the dry wood beneath. Then clear a spot in the snow down to the wet earth below. Use branches to create a platform off the wet ground, then place your dry wood on top, with the kindling teepee-style on the dry wood.
Frequently Asked Questions
Winter camping, like any other form of camping, is completely safe… If you're prepared. You'll need to take into account colder temperatures, snow and ice, and more volatile weather. But if you're well-equipped and trained, then you'll be perfectly safe when winter camping, and have a wonderful time, to boot. Be sure to check the forecast and reschedule your trip if adverse weather is on the horizon.
Camping in a snowstorm is one thing, but being caught outside without shelter during a blizzard is another entirely. Get shelter as quickly as possible, at least from the wind, if not the cold. Then, build a fire or find another method to get dry, if you're wet, and be sure to stay hydrated (but avoid eating any snow, which will make you colder).
- Seek Shelter Immediately
It's imperative that you get out of the wind as soon as possible, whether that means in the shelter of a copse of trees, a hillside, a boulder, or something else. Wind chill will reduce your core body temperature rapidly, far faster than mere cold temperatures.
As a result, your chances of frostbite and hypothermia will go up rapidly if you can't find a way to get out of the wind. If no shelter is available, try to dig down into the snow, which can insulate you from the wind. Build your cave in a drift, bank, or slope that is at least six feet deep, and pack the snow down before you dig.
- Stay Dry and Hydrated
If you are wet, try to get dry. Lighting a small fire will not only provide warmth but will enable your clothing to dry out. In addition, be sure to drink lots of water, if it's available, to keep your body hydrated.
- Don't Eat Snow
Even though it's important to stay hydrated, make sure you don't eat snow! When you consume snow, your body must heat the ice to melt it, so you end up losing heat. It's okay to get your water from the snow, but you need to melt it first, either with a stove, fire, or even indirect body heat (like placing a snow-filled water bottle inside your coat).