Camping in Winter



Camping in winter may require a bit more preparation than sleeping under canvas in summer, but it has a lot of advantages too. For starters, there’s the fact that prices are generally much lower during the low season, making it easier to bag a bargain break in winter than during the rest of the year. 

In addition, outside of peak times, the coast, national parks and other scenic holiday hotspots are generally much quieter. Longing for wide open skies, deserted beaches and silent forests? A winter camping break could be your best bet.

Cosy yurts under a blanket of snow

What to pack for winter camping 

Ready to start assembling your winter camping kit? Let’s begin with the essentials:

  • Check whether you have a four-season tent. If you’re bringing your own tent, a four-season model is best for withstanding strong gusts of wind, snow and other forms of winter weather. A three-season tent is also fine in most cases but will be less resilient to wind and precipitation – if you’re bringing one, you’ll want to pack extra layers and blankets just in case. Make sure you only take the size of tent you need, too – the smaller your tent, the less time the air inside will take to heat up. 

  • The best sleeping bag possible, ideally a four-season model. Check the weather forecast and make sure that the chilliest parts of the night sit snugly within the ‘comfort rating’ of your sleeping bag (i.e., the temperature range indicating when the average user will start to feel too cold to sleep comfortably). This information is often provided with the sleeping bag or on the manufacturer’s website. As with tents, in many cases you can get away with a three-season model and pack extra layers or a sleeping bag liner to compensate. In the market for a new sleeping bag but unsure where to start? For more information about choosing the best sleeping bag for your needs, click here

  • Lots of layers. Trust us wearing a thermal top, a long-sleeve t-shirt and a chunky fleece to bed is always a much better experience than having to sleep in your coat. Layers provide a sliding scale of warmth rather than a binary choice between being too hot or too cold and are also much more breathable than bulky outerwear. Bring a synthetic or merino wool base layer – this is needed to wick moisture away from the skin, which is why most other fabrics (especially cotton) are out. Any layers on top should be warm enough to trap your body heat but still breathable, as any trapped moisture could quickly cool you down. 

  • Hats, gloves, socks and scarves. Your extremities – especially your head, hands and feet will lose heat fast in chilly winter conditions, so you’d do well to keep them warm throughout your stay. When it starts to get really cold, that means sleeping in a hat and two pairs of socks could be in order 

  • A sleeping mat is very important to stop your body cooling down via conduction (i.e., your body approaching the temperature of the ground rather than the ground heating up under your body). Note that we say sleeping mat, not air mattress – in most cases, big air-filled voids will simply suck away your body heat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use inflatable sleeping mats, though – those with smaller inflated chambers are OK, especially if they come with an added layer of foam insulation.

The following items won’t necessarily be essential on every winter camping trip, but having them in reserve will probably make your break a good deal more comfortable: 

  • A hot water bottle. Great for keeping your core warm at night and for warming up your sleeping bag before snuggling up inside. 

  • Hand warmers. Cheap, portable and easy to find, hand warmers are just the job for warding off numbness in cold weather – remember, you’ll need nimble fingers when pitching up, packing away and cooking. You can also use hand warmers to warm up your sleeping bag if you haven’t got time to boil a hot water bottle or are travelling light. 

  • Spare blankets or an insulated quilt. Put this under your sleeping mat to keep your back insulated and make sure you don’t lose heat by coming into contact with the cold ground. Whenever you feel the urge to chuck a blanket on top of your sleeping bag, try arranging it so it sits half on top and half underneath your body – a bit like a big toasty burrito 

Moisturiser and lip balm for your exposed skin. Some winter campers swear by vaseline as the best catch-all solution, but applying any moisturiser and lip balm regularly will do wonders to protect your skin against the cold and wind.

Snow on the hills in the Scottish Highlands

How to keep warm when camping in winter

The thing that puts most people off winter camping is the prospect of being too cold to get a good night’s sleep. However, with a bit of planning, it’s not too tricky to stay cosy in winter, even under canvas. 

  • Rotate your layers regularly throughout the day and before bed to make sure your core stays toasty. Your base layer (the clothing nearest to your skin) will become sweaty over time, meaning you’ll quickly cool down. We’ve already mentioned how it’s important to find a base layer that can wick the moisture away from your skin, but you can help the process further by replacing it with a fresh one every few hours. 

  • As long as you’re moving, you’ll stay relatively warm, so make sure you have a period of body-warming activity before getting into your sleeping bag. A few sets of jumping jacks in the snow or a brisk jog to the toilet and back should be enough.

  • Plan for wet weather and pack accordingly. Do your best to stay dry, but if you do get wet make sure you have a fresh set of clothes and a thermos on hand so you can quickly heat back up.

  • Light a campfire and get warm during the evening before heading to bed (if you’re new to all this, check out our guide on how to build a great fire). Whatever you do, don’t crawl inside your tent if you’re already cold – even with all the layers in the world, it’s unlikely your body will warm up to a comfortable temperature. 

  • Shake out your sleeping bag before jumping insideYour sleeping bag needs to trap a decent amount of air for your body to heat up before its insulation really kicks in. Shaking it out is particularly important if it contains down, as by moving the sleeping bag around you’ll ensure that the feathers are evenly distributed.

  • Make sure that your tent is properly aerated. Believe it or not, having good airflow in your tent can help you to stay warmer. Condensation from your breath cools down when it touches the cold tent exterior and can even freeze in sub-zero conditions, so it’s always better to keep the vents open in chillier weather. 

  • Don’t sleep in all your clothesYou should be comfortably warm rather than hot. This will ensure you don’t overheat in the night and start to sweat, which will quickly cool you down. By keeping some clothes in reserve, you’ll also have extra layers to wrap up in when it’s time to leave your cosy tent in the morning. 

  • Keep your nose and mouth outside your sleeping bag. As tempting as it is to leave nothing exposed to the winter air, breathing inside your sleeping bag will quickly lead to condensation, turning your warm and toasty bedding damp and cold. If you find your face is still too cold, try sleeping in a balaclava for extra warmth.

Wild camping in winter (Simon Berger from Pixabay)

Top tips for winter camping

Happy with the technical aspects of keeping warm? Here are a few more practical tips from Pitchup’s team of experienced campers to help your winter adventure run as smoothly as possible. 

  • Buy your equipment in summer. There’s no getting away from the fact that winter camping kit is typically more expensive than summer equipment, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains to be had. Check the major outdoor brands for in-store summer sales as they sell off their old stock and shop around online to find the best deals. 

  • Arrive at your campsite early. It can start getting dark by mid-afternoon in winter and you’ll want plenty of time to pitch your tent and set up your kit, especially if this is your first time camping in cold weather. 

  • Don’t pick the first pitch you see. One of the beauties of winter camping is that there’s going to be a lot more choice when it comes to choosing a spot to pitch your tent, so take the time to find somewhere sheltered. If your site is in a hilly location, try and avoid both the top and bottom of the hill – the former is likely to be more exposed to winter wind and rain while the latter could get waterlogged. A flat plot close to bushes, fences or buildings that can serve as wind-breaks will serve you well. 

  • If it’s really cold, turn your water bottles and gas canisters upside down. Ice turns liquids to solids from the top down, so by flipping over bottles of liquified gas and other fluids you’re making sure that nozzles and bottle caps remain ice-free, ready to be used when you need them.

  • Keep your shoes inside. Yes, we know it feels wrong, but leaving your shoes outside or in the vestibule means damp and chilly feet the next day – the last thing you want to be feeling when you’re out enjoying a crisp winter morning. 

  • Sleep close to your next day’s clothes. Use your body heat to warm up what you’re wearing the next day so you don’t get chilly when it’s time to get dressed in the morning. 

  • Think about where you are going to be cooking. Try and find somewhere that is sheltered, out of the wind and a safe distance from your tent. Using a windshield will increase the efficiency of your stove during winter conditions, allowing you to whip something up as quickly as possible.

  • Eat, drink and be merryThis is not the time for diets or sensible eating – your body needs energy, and lots of it. To make things as simple as possible, bring freeze-dried or dehydrated meals that just need boiling water – they’re a lot tastier than they look and there are lots of tempting dessert options too. Don’t forget to pack snacks and drinks, either – pile your kit high with starchy carbs, sweet treats, a thermos or two and the ultimate winter camping must-have, a whiskey-filled hip flask. 

  • Do a practice run, especially if you’re using a tent you’re unfamiliar with or haven’t used in a while. After pitching up for the night in your garden, you’ll have a good idea of what you need to bring, how many layers to wear and how to organise your winter camping routine.

Light a fire in the evening to warm up before bed

Find campsites that are open all year

Whatever the weather, winter camping can be an exciting adventure if you do your research and plan correctly. Pitchup has a long list of campsites that are open all year round, from family-friendly holiday parks to simple wild-style sites for trips on the more adventurous end of the spectrum. 

See all Pitchup campsites open all year