How to camp in the winter

Need a cold-weather challenge? Coax yourself (and your tent) out of hibernation to brave winter camping. Residential Specialist Sam explains why and how you should give it a go

Sam Mason, Girlguiding National Residential Specialist
31 January 2017

Why camp in the cold?

If you’re looking for a new camping adventure, there’s nothing more magical than waking up in a winter wonderland with frost or snow on the ground!

Camping in the winter sounds extreme, but if you do it right – starting with these tips – it will be fun, a new challenge and quite cosy.

1. Don’t be afraid to go overboard with sleeping bags and blankets

Toasty warm campers are happy campers – especially at night. So take the warmest sleeping bags you have, look for ones that go down to -5ºc or -10 ºc (three to four season bags). If your sleeping bag is thinner, use a sleeping liner or double up your sleeping bags.

You can also use duvets as well for extra warmth, and don’t forget your trusty camp blanket!

You may need to dry your sleeping bag each day, so have an extra groundsheet handy to dry it on outside (if the weather is dry enough that is!).

2. Create layers underneath yourself as well as on top

To keep warm, increase the insulation between your body and your groundsheet.

I usually have two blankets – one on top of the sleeping bag and then one to go on top of my mat to keep my back warm.

Why not try a foam sleeping mat with a self-inflating mat (SIM) on top of it? SIMs come in different thicknesses - it’s worth going to an outdoor shop and trying out a few to find out which thickness is best for your body shape.

It’s also worth remembering that cardboard is a good insulator - you could use it as a base underneath your mat.

3. Use smaller tents and fill them to keep the tent warmer

A mansion-sized tepee might seem luxurious, but big tents containing only a couple of people makes for very chilly campers!

I once camped with Guides when the temperature fell to -3ºc. Five Guides slept in a four to five man tent and I was on my own in a three man tent. Guess who didn’t sleep all night and ended up with a frozen nose (the only thing visible out of my four-season sleeping bag) and who had a lovely night’s sleep and woke up refreshed and cosy?

4. Choose a robust tent

We all know how unpredictable the Great British weather can be, so take robust tents that can cope with low temperatures, wind and rain.

When you’re picking one, look for high hydrostatic head - this is the measure of how water resistant the material is. I recommend a minimum of 3000mm HH but ideally go for 4000mm HH plus.

If you’re camping in exposed areas, the shape of your tent is important – consider buying a ‘geodesic’ tent. Take a look at our partner Cotswold Outdoors' guide if you have no idea what that means.

I find older-style polycotton Icelandic tents can be warmer to sleep in, as the cotton is thicker than modern lightweight tents - but make sure you have a decent groundsheet.

Regularly air your tent and keep it ventilated, as there is likely to be condensation inside due to people breathing and the difference in indoor/outside temperature.

5. Be ready for storms

If stormy weather is forecast (and it’s still safe to camp) look at storm-guying your tent – this is explained in our Going Away With Scheme. I tend to do this even if it isn’t forecast so that if the wind whips up during the night you aren’t trying to move guy ropes in the dark in the middle of the storm. 

You can storm guy newer style tents, as well as the traditional canvas patrol or Icelandic tents. Make sure you pack additional guy ropes. To see how it’s done, take a look at this video

6. Adapt your cooking methods for the cold

Ever seen olive oil solidify due to the cold? It once took me quite a while to cook my bacon butties one morning after first having to warm up the bottle next to my skin.

Check that your fuel source works in the types of temperatures you will be camping in and think about safe storage of fuel to prevent it from freezing. However, the good news is that the milk will stay cold or, as we’ve had in the past, it might event freeze!

Plan to keep participants warm during the day, take plenty soup-in-a-cup sachets and make lots of hot drinks. However, beware of too many drinks last thing at night – nobody wants to be going to the loo at 2am in -5ºc. You could keep a Shewee and a bottle at the ready to use instead of going out into the open too.

7. Look after your skin

Don’t forget suncream, lip balm (essential - writing this blog with chapped lips!) and sunglasses. You can still burn in the winter, especially if it’s sunny and snow is on the ground.

8. Take a spade

Take a snow shovel or spade and keep it inside the tent - in case you need to dig yourself out!

9. Layer up your clothes

There is a good chance you’ll end up wearing more clothes in bed than outdoors. Take a mixture of thin layers to trap heat, plus windproof and waterproof thick outer layers when out and about. Glove liners are one of my recent discoveries to keep your hands toasty and warm inside your gloves during the day - and I don’t even think about camping without warm socks and a woolly hat!

Thermal underwear is also good!

Get more tips

These tips are just a few of my favourite to get you started. Here are some other useful websites with lots more hints and tips for winter camping.

Try winter camping at Sparkle and Ice 2019

Explore a winter wonderland at Sparkle and Ice, our winter camp for Guides, Rangers and members of The Senior Section and their leaders. The frosty fun takes place 2-3 February 2019 so grab your tickets now.

Tell me more