Adventuring, Exlporing & Offroading

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Winter Camping Doesn't Have to be Yucky

This past Christmas, my husband and I declined several invitations to spend Christmas with family and friends and instead decided that we would celebrate Christmas by doing what we love… adventuring.  Our plan was to do some snow wheeling and then camp (in the snow) for a couple of days.  This was the first time in my entire life that I was not with family or friends on the holiday and while I did miss my loved ones it was a wonderful bonding experience for my husband and I which was just what the doctor ordered after a particularly difficult year.

On Christmas Eve morning, we packed up both Jeeps with all of our adventure gear and drove up to the mountains where we found a little more snow than we expected.  We broadcast a live video on Instagram of some of our snow wheeling which included some winching as well as our campsite complete with a Christmas tree and stockings.   Most of the viewers were living vicariously through our video feed though some seemed to think we were a little bit crazy for camping in the snow.  So, I wanted to write about why snow camping isn’t as crazy or “hard core” (as one viewer mentioned) as it might seem.

As with most things, the type of equipment you use influences the quality of the experience you’ll have.  If you try to work on your vehicle and don’t have the right tools the experience can be frustrating.  Camping in the snow is precisely the same.  It’s all about having the right gear.  To camp comfortably in the snow you need to stay warm and dry which means you’ll need a good tent, sleeping bag and the right kind of clothes.

So, let’s talk tents.  Generally I’d recommend a 4-season tent for snow camping.  They can be a little on the expensive side but if you belong to REI and pay close attention to their sales you can often find deep discounts on lots of great outdoor gear, including tents.  I also love REI because as a member you get dividends based on the amount of money you spend each year and the dividends can be applied to future purchases and if you spend lots of time outdoors this is a great benefit! Over the year’s I’ve gotten quite a bit of “free” stuff with these dividends.  Once upon a time someone told me they won’t shop at REI due to rumors that REI was involved in many of the 4x4 land use battles being fought but there is no evidence to prove this (and believe me I looked) so I continue to shop there.  Anyway, enough about REI and back to tents...  4-season tents are worth the money if you want to camp often and I highly recommend figuring out how to get one, even if you have to buy it used.  Despite my recommendation for a 4-season tent, we elected to take our 3-season tent rather than our 4-season tent on this trip.  I generally wouldn’t recommend this but we knew we had the right clothing and other gear to stay warm but mostly we wanted the extra space that our 3-season tent provided so we could bring our camp chairs inside, set up a Christmas tree and celebrate Christmas in the tent.

In addition to a good tent you’ll want a sleeping bag that will keep you warm.  Sleeping bags are rated for the temperature.  Find one that will keep you warm even in the cold.  In this case we were camping in 19 degree weather.  We use a Grizzly 2 person sleeping bag rated for -25 degrees.  Between the bag, the other person’s body heat and the dog’s body heat it stays nice and cozy in the bag.  Yes, the dog sleeps in the sleeping bag and there is plenty of room for all 3 of us to toss and turn without disturbing one another.  I also like this bag because it’s not insulated with down.  Down is not effective if it gets wet so I avoid buying outdoor gear with down in it.

I think the most important part of snow camping is choice of clothing.  Go ahead and put your jeans back in the drawer.  You won’t need those for snow camping.  I’ve seen arguments that suggest that some amount of cotton is good for moisture wicking.  I don’t know how true that is but I do know that in below freezing weather you do not want to be wearing cotton. You don’t need to buy a ski suit to stay warm but you do need the right kind of clothes to stay warm. Polyester, wool and silk are excellent materials for staying warm.  

So why not cotton?  Well simply put, if you’re in the snow you will probably get wet and cotton won't keep you warm when it is wet. Polyester, wool and silk will continue to keep you warm even if the material is wet.  Polyester and wool keep warmth in and moisture out.  Cotton is an absorbent material so it stays wet and will draw away your body heat when wet.  Cotton also will not dry out, but polyester and other modern materials dry much more quickly. Note, that silk is not necessarily the warmest base layer.  Wool or polyester might be a better choice but I prefer the silk because it is thin and when wearing it I don’t really feel like I’m layered up even though I am.

Here’s what I wear:
  1. Feet
    1. Sock Liners
    2. Wool Socks
    3. Waterproof hiking boots or snow boots
  2. Legs
    1. Silk base layer
    2. Polyester pants (yoga pants or sweats with no cotton)
    3. The first two items are usually warm enough but I also keep a pair of softshell pants handy for those super cold and/or windy days
  3. Torso
    1. Silk, wool or polyester base layer
    2. Polyester or wool sweater
    3. Light jacket (a lightweight fleece jack works perfectly)
    4. Shell jacket with side zippers for breathability
  4. Hands
    1. Glove liners
    2. Thin gloves (like the ones with touch screen finger tips)
    3. Shell gloves for when it’s super cold
  5. Neck & Head
    1. Polyester or wool scarf
    2. Polyester or wool hat or ear warmers

I chose this selection of clothes because I really hate bundling up in a way that inhibits the use of my appendages or that makes me waddle like a penguin.  Plus, if not done properly wearing layers can feel uncomfortable to me.  Ski suits feel big and bulky and just aren’t comfortable to me.  Then I have this weird tactile dysfunction… if the base layer is loose and I put tight pants over it, the base layer will bunch up inside of the pants leaving little lumps in the pants. I don’t know why but it just doesn’t feel good to me like that so, I start by making sure that my base layers fit snuggly.  My next layer is loose enough to comfortably fit over the base layer but not baggy.  Polyester yoga/exercise pants one size larger than I actually wear works nicely.  Most of the items I wear in the snow can be purchased on Amazon or Target (in the activewear section).  You do not have to purchase expensive brand names to stay warm.  Just pay attention to the material the clothes are made of.  Avoid cotton, nylon and rayon.

You should dress such that even without a campfire you're comfortable and warm in wind, rain or snow. This is a good guideline for directing your shopping and planning. In addition, you should always carry an extra set of dry clothes for changing. If you think about it, it is a safety issue: if something goes wrong you'll want to be prepared. For example, if you have to do an unexpected recovery in a mud bog, fall in to a stream or get all the way in to the woods and realize somebody forgot warm clothes you'll have an extra set and will be able to stay warm. There are countless times that I have loaned out an extra pair of socks or a jacket because someone either didn't know what to bring or forgot something.

We also bring a few additional campsite goodies that make snow camping even more cozy.  We have a Mr. Buddy portable propane heater for a little extra warmth in the tent.  My husband brings a wool poncho with him on all trips.  I usually make fun of him for it but that’s mostly for my own amusement.  There were countless camping trips where despite having a campfire I was still chilly and the poncho warmed me right up. I can’t forget to talk about the woobie.  A woobie is a military poncho liner but I use mine as a blanket. Despite how thin it is it can keep you amazingly warm.  I keep mine in the Jeep at all times.  It folds up quite tiny and lives under the passenger seat of the black jeep.  It is just considered part of the Jeep recovery and safety gear now. Lastly, if you have a D.C. outlet in your rig or an inverter, consider bringing a small electric blanket. There have been a number of times that I've used mine to warm up a freezing little girl and even a big dude that didn't come prepared.

If you don’t already own these things the cost to get everything you need can be a little overwhelming especially if you’re also trying to build or maintain an off-road vehicle.  What I did was buy a few items at a time until I had enough gear to comfortably play outside in the cold, rain and snow.  If you’re on a limited budget, bargain shop on Amazon for tents, sleeping bags and clothes.  You might even check Craigslist or other trading sites.  Base layers and outer layers can be found on Amazon and other online retailers if REI, Cabelas or Bass Pro are too pricy.  The rest of the clothes can be found anywhere that active wear is sold.  Just remember, it’s not a brand you’re looking for it’s the material.  

Hopefully, this information is useful to someone out there that is interested in getting out to adventure more but isn’t quite sure how to approach it.  Remember, you can't get views like this if you don't get out there!


  1. Loved this blog post! Snow camping is wonderful and something we really enjoy doing as a family.
    Great and useful information here!
    -Missy (Rugged Overland)

    1. Missy, Thank you! It seems obvious to me now but there was a time when I would have been the one showing up in jeans so I thought the info might be useful for others.

      Speaking of tips... would you be willing to share some other cool places to winter camp/wheel? Being new to WA I only know of a couple places that are not closed and would love to explore some more.


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