Cold Weather Hiking and Camping: How to Keep Warm

Cold Weather Hiking and Camping: How to Keep Warm

I hate the cold, but I also hate to give up camping for the whole winter because it brings clear night skies, better views after the trees have dropped their leaves, fewer people, and fewer insects. So I use some hacks to help keep me warmer when the temperature drops into the 20s or teens.

My preferred hiking attire of trail runners, shorts, and a t-shirt won’t work in winter, so I make the following wardrobe adjustments:

Cold, wet feet are awful in winter. If there is snow on the ground, leave the trail runners at home, grab your waterproof hikers and use a pair of gaiters to keep snow from going into the tops of your shoes. I confess this is more aspirational for me, and I found myself in the snow in my trail runners last month!

If there is a chance of icy conditions, I’ll bring my micro spikes. There is really no substitute, and I’ve never regretted carrying them. I had an interesting experience on the AT in early spring where the trail alternated icy sections with creek crossings, and I found myself wearing micro spikes on my water shoes at one point!

Of course, I layer my clothes, with merino wool being an indispensable baselayer, and I reserve a dry set of baselayers for sleeping.

High-visibility orange clothing is always a good choice if you may be out during hunting season or have any road walks in low visibility winter conditions.


Sleeping in the cold can be challenging, but I stay warmer with these hacks:

Double up sleeping pads to increase the insulation if you don’t have an insulated pad. It adds weight compared to an insulated pad but can be a budget friendly option if you already have two pads.

In addition to my base layers, I also sleep in clean dry socks, a hat, and soft clean gloves. I’ll even put on my puffer if I’m still cold.

A Nalgene bottle filled with hot water and tucked inside your sleeping bag can stay warm all night long.

Also remember to put your water filter in a zip bag and keep it in your sleeping bag with you because freezing water can damage the filter element. I also keep my phone and my power pack in my sleeping bag to protect them from the cold.

Exercise is a great way to warm up, even inside your tent. There might not be enough room to do jumping jacks, but planking activates a lot of muscles and is practical inside a tent.

Similarly, I start hiking as quickly as possible to warm up in the morning. I might stop later for coffee after I am warmed up.

When I want a fire and conditions are safe, I use dryer lint as tinder, and I use hand sanitizer or lip balm as an accelerant. Remember the rule “Dead, down, and dinky.” Dead wood will be drier and burn better. Down wood that has fallen can be collected without damaging trees, and wood that has landed in bushes and is off the ground may be drier. Dinky pieces, say less than wrist diameter, will ignite quickly and burn completely, making the fire easier to start and to extinguish.

Even a quality isobutane/propane canister will suffer a performance drop in cold weather because the pressure drops with the temperature. This can be mitigated by warming the canister inside your coat before use or using your bare hands to warm it during use.

Finally, be aware that even a few hundred feet of elevation change make a huge difference in snow cover. Don’t be fooled by clear ground at the trailhead, because the trail may be snowy at higher elevations, and remember that you may be able to find dry ground for camping by descending. Similarly, areas with a southern exposure that get sun can be clearer than areas with northern exposure and shade.

- Joe

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