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Winter Backpacking Part 1: Keeping Warm

by Karen Ung

How to keep warm when winter camping in the backcountry

My famous last words before our backpacking trip were, “If you don’t hear from us Monday, we probably died.” That may have been a bit melodramatic given the fact that we’re bonafide snow lovers and experienced backpackers, but it was our first winter backpacking trip as a family and it was expected to drop to -16C (3.2F) in the night. A little colder than what we usually camp in, and with kids in tow, we didn’t want to take any chances. We packed everything on our list, then packed some more, but in the end, keeping warm was the easy part! (Lucky for us, it never went below -10C.)

In this installment of Winter Backcountry Camping, I’ll cover what gear we brought to keep warm. Part two will discuss safe gear transport, finding water, and cold weather cooking, and part three will cover where to go winter camping. Are you ready? Let’s go winter camping!

Keeping Warm When Winter Backpacking / Camping 

The essential items you need to keep warm are good clothes, protection from the elements (shelter), insulation from the cold ground, a warm sleeping bag, and proper nutrition and hydration levels. If I can hack cold weather camping with Raynaud’s (weird autoimmune problem that shuts off circulation to my extremities in the cold), you can too – with the right gear!


Keeping dry and warm are critical to winter backpacking (and hiking) comfort and safety. Base layers made of merino wool or technical fabrics will wick moisture away from your skin to keep you dry. If it’s cold enough for mid layers, put them on as soon as you cool down and take them off as soon as you heat up. It’s better to stop for a minute to remove a layer before you get sweaty,as it’s extremely dangerous to have wet clothes in subzero temperatures. Do not wear cotton!

What We Wore: Base layers, a mid layer (fleece/down sweater), shell jackets, wool socks, winter hiking boots, and snow pants for the hike to camp.

What We Packed:

  • 1 extra set of base layers to change into at camp
  • 1 set of fleece base layers for sleeping in
  • 2 pairs of socks, 1 thick pair of sleeping socks
  • underwear
  • 1 parka/puffy down jacket per person
  • hut booties
  • buffs (neck gaiters)
  • Extra snowpants for the kids, toques and mitts. 
  • Hand and foot warmer packets

We used almost everything as the kids got wet rolling in the snow (yay for extras!) except the hand and foot warmers. We were able to have a fire at night and keep toasty.

For more details on keeping warm, please see these posts:

It’s all about technical gear and layers!


I had a bit of anxiety about not having a 4-season tent, until I realized that our friend sleeps under a tarp year round. A 3-season dome tent works fine if it’s sturdy (an ultralight tent may not be the best choice), pegged out properly, and there isn’t heavy snow – provided you double up your sleeping pads and have a good sleeping bag.

Our home away from home was our MEC Wanderer 3-season dome tent. This rugged tent kept the wind out, heat in, and didn’t allow much condensation to build up. We have camped in this tent (and others) in -10C very comfortably, so we probably won’t invest in a heavier 4-season tent unless we become cold junkies and start camping regularly in -20 or below.


  • Keep vents partway open to prevent condensation buildup. 
  • Use a footprint / ground tarp to provide snow melt from going in to your tent. 
  • Peg your tent out well to allow snow to slide off. I recommend Y pegs for hard ground, and deadman anchors for camping on snow (saves you trying to pry snow stakes out of the snow). 
  • Low Gravity Ascents has a good writeup on setting up your tent in the snow which includes deadman anchors, windbreaks and cold air trenches. Since we were camping below treeline, on a tent pad, in moderate weather, we did not make a windbreak or cold air trench and were able to use our Y pegs. 

For tips on what to look for when buying a tent, please see this post: How to Choose a Tent Q&A.

MEC Wanderer Tent (note the fly is not up yet so we can load bedding) 


Our regular backpacking gear is suitable for -7C (or -10C if wearing fleece layers), but since the forecast was calling for -16C, we doubled up on sleeping bags and sleeping pads. No matter how amazing your sleeping bag, if you are not shielded from the cold ground, you will have a chilly night. Best to use 2 sleeping pads!

What we slept on/in:

  • We layered self-inflating sleeping pads (Therm-a-rest Trail Pro) on top of foam sleeping pads (Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol or Ridgerest) to be super comfy and warm. Besides being light and affordable, foam pads never, ever leak. They also make great camping/hiking chairs! Attach these to the outside of your pack to make room for extra sleeping bags/quilts and clothes.
  • We brought 7 sleeping bags and 2 down quilts:
    • Each kid had a kids’ MEC 0C sleeping bag inside a MEC Raven -7C down bag;
    • I had a -12 Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag;
    • My husband had a -7C MEC Aquila down sleeping bag and +15 sleeping bag.
    • We used the down quilts as over and underquilts. 
I don’t recommend doing what we did. Our setup was bulky and heavy! 
  • If you can afford it, get lightweight winter sleeping bags.
    • Down is highly compressible and warm. The new hydrophobic down bags are great as the down will maintain loft when wet to keep you warm. The higher the fill number (650 vs 800 for example), the more compressible – and pricey – the bag will be.
    • Hybrid bags are great for warmth, but bulkier than all down bags. They have down on top for warmth and compressibility and synthetic fill on the bottom that doesn’t compress as much as down (so you stay warmer). 
  • A less costly option than 850 fill down bags or double sleeping bags, is to purchase/make an overbag or overquilt to use with your 3-season sleeping bag. We plan to make our $27 ($20 US) down quilts into overquilts. Thanks Coldbike for telling me about the Costco quilts (and how to adapt them), and Rockiesgirl for letting me know they were in stock!
  • Spread outerwear (if dry) out around your sleeping pads to prevent cold from seeping in from the floor (also makes it less of a shock if you roll off your sleeping pad in the night). If you use a cot, stuff empty stuff sacks and extra clothes under your cot to prevent cold air from flowing through.
For more information on choosing camp bedding (sleeping bags, cots, sleeping pads, travel cribs), please see: Camping Sleep System 411.

Sleep like a baby, cozy warm!


Keeping fueled and hydrated helps you keep warm. Did you know that being hydrated helps you balance your temperature? So carry warm drinks and sip often! A hearty soup makes a good meal too, to get extra fluids down (many people don’t want to drink cool liquids on a cold day and don’t drink enough).
We found staying hydrated to be a challenge on our trip as we had forgotten our water purifier and it took forever to boil water. 
Read Winter Backpacking With Kids Part 2: Water, Cooking, Gear Hauling to learn what you can do to alleviate this problem.
Don’t forget your water purifier!


Holding your pee makes you cold because your body is using energy to keep it warm. Let it go! Women may want to consider a Female Urinary Device like the Go Girl (Amazon Affiliate link) to avoid pulling their pants down to go to the washroom.

We packed for -20, but only had to sleep in -6, so it was a good trial run for family winter camping. Would we do it again? Absolutely, but we need to make a few changes to our sleep system to get our pack/Chariot weight down if we want to go further than Elbow Lake. (February 2017 Update: We purchased -12C hybrid sleeping bags to use with down quilts to reduce bulk and keep warm!)
If you’re well prepared, winter camping can be a lot of fun! It’s even better if you go with friends! My kids’ favorite moments were sledding, stargazing, roasting marshmallows, and dancing under the stars with Rockieschick’s and Coldbike’s kids. I hope you will be inspired to try it as we’d love to see more kids at camp!
What would you like to learn about winter camping?
Little backpackers

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Playoutsidegal January 31, 2017 - 10:14 PM

Hey Lila, I must admit I was quite concerned about overnighting it in winter temperatures with Raynaud's, but we had SO much gear, we were fine. The hand warmer packets are life savers (didn't need them this trip though!) on super cold days and we always carry extra mitts in case ours get sweaty/wet. So far so good! We also made sure not to get sweaty as then we'd have to change our clothes. Hope your knee is better for hiking this year!

LILA K. December 5, 2016 - 1:16 PM

It's nice to see someone else with reynode's out living the dream! I was told multiple times by doctors to stop hiking – first knee problems then the reynode's, because it was too dangerous being away from immediate sources of heat (to flip you inner thermometer back the other way ideally, our just to keep your toes). I found if I traveled sensibly and with extra precautions – like iron air activated heat packs or old school handwarmers with charcoal inside – i always had options. Similarly, I'm hoping to find systems to work with my other health issues so I can go back to the back country without my doctors losing their minds.

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