Top 8 Safety Tips for Winter Camping

Winter camping can be an incredible way to enjoy the wilderness year round – but there are inherent and hidden dangers. Adequate planning and preparation will help your next winter excursion be safe and enjoyable. Proper clothing and equipment are important, as is your behavior in the backcountry. Don’t be so focused on reaching a summit or a stopping point that you put yourself or others at risk.

Consider the other people in your group and communicate honestly about concerns. Be aware of your body, stay dry to stay warm and constantly take inventory of your surroundings. Following these top 8 safety tips for winter camping and using sound judgment will keep you walking in a winter wonderland.


Top 8 Safety Tips for Winter Camping
Photo by Mt. Hood Territory

1. Location, location, location. Make sure everyone in your group has a good map and route description even if using a GPS device, which can fail. An altimeter is another good tool for determining location – but like all tech tools; they’re no good if you don’t know how to use them. Plan your route in advance and familiarize yourself with the trail. It can be hard to see where you’re going in flat light and snow conditions. Be cautious when following someone else’s trail – it might not be the same route you were planning to take and could lead you astray. *Note: If you do get lost, stay calm. Stop and evaluate your surroundings. Make yourself easy to find by wearing your brightly colored hats and jackets and making noise. Packing a whistle or a mirror to reflect sunlight is wise. Stay put and stay together.


2. Danger zones. Stay out of avalanche areas. Even if you are trained and equipped to deal with a slide, the best approach is to avoid dangerous cornices and avalanche zones all together. If your route passes bodies of water, be extremely cautious about crossing frozen rivers. Keep in mind, you may not be able to see them under snow. Refer to your map to find a safe, direct way around them.


Top 8 Safety Tips for Winter Camping
Photo by Matt Hosford

3. Home, safe home. Be aware of shortened daylight hours during the winter and give yourself ample time to reach camp during daylight. Look for tent spots that offer protection from wind and are out of avalanche fields. Get familiar with the area during the daylight so you can find you way around once the sun goes down. Stay in the sun as long as possible to keep warm. Always follow Leave No Trace camping ethics.


4. Prevention is the best medicine. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature decreases due to exposure to cold conditions. To prevent hypothermia, stay dry – which will keep you warm. Stay hydrated and well fed. Symptoms include shivering, inability to speak or communicate clearly, and lethargic movement and can be remedied by changing into dry clothes and increasing intake of hot foods and fluids. By sharing a sleeping bag with a hypothermic person, you can transfer body heat they desperately need. This can be fatal and should be treated very seriously.


Top 8 Safety Tips for Winter Camping
Photo by kris krüg

5. Ten fingers, ten toes. Frostbite is also a risk in extremely cold temperatures. When skin on the fingers, toes, the nose or face is exposed to freezing temperatures, feeling can be lost and amputation may be necessary. If you experience symptoms like numbness, shivering, white or purple skin and a burning sensation in affected areas, warm the frostbitten skin against warm skin on your (or your partner’s) stomach or armpits. This will bring warmth back to the appendages at a safe rate. Holding a cup of warm water can also help, but do not use fire or friction to warm the skin. This is a serious condition that needs immediate medical treatment.


6. Dehydration ain’t no joke. Even in the dead of winter, you need to drink plenty of water. Check the color of your urine to gage your hydration level. The paler the color, the more hydrated you are. Headache and dizziness, dry mouth, muscle craps and confusion are signs of dehydration. Resting and drinking ample amounts of water can help to regulate your body back to normal. This, too, is a potentially fatal condition and should be treated as such. *Note: Water filters do not work in sub-freezing temperatures and chemical treatments like iodine take longer to work in cold water. Melting snow is a good option during winter months when lakes and rivers are frozen.


Top 8 Safety Tips for Winter Camping
Photo by Howard Kang

7. Flying high. Altitude sickness can occur when you experience a rapid increase in elevation and your body does not adjust at an equal rate. Climbing more than 1,000′ a day is not recommended. If you experience nausea (which can lead to dehydration), severe headache, dizziness, insomnia, shortness of breath, body ache and loss of appetite, get to a lower elevation as soon as possible, and stay there until your body regulates.


8. Keep it clean. There are some hygiene practices that we tend to leave behind when we head into the wilderness – that’s part of the great escape – but sanitary bathroom practices should not be one of them. When nature calls, make sure you are at least 200’ feet away from any campsite or water source. Pack out your toilet paper and other sanitary waste products in a zip-lock bag. If the snow is too deep to dig a hole to bury waste, invest in a sanitary bag that will stifle odor and turn your waste into gel. Then you can pack it out. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply