Winter Camping with Kids
If you’re reading this, you probably love camping. But as the weather turns colder, most people pack away their sleeping bags and camp stoves until next year. But since you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering- can we stretch the camping season a little longer? How cold is too cold? Is camping even enjoyable in winter?
I’m here to give you some good news- you CAN camp all winter, and you CAN enjoy it! Winter camping brings with it some of the most peaceful and magical moments, almost always more quiet and full of wonder than the typical boisterous summer nights.
Snow quiets the world, everything sparkles, and you can’t help but feel extra cozy in your sleeping bag when it’s so cold out. With the right gear and a few key points of knowledge, you can successfully camp with your family in winter and make incredible memories. Yes, it’s a bit more work and gear, but it’s worth it.
I got my intro to winter camping during college, where back country ski classes would take us into the frigid Teton Mountains for 2-3 night camping trips in search of deep powder. I learned through a few hard and cold experiences just how important the right gear can be (summer sleeping bags DON’T cut it!), but also how entrancing a back country winter campfire is.
I later got a job in Utah working in the wilderness therapy industry, guiding groups of teens on outdoor expeditions, where I became proficient at week-long winter camp outs with kids. If teens who have no wilderness experience can learn to do it, you can too!
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Winter Camping with Kids: Where to start
It can be intimidating to think about taking your kids camping when it’s below freezing and there is snow outside. First, start small. We’ll discuss what gear you need later in this post, but once you’ve got that, try it out at home. Set up a tent or build a snow cave (snow permitting) in the back yard, where the consequences are low.
Get a feel for how everyone will handle the cold, what things you need to tweak, and what you need to add. After the back yard, choose a first campsite where you can camp near the car in case things don’t go as planned.
Remember- make it your own experience; there’s no wrong way. You can go as big or small as you want with this- from skiing or hiking in to a secluded spot and building a cave, to sticking to a campground or even your back yard.
Cabins and yurts are really fun options to get out in winter as well. You’re out of the elements, but winter wonderlands are right out the door.
Winter Cabin Camping with Kids
Many state parks and national forest areas have back country cabins available to reserve, which are usually dry cabins with bunks, a table, and a wood stove. You are responsible for bringing your own bedding, food, stove, etc., but have a roof over your head. Often they have out houses and fire wood provided.
Yurts are soft sided structures, with lattice work making up the inside walls and a vinyl coated covering on the outside, often with insulation and a domed roof with a window at the top. They are becoming a popular camping option, and many state parks are starting to offer them. Yurts generally have wood stoves, tables, and bunks, but no running water or electricity. Very similar to cabins, but with a Mongolian vibe.
Winter Camping Tents
Getting a reservation for a yurt or cabin can sometimes be tough, but if you choose to tent camp, the possibilities open up. Any place you can camp in summer, you can camp in winter. Keep in mind, most campgrounds are not equipped with services or running water in winter, so you’ll need to bring your own.
Ideally, you’ll need 4-season tent, as it is heavier duty and can handle the weight of snow and wind. Also great if you live in an area where there is no snow, but you need the added warmth.
If you have enough snow where you live, building a snow cave can be a really fun option. Try it out using the snow blower or shovels at home: make a huge pile of snow, let it sit over night and settle, and then dig a cave into it.
Keep a small door, so it doesn’t let in too much cold air, and poke sticks or poles all over it so you can gauge how thick the walls/roof are. Ideally, sticks should be about 12 inches long, so when you hit a stick from the inside, you know your walls will be at least 12 inches thick.
Bonus, if you build a really good cave in your yard, you can use it over and over all winter! Snow caves actually hold heat in quite well, staying around 30 degrees F, even with zero degree temps outside. You can also just dig a snow pit to sleep in and cover it with a tarp, which will keep the wind off you.
How to Find a Winter Camping Spot
As I mentioned above, finding winter camping spots is different depending on what type you want to do.
If you are looking for a forest service cabin, located in a national forest, you can look it up by National Forest. For example, here is a list of Bridger-Teton National Forest cabins, which is near us. You’d need to look up your local forest to get a list.
For Yurts, if it is in a State or National Park, you can look on Recreation.gov. Click on the camping and lodging icon and search the desired park. If it is privately or commercially owned, you can search for yurts in your area and the commercial company’s website should come up. There are lots of options, like the ones listed on this Reserve America article.
Winter Tenting and Snow Shelters
Established campgrounds are a great place for tent camping in the winter. As I mentioned before, research beforehand the services available (which are likely none), if you still need to pay a fee, and if the campground allows winter camping.
Otherwise, any place that allows dispersed camping in the summer will likely allow it in the winter. This usually includes BLM and Forest Service land. You can learn about camping on BLM land at their website, Bureau of Land Management. On Forest Service land, camping is generally allowed unless otherwise posted.
Winter Camping Essentials
For winter camping, you need all the camping gear you’d usually need, but make it warmer, stronger, beefier. I’ll break it down into categories of what has worked for us. Besides a tent, most gear will be needed for whatever style of camping you choose.
- Wool (or non-cotton) base layers (x2)
- Fleece or insulating (down) midlayers
- Waterproof/windproof outer layers
- Wool socks (x3)
- Balaclava & hat
Let’s start with the base layers. Wool and fleece are great under layers. And depending on the temperatures, sometimes both. Make sure you are wearing dry base layers to sleep- not the ones you hiked or skied in that day. It’s a pain to change but worth it 100 percent. I love the Smartwool 1/4 zip hoodie, and wool leggings. REI makes some great kids wool layers as well.
Heavy fleece or down are my go-to mid/ insulating layers. Fleece is great if the weather is damp or wet, and down is better for the cold, dry conditions. These REI Thick fleece pants, this Mountain Hardware pull over, and North Face Denali vest are all great. If you prefer down, we love this Cotopaxi Down vest and Cotopaxi down jacket for mid layers.
For the coldest nights & mornings, or when you just need to be bundled, I like to bring a super warm, puffy down jacket, something like this Outdoor Research Super Alpine down parka. For the kids, we like the Patagonia Hi-Loft down jackets.
If your kid has a big thick insulated coat that combines layers, this can work as well. I like to dress my babies in the Patagonia Hi-loft bunting, because then I don’t worry as much if they’re staying warm!
And don’t forget about down booties or slippers, which are great to wear around the yurt or cabin, and insulate when sleeping if it’s really cold. We love these Outdoor Research down booties.
These are important for protection from wind and precipitation. A gore-tex shell, like this REI ski jacket, makes a big difference in holding in heat, cutting wind chill, and keeping you dry during snow or rainfall. As I mentioned earlier, if your kid has a nice warm insulated ski coat, paired with good base layers, that works. You don’t need to go buy an entire layering system right away.
For bottoms, we just use snow pants, and I love bibs because they keep snow out and are comfortable for all the bending and moving you do with kids and camping. I love these Burton ones for mom (curvy moms – find out favorites here!) You can find a great list of kids winter gear in our other article, Best Winter Gear for Kids.
Socks and Hats
Wool socks are a must. I like to keep one pair just for sleeping, and another pair for the day time. It’s amazing what clean dry socks can do as far as keeping your feel warm at night. We love the Darn Tough wool socks, because they’re comfy, durable, and have a lifetime warranty.
A hat and balaclava are key pieces of warmth when winter camping. A balaclava keeps the wind and cold off your neck, ears and chin, and a hat insulates. I like to have my kids sleep in a thin wool balaclava because their hats inevitably fall off during the night, and it just keeps me from worrying if their heads are cold.
For gloves, I like to have a warm pair for most of the time, and a thinner, liner type glove for when I need to do things with dexterity, like cooking or fire building, but my fingers don’t want to freeze. I like these Black Diamond ones, because they’re warm and come with liners.
For kids, just a warm pair of mittens will usually do. Sometimes I’ll pack two pair in case one gets soaked (which they usually do!) Something like these REI Split finger gloves would do. Add in some Aurora Heat for some extra warmth.
Keeping your feet warm is important. And while the best way is to stay hydrated, have enough calories, and keep moving, footwear is a big part of it. Make sure you have insulated, waterproof boots for hiking and working around camp. Toe warmers are handy if you know you won’t be moving around much.
My kids love their Bogs insulated boots, because they can slip them on and off easily going in and out of the tent or cabin. I have a pair as well and I’ve never struggled with cold feet in the winter. In extremely cold temperatures, the team loves these Baffin boots.
Winter Camping Gear List
- sleeping bags
- sleeping pads
- stove/fire starter
- mess kit
Sleeping Bags and Pads
If you are camping in a yurt or cabin, the warmth of your sleeping bag isn’t as big of a deal, because you’ll likely have a wood stove and walls keeping you warm. But if you are in a snow cave or tent, your sleep system in important. Look for a sleeping bag that is rated to 0 degrees at least, and a quality one. We’ve had luck with Mountain Hardware bags.
We love double sleeping bags
We like double sleeping bags, because we can snuggle inside to stay warm. My husband and I in one, the three boys in the other. You can use the big fluffy flannel lined ones for car camping, or lightweight down bags if you’re hauling gear in somewhere.
Of course, you don’t HAVE to buy new double sleeping bags; you can also zip two bags together, or just get really warm single bags. It is difficult to find zero degree double bags, but it’s also not as important, because when you’re snuggling, you stay warmer than if you were alone. This 20 degree double bag from REI would totally work.
Do I need to buy kids winter sleeping bags?
Kids grow out of gear quickly, and winter sleeping bags are expensive, but you don’t want too much space inside inside the bag for those little bodies to have to insulate. If you’d like to research kids winter bags, check out one of our other articles, Best Sleeping Bags for Kids.
One thing we’ve started doing is using our adult bags and cinching a stuff sack around the bottom to make it smaller. You can also stuff the extra space with things you want to keep warm at night to prevent them from freezing solid.
Another option is layering. If you don’t want to invest in a winter bag, you can double up summer bags, or use fleece or down quilts to add warmth. My kids love the REI Kindercone bag, so we just pair it with this thick REI fleece blanket and they stay warm enough. We also love this packable blanket for extra warmth.
Sleeping on the ground will make you cold. If you have an inflatable pad, you’ll likely be cold, as the air won’t be insulated underneath you. I like the comfort of an inflatable pad, so I bring a foam pad to put under my blow up mat, giving me a nice insulated foundation to sleep on. My kids are usually fine with a couple foam pads, and sometimes a blanket so they don’t slide around and off the pads.
One bonus of the foam pads- you can use them all over camp, for sitting, kneeling and standing on while you cook, hang out by the fire, or whatever else you need to do. If you’re stationary, standing on a foam pad off the snow really helps. We love these foldable ExPed mats.
Winter Camping Tents
Four season tents are really helpful if you’re camping in the winter. They hold up to wind and snow better, and keep you a bit warmer. Most the time when I’m winter camping, I’m car camping, so having a big tent is an option, and it’s nice to have some space to move around and hang out. This REI Basecamp tent would fit the bill.
Winter Camping Stoves
Having a good stove is essential, because, you know, hot water is essential. Having a small, efficient stove to boil water quickly is key. You can make hot drinks, soup, or melt snow for drinking without using a ton of fuel. We love the MSR Reactor or the Jetboil. Make sure you pack a fire starter, like these storm proof matches and a wind proof lighter. Wouldn’t hurt to have both just in case!
For bigger or more complex meals, the Coleman double burner stove is nice. I like to bring that one to cabins and yurts, where I’ll have a table to set up on. If it’s really cold or you worry about fuel freezing, a liquid gas stove, like the Dragonfly Whisperlite, is your best bet because it’s fuel doesn’t freeze. I find it’s just a little more of a learning curve to get proficient.
Make sure you cook with your stove fuel insulated, like on a foam pad. Sometimes I’ll put the fuel in my jacket to warm up before cooking.
We find pots and pans like this titanium Toaks one and this Tea Kettle really useful. I sometimes use paper plates if I’m planning on having a fire, because I can burn them. But otherwise I like the GSI Infinity set, because the little mugs have insulator sleeves for hot drinks and the pots nest together for easy packing.
One thing you can’t forget- when camping in the winter, you don’t have as much daylight. It gets dark quickly and it helps to have good lights around camp. We like to hang battery powered twinkle lights, like these retractable, re-chargable Luci Lights, around camp to give a cozy vibe, and lanterns on the tables or hanging in the tent/cabin are nice. We like to hang these Luci Lights around camp as well, leaving them on all night and letting them recharge during the day.
Good headlamps are a must- make sure you have extra batteries or a way to re charge them. It’s handy to have all the kids wear lights, because it’s easier for you to keep track of everyone in the dark, and kids love wearing headlamps. If I have toddlers, I will sometimes strap a headlamp around their belly so they can’t take it off as easily. We like these Petzl rechargeable ones.
Other Winter Camping Gear You Might Need
If you’re in a snowy location, you may need to pack things like sleds and skis. Especially if you have to transport your stuff far. It’s also fun to have those things to do during the day for playing around in the snow. These CXC strap on cross country skis are great for the little kids, because you can just use their snow boots. We also regularly use a trailer to pull them around, just make sure you have the ski attachments.
You can pick up cross country ski setups from REI, and if you need help figuring out what you need, you can check out their XC Ski & Equipment Guide. They rent set-ups as well, so if you have a local REI you can inquire there.
If you want to simplify, you can bring snowshoes instead. This handy snowshoe kit from MSR has everything you’d need, including poles and a carry case. And you’ll definitely need sleds, like this little Lucky Bums one for playing and hauling gear.
Check out out favorite kids snowshoes!
Winter Camping Meals
If you are looking for easy, quick meals, the Backpacker’s Pantry meals are great. They have lots of calories to keep you warm, flavors and varieties for every taste bud, and all you have to do is boil water. If you don’t want to stress about food, these are an awesome option.
Otherwise, decide what cooking method you are using, and plan around that. For example, if you’re going to have a fire, you can bring things like hot dogs and s’mores to roast, or cook eggs on a cast iron pan over a fire.
Soups are really nice as well. Prepare food as much as you can at home so you don’t have to do it in the elements. For great camping food ideas, check out this book, The Easy Camp Cookbook!
Go Heavy on Calories
You can be as simple or as elaborate as you have energy for. Just make sure you have lots of calories, as they help keep your body warm. Think adding butter to everything, peanut butter, eggs, etc. And don’t forget lots of snacks- bars, cookies, cheese sticks, crackers and salami, etc.
Hot Drinks are Key
The other thing you need to make sure to plan on- warm drinks. LOTS of warm drinks. Hot chocolate or tea when you wake up, and go to bed, with most meals, and anytime you need to warm up. Drinking hot liquid is really effective at warming cold kids. We like this Stanley Thermos to pack around hot chocolate while skiing or hiking.
How Do You Stay Warm when Winter Camping?
There are a few tips and tricks that can make a huge difference in staying warm and enjoying yourself on a winter camp out. First and foremost- stay dry. You’ll get sweaty and wet playing in the snow, so try and get dry as soon as you’re done with an activity. Bring extra base layers and socks for everyone. Use your layering system so you don’t get too sweaty.
Second, stay hydrated and eat enough calories so your blood will flow and your body will have calories to burn and keep you warm. I cant stress this enough.
Our nightly winter camping ritual helps set us up for warm sleep- first, boil water and pour it into a Nalgene water bottle, one per person. Don’t use metal water bottles, they can burn. While you let the hot water bottles cool a bit, go for a night hike together. Nothing too strenuous, but enough to get your blood flowing. Use the bathroom and drink some hot tea or cocoa. Put your dry base layers/fleece/socks on.
Take your (very well sealed) water bottle into the sleeping bag with you, and use it as a little heater for your sleeping bag. You can tuck it into your crotch or your armpits if you’re cold, because those are where you have big veins that will help heat your body. Bonus, you’ll have water that isn’t frozen the next morning to use for drinking or cooking.
Make sure if you are tenting or in a snow cave, that you don’t leave gear outside over night- it will freeze solid. Tuck things you want to keep from freezing inside your sleeping bag, like in the foot space, to stay warmer. In a cabin/ yurt, make sure to hang things up to dry over night.
Winter fires are my favorite! They are so cozy. If you are in a cabin or a yurt, you’ll likely have a wood stove. Keep that fire going to dry out gear and stay warm. If you want a fire outside, just keep it under control.
Leave No Trace principles don’t require a fire pan in snow, but take care that you’re not destroying any land or things around you. Gather wood that is already dead and down, or bring your own. And watch your gear- I’ve seen socks and boots melted that were too close to the fire!
Winter Camping with Kids: You Can Do It!
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a good start to get out winter camping with your family. Don’t let all this information overwhelm or intimidate you. Rather, I hope you feel inspired to get outside this winter with your and enjoy the magic of winter nights out.
After you get all the gear together, find your spot, and go out, the fun begins! You’ll make memories to give you cozy feelings all winter long, and your family will be able to bond over this unique experience. Good luck and stay warm out there!
Winter Camping with Kids
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