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  Carolina Mountain Sports Backpacking Homepage
■  Winter Camping Tips for Extreme Weather

By  Richard Griggs

  The information here is based on years of winter backpacking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the Great Smokies of NC and Tenn.,  the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on and around Mt. Washington, the Shenandoahs of Virginia, and the Ozarks in Missouri.   In addition, it draws on the experience of others.   And, it is based on winter camping and backpacking with Scouts, beginning with a search for a lost Scout in snow and freezing rain in the Great Smokies and ending more recently with scout camping trips in snow, ice and single digit temperatures. 

Be prepared.   How often have you heard that?   Be prepared…”hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That way you can tackle whatever happens with a positive attitude knowing that you are indeed ready and capable,  because you have planned and prepared for the worst you might encounter.   But, in all too many cases we rationalize by thinking or saying things like “it’s only for one night;”  “we’ve been there before;”  or “I’ve spent a small fortune on the best equipment money can buy.”   And then, you’re caught by surprise and aren’t prepared…


Weather in the mountains is almost always colder than where we live in the foothills and Piedmont.   Weather in the mountains can change abruptly and you can encounter “micro climate” conditions or localized weather unlike that in nearby areas and different from what has been forecast.   Weather can also change with only a change of a few hundred feet in elevation.   Hiking from 3,500 feet to 4,000 feet could easily move you into dramatically different weather  conditions. 

Weather forecasts do not adequately inform us of the potential for adverse weather at higher elevations.  Regardless of the forecast for ski areas and mountain communities, the actual weather near the summits of Mt. Rogers, Mt. Mitchell,  Clingman’s Dome and other elevations above 4,000 feet can easily be severely and devastatingly different.  Winds, which are already brutal,  may double in strength when they are forced against ridges and through gaps.  And, winter in NC mountains continues until mid-to-late April.  Some of our deepest snows have fallen in mid-April and early May.


Snow, sleet, freezing rain…sounds like you need waterproof boots.   Combine that with good, wool socks and the ability to comfortably layer socks for warmth and you should be okay.    But, layering for zero degree temps is different than for 30 degree temps.  Whose boots are really big enough to layer at least two pairs of heavy wool socks?   Furthermore, dampness reduces the insulating ability of all materials.

What about Gore-tex boots?   Great, but that Gore-tex membrane is laminated to the boot’s inner lining and doesn’t keep the leather from soaking up water and then freezing solid when the temperature plummets.   Even if they aren’t wet from the outside, the leather is probably damp from perspiration/water vapor from the inside, and they will still freeze.   Even with Gore-tex boots, it is important to treat the leather and fabric with products like Nikwax, Grangers, etc. to keep the materials as water repellent as possible. 

(remember, however, water repellent does not mean waterproof…)

How do you  keep leather boots from freezing?  Put them in stuff  sacks or plastic bags and then sleep with them behind or under your knees,  or at your feet, inside your sleeping bag. Although it may be slightly uncomfortable, this works.  Numb and frostbitten feet and toes are more uncomfortable

Rubber insulated boots, or neoprene boots,  may not be the greatest for hiking long distances, but they don’t absorb water and  thus cannot freeze solid. And, they provide a layer of insulation than cannot get wet from perspiration or  from external moisture.   Do they trap perspiration?  Yes, but a change or two of socks  and/or  “vapor barrier” socks are a whole lot drier than socks saturated by melting snow.    (The vapor barrier principle can be applied with clothing and sleeping bag liners in extreme cold…but should be further researched to insure an understanding of its applications.)

Chemical heat packs may also provide a source of heat that can keep boots from freezing.


How do you keep snow from entering the tops of ankle-high boots?   Gaiters is one solution, especially ones that come to the knee.   This also adds considerable warmth to the lower leg.    Quality waterproof/ breathable rain pants,  that more than adequately cover the ankle, will help.   A combination of both is probably the best answer. High top rubber or neoprene boots work, particularly if wearing rain pants.  Overboots are also an option.   Insulated overboots, such as those by Outdoor Research, can be expensive.  A less expensive option, and perhaps better for hikers, is the Neos overboots or overshoes.

Another solution is snowshoes.  Yes, even in NC.  They keep you from sinking into deep snow, to some degree,  and keep the snow away from your boots, ankles and pants legs because of their large footprint.   Inexpensive snowshoes may be adequate to the  task.  They add some weight to your pack,  and you may not need them.  But, if you do they are a real benefit.  Everyone may not need them, but one or two pair per group can help break and clear trails.

Without snowshoes,  what are the  potential consequences?  Walking in snow  without snowshoes can be  very exhausting, or impossible if it’s deep, or wet and slippery, and you can generate massive amounts of sweat which wets clothing.   In an emergency, it may  be possible to easily make a snowshoe substitute.  Do you know how?


Good raingear can be a lifesaver in winter certainly, but also in spring and summer.  Hypothermia can  begin  when the air temperature is in the 50’s.   But in order to be effective, raingear must be worn.   Does it trap sweat?   Yes, but waterproof/breathable raingear and  adjusting  your layers will help you manage that moisture.   Not wearing raingear simply exposes you and your clothing to soaking wet conditions and wind chill.


Wearing cotton clothing is an invitation to disaster.   Jeans, sweatshirts, and other clothing  of cotton is heavy.  It soaks up water like a sponge and is slow to dry.  When selecting your clothing think wool and polyester and nylon…. multiple light layers that can be adjusted as needed,  and will dry faster… is always better than one heavy layer.

Clothing for winter is typically designated in three categories:

Base Layer:   good long underwear made of polyester, wool or a blend of the two.   The older polypropylene, although functional is now outdated by the newer polyesters. 

Insulating Layer:   typically polarfleece vests and jackets, or quilted synthetic and goose down.  Wool sweaters and vests have proven to be excellent insulating layers for many years.  Despite the popularity of fleece, wool is still an excellent insulator. 

Outer Layer:  Wind and waterproof technical shell parkas and pants.    Gore-tex or similar waterproof /breathable material is excellent and effective. Even these products need to be “maintained.”   The water repellent treatment of the outer fabric, which is bonded or laminated to the waterproof/breathable membrane, wears off.   That means the outer fabric can become wet.   Once wet, it reduces the breathability of the membrane and can freeze.  Maintain the outer fabric of waterproof/breathable clothing by washing and retreating garments with a product like Nikwax, Grangers etc. for waterproof/breathable clothing. 

Do not disregard simple, coated  waterproof garments.  They are less expensive and can be lifesavers in wet and cold weather.  Managing the moisture generated by perspiration is more of challenge, but it can be done.   Wool and fleece clothing dampened by sweat loses some of its insulating ability…but not nearly as much as when it is saturated by rain and snow.

Two sets of good, polyester or wool long underwear are a major benefit.   Always have a dry set to wear in camp or in your sleeping bag.  When hiking, put on the damp long underwear….just don’t wind up with two sets of damp long underwear.   Wearing damp clothing while performing camp chores, or hiking at a slow steady pace, will help dry it.   The same is true of socks.

Damp clothing can be kept in sleeping bags to keep it from freezing…or in some cases to dry it slowly while sleeping.   The potential for drying should be weighed against the potential for wetting the sleeping bag insulation. 

Regardless of the claims of wicking and quick-dry products, probably none performs as well as manufacturers would have you believe.  Sweat-dampened clothing looses some of it’s insulating ability.   In extreme temperatures,  it is critical to have dry clothing, especially socks and base layers.

Thickness determines insulation.   The thicker (e.g. more layers) your clothing or sleeping bag, or foam sleeping pad…the warmer it is. 


Gloves?   Well, maybe.   Typical waterproof ski gloves have the waterproof membrane on the inside near, or next to, the hand.  The outer layers and insulation can still become wet.  Consequently they are not the best choice for extreme weather for trips into the backcountry.

But always have a pair of good wool or fleece mittens that are protected by  separate  waterproof  (or waterproof/breathable) shell mittens.   Wool gloves are excellent and inexpensive,  and offer dexterity when needed.   But, nothing is as warm as  mittens for critical warmth.   And remember, when you put your hands in snow…they get wet.  Even the best of gloves, just like clothing, need to be kept as dry as possible.     Wool gloves for chores and dexterity, and wool mittens for warmth is a good combination.   Either can be worn under the shell mitts.

In a pinch, put extra wool socks on your hands.   Good, dry, wool socks work great as emergency mittens.


Conserving the heat loss  from the head and neck is critical.   There is no substitute for a good, thick,  wool or fleece balaclava, that covers the neck and most of the head and face.   Face masks are good, neck gaiters are good.  Hooded jackets are good.   But, they are not as good as a balaclava.   With any knitted garment, the tighter the knit, the more wind resistant it is.   Combining balaclavas, or wearing a wool or fleece hat over a balaclava obviously increases the insulation.  The better your head is insulated… the warmer your body and extremities.   A good, full-coverage hood on a technical parka works great when worn over a balaclava, to prevent loss of insulating ability due to wind penetration.    Often, however, hoods on many jackets do not cover the face, and wind can penetrate the insulation of even good balaclavas.


With good mittens and the full face coverage of  a good balaclava and hood, the only exposed skin remaining is around your eyes.  So, protect that area with goggles or good sunglasses.    Hiking into the wind when it is blowing snow and sleet is annoying and sometimes painful.  A good, full hood on a technical parka will provide a “tunnel” that offers eye protection.  Also, don’t discount the need for good sunglasses on a bright, sunny day in snow-covered terrain.   Eye protection can be critical.


Water is critical.   Regardless of the temperature, water is needed to maintain a properly functioning metabolism.   In fact, in cold weather, you should increase your fluid intake more than you think you need.  Make yourself drink,  drink some more, and then drink more.

Obviously, with temps below 32 degrees, water will begin to freeze in containers.   Carrying them upside down will slow down the freezing at the mouth of the bottle.  (Make sure it is a Nalgene bottle that won’t leak)   Insulate the bottle with a sock or neoprene sleeve.   Carry the bottle inside your shell parka, where body heat will keep it from freezing.  Sleep with it at night, or burrow it in clothes between sleeping bags. 

When everything is frozen and snow covered, where do you get water?  In most cases the answer is melting.  You must melt snow and ice.   Have you ever done it?   It is a practiced skill?.   How much more fuel do you need?…a lot more.  What will you do if the stove doesn’t function?  Can you build a fire?


Are you really proficient in fire building? adverse weather conditions?   Do you really have  the developed skills of gathering tender and kindling, and wood for fuel.  Can you build a fire in the rain?   Can you build it in the snow, or on top of frozen  snowpack?  Can you build it when wood is covered in ice…in 40mph wind.    It can be done.   Have you thought through the process and practiced it? 

Do you have a saw?   Do you have an axe (or long bladed, rugged knife that can be driven thru lengths of wood using another piece of wood as a mallet) to split wood to expose the dry inside?   Do you have emergency tinder and kindling, packed away in a waterproof pouch?  Do you have kitchen/strike anywhere matches and a butane lighter?

When you least expect it, fire-building skills can become a critical survival skill.   But, it is not a skill simply acquired by reading.  It must be practiced and developed in less than ideal weather conditions. 

Remember, proper preparation of tinder, kindling and fuel will result in success.   Dousing wet and ice-covered wood with stove fuel usually does not work,  is dangerous and only wastes precious stove fuel. 


Food is also critical.  In the winter, food provides the fuel for your body’s furnace.  You must have a steady intake of calories.   If you can’t cook food  on stoves due to no fuel or malfunctioning stoves, you must have an alternative.   Fire or fuel tabs may be the solution.    Or simply pack some food that doesn’t require cooking.  Cold food still has calories.    Hot food has no more calories than cold food.  Eat and snack frequently.  Getting cold in you sleeping bag at night?  Have a snack and drink some water.  It will “jumpstart” your metabolism.


toves are excellent sources of heat for cooking and melting snow.  Liquid fuel stoves (that use Coleman Fuel, kerosene etc) are generally the best for extreme cold.  Stoves that operate on canisters (“bottled gas” like propane, iso-butane and butaine/propane mixtures) may work as well.   But, efficiency of these cartridge stoves falls off in temperatures below freezing and as the cartridges  are used.   Sleeping with the cartridge, or carrying it inside your clothing, until needed will keep the  fuel warm and make the stove more efficient.  Setting the stove in a pan of  water will also  assist in more efficient use of cartridge stoves.

Lighting and operation of a liquid fuel stove in extreme cold may be a much more difficult process than in warmer weather.  More fuel may be required.  Practice this skill before your safety depends on it. 


For most, the tent is the shelter of choice.   Although a 4-season mountaineering tent is ideal for extreme weather, a 3-season model may suffice,  if it has a full-covering rainfly.   A free-standing tent excels in high wind and snow.

With any tent, it may be absolutely necessary to add additional guy lines, to protect and reinforce the tent in strong winds and snow.  If there are no external guy points, tie lines to tent pole intersections and stake or tie down the tent’s frame before adding the fly.  Extra guy lines will stabilize a good tent and preclude the collapse of a 3-season tent in severe  wind.  Do you have large stakes suitable for deep snow…or stakes suitable for frozen ground?  What are the options if you cannot drive stakes into frozen ground?


You sleeping bag becomes your survival cocoon in bitter cold.  Winter camping in extreme weather usually dictates at least a bag rated for zero.  However, a  quality 20 degree bag with a fleece liner and the person wearing dry long underwear and balaclava may suffice…especially if there is adequate insulation underneath.  That usually means a Thermarest pad and a full-length Ridgerest pad.

Bags are not just for sleeping.   They are to get in when your feet are getting chilled or have become numb, for long periods of inactivity and for warmth while cooking  In extreme weather you can live in the bag unless you need to be outside performing chores or moving around.  

And, you must keep  sleeping bags  dry regardless of the type of insulation.  This may require stuff sacks that are really waterproof, plastic bags, and rain/snow cover on backpacks.   In cold weather, the moisture generated by your skin and breathing will condense on the outside of your bag (or in its insulation).   This will always happen to some degree, depending on temperatures and humidity.  A potential solution in extreme cold is a vapor barrier liner inside your sleeping bag.  This liner prevents the moisture from your skin from reaching the insulation of your sleeping bag.  As a result, you could place a waterproof cover over your bag to prevent dampening from tent condensation “raining” on you,  or falling ice from the  walls of your tent. 

If you anticipate camping in extreme cold (15 degrees  or colder), a good understanding of the vapor barrier principle, and its pros and cons,  will benefit you substantially. 


Frozen snow and ice can make travel all but impossible due to slippery conditions.   If you aren’t prepared to remain at your campsite  for at least an extra day, are you prepared to walk out?   This may involve carrying  emergency crampons (Ice Walkers) or other traction aids.   Simply screwing some hex-head sheet metal screws into boot soles will substantially aid in traction.  Are you prepared for ice?  It is a common occurrence in winter and could delay or postpone hiking, or at least make hiking treacherous.   Deep snow cover, that has begun to melt and then refrozen overnight, can make travel all but impossible if you are not prepared with something to aid in traction. 


There is no question … scouts and leaders can enjoy a camping trip in mild or severe winter conditions.   Scouts and others do it all the time.   But…Be prepared.  Be prepared for the worst conditions you might encounter.  Be prepared with the right equipment and experience.    Be prepared to alter your plans, if conditions dictate a different course of action…


This article only highlights some key aspects of cold weather camping.   For more information and thorough discussions of all aspects of  winter camping,  the following books are excellent.  They provide in-depth discussions of equipment, techniques, food and preparation.  Any outdoor specialty shop should be able to order…   



 Adirondack Mt. Club’s “Winter Hiking and Camping”  by Danielsen
“Cold Comfort”  by Randall
Backpackers…”Winter Hiking and Camping” by Lanza
 “Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills” by The Mountaineers Books
 BSA Fieldbook, Third Edition 1984

Any of the books by author Cliff Jacobsen provide excellent, practical and proven advice on making tents more secure and weatherproof, as well as successful and simple methods for splitting wood and starting fires; and guidance for clothing in wet and cold conditions. 

Updated: July 17, 2021
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