camping,  Outdoor recreation

Pack these expert tips and you can camp through the WA winter – The Seattle Times

Why would anyone willingly camp in the Pacific Northwest winter, in the snow and the cold?

Sarina Pizzala, a 31-year-old professional landscape and elopement photographer and avid mountaineer from Seattle, says “camping in the snow is a magical, wild experience. ”

Ask Mike Kretzler of Olympia, a 69-year-old snowshoe trip leader for The Mountaineers who agreed that winter camping is a completely unique camping experience.  

“Winter scenes are beautiful, especially if you are gifted a bit of sun, ” he said. “Snow is more fun than rain, so even ‘bad’ weather can be good. ”

Kretler appreciates the quiet, the thinner crowds and the lack of bugs in the winter. Cold-weather camping can also allow outdoor enthusiasts to stay in sensitive places they cannot otherwise camp, like meadows, unless they’re protected by a blanket of snow.  


Camping in the winter is no joke , and safety is the top priority given you’ll likely be camping on the snow. Finding a suitable spot for a successful winter season camping trip requires some research, prepwork and the right gear. Here’s what you need to know to camp this wintertime in Washington.

Planning your first trip

If you’re curious about camping out in the snow and hoping to plan your first trip, Pizzala recommends going with a knowledgeable friend or with an organized outing with one of the Seattle area’s many outdoors groups, like The Mountaineers .

Seattleite Teresa Hagerty, 43, outdoor event guide for Washington’s National Park Fund , suggests checking the forecast. Aiming for good weather during your first few trips will make the experience more inviting and encourage future outings in the cold.

“I recommend looking for a weather window for low wind, temperatures near or slightly above freezing, and favorable avalanche conditions, ” she said.

The backcountry shouldn’t be your first trip; it requires proper gear, training and fitness. Kreztler suggests staying close to the car at first. Seek easy-to-reach locales you can drive to, where you camp near facilities. Washington’s many state parks are a great place to start.  


Precautions for outdoor camping in the cold

Avalanches and weather pose the two most significant concerns for winter camping. Always check the particular avalanche forecast when making plans and call the nearest ranger station before heading out to ensure safe conditions.

Kretzler stressed the importance of taking an avalanche awareness class and to familiarize yourself with the Northwest Avalanche Center , which provides up-to-date info on avalanche forecasts and conditions.

Cold weather creates a higher risk for hypothermia and frostbite. The greatest risk occurs in wet conditions, so staying dry is crucial.

Merino wool base layers provide substantial insulation, even if they become wet after sweating. A down coat and waterproof outer layer will also keep you warm and dry. Always keep a set of clothing as the “dry clothes” to change into before bed or out of wet layers due to sweating or wet conditions.

Winter camping necessities 

In order to stay warm, safe and comfortable during winter nights, getting the right gear is essential. Most experienced three-season backpackers will already have much of the gear they need for a comfortable snow camping experience. For beginners and veteran backpackers alike, though, here is a list with the necessary items to bring along for a snow camping trip:

  • A sturdy three- or four-season tent that can handle wind, heavy snow and snow stakes
  • A sleeping pad with an R-value of at least 5
  • A light, narrow snow shovel 
  • 0-20°F resting bag
  • 50-60L backpack 
  • Merino wool base layers
  • Waterproof outer layer and warm midlayer
  • Hat, several pairs of gloves, a buff, insulated boots, wool socks
  • Gaiters that will go up to your knees
  • Rain gear, including pants with a zipper that can accommodate snowshoes
  • Tools to carry out your waste. Kreztler uses a combination of a dog poop bag, sheet associated with wax paper, and a plastic mayo jar.
  • A camp stove, like a JetBoil, extra fuel, and a pot large enough to melt water for cooking and drinking. Kretzler said white gas burns better in cold weather.
  • Filter for drinking water
  • Skis or snowshoes, if necessary 

Winter-specific gear rentals can be found at Seattle-area outdoors outfitters like Feathered Friends and Ascent Outdoors .


Setting up camp

Once at your wintry camping destination, take some time to find the right camping spot plus check for the following:

Water source: Is there a flowing water source nearby or even will you have to melt snowfall for drinking water?

Shelter from the blowing wind: Trees, a small hillside or a large rock can help block the wind, but be cautious of avalanche danger and falling branches in heavy wind. If you can’t find a satisfactory natural wind flow blocker, you can construct a snow wall around your tent to stop the breeze.

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Kreztler cautions against camping under trees because the melting cycles under trees make the snow icy and lumpy — and campers risk large globs of snow falling on them.  

Pack down the snow: Taking the time to walk around and stomp down the snow will provide a more level surface for your tent and for sleeping, and will also prevent loose snowfall from melting from your body heat.

Dig out your entry: Kretzler suggests digging a well large enough to accommodate your feet at the door of your tent.

“It makes getting in and out much easier and you can even use it as a chair for cooking food, ” he said.

Sunshine: Select a spot that will maximize sunshine. The sun will encourage you to get up in the morning and keep you a bit warmer than a shady spot with no sun.  

Additional tips from the experts

Our specialists provided a few other tips for a successful winter camping trip.

Pizzala and Hagerty swear by the water bottle trick: Boil water before bed and pour it into a Nalgene bottle to snuggle at your core inside your resting bag.

Sleep with your electronics. Batteries freeze and die rapidly within the cold, so tossing them into your sleeping bag will help preserve the battery.

To help the body stay warm, Hagerty says to eat high-density calorie foods, such as cheese and nuts, aiming for 200 to 300 calories per hour.

Lastly, all three experts stated the cold and discomfort is worth it to catch a clear winter sunrise.

“Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a solo sunrise view over our Cascade peaks? ” said Hagerty. “It’s stunning. ”

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