Winter Camping Shelters

Kathleen Roberts
snow shelter

Winter camping shelters need to be well constructed to withstand the winds and heavy snows of a severe winter. Even in milder climates, it is important to be well prepared. Lack of preparation can lead to a disappointing camping trip at the very least; a trip to the hospital at the worst.

Types of Winter Camping Shelters

There are several types of winter camping shelters. Choosing one will depend on several factors including:

  • Climate
  • Time to assemble
  • Budget

Once you have an idea of the climate you will be camping in, and how much you can spend you are ready to start shopping for your shelter. Time is mainly a consideration if you are thinking about trying your hand at building a snow shelter. If you decide to do this, it is still a good idea to have a tent as a backup unless you are very experienced.

Three-Season Tents

If you will be camping in a mild climate, a three-season tent will probably suffice. You can increase the warmth in your three-season tent by setting up in an area that is sheltered by trees. Another tip is to hang a tarp as a wind-break to protect your tent from icy gusts.

When setting up your tent, pack down the snow first. Neglecting to do this can result in your body heat melting the snow under you, causing you to wake up in a hole. Also, a ground sheet is recommended to help keep you dry.

You may also need to anchor your tent using snow stakes since standard tent stakes cannot penetrate frozen ground very well. Try using rocks, logs or gallon-sized bags of snow as anchors to keep your tent firmly in place.

Four-Season Tents

Also known as mountaineer tents or outfitter tents, these are typically canvas tents often with double-walled construction. Designed to hold in the heat while allowing for ventilation, you will find that many of these shelters can accommodate a small woodstove for added warmth. If you use a woodstove be sure you vent it outside through a chimney opening. The last thing you want on your trip is toxic exposure to smoke and fumes.

The rounded tents are a better choice than the straight-walled versions because they can withstand strong winds better. It is also wise to select a tent with at least one vestibule that you can use for wet outer-clothing or for a place to cook.

Most high quality four-season tents are a considerable investment. If you plan to do a great deal of winter camping, for example if you enjoy deer hunting or adventure trips, you will find that the investment is well worth it.

Cabela's has an excellent selection of outfitter tents with many that can be customized for your needs. These tents have so many options; you could even live in one if you are so inclined.

Snow Shelters

The ultimate in winter camping shelters is one you build yourself in the snow. Believe it or not, these shelters are actually warmer than any tent. However, they are time consuming to build so you will need to get an early start if you plan to spend the night in this type of a structure.

snow shelter

The simplest structure to build is a quinzee. Basically, this is a snow mound with a cave carved into it. Here is how to build your own:

  • Mark a circle in the snow big enough to sleep in and allowing for the thickness of the walls of your quinzee.
  • Stir up the snow in the center of your circle while adding more snow from outside the circle.
  • Continue adding and mixing up the snow until you have a large mound that is domed at the top.
  • Poke a few sticks into this mound about 12 to 18 inches. This will be a gauge for the thickness of your walls.

Now is a good time to take a break, have lunch or take a hike in the woods. The snow will need a few hours to melt together and harden. Once it is good and solid, start digging your entrance at ground level. Dig in and up slightly while another person removes the excavated snow.

When you get inside, work on smoothing out the walls and domed ceiling. When you find the sticks poked in earlier you know you have cleared enough from your walls.

Be sure to poke a vent hole in the top or side to allow condensation to escape. The average person exhales about a quarter of a gallon of moisture during the night. Don't seal up your door either. You need to allow air to circulate. You also don't want to sleep in too sealed of a space to reduce the risk of running out of oxygen.

It is a good idea to cover your shelter with a tarp for added protection, but don't cover your vent hole. Place one on the floor inside as well. If you are new to this, make sure you have a tent for a backup. You don't want to depend on a snow shelter and then end up sleeping outside because your shelter collapsed.

More Tips to Keep Warm

Ice Fishing Shelter

Before turning in for the night, have a snack. You body will generate heat as it digests the food. If you just pitched your tent or finished digging in the snow you are probably plenty warm. However, if you have been relaxing for a bit, a little exercise will warm you up before bed.To fill up excess air space in your sleeping bag, stuff your clothing into the bottom of the bag. The less empty air space you have, the warmer you will be. You should also consider a sleeping bag liner; using one will add up to 10 degrees to your sleeping bag. A sleeping bag cover will produce the same result. Have both and be toasty warm all night.

Don't forget to use a sleeping pad (or two) to insulate you from the frozen ground. Even better would be a camping cot to lift you off the ground and allow you to store gear underneath.

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Winter Camping Shelters