How to Have Fun and Stay Cozy Winter Camping with Kids
When you think of winter camping, many people think about being cold and uncomfortable. Winter camping is not that bad with a few simple tricks! Winter camping with kids can be an adventure for the whole family – but it’s important to plan ahead. In this article we’ll cover what gear you’ll need, how to set up camp, how to stay warm, what to eat and fun winter camping activities!
Camping doesn’t have to stop just because it’s winter, not every trip needs to be hot and sunny. If you’ve planned the perfect winter camping trip, then your next step should be to figure out what kind of weather you’ll be braving on this adventure and what equipment will be necessary.
Winter Camping Gear
Winter offers its own challenges when it comes time to camp. You may find yourself in cold weather, snow, rain or high winds, so make sure you’re prepared for all weather conditions.
4 Season Tents
When you’re going camping in cooler temperatures you’ll want to have a 4 season tent. A winter tent is typically thicker and more durable than your standard camping tent. Winter tents will usually also have a full rain fly to help keep you dry from the elements as well as vents to help air circulate and prevent condensation. This Marmot Halo is an awesome option for 3-4 people.
You’ll want to set up your tent in an area that will be heated up by the morning sun. This will help warm up the interior of your tent and make it more comfortable.
If possible, you’ll also want to set up your tent somewhere that’s blocked from the wind. If it’s going to be very windy, you’ll want to stake out all of your tent’s guy lines to help make your tent as wind-resistant as possible. You can also set up a tarp to help block the wind, either from your tent or your seating area.
If the ground is frozen, staking the tent may be tricky, another option is to tie it off to trees or use sand bags instead of tent stakes. You’ll want to bring metal stakes as plastic stakes may break in the cold.
To conserve heat, you’ll want to get a tent that closely fits the number of people you’re bringing. We usually say that for tents, bigger is better, but when winter camping, you’ll want a smaller area to heat.
A large screen tent with sides is also a must-have when winter camping. It gives you a place to hang out that isn’t inside your small tent. We love our Clam Pavilion tent, there is a noticeable difference in temperature between the outside air and being inside this tent. This will also give your kids a place to hang out and stay a little warmer without constantly going in and out of the sleeping tent.
Sleeping Bags for Cold Weather
A winter sleeping bag will give your family enough warmth to stay comfortable, even when it’s below freezing outside! When buying a sleeping bag, be sure you get one with proper insulation (down or synthetic) as well as plenty of loft.
Sleeping bags typically come with a temperature rating that will tell you what temperatures it can be used for. Winter sleeping bags are usually rated at zero degrees Fahrenheit or below. Keep in mind that these ratings seem to be the temperature at which you will stay alive in that sleeping bag, and aren’t often the temperature that you’ll sleep comfortably. We recommend using a bag that’s rated for 10 to 20 degrees BELOW what you’ll be camping in. If you’re sleeping in 40° weather, you’ll want a bag that’s rated for 20°.
We suggest mummy-style bags as you won’t need to heat up a giant rectangular bag with your body heat. Winter bags will also usually have draft tubes so that heat is kept in and cold air stays out.
If you find that your sleeping bag is not warm enough for your intended trip, getting a sleeping bag liner is a great way to make your current bag more versatile.
You can also get double sleeping bags that are amazingly warm. Sleeping bags made for 2 people or sleeping bags that zip together are great ways to share body heat and sleep more comfortably. We have a Kelty brand double sleeping bag and Momma and Daddy critter almost slept all night in it when the temperature was 10°. (We did not use the bag pictured for this stunt attempt)
Keeping kids warm while sleeping is similar to keeping adults warm. Have them sleep in layers, make sure they have an appropriately sized sleeping bag or share a bag with them to keep you both warm.
If your child has a sleeping bag that is too big for them, pack the bottom with a blanket or clothes to take up some of the “dead space” so they don’t have to heat as much. You can also tie off the bottom of the bag or fold it under them for extra padding.
For toddlers and infants, we’ve heard rave reviews for the Little Mo and Big Mo sleeping bag sleep suits. It’s a sleeping bag in the shape of a suit, so your little one can’t slide down and get turned around like they would be able to do in an actual sleeping bag. They have amazing padding, and a double zipper to make diaper changes a cinch!
Blankets are also a great way to keep kids warm (toddlers and older) when they won’t stay in their sleeping bags. We love our rumpl down blanket as it keeps us amazingly warm and packs down small for portability. Blankets are also awesome for layering on top of sleeping bags for extra warmth.
Insulated Sleeping Pads
When you’re sleeping on the ground in cold weather, your sleeping pad is very important. With a good sleeping pad, you can insulate yourself from the ground and keep your body temp up. There are two basic types of sleeping pad that works for winter camping, closed cell foam, and insulated air mattresses.
Closed cell foam pads are typically the least expensive and most durable. They can be folded up to fit in your pack easily, but do not offer as much comfort as air mattresses.
Air mattresses for winter camping are typically less durable, but offer a lot more comfort and insulation. My favorite is the Exped synmat, they come in single and double wide options and have great insulation. I have the 3 season version, but they also make a megamat for more extreme weather. We learned about the exped brand on a camping trip to Glacier National Park. Even though it was August, the nights got pretty chilly. One guy out of the 6 of us slept well, and it was because he had an exped mat. I bought one within a week of getting home.
Kids can use adult sized sleeping mats, the extra length won’t be an issue and they can grow into them as they get older. Currently Tiny Critter sleeps on my original ExPed SynMat and it keeps him toasty warm.
Tent Floor Insulation
If you’re camping in cold weather, insulating the floor of your tent is essential. It will keep your tent warmer, more comfortable and also protect your tent floor as well.
Underneath the sleeping mats we use foam floor mats to help insulate and add comfort. We also tried putting moving blankets on the floor of the tent one trip and while it helped keep the tent a little warmer during the cool evenings, I don’t think it did much for comfort. If you’re winter camping in cold enough weather, the foam mats under the moving blankets might be the best option.
Bring your normal pillows from home when you’re winter camping. Inflatable pillows are going to be very cold and you’ll want to keep your head as warm as possible. We have fun flannel pillow cases that go camping with us.
Winter campers may have to deal with snow-covered ground which makes it difficult to build a fire. The following are some tips on how to start a fire in the snow:
1) Make sure you have very dry tinder like pine needles, birch bark, or cedar wood before starting your fire. If you can’t find dry tinder, try to make it by shaving the logs of your wood into fine pieces so that there are more surfaces for the fire to catch.
Bring along tried and true fire starters. This isn’t the time to use your new ferro rod and striker, this is the time to get the fire going, now. Blackbeard fire starters have always worked for us, wet or dry. If all else fails, a propane torch is always an option.
2) Find a dry spot to start your fire. If your site has a fire pit, clear away the snow with a shovel and move it off to the side. Remember that surrounding snow will melt and run into the fire, so you don’t want to start your fire way down in the snow.
You may want to start your fire on a flat piece of bark or wood to keep your tinder and kindling dry at first.
3) Start your fire and keep it well stoked at all times. Starting the fire back up after the heat has melted some snow may be tricky. Follow the rest of our tips on starting an awesome campfire.
Your other option is to get a stand-alone fire pit like the solo stove. We know many people who swear by theirs. It will keep your fire up out of melting snow and off of the cold wet ground. They are designed with the proper airflow to keep a fire burning and you can buy a grate for the top that allows you to cook amazing camping meals with ease.
Make sure you bring your camp chairs for sitting by the fire, you don’t want to sit on the cold ground to enjoy the fire.
Hand warmers/zippo warmer/hot water bottle
When you’re camping in the winter, it’s important to remember that your body is working extra hard just to stay warm. A great way for kids (and adults) to keep their fingers and toes from getting too cold while they sleep or play are hand/foot warmer packs! Keep tabs on how warm they’re getting and don’t use with infants and never sleep with them. Use them to warm up before sleeping and then set them aside before falling asleep.
Zippo also makes an awesome handwarmer that doubles as a battery bank, so you can use it to pre-heat your child’s sleeping bag and then turn off the heater and charge your phone overnight.
Another way to warm up your sleeping bag is to fill a Nalgene bottle with warm/hot water right before bed time. Close the lid tightly and cuddle the bottle for extra warmth! The bonus of this is if you get thirsty, you don’t have to crawl out of your sleeping bag to find your ice cold water bottle! This trick is safe for kids too, because the bottle can’t get too hot.
Change into dry clothing before going to sleep, especially the kids who are more likely to have been playing in the snow. Winter camping can be very wet, so staying dry and changing into warm clothes before bed will help keep you comfortable throughout the night. Sleep in layers to avoid sweating while sleeping.
If you got sweaty while sleeping, change into dry clothes in the morning. You don’t ever want to be wearing wet clothing for longer than you have to be.
Pro tip: Keep your clothing for the next day in your sleeping bag so it’s pre-warmed! Do the same thing with your child’s clothes, it’s like wearing clothes right out of the dryer!
If you or your kids are starting to feel cold, do some light exercise. You do NOT want to get sweaty, but a few jumping jacks or 5 minutes of playing tag should warm everyone right up.
If you can’t stand the thought of crawling into a cold tent, bring a small heater. Safety always comes first so keep the heater away from flammable materials and NEVER sleep with an open flame heater in your tent. A jackery power bank will power a small heater that will take the chill out of your tent.
Another option is a buddy heater that runs off of propane. Please read all safety instructions for using this heater properly inside a tent. Ventilation is key.
Peeing Options in the Cold
Eventually you’re going to need to use the bathroom. If you’re remote camping, this means finding your own spot to go. When it’s too cold to want to remove half of her clothing, Momma Critter trusts my P-style to help her pee quickly while staying warm. With a little help, even small kids (male or female) can use one of the many options they have for urinating in the cold outdoors.
There is a lot of debate on whether it’s better to hold your bladder at night or get up and pee while camping in the cold. I’m not sure either option keeps you warmer, but we do know we sleep much better when we don’t have to worry about wetting the bed. The Camping Critterz vote you should get up and get it over with. Be sure to shut your sleeping bag once you get out of it, as we DO know that will save some of your heat for when you get back inside the tent.
It’s also an option to use a small bucket, potty seat or cup with a lid inside the tent instead of going all the way outdoors when nature calls. We know people who use a 5 gallon bucket with kitty litter in a garbage bag inside and it works well. Just make sure what ever you’re using has a solid lid. This is also a great option for toddlers who may be potty training, as peeing outside in the cold will be tricky to maneuver.
Diaper changes while winter camping
Make them as quick as possible, we used overnight diapers to avoid diaper changes in the middle of the night. Momma critter also tucked a few wipes in her sleeve before starting the diaper change, to at least warm them up to body temperature to make the diaper change as comfortable as possible for the baby.
Sleep sacks and PJs that unzip from the bottom were also essential for cold weather diaper changes. You do not want to get your infant entirely naked to get at their diaper. Sleep dresses and socks are a better alternative to footie pajamas that have to be unzipped all the way down.
During the day time, make use of the shelter, whether it’s a tarp, the sided screen tent or your sleeping tent. Your little one isn’t going to want to be half undressed out in the elements for a diaper change.
Food and Drink
When you’re hanging out in the cold all day, you’ll want to have warm drinks on hand to help you and your kids keep warm. Some options are hot chocolate, coffee, tea or broth. Just make sure you have mugs or a thermos that will keep it warm for hours. Thermos or Yeti brand are our 2 go-to options. Momma Critter made chai before and ice fishing camp-out and it was still slightly warm in her thermos after spending 24 hours in the ice house.
The best way to make warm meals while camping is to start with boiling water. Check out our post here for the best and quickest ways to boil water.
To help replace calories burned staying warm, adults and small kids alike will need some extra calories and easy to eat snacks. Our favorite calorie dense camping foods are: Jerky, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, cheese sticks and yogurt covered raisins.
One of our other camping secrets is adding protein to every meal possible. If you’re taking dehydrated meals, add a packet (or two!) of bone broth when you add the water. It blends in well with almost any meal and adds important protein with zero extra effort.
If you’re making hot chocolate, add in part of a chocolate protein shake as a substitute for the milk, and never make hot chocolate with plain water! (Not only because you’re missing out on extra protein, but also because hot chocolate made with water is never as good.)
Winter campers often refer to the “Three Layer System”, which consists of these three layers: a base layer, an insulation layer and an outer layer. You should always have a thermal base layer, and then add or remove layers as needed. Winter camping in cold weather is not the time for cotton, as cotton holds moisture instead of wicking it away. We love merino wool, it doesn’t feel like wool and it’s warm without being sweaty.
Be sure to bring more clothes than you think you’ll need. Changing into a dry set of clothes after getting wet is essential, especially with kids.
Hat and gloves
A good hat and gloves are essential clothing pieces for winter camping. There’s no point in trying to stay warm if your head and hands are freezing. Winter camping is not the time for knit hats, you don’t want air coming through the holes. Spring for quality gear that will keep you and your kids warm and dry. Also remember you’ll likely be sleeping in your hat, so try to get a non-bulky one that covers your ears.
Another great option to keep your hands warm are mittens. Mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers share warmth inside the mitten, whereas each finger is on its own in a glove. We bring both gloves and mittens because they serve different purposes. If you’re just sitting around drinking hot chocolate by the fire, or you’re exploring and taking a hike mittens are perfect. You’ll want to switch back to gloves if you’re trying to set up for dinner or anything else that needs more dexterity. Little kids can wear mittens the whole trip.
Socks are the base of any winter camping outfit and will go a long way to keep your whole body warm. Winter campers should have multiple pairs of socks to avoid wearing damp or sweaty socks for too long. Darn tough or smart wool socks are both amazing options. Darn tough socks dry fast and are made of high quality merino wool. Smartwool is also a great option, they have some merino wool socks and some with a high synthetic content, which is good for moisture wicking. Be sure to grab some warm socks in fun colors for your kids!
Boots (with liners)
If you’re camping in cold weather or snow, you’ll need a great pair of winter boots. Our favorite hack is to get boots with removable liners and then wear the liners while sleeping. This way you won’t have to put on freezing cold boots in the morning, the liners will be prewarmed while you sleep!
For younger kids you’ll also want a good pair of gaiters or some other kind of boot cover to keep snow out. Winter boots are made with waterproof materials, but they aren’t immune from snow coming up over the top of them.
Winter Camping Activities
There are less activities to do while winter camping with kids, so you need to be a little creative and think outside of the box. A lot of activities that can be enjoyed in the summer will work in the winter as well, some just need a little tweaking!
If it’s cold enough where you live, ice fishing is a fun way to spend an afternoon while winter camping. You can use special ice fishing tents or just sit on a bucket near a hole in the ice.
Stomp rockets can be used in any season and Tiny Critter had amazing fun playing with his on a frozen lake while ice fishing. Around here there are less leaves on trees as well, so you’re less likely to get one of these stuck somewhere you can’t get it back.
Gathering around the campfire and telling your favorite stories is so much fun. Winter camping is all about making memories, and story telling is a great way to do that.
Curling up in your sleeping bag with a good book is a great way to end the day while winter camping. Pick a book the whole family can enjoy and read it out loud at bedtime. Books about snow are always fun to read, like The Snowy Day or The Hat.
Snow Fort Building
If you’re lucky enough to have snow where you’re camping, then building a snow fort is the best kind of winter fun. You can even try to build a wind break for your sitting area or have a snow sculpture contest! Playing in the snow is the best!
Frequently Asked Questions:
- How cold is too cold to go camping with kids?
That answer is going to vary wildly for everyone depending on the gear your have, your comfort level with cold weather and how tolerant your kids are to the cold. The adult Critterz tried to sleep in the backyard with no tent in 10° F (-12°C) and only abandon the effort because we didn’t realize that snow is terribly uncomfortable to sleep on. (It warms to your body, melts a little and then refreezes when you roll over, so within a short span, you’re sleeping on ice. A sleeping mat would have gone a long way.)
We’ve intentionally gone camping in the spring and fall knowing the outside temps would reach freezing in the middle of the night. We woke up to a beautiful frost on our tent one morning, it was awesome.
Generally if you’re new to winter camping, from a milder climate or have an infant, I’d aim for 40°-50°F (4°-10° C) at the coldest part of the night. If you’re from a colder climate like we are and have kids that are able to crawl in your sleeping bag if they get cold, you could aim for temps in the 30s F (0° C). Just make sure your kids are going to be snug little critterz in the tent and don’t be afraid to bug out if it’s getting too cold. Use your best judgement and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have the gear or expertise for something.
- How do you keep things from freezing in the tent?
Using a small heater before bed should keep the tent warm through the night unless you’re camping in below freezing weather. If you are camping in freezing weather, then to keep things from freezing you can either put them in your sleeping bag, or in your cooler. I know it sounds backwards to put things in your cooler to help them not freeze, but if the overnight temps get below freezing, putting your water bottle in your cooler will keep it from being ice in the morning. Momma Critter keeps her contact case and contact solution in her sleeping bag so that it’s not frozen (or near frozen) in the morning. One time she forgot and nothing wakes you up in the morning like ice cold contact lenses.
Winter camping with your kids is an amazing experience for the whole family, and it’s so much fun to do together. Remember to wear layers of clothing that are appropriate for cold and possibly wet weather conditions. For all activities involving snow (like snowball fights), make sure you have gaiters or boot covers to keep snow off your feet. Winter camping is a great way to build memories with your kids, if you make sure you’ve got the right gear.
Stay warm and go scurry around!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.