How to Have Fun Snow Camping

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Cold Weather Camping

Cold Weather Camping Checklist:

A Scout must have, as a minimum requirement, all the personal equipment on this list to attend a winter camping activity:

  • Backpack – internal or external frame, approx. 3500-4000 cu in

  • Polypropylene underwear (2 pr - one to wear, one for pajamas or spare).               NO cotton!

  • Shirt and pants (wool or acrylic fleece).        NO cotton!

  • Extra sweater (wool or acrylic fleece).        NO cotton!

  • Parka or heavy coat

  • Wind pants or ski-bibs

  • Snow shoes (rent from REI, Backpacker's Supply, Joes, or on base – usually Backpacker's Supply is cheapest)

  • Socks (at least 2 pair of thick wool, acrylic fleece, or polyproplene).  NO cotton!

  • Snow boots, waterproof leather boots, or pac-boots

  • Knee length gaiters or elastic cuff pants (keeps snow out of your boots)

  • Hat (knit stocking, fleece, or fur).  NO cotton!

  • Gloves (at least 2 sets - Gore-Tex or wool, or skiers' style gloves or mittens).                NO cotton!

  • Goggles or sunglasses (UVA and UVB protection)

  • Ski pole (or hiking pole w/ski basket). Needs wrist straps, sized to user or telescoping.

  • Snow shovel (This can be shared between 2-3 Scouts.)

  • "Sit upon" (something insulated to sit on, such as newspaper in plastic bag or old piece of foam ground pad. Do not sit directly on snow.)

  • Food

  • Cooking gear (stainless steel pot w/lid, small propane/isobutane canister stove if you have one, with extra fuel) – this includes something to hold hot items, such as an oven mitt (This can be shared between 2-3 Scouts.)

  • Eating implements (insulated mug with lid, bowl, utensils – plastic is best)

  • Water bottles (2 1-liter wide mouth bottles).  NO cotton!  (Oops, got carried away!  :-)

  • First-aid kit (see your Scout handbook, page 289, plus 1 space blanket. Includes the sunscreen and lip balm – both with 15 SPF or better)

  • Flashlight/ headlamp (with extra batteries; extra bulb suggested)

  • Sleeping bag rated for +20 degrees or colder

  • Insulating foam ground pad – full length (an extra torso length pad is suggested)

  • Small plastic tarp (5'x7' recommended)

  • "Blue bag" (pee bottle)

  • Toothbrush & paste

  • Tea-light or other type of candle

  • Garbage bags (33 gallon and 13 gallon)

REI offers great advice online:


Basic Info

The key to successful winter camping:             eat hearty, stay dry, stay warm!

Don't forget to obtain any necessary permits before leaving.

Before going out the door, ask yourself "Would I want to spend a night or two out in the snow with the supplies and equipment I have with me now?"

Use the buddy system.

Follow the Leave No Trace rules.

Cooking/ Nutrition:

Cook on a small propane/ isobutane canister stove. Bring extra fuel – it takes longer to cook at higher elevations and in cold weather. To create a wind break, dig down into the snow or place food sacks, water bottles, or rocks around the stove. Always cook on a platform to keep the stove from disappearing down a melted snow chute. If you have time, a snow kitchen is useful.

Never cook inside an enclosed area like a tent, snow cave, or igloo. Besides the moisture that makes everything damp and susceptible to freezing, dangerous carbon monoxide gases can build up and kill you!

Your cooking gear should be made of stainless steel. It's lighter, cooks better, and cleans easier than others. Always use lids when cooking. If you have stackable pots, put a pot of snow on top instead so the bottom pot's rising heat will melt it for more drinking water.

For eating implements use an insulated mug with lid, bowl, and utensils – plastic is best. If you are cooking for just yourself you can eat out of the pot and save on dishes.

Calories burn more quickly in the cold. To avoid going to bed with an empty stomach and a chill, eat a high calorie supper and snack on high calorie food such as cheese, hard salami, peanut butter, or gorp. Keep food handy when you go to bed in case you need a midnight snack. (Only during winter camping! In summer this will attract varmints, possibly bears.)

Add calories to your meals. Fat provides the most calories for the least weight. Margarine is one of the handiest sources – it can be added to breakfast cereal, pasta, and rice, or put on crackers, sandwiches, and potatoes. Bouillon is also lightweight and versatile; it can be added to water to drink or pasta or rice for flavoring.

Drink lots of water or other fluids. Ever time you exhale you are losing fluid. Higher elevations and physical activity also cause fluid loss. Dehydration seriously impairs the body's ability to produce heat. Drink fluids as often as possible during the day, and keep a full water bottle (upside down or in your sleeping bag) nearby at night. (Also keep a "blue bag" – pee bottle – nearby. Do not mix them up!) Caffeine-free drinks are recommended at all times, as caffeine exacerbates dehydration and can cause headaches. Warm drinks like Tang, lemonade, or cocoa are good. Get extra fluid by making meals with liquid, such as soups.

When melting snow always use a little "starter" water or you may end up with a burned taste. Use a lower flame at first. Use the wettest snow possible.

Don't eat snow. If you can't melt it first (either on the stove or by adding it to your water bottle), then let it melt in your mouth first. Never "drink" ice. The amount of heat required to convert one ounce of snow or ice into liquid is the same energy equivalent used in your body. In other words, the heat and fluid your body uses is equal to or greater than what you get from the melted snow, so you net no fluid. Eating snow or ice may also cause stomach cramps.

Before your trip, remove as much of the food packaging as possible. Or repackage your food into Ziploc-type bags. This saves weight and waste. Remember Leave No Trace.

Try new recipes at home first.

Stay organized. Clean as you go. When going to bed, make sure everything is put away. NOTHING GETS LEFT OUT. There's nothing more unpleasant than feeling around in snow or ice looking for cups, spoons, stoves, etc. Don't expect others to clean up after you! Tip: To keep track of small items attach them to your jacket or other clothing. Or use a length of brightly colored ribbon.


  • Stay organized. Clean as you go. When going to bed, make sure everything is put away. NOTHING GETS LEFT OUT. There's nothing more unpleasant than feeling around in snow or ice looking for cups, spoons, stoves, etc. Don't expect others to clean up after you! Tip: To keep track of small items attach them to your jacket. Or use a length of brightly colored ribbon.

  • Don't sleep in the clothes you've worn all day! They'll be damp and provide little insulation. Pack extra polypropylene underwear and socks for pajamas. Sleeping nude is better than wearing damp clothes.

  • Put the clothes you plan to wear the next day in your sleeping bag. You can use them as a pillow or for extra padding against cold in shoulder and hips areas. Tip: you can put the clothes in the sleeping bag, then put the sleeping bag in a plastic bag to keep it from getting wet. Packed this way it helps keep your backpack organized.

  • To help keep boots from freezing at night, put them in a bag and place them under the foot of your sleeping bag. Remove the liner and insoles and put in your sleeping bag. Do not leave them outside – they're guaranteed to freeze. Ever tried tying frozen shoelaces?

  • Always wear a hat to bed. A balaclava is best because it covers your neck and ears. A hooded sweatshirt (not cotton!) also helps.

  • Keep your nose and mouth outside your sleeping bag. If you don't, your breathing will dampen the inside of your sleeping bag.

  • Turn your wide mouth water bottles upside down before going to bed. When turned upright the frozen water will be on the bottom of the bottle. Or keep the bottle inside your sleeping bag. (Do not mix it up with your "blue bag" – pee bottle.)

  • Don't use a sleeping pad that requires you to inflate it by blowing into it. Your breath carries moisture, which both freezes and contracts.

The "New" 10 Essentials

1. Navigation: This combines map and compass. These are still mandatory, along with the knowledge of how to use them. Declination in Washington is 18 degrees to the west. Maps should be topographical and in a waterproof container. Altimeters or GPS units are also useful, but not mandatory.

2. Sun protection: This is critical in the snowy mountains, especially on a sunny day as snow reflects 90% of UV rays. SPF of 15 or higher is important for lip balm and sunscreen. Sunglasses or goggles with UVA and UVB protection are crucial. Don't use cheap drug-store sunglasses. Eye damage accumulates over time, and snow blindness is a dangerous, potentially permanent injury.

3. Insulation: Also known as extra clothing. Your insulation should allow you to survive the worst conditions that can be realistically expected. Your clothes should NOT be made of cotton, as cotton robs you of heat when wet and increases the risk of hypothermia. Cotton kills. Instead, use synthetics such as polypropylene and nylon, or blends of the same with wool or silk. This category includes full rain gear (pants and jacket). Garbage-bag type rain gear is useless. Fact: A hat provides more warmth for its weight than any other piece of clothing. Most of the heat you lose in through your head, then your feet.

4. Illumination: This includes traditional flashlights, but over the years has expanded to include other forms. Headlamps are now the most popular illumination choice. Remember to bring spare batteries and a bulb. Cold saps the life out of batteries quickly. Keep them close to your body heat to prolong their life so they are available when you need them.

5. First-aid supplies: First-aid kit (see your Scout handbook, page 289). A first-aid course is not required for everyone, but is helpful. Mountaineering-oriented/ wilderness first aid classes are especially useful. Then you'll know how to properly use gauze pads, roller gauze, medicine, etc. that you carry. Note: Experts advise the many prepackage first-aid kits are inadequate. Also see Hypothermia/ First Aid.

6. Fire: This still includes waterproof matches in a waterproof container. However, you can also carry disposable lighters. Sources for fire include candles, chemical heat tabs, canned heat, or resin-soaked, chipped wood blocks. Also includes a backpacking stove.

Note: to make water-proof matches – use strike anywhere wooden matches. Dip in clear nail polish or melted wax. Let dry.

Note: to make fire starters – use an empty cardboard egg carton. Fill with flammable material such as wood chips or evergreen needles. Pour melted wax over it (I use cheap candles from the thrift store).

7. Repair kit and tools: More than a simple knife, most people carry a multi-tool. A small pair of pliers or screwdriver can be unbelievably useful. Consider weight. Depending on what you're doing in the wilderness, you may include safety pins, spare pack clips, cable ties, cordage, and good-old duct tape. A good way to carry duct tape is to wrap a few feet around your water bottle for insulation!

8. Nutrition: Carry at least an extra day and night worth of food. It should require no cooking and store well, e.g. granola, jerky, nuts, dried fruit. Also see Cooking/ Nutrition.

9. Hydration: You can live days without food, but not without water. And dehydration can sneak up on you. Always carry at least one wide mouth water bottle per person, and it's a good idea to pack a way to treat the water. Also see Cooking/ Nutrition.

10. Emergency shelter: On overnight trips you usually carry a tent. But on day hikes a space blanket, in addition to rain gear, is essential. Other options are plastic tube tents or an extra-large plastic trash bag.

Hypothermia, etc:

Please Note: The information contained herein is NOT intended to replace sound medical advice. If you have any questions on these subjects, please do not ask BSA Troop 51 -- ask your physician or emergency medical personnel.

  • General: Pace yourself to your breathing; this reduces fatigue and prevents excessive sweating, dehydration, and heat exhaustion.

If you fall in a stream or lake, remember snow absorbs water. Roll in snow to help dry off. Proceed as if treating for hypothermia.

Make sure your boots and socks fit. When trying on boots go at the end of the day and wear the socks you'll be wearing on the trip. There's nothing more annoying than a bunched up sock or a hot spot from a boot that rubs. You can rent boots.

Trim toe nails before leaving for a trip. If nails are too long they exert pressure on the cuticle, causing pain and possible loss of the nail.

  • Frostbite: watch your partner for whiteness, especially on the ears and nose. Treat as hypothermia. Always seek professional care. Note: Do not rub the affected area! Do not immerse in warm water! Do not re-numb by sticking affected area in snow!

  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia is a subnormal temperature of the body. The obvious cause is exposure to temperatures that cause you to lose heat faster than your body produces it. Your voluntary response is physical activity; your involuntary response drains your energy reserves to preserve your core temperature. As exposure continues, cold reaches the brain, impairing your judgment and reasoning power. Without treatment you will continue to decline into collapse and eventually death.

Preventing hypothermia is easier than treating it. Stay dry. Wear a waterproof outer layer. Wear clothing, like wool, that maintains insulating value even when wet. Never wear cotton during cold camping. Layer your clothing. Drink lots of fluids, especially warm fluids.

Beware of the wind. A gentle breeze carries heat away from bare skin faster. Wind drives cold air under and through clothing. Be familiar with the wind chill factor.

Know your limit. Listen to your buddy. Be smart enough to give up what you're doing if necessary – better to live to attempt your goal again on another day.

Signs/ Symptoms of Hypothermia:Victims of mild hypothermia may exhibit normal shivering, goose bumps or loss of finger dexterity. As hypothermia progresses to a moderate stage, shivering intensifies and may become violent; muscle control degrades and coordination deteriorates; mild confusion may occur. As the condition worsens, shivering stops; although the victim may be able to stand, walking is very difficult; confusion deepens or irrational behavior may become evident. In severe hypothermia muscles become rigid; heart and respiration rates decrease; awareness of others decreases; and unconsciousness can occur.

The best treatment for hypothermia is prevention.  However, treatment of early hypothermia includes moving the victim out of the wind into best shelter possible. Replace wet clothing. Add heat, e.g. move indoors, give victim warm liquids (as tolerated), and/ or add insulation (more clothing, sleeping bag, etc.). Seek professional care for serious or greater hypothermia.

  • Heat Exhaustion: At the opposite end of the spectrum is heat exhaustion. This is caused by the body's inability to cool faster than heat is being generated. While the risk is lessened in winter, it is still a possibility.

Preventing heat exhaustion includes taking time to rest. Layer your clothing so you can remove items and cool down. Drink plenty of liquids.

Signs/ Symptoms include headache, nausea, light-headedness, pale skin and extreme fatigue.

Treatment of heat exhaustion is resting and drinking water. It’s a good idea to have the victim drink at least a quart of water, slowly, and to add just a pinch of salt to it. They can also nibble a few salty snacks while drinking. Remember: Sip slowly so the body absorbs as much of the water and salt as possible.

Don't forget your vehicle! 

  • Make sure your vehicle is equipped to get you there and back. Check fluids (window washer, antifreeze, oil, etc.), tire pressure (including spare tire), battery, and gas before leaving.

  • Make sure your current insurance card and registration are in the glove box.

  • Pack a tool kit, flares, shovel, chains, and other items you may need.

  • Treat car locks before leaving in freezing weather.

  • Do not put on parking brake in freezing weather! The line may freeze or break (personal experience).

  • Check road conditions at the Washington State Department of Transportation

Avalanche statistics:

Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center:

70% of people caught in an avalanche die

Avalanches occur most often on a 30-50 degree slope

Avalanches occur most often in 35-40 degree F weather

Other web sites:

Cold weather camping:

Sleds with rigid pole system:

Boy's Life Articles:



heat exhaustion:

first aid for the trail:

backpack stove buying guide:

Leave No Trace: