Camping in the snow how to stay warm at night

  • # Camping
  • #Bivouacking
Portrait von Verkaufsberater Hansj
Sales Consultant, Transa store Europaallee Zurich
© Fotos

Sleeping outside in winter takes a bit more preparation than in summer. Sales advisor Hansj uses his tent as a base camp for ski touring in the winter months and regularly camps out in the mountains. He shares his tips here.

Sleeping in the snow for the night is a wonderful experience – with the right equipment. Sales advisor Hansj offers tips on the best sleeping bag, sleeping mat and tent for a comfortably warm night’s sleep. He also reveals what you should wear at night and on the tour, how you can cook in your tent and how batteries survive in sub-zero temperatures.

Hansj, by the time the first snow starts falling, most people are putting their tents and sleeping bags away in the cellar. What about you?
Oh no, to me this is when the best time of year begins! When I pitch my tent in winter, everything is much quieter and more peaceful. And best of all, you’re almost always alone.

All the same, why would I want to camp in sub-zero temperatures when I can be nice and warm at home?
I like to use my tent as a base camp for ski touring in winter. It’s an indescribable experience when you’re on a snow-covered peak, you put up your tent, cook fondue and admire the starry sky in peace and quiet in the evening. The next morning I get up, make coffee and I’m certain to be the first on the tour.

Do you have to be able to endure an element of torture to sleep outdoors in winter?
No. It’s all about having the right outdoor equipment. Along with good preparation and a bit of knowledge, good equipment is the most important thing.

It all sounds like a test of survival...
No, not at all! Camping in winter isn’t complicated, but you can hardly spend the night in the snow with a three-season tent and a summer sleeping bag. You need special equipment. You shouldn’t cut any corners, especially with your tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat. This may be relatively expensive, but you can maximise your existing equipment if you use a few tricks.

«Most of the time, you don’t need a thick winter sleeping bag. Just combine a summer and a transitional season sleeping bag.»
Portrait von Verkaufsberater Hansj
Sales Consultant, Transa store Europaallee Zurich
Sleeping bag

So the first thing I buy is a thick winter sleeping bag for really cold nights?
To be quite honest: I rarely recommend this type of sleeping bag to our customers. Neither for winter nor for Alpine touring. You don’t really need an expensive sleeping bag for minus 20 degrees when the bag will spend the next few years in the cellar because it’s almost always far too warm. If you want or need to save money, there is a good alternative.

So, you’re saying it’s better to be chilly?
No, much better than that: I have a summer sleeping bag for temperatures down to zero degrees and a sleeping bag for the spring and autumn, which is suitable for temperatures down to minus five degrees. In winter, I put both sleeping bags together – that’s all I need!

Does that work?
Yes, the coldest night I’ve had so far was minus 33 degrees and I didn’t freeze. My two sleeping bags combined weigh around 1,500 grams. A single thick winter sleeping bag is about the same weight. Pack size and weight are therefore almost the same, but I can use both sleeping bags all year round. Separately from spring to autumn, combined in winter.

Drei Personen bauen ein Zelt auf.

The right outdoor equipment will also keep you warm if you camp in winter.

Photo © Ruedi Thomi

Is that possible with any sleeping bag?
You need the right combination: a zero-degree model and a minus-five-degree model will cover virtually everything. Theoretically, a model for minus ten degrees and a very light summer sleeping bag would also work. That’s why I always ask my customers if they have a suitable sleeping bag and then choose the right second sleeping bag. They can camp all year round with both sleeping bags.

Which temperature rating is the deciding factor? Comfort, limit or extreme?
Ultimately, there is only one aspect that is really important: the comfort factor. This is the only thing that makes you feel good and satisfied – and that’s what it’s all about. Of course, everybody has their own individual perception of cold, so it’s all about trial and error. It’s worth noting that women usually need a sleeping bag that is five degrees warmer than men.

Which filling is best: down or synthetic fibre?
If you’re planning to carry the sleeping bag yourself, that is, in your backpack, I would recommend down. Although synthetic fibre costs a lot less and is easier to care for, it’s also twice the pack size and twice as heavy. You can only do this with a snowmobile or a dog sled.

Down sleeping bags

What else do I need to bear in mind?
The sleeping bag must be the right size. If you have a two metre long sleeping bag but are only 1.70 metres tall, you’ll have to warm up a wasted 30 centimetres of air inside the sleeping bag with your body heat. Then the comfort temperature suddenly shifts from minus five to plus two degrees. The sleeping bag also needs to suit your physique and sleeping habits. If you’re quite athletic or want to have a certain amount of freedom of movement, for example, you’ll need a wider sleeping bag. There are also special sleeping bags for women. It is definitely worth trying out different models in our shop.

How do I get the right length?
When you lie down, fasten the hood and sit up: nothing should feel tight. Five centimetres of space above your head is ideal.

And what if the sleeping bag is a bit too big?
Then you can fill up any surplus volume with clothing: I always wear a down jacket when I go to sleep. Later in the night, I push it down inside toward the bottom. This gives my feet extra insulation and the jacket is nice and warm the next morning.

Can I use an inlet to up the warmth by a few more degrees?
Personally, I don’t think it helps much. In my opinion, silk or cotton inlets mainly serve hygiene purposes. However, they often get caught up in everything when you go to bed. An ultralight bivy bag is far more important. It should be part of everyone’s emergency kit in their backpack for alpine touring, ski touring or winter camping. It is a closed rescue blanket and can save your life if you have to unexpectedly stay overnight in the snow. You should always have one with you, like you would a shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver!

«I pitch the tent using snow anchors plus my shovel, ice axe and everything else I have with me.»
Portrait von Verkaufsberater Hansj
Sales Consultant, Transa store Europaallee Zurich

Have you got any other tips on sleeping bags?
Yes, unpack the sleeping bag as soon as possible, shake it out and spread it out in the tent. The down filling offers the best insulation when it’s fully unfolded. The next morning, you should air the sleeping bag in the tent or in the sun and allow it to dry, because damp down loses a lot of volume and in the long term that will reduce its insulation capability.

Sleeping mat

A good mattress is all you need for a warm bed.
In winter, a thickness of no more than six centimetres actually works. It’s better not to cut any corners here. Self-inflating mats are too heavy and too big for me personally.

Why is the mat so important?
You can be in the warmest sleeping bag there is but a poor sleeping mat will let the cold through from below because your body weight flattens the insulating down underneath you. A warm sleeping bag plus a bad mat don’t work, and vice versa. You need the right combination. 

What else must I consider when buying a sleeping mat?
Never inflate a sleeping mat with down by blowing into it, as moisture must not get in. Instead, use the pump bag that goes with the system.

Sleeping mat


What do you wear inside the sleeping bag? Do you sleep naked or wear pyjamas? I prefer to be dressed in my sleeping bag. Everything you wear provides additional insulation.

So, you wrap up warm in the sleeping bag, too?
That’s right. I wear long merino underwear when I sleep. Plus a down jacket to fall asleep in, which I push down inside the bag later. Then I wear a knit cap on my head and a neck warmer.

And what trick do you use to avoid getting cold feet?
Warm socks! Always have a spare dry pair with you, as socks always get sweaty and damp during the day. I wear down socks in the tent because I don’t want to be sitting around in my touring ski boots. And when I cook, I heat water and pour it into a thermos bottle. Before going to bed, I pour the hot water into a drinking bottle, put each sock over it for a bit, then put the sock on your foot – hey presto, you have a nice hot water bottle! Plus you also have lukewarm water ready to boil for breakfast next day and don’t have to melt fresh snow first.

What about the damp socks?
They go into the sleeping bag, right down the bottom. By next morning they’re dry and warm.

What do you wear when you’re touring in winter?
When I’m ski touring, I wearmerino as the base layer. If it’s windy or snowing, I’ll put on a Gore-Tex jacket, but nothing else. Once I stop, I put on a down jacket on top of everything, and maybe a pair of short Primaloft trousers.

Down jacket


Camping in summer is so easy: put the tent up, unpack the sleeping bag, roll out the sleeping mat, done. Is it the same in winter?
No, definitely not; you need a four-season tent. This has an outer tent that extends to the ground to prevent the wind blowing drift snow into the tent. It also has a fully enclosed inner tent and is designed to be more robust overall than a summer tent.

How do you pitch a tent in the snow? Tent pegs wouldn’t stay in place!
I use snowshoes or skis to stamp down a flat surface first. I use six snow anchors for the most important guy lines. The rest I secure using my skis, shovel, ice pick and poles. In other words, I use the things I have with me anyway.

And then it’s just off into the tent with all the flaps sealed so the heat can’t escape?
That’s the mistake I made on my first winter overnighter on the Wildspitz in 2007. It was minus 16 degrees when the wind started to blow at night. The condensation inside the tent froze, forming snow which then trickled onto my sleeping bag. Everything got wet! In the winter you have to dress properly, use a warm sleeping bag and ventilate the tent as much as possible!

Do winter tents have a different layout to summer tents?
No, but in winter I always use a tent with a big porch so that I can also cook in the tent.



What about carbon monoxide poisoning: isn’t it dangerous to cook in a tent?
Not if you take the right precautions: I dig a trench in the snow 50 centimetres wide and 100 centimetres deep right at the edge of the inner tent. I can then sit on my sleeping mat in the inner tent, dangle my legs and cook comfortably in front of me. The carbon monoxide (CO) that you inevitably produce when you cook over an open flame is heavier than air, so it sinks into the trench. This is not only safe, it’s also convenient and practical. Plus, I can stand in the trench to change my clothes or roll up the mat. The CO trench is one of the reasons why I love camping in winter: I just find it much more comfortable than in summer.

When it’s cold, gas cookers don’t work properly, right? Is benzine the only option?
Personally, I’m not a fan of benzine stoves. You have to pump and preheat a benzine stove, which produces a huge flame and is difficult to adjust. I often make fondue and with a benzine stove you keep having to take the pan away and put it back – that’s too much hassle for me. There is a special winter gas that works in temperatures down to minus 15 degrees without any problems.

And it always lights?
I’ve never had problems with gas in the cold. I always carry a small cartridge in my clothes when I go running, and when I’m cooking I just put the cartridge with the gas pipe in a pan of hot water until the stove is burning properly.

We burn a lot of calories in winter, so you shouldn’t go to bed hungry, right?
That’s right – in winter I need energising food, and what can be better than a high-fat, high-protein fondue? I get my favourite ready-made cheese mix from my local cheese shop, add some garlic and eat it with a piece of bread. Or I eat couscous: just boil some water, pour it on and leave it to absorb. It’s quick to make. Sauté some vegetables in a frying pan, add onions, garlic and cheese and there you have it!

One advantage of camping in the snow is that you don’t have to carry water with you, right?
Exactly – but you need to be careful not to put the pot on the hot cooker and just stuff lots of snow into it. This will damage the pot. If the snow makes no contact with the bottom of the pot, the aluminium can burn through first. It’s better to put just a little snow in and let it melt. Once the pot has some warm water in it, then you can fill it up with snow.

Zwei Personen bei Dunkelheit in verschneiter Berglandschaft, das Zelt ist erleuchtet, sie sitzen an einer Feuerstelle.

If the weather is nice, you can cook outside; if it’s snowing, you can do so in the tent if you prepare properly.

Photo © Ruedi Thomi
Electronic devices

Winter days are short, so you need light. What do you do?
I always have a headlamp with me. It’s practical because it leaves your hands free. I also take an inflatable LED solar lamp with me as a parking light. I also pack a powerbank and charger for my lights, camera and smartphone. 

But batteries like the cold even less than we humans do!
That’s true, which is why I carry batteries and rechargeable batteries with me during the day. At minus 30 degrees, all batteries will run down. I only use the camera battery when I’m taking photos and take it out again afterwards. At night, I put my electronic devices and power supply in my sleeping bag. Actually, you should do this for anything that mustn’t freeze, including contact lenses.


  • # Camping

  • #Bivouacking

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