Getting into camping is an exhilarating experience. But the game changes significantly when you decide to take your show on the road for a winter camping experience. You might have handled spring, summer, and fall campouts just fine, but winter is a different ballpark altogether.
Winter camping is definitely fun and exciting, but there is so much more involved with the planning and packing in cold climates. And it’s not just about preparation either. It takes a little more training too.
If you’re hoping to plan your first campout soon, keep reading and you’ll know exactly how to master the frozen domain from preparation to survival and everything in between!
One of the biggest areas we need to focus on to get you ready for your first winter campout is that of preparation. Here’s how to nip that in the bud!
No matter how big or small your vehicle is, or even if you rent (or own!) an RV (more on that further down), you have to pack the right portion of supplies to endure your trip. Winter is a harsh mistress and not packing enough staples can spell imminent danger in some cases or at the very least, cause you to waste time making unnecessary trips. Overpacking is far better than under-packing.
Though let’s be real here. You’re not going to need an entire wardrobe of your favorite clothes out in the wild. So pack smart for your destination as well as for the duration you’ll be camping out in winter weather. You certainly don’t want to cut a 5-night campout short because you only packed one sweater either.
Just remember that extra supplies take up space. You may even decide that if your vehicle is too small for the adventure, to rent something larger. Maybe even an RV!
Packing wrong clothing
Winter weather in many parts of the country can get downright cold. Even in a more southern place like Florida, you’ll still be uncomfortable if you don’t pack smart with clothing. You need clothes that are thick enough to keep you safe from the cold. If you wash clothes at your campsite, remember that they might take longer to dry in the cold weather. Wicking clothing dries much faster, but you’ll need plenty of layers to see you through. Everything you wear needs to be warm and dry, so pack enough clothes to keep you warm. Don’t forget your socks and gloves either!
Not making reservations
Believe it or not, winter is a hugely popular time for camping at campsites around the country. It’s foolish to just show up without making a reservation. Without one, you might not get the spot you want. You may even drive for hours and hours only to arrive and find that the entire campsite is fully booked. Make your reservations as early on as possible to avoid catastrophe.
Not planning your route ahead of time
With GPS so easy to use on our smartphones these days, you might think it’s no trouble to just hop in your vehicle or RV and hit the road toward the campsite. Experts advise that you check your route before you ever get behind the wheel. Particularly in winter, there may be road closures from snow, downed trees, or even construction that will slow you down or even cause you to take another route.
Know what’s out there as you make your way to the campsite, and know what you’re up against on your way home. It should also go without saying, but you should plan any routes you’re going to take once at the campsite so you don’t get lost. Your GPS might not be of any assistance deep in the wilderness.
Choosing the wrong location
Camping during the winter poses more challenges. For one, you have to choose a location that will shield you from the wind. You’ll be glad you considered this point when that wind whips around and freezes you to your bare soul.
Another thing first-time winter campers don’t think of is where to pitch the tents from there. Choosing a spot guarded by big trees to cut down on the wind is good, but if you set up under big, snow-covered branches, you could be in danger. Those branches can snap and fall onto your tent.
Be sure to look for a nearby water source too. This will make things much less inconvenient. If you can find flowing water that hasn’t fully frozen, stay near there. Otherwise, you’ll be freezing away while you scavenge for firewood to use to melt the snow just so you can get a drink of water.
Relying only on weather forecasts
Your weather app is handy for knowing what you might be up against, but weather prediction is never an exact science. It may say scattered snow showers but not in your area. You’ll shrug it off and then, bam! Huge snowfall right where you’ve set up camp.
Let the weather forecast serve as a mere guide as to what might happen and pack for any occurrence. In winter, one of the worst things is not having proper cover while you’re out in the wild. Leave nothing to chance. It’s better to be prepared for the worst than to get caught out and need to channel your inner survivor.
Not using a checklist
We can’t stress this enough, but please don’t wing it when it comes to packing for your first-time winter campout. If you forget a common kitchen staple like milk at the supermarket because you didn’t make a list, guess what that means for packing for your winter camping trip? You’re likely to forget something hugely important.
Instead of making one long, rambling list though, play it smart. Break it into sections and categories so you can account for everything. Among your categories, you should have Food and Water, Clothing/Footwear, Tools, and Other Supplies.
Not making or following a budget
A winter campout is a great way to make cozy memories with the people you love. Just think of s’mores by a roaring fire, looking up the wintry sky full of stars, and snuggling up in thick blankets. But the supplies you need don’t come cheap. People think that camping is cheaper than staying in a hotel, but when all is said and done, your expenses can really add up.
If you’re taking an RV, the gas alone needs its own budget. But even in your own vehicle, planning on gas expenses, campsite fees, food, and supplies needs to be tallied up. You surely don’t want to incur more fees than necessary.
Making food and drink mistakes
Winter is cold and it might be harder for you to down as much water as your body needs. But despite the chill, you still need to stay hydrated. One great essential to pack is a flask or thermos that keeps your drinks warm. You can heat up water and then stow it in the thermos so it’s ready to use for warm drinks like coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Having it already hot and ready will save you time and keep everyone in the crew warmed up with ease.
Snacks that are easy to take along are essential too. You want things everyone can just tear into at a moment’s notice. But when it comes to meals, try to prep your food before ever leaving. You can get food grill-ready at home in the comforts of your own kitchen, make a big pot of chili that just needs to be heated, and do other things that translate to saving time while you’re winter camping. Plus, you’ll all benefit by having food everyone wants to eat that’s easy to heat up. Simply gather around the fire while it warms up and get cozy!
Not talking to an expert
One of the biggest mistakes for preparation by first-time winter campers is not seeking advice from someone who has been there and done that. A guidebook can only go so far. It’s different when you speak to a real, live person about the terrain and what to expect. They can tell you little tricks and hacks that they used to help them have a better experience. It really makes all the difference in packing for your winter campout.
Buying a low-quality sleeping bag
The sleeping bag you use in warmer weather is not going to cut it during freezing winter weather. And if you don’t already have one and are starting your camping adventures with a winter trip, you need to buy one that is thick and warm enough, not to mention waterproof too. Naturally, you have a tent to help you stay shielded from the wind, but it’s not going to keep out the cold. There is nothing worse than trying to sleep when you’re too cold. You’ll feel it coming up from the ground too. And if that ground is still damp from snow under your tent, you are going to be a human popsicle!
Even if you do have an RV to use for the trip, warm sleeping accommodations are essential in winter weather. Choose wisely so you won’t be caught out in the cold.
Not trying your equipment before you leave home
One of the biggest rookie mistakes any camper can make in any season is to not try out the camping equipment prior to making the trip. In winter, it can be even worse with the blustery wind and snow to contend with.
In advance of your camping excursion, set up your tent in your backyard at least once. Ideally, you should practice pitching it and then taking it down multiple times to be sure you’ve got the hang of it.
You should also test out other equipment like your new light or the portable stove. When you have confidence in how to work all the things you need to survive during your campout, it allows you to enjoy the rustic experience of camping. You surely don’t want to wait until you get to the campsite to realize you’ve got no idea how to use that portable stove, or even worse, to find out it doesn’t work and you can’t cook anything.
Few people are born with being completely at ease with camping. Everyone has a first time pitching a tent at some point. Reading the instructions for the equipment you need well in advance is a must though because you don’t want to do that at the campsite. It’s not to pull off any airs but rather so you’re not wasting precious time. Imagine how much more quickly you’ll get the tents up and your site set up when you practice first. Then you can simply enjoy the experience more easily.
Buying cheap goods instead of quality
It’s tempting to go with the gear that bears a cheaper price tag. But you truly get what you pay for. When you go for the cheapest option, it won’t last. You’ll be likely to replace it in a year, or sooner.
That doesn’t mean you need to buy the most expensive brands, but do look for quality brands that have a good reputation, warranties, and service. It will cost a little more but it will save you down the road when you don’t have to buy a new tent, stove, sleeping bag, or other necessity every year.
On Camping Site Mistakes
Now that you’ve read through the preparation tips to help you get ready for your first winter campout like a pro, it’s time to dig into the common mistakes newbies make on the campsite.
Arriving late at the campsite
Remember all that prep work you did as we discussed above? This goes in with planning your route and making those campsite reservations. You do not want to get on the road late and wind up at the campground trying to find your space when the light is fading in the sky.
No matter how many times you set up your tent in your yard to practice, trying to do so in the dark will be maddening. It will be even more upsetting with little kids if you have them along. They will complain they’re hungry, it’s cold, they’re bored, and all of that.
This is one of the worst things that you can do and it could sour your camping experiences completely. With all the chaos and not being able to find a place to set up, you may just turn back around and find the nearest motel along the interstate.
Not setting the tent the right way
When you practice setting up your tent at home, that’s a great start to getting comfortable with the process. Now out in the wild you’ll need to find that location as we discussed previously, one that is shielded by trees yet not underneath large snow-covered branches and near a viable source of water. Then, you’ll need to clear it out a bit to get a level ground. Once you do, you should set the entrance of your tent so it faces downhill. This will keep cold air from flowing in at night.
In winter, you need snow stakes to help pitch your tent. You’ll want to keep snow off the top and sides as much as possible. And you should dig a hole at the front of your tent door and both sides. This keeps the wintry weather from yanking your tent off the ground and sending freezing air inside your quarters.
Underestimating the importance of lighting
It’s lovely to have the image of living off the land and being as rustic as possible during your campouts. But lights are a necessity, especially with the shorter daytime hours. If all you bring are headlamps and hand-held torches, you’re going to be rather sorry.
You need good lighting to help you prep meals, use the bathroom, and countless other activities. So bring those battery-powered lanterns and LED lights. And really, you can’t have too much lighting. Headlamps are still a necessity, but so are those lanterns. If you rely on the campfire and the light of the moon alone, you’re going to trip over everything and have a miserable time trying to cook once the sun goes down.
Relying on a campfire
Most people envision a robust campfire during a campout. Everyone’s sitting around, making s’mores and telling stories. It’s the stuff memories are made of. However, campfires take a while to get build up. If you plan on using a camp oven, it takes time for the coals to get hot enough.
Sometimes, you can’t even get it going at all. Having an alternate way of heating up food is a great way to be prepared.
And there’s something else you should know too. In winter, in some locations, campfires might not be allowed. You can check this out prior to your trip. The local fire authority for the location will be able to help you find out if there are any fire bans.
If there’s a chance your dreams of campfires might be quashed, invest in a gas BBQ. Most of the time, these are allowed, though again, before making that investment, find out from the campsite where you’ve made your reservations. If it’s not allowed, they will surely have suggestions for you on how you can prepare your food. You can also rent an RV and have a mini kitchen in which to cook which might be best for those that are ready to go full-on mountain man out there in the wild.
If you do get to make your campfire, make sure you know how to put it out properly. In cold, dry weather, campfires can be a dangerous thing. Always leave the environment better than how you found it.
Leaving food and garbage accessible
As you doze off in your tent, the serenity allowing you to drift into sleep, you might be stirred awake by the sound of unwanted guests coming to call. Wildlife can and will come scavenging for food and trash that you’ve left for them to get to.
Always lock up your garbage. You can hang it from a tree to deter many of these nocturnal munchers from making a mess of your campsite. All food should be locked up in plastic tubs. Bear canisters make this quite easy to do. Don’t leave home without them or you’ll wind up having to head home early when you discover the bears stole your meals for the next few days.
When you leave, take all your trash with you. You should leave absolutely no trace that you were there except your footprints. Garbage and human waste should be packed away. There are odor-absorbing bags that can contain them so as not to make you gag and not to attract animals your way. Once you’re out of the campsite, you can look for proper places to dispose of food waste, human waste, and other garbage.
Picking a low campsite
Even in the winter, rain can come about very suddenly. Yes, even in areas that are known for being dry. Always pitch your campsite on higher ground. Even if it doesn’t rain at all during your adventure, you’ll be in prime position to protect yourself from water flowing through and taking your campsite (or you!) away with it.
Not properly identifying plants
No one should ever go camping in any season without knowing which plants are poisonous. Just one accidental brush against a poisonous plant will give you a nasty and painful rash that you’ll be stuck with for the duration of your campout. You may even have to cut your trip short because of it.
The best thing you can do is study up on your plants and pack a plant identification guide with you. You can even print one out from an online source to take along. Most campgrounds will also have information on what dangers are lurking in the woods so you can plan accordingly.
RV Mistakes for first-time campers
Many people decide that for winter campouts, renting an RV is best. And really, it is a superb way of camping. You have your own bathroom, a kitchen for cooking, and a sturdier shelter to rely on when you can’t take the howling cold winds any longer.
But if it’s your first time renting an RV, there are certain things to know so you are a better winter camper. Read on to find out what to be aware of.
Being afraid of RVing
Just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you need to be afraid. There is a lot that goes into planning a campout with an RV in any season, but it’s absolutely worth it for many campers. Like anything, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Many campers tentatively rent an RV and then have an amazing time. So much so that they won’t go back to camping without one.
You just have to learn how it works, much like anything else, and be prepared. No one walks into an RV and knows exactly what to do. But you’ll pick it up quickly and soon, you’ll wonder how you ever went camping without one!
Not learning your RV inside and out
You won’t just have to master driving an RV. You’ll also need to master all the little buttons and valves that come with it. Not to worry…these can all be explained to you when you buy an RV or rent one for use. Still, you should set aside time to read the whole manual and know the capabilities of your particular rig.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is renting an RV and then just hopping onto the road. You should take the time to go over everything from top to bottom, front to back to ensure you know what to do in every situation.
Failing to check the tires
Would you take your car on a road trip without checking out the tires? Of course not! Yet most people forget to take a good look at the tires on the RV before hitting the road. RV tires need to be sturdy and of good quality. If you just bought an RV, you should check the tires to make certain they’re not some cheap brand. You get what you pay for.
You also have to take care not to drive too fast on gravel roads. Anything over 35mph is too fast for an RV in those conditions. Additionally, when you put too much weight into the RV or don’t maintain the axles, you could wind up having your campout on the side of the road waiting for road services to help you out. On the plus side, you’ll have a kitchen and shelter, and likely cards and games to stay busy, but on the negative side, you’ll miss making your scheduled campground check-in.
Not checking the roof seals
Again, if you’ve just bought the RV, you need to be vigilant to check it often. Twice a year, you should inspect the roof seals for cracks and tears. You certainly don’t want to discover a leak when you’re miles from civilization and freezing cold.
If you’re renting the RV, go over every square inch of it with the company to ensure nothing seems worn, cracked, or broken. Take the time to know what to look for and you’ll have peace of mind, plus a much safer and warmer trip.
Using toilet paper that doesn’t dissolve fast
They make toilet paper for RVs. But the thing is, it can clog the drains in your RV. Using a regular brand like Charmin Ultra Soft (Amazon link) seems to perform better than those RV brands of toilet paper.
Disasters during drive-off
Ready to go? Everyone in! You start the engine and begin driving away from the campsite and then one of your kids starts screeching that the water hose is dragging down the gravel road. Or your awning is starting to flap in the wind because you didn’t secure it. These simple things can translate to hours of repairs if you don’t simply take the time to be organized when you’re leaving the campsite.
Just walk around your RV after you’ve packed everything about. Don’t just do it once though. Do it twice. If you’re camping with kids, tuck them into the RV first and then go with another adult to make sure you all inspect everything over and over. Having a checklist of what should be done will help too.
Forgetting to enjoy yourself
There is no fun to be had if you’re uptight about everything. Isn’t this why you decided to do a campout? Relax! You’re not living out in the wilderness. Enjoy yourself and partake in the simple pleasures. Emails and social media can wait. You’ll catch up with your favorite TV shows when you return. This is the time to partake in those simple pleasures. With good planning, you’ll be able to have a wonderful time with or without an RV.
How to Avoid Common Camping Mistakes
Now, whether you’ve decided to rent or even buy an RV or you’re just loading up your truck or SUV to do a campout in winter, there are things you can do to avoid making mistakes. Keep reading so you will feel completely confident in your campout!
Do your research
It’s definitely fun to say, “Everyone in the car! We’re going camping!” at a moment’s notice. But if you’re not well-versed at camping, that’s a bad idea because you’re bound to forget something. People that have camped for a long time and do it often usually have all their supplies bundled together. Until you get to that point, don’t be spontaneous about camping or it’s highly likely you’ll forget something.
Additionally, you need to book a campsite, prepare your food, and do all the other things mentioned above. Thorough research will always lead to a better camping experience, especially in the winter months so don’t skip it!
Test your equipment
We mentioned this before but please, oh please, whether you’ve got an RV or are camping out with tents, or even both, test out all equipment before ever embarking on a campout. You don’t want to get out there and find you can’t use your new gear to get your fire going or you can’t get the tent pitched.
A good campfire can go a long way
One of the biggest mistakes for new campers is not knowing how to create a campfire or finding out upon arrival that campfires are forbidden. Make sure you go back to doing that research. If you see your campgrounds don’t allow fires at this time of year, you can take along other supplies that will allow you to cook your meals with ease. And if you have an RV, you can cook in the kitchen, but make sure you know how it operates. Even still, having a backup method for preparing food is so important. Without food, you’ll just be stuck with snacks to tide you over and will be forced to leave in the morning.
Don’t buy too much gear
Talk to seasoned campers that have been camping in your neck of the woods to find out what equipment is entirely necessary and what isn’t. Making a list will help you stick to a budget so you don’t wind up with a bunch of gadgets that you don’t wind up using.
Focus on quality gear instead
Always remember that old adage about getting what you pay for. It’s as true for clothing, furniture, and cookware as it is for camping gear. You don’t need to buy the most expensive top-of-the-line brand but don’t buy something that’s cheap because the price is low. Aim to buy the best brand in your price range and always look for reviews about what other campers have to say to help make your decision.
A warm bed for a better camping experience
In winter, it gets cold out there in the wild. Make sure you have a tent and sleeping bag that will keep you warm. You should also be sure you bring enough warm clothing to help you stay bundled up.
You have to be at the campsite on time
By planning your trip well, you’ll avoid arriving late at the campsite. If you’re late, you’re stuck trying to look for a space to set up. During peak season, it may be difficult and you might not get the view you were hoping for. Arriving in the morning is the best so you have plenty of daylight to set up. And even if you have a good plan, lots can happen. Always set up a backup plan in the event that your campground becomes full.
Keep in mind that during long weekends and holidays, many campsites will be full. If you arrive late in the day and scramble to set up, your camping neighbors might not be so thrilled with your arrival. It’s rude to shuffle through an area that other campers have set up as their own as you attempt to set yours up in the dark.
If you think you might be late somewhere, RVing might be a better option as you can always stay in the RV and figure out where to pitch up the next day.
It all boils down to being prepared when you go out to camp for the first time in winter. Know your equipment, make your reservations, make lists and check them twice, and stay organized. By being detailed before you ever leave, you’ll be better set to have an amazing time while staying warm and comfortable no matter how low the temperatures dip!