It's possible to go tarp camping in winter.
But if you've been before you'll know it's not easy. Lots of things can go wrong so you must be prepared.
Can you think of any tricks that will guarantee your safety and comfort when you're sleeping on the ground without lots of protection?
Tips For Tarp Camping In Winter
Let's look at some of the things you should remember when you set off tarp camping in winter:
- Best tarp for winter camping
- Winter tarp camping setup
- Using the best equipment
- Choose the right campsite
- Build snow walls around tarp
- Make sure your tarp is secure
- Learn how to build campfires
- Drink lots of warm liquid
- Try sleeping in a hammock
1 Best tarp for winter camping
Camping under a tarp in winter is pretty dangerous unless you do it the right way. You can start by using the right tarp.
Here are the two main things you need to focus on when choosing the best tarp for winter camping:
In winter it's only going to be light for a limited number of hours per day. Depending on where you live the sun might rise at 8 am and fall at 4 pm.
That means you'll probably spend a lot of time under your tarp. Especially when it's snowing or raining and you can't warm up next to the fire.
Under those circumstances, it would be nice to have a large tarp with lots of room inside. But it's not easy to keep a large tarp shelter warm in winter.
If you have a smaller tarp that's closer to the ground it's going to keep you warmer, which is great in winter when you're desperate to get comfortable.
8 x 8 ft – 10 x 10 ft
I would suggest a tarp size of 8 x 8 ft to 10 x 10 ft for winter tarp camping. It can be a little smaller or larger than the sizes listed.
You can also use a rectangle instead of a square. It's also possible to get a pyramid tarp, but it will limit the number of tarp configurations you can set up.
I prefer a trusty rectangular tarp although I'm usually living in much warmer climates even in winter.
The material of a good winter camping tarp should tick three boxes:
When you're winter tarp camping in bad weather conditions the rest of your kit will take up lots of space in your backpack, so it's nice to have a lightweight tarp.
Tarps can take a beating in winter when the weather conditions are terrible. Lots of snow could be blasting into the side of your tarp.
A big pile of snow could fall from a tree and land on top of your tarp. Hailstones are like little ice bullets trying to pierce your tarp fabric.
The material needs to be durable enough to handle everything thrown at it while you're winter camping. A tear and puncture-resistant fabric is a must when it's bad outside.
It needs to have reinforced attachment points with loops that won't snap. If anything is too weak your tarp could be ripped away by strong winds.
Snow won't always slide off the roof of your tarp like water. There is a good chance it's going to sit on top of your tarp on occasion.
Your tarp needs to be waterproof so it doesn't come inside while you're under the tarp. Most great camping tarps should be able to handle rain and snow.
You should check your tarp is UV resistant too. It's not going to keep you warm while sleeping, but it can still be sunny in winter.
2 Winter tarp camping setup
I'm sure you'll want to try a variety of tarp configurations when you go camping in winter. Some are better than others when it's colder.
I think there are two winter tarp setups you should try first:
- Tarp tent setup
- Tarp tepee setup
Either of these tarp setups will keep you warm in winter because you'll be able to enclose yourself in the tarp when the weather is really bad.
You can also use them above the treeline with a pole or below the treeline using trees. Make sure you're always packing some strong paracord.
If you don't have a pole, you'll be able to use paracord to attach your tarp shelter to a tree branch directly above you or a makeshift guyline between two trees.
3 Using the best equipment
You have to think about a lot more than a tarp when you're camping in winter. All the other equipment you take on your adventures is crucial too.
Here are a few big things you need to get right when you're camping in winter with a tarp:
- Winter sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag liner
- Sleeping pad(s)
- Cooking equipment
- Emergency blanket
Winter sleeping bag
You'll need a sleeping bag with a temperature rating low enough to keep you warm on cold nights. Winter sleeping bags should have a 10 degree just to be safe.
So if you plan on camping in 32-degree weather you should look for a sleeping bag rated at around 20 degrees. The advertised temperature rating isn't always 100% spot on.
Choosing a mummy sleeping bag in winter is a good idea too. You might still want to wear a beanie on your head but it's going to be so much warmer.
You can choose between a sleeping bag or top quilt when you're tarp camping in winter. Top quilts do have a lot of advantages over sleeping bags.
I would personally use a mummy sleeping bag when camping in temperatures below 32 degrees, but it's possible to use a top quilt if you prefer them.
Sleeping bag liner
Sleeping bag liners work extremely well in winter because they can raise your body temperature around 5 degrees. I know it's not much but every little helps.
A good thermal sleeping bag liner is even better because you're looking at around 15+ degrees although they'll cost you a lot more.
Everyone should have a bag liner whenever they go camping in winter. It's easy to wash and it will be dry before you go to bed at night.
Bottom insulation is essential when you're camping in summer, so it's something you won't be able to live without in winter when it's even colder.
If you're hammock camping it's possible to choose between an underquilt and sleeping pad, but when you're tarp camping you can only use the latter.
Underquilts won't work when you're sleeping on the ground because once you lie on top of one it provides you with zero insulation.
When you're choosing a sleeping pad look out for two things:
Make sure you use an inflatable sleeping pad when you're tarp camping. It's not going to take up much space in your backpack and it's much more portable.
You'll be able to inflate a good inflatable sleeping pad with a few breaths, plus it's easy to deflate when you're packing up in the morning.
The R-value of a sleeping pad generally ranges from about 0-5. A higher R-value will provide you with more insulation and can be used in lower temperatures.
Here is an example of R-values and temperatures you'll be comfortable at:
- R-value 2-3 = 32 degrees
- R-value 3-4 = 20 degrees
- R-value 4-5 = 0 degrees
- R-value 5+ = below 0 degrees
If you can afford a sleeping pad with a higher R-value it's going to be more beneficial. You never know how low the temperature will go when you're camping in winter.
Sleeping pads can also be stacked to increase the R-value. So two sleeping pads with an R-value of 2 + 3 would equal an R-value of 5.
Cooking over an open fire is wonderful in winter because it's a great way to stay warm while you're preparing food, so hopefully it's allowed where you live.
It's important to have excellent equipment in winter for tasks like cooking because you don't want anything to make it difficult to cook food.
There are a couple of big things you should keep an eye on:
- Windproof camping stove
- Windproof lighter
You might be stuck using a gas stove so you'll need to make sure you can cook food whenever you want. In winter it's sometimes extremely windy.
If you have a windproof camping stove you won't need to worry about the flame going out all the time. It's annoying trying to use makeshift ways to protect the flame.
Carry a windproof lighter with you at all times. Keep a fire striker in your backpack to use in emergencies too. And waterproof matches to the list.
If you use a basic lighter or matches you might find yourself rubbing two sticks together and praying you'll be able to cook a warm meal.
Using an emergency blanket as a tarp undersheet is a great idea in winter. Make sure the side with the foil is facing up.
The ground is going to try and suck hot air away from you, but some heat will reflect off the foil helping to keep you warmer while you sleep.
An emergency camping blanket is also usually large enough to wrap around you when the temperature drops fast.
A plastic groundsheet is great when you're tarp camping in the rain and you can use one in winter if you want something waterproof. Lay your emergency blanket directly over it.
Before you put anything down on the ground you should make sure all the snow underneath your tarp is cleared away, or compress it down by stamping on it.
4 Choose the right campsite
Choosing the right campsite is one of the most important things you'll do when tarp camping because it offers the smallest amount of protection from the elements.
If you're unable to choose the right campsite in winter it's going to hurt you. There are a few big things you need to keep in mind:
- Falling snow
The wind is even worse in winter because wind chill is going to drop the temperature lower. If you're exposed to wind it's going to feel like you're in a freezer.
Wet snow slowing into your face is also horrific in winter, so you want to be protected from it when you're in your tarp.
Make sure you don't pitch your tarp on a ridgeline where there is nothing to protect yourself from the wind. Hopefully, you can set it up behind a giant rock.
If you're in a thick forest the trees should limit the amount of wind you're exposed to. Somewhere near the bottom of a big hill is beneficial.
You'll know which way the wind is blowing so pitch your tarp with as little wind hit you as possible. If you can eliminate it even better.
We've just talked about pitching a tarp at the bottom of a hill to protect you from the wind, but it's a dangerous place to be when it's raining or snowing.
You should still set the tarp up on elevated ground even if it's only slightly higher than the ground around it. Look for bumps on the forest floor wide enough to sleep on.
Don't pitch your tarp anywhere rain is going to pool because even if it's only light rain it's the first place that's going to be flooded.
Stay away from the ground directly at the bottom of hills or the rain is going to run down and flow straight under your tarp walls.
When the weather is hot it's good to pitch tarps on absorbent soil that will soak it up, but if the ground is frozen you need to be careful.
Once enough snow has built up it could cause your tarp to collapse if it's directly underneath it. A good example is pitching your tarp below a sloped roof.
If the snow was to fall off at the same time the overall weight could knock your tarp down. The same thing could happen if you're directly under a massive branch.
Don't set your tarp up anywhere snow can build up above it because you never know when it's going to come crashing down.
Snow loads can also be troublesome so make sure you're constantly wiping the snow off your tarp roof if it's building up.
5 Build snow walls around tarp
The wind is a lot more dangerous than low temperatures when you're camping in winter. You can always stay warm sleeping on the ground with a great sleeping bag and pad.
There are lots of ways to stay warm in a hammock in winter. And you can stay warm inside a tent when the temperature is very low.
It's the wind that's going to get you in winter. Not only will it make you colder when it gets into your tarp, but it could rip your shelter apart.
You can save yourself by building snow walls around your tarp shelter. Take a camping shovel with you unless you want to use your hands.
If there isn't much snow on the ground you can use large boulders and use whatever snow you have to fill the gaps. Try to keep as much wind from hitting your tarp as possible.
6 Make sure your tarp is secure
In winter a tarp is never really 100% secure because the weather is so unpredictable, but you can do your best to ensure your tarp won't go anywhere.
There are two easy ways to prevent your tarp from falling apart:
- Use snow stakes
- Weigh down with rocks
Use snow stakes
Snow stakes are designed to be used in the snow when regular tent stakes won't work. You'll find a few different designs but most are fairly similar.
They're about 9 inches long, curved inwards, and come with holes that fill with snow and freeze to make them even more secure in horrible weather conditions.
Make sure you put them in at a 45-degree angle to ensure they're more secure. If you don't have a mallet you can carefully knock them in with a flat rock.
Weigh down with rocks
Once you've put the snow stakes into the ground place large rocks over the top of them. It's going to prevent them from falling out no matter how windy it is.
Don't put any rocks on the sides of your tarp to hold it down. It's just going to damage the tarp and it won't last as long before it needs to be replaced.
You can put rocks close to the tarp to help stop wind and rain from getting inside, but make sure the rocks aren't in direct contact with the fabric.
7 Learn how to build campfires
You will want to be able to build different types of fires in winter. Dakota fires are great but the ground might be too hard to dig into.
Do you want a fire that's very hot to warm you up quickly or a slow-burning fire that's not as warm but will keep burning for longer?
I suggest learning to build as many fires as possible. If you have a large enough collection in your arsenal you'll always be able to build the right one for the conditions.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when building campfires in winter:
- Keep wind away from the fire
- Build your fire on the ground
- Look around for dry branches
- Make sure it's under control
Keep wind away from the fire
It's even more important to shield the fire from as much wind as possible in winter. If it's getting battered by rain and snow it's not going to stay alight.
Try to build a Dakota fire pit if you want to prevent the wind from hitting it. You can even build a fire in a single hole in the ground because it will still help.
Use something big as a windbreak. Are there any wide trees, large boulders, or small hills close to where you want to build the fire?
Build your fire on the ground
If there is lots of snow on the ground you'll need to dig out a hole before you can start building your fire. Don't build it on top of the snow.
The moment it gets up and running the snow is going to melt and your fire will sink to the ground. It's more than likely going to go out.
If you've built a tepee fire it will come crashing down when the ground falls out from under it. You'll end up giving yourself extra work starting it up again.
Look around for dry branches
Although you can start a fire with damp branches you should try to find dry ones when you're building a fire. I know it's not always going to be easy in winter.
If you're taking your car with you it's a hundred times easier to bring firewood with you. Lovely chunks of hardwood like oak will burn all night.
Would you consider it cheating? I don't think you'll care once the fire is up and running. Take the opportunity to bring firewood with you whenever possible.
Make sure it's under control
A fire isn't 100% safe in winter because it's usually wet and snowy. If you're not careful you can still set the forest on fire.
It's not going to cause as much damage in winter vs summer, but it's something you need to avoid at all costs. You might end up in big trouble if you're not careful.
If you're allowed to build open fires where you live make sure you follow the same safety rules you would abide by when it's warm and sunny.
8 Drink lots of warm liquid
Have you ever sat in an air-conditioned room eating hot vegetable soup? Even though it should be pretty cold you'll begin to feel like you're warming up.
It's the same when you're camping in winter so if you're consuming hot food and liquids you'll warm up from the inside even though it's cold outside.
Here are a few examples of what you can drink and eat:
- Vegetable soup
Take a drinks thermos and food thermos if you have enough room in your backpack. A food thermos is great because it has a wider neck and you can fit a spoon inside.
If you have both you'll always have access to hot foods and drinks like stew and coffee if you make sure you have some prepared beforehand.
9 Try sleeping in a hammock
If you have a hammock you should take it with you during winter tarp camping adventures. You'll get lots of benefits sleeping in a hammock vs sleeping on the ground.
It's much easier to get in and out of a hammock when it's raining and snowing. Once you get out you'll still be under the tarp.
Sometimes it's just nice to sleep while hanging in the air instead of lying on the ground. When you're stuck inside a tarp on bad days it's not nice.
I don't mind lying in a hammock because you can read books or write in your notebook. It's still easy to stay very warm when you're sleeping in a hammock.
Can a tarp keep you warm in winter?
You need to ask yourself a few questions. Is my tarp good for winter conditions? Is my other equipment suitable for freezing temperatures?
If your tarp camping equipment is good enough for winter conditions you should be fine. Just use tricks like building snow walls around the tarp and fires in holes.
Practice tarp camping in temperatures down to 32 degrees before you attempt anything colder where it can get dangerous fast.
How cold is too cold for winter camping?
Some people are going to tell you no temperature is too cold for winter camping. It's a good mindset to have if you plan on trekking to the North Pole.
For most people, anything below 20 degrees is going to be very uncomfortable. You might want to ask yourself if you truly want to camp in those temperatures.
And even though it's possible to tarp camp in 20-degree weather, it's probably best to have a double-wall tent when the temperature drops that low.
Anything above freezing (32 degrees) is good for winter tarp camping. It's still going to be cold but you can have a good time.
At these low temperatures, you do need to make sure you have equipment that can handle it or you can end up in big trouble.
How can I camp in the winter without dying?
There are tricks you can use like sleeping with a hot water bottle and wearing extra layers of clothes, but there are probably two big ways to ensure your safety:
- Check the weather forecast before you go
- Always park close enough to your campsite
Check the weather forecast before you go
Don't leave home without checking the weather forecast. Cancel your tarp camping trip when the weather is too bad because it's not worth the risk.
Sometimes the weather is okay in winter. Other times it's so bad you won't be able to enjoy yourself because you'll be stuck shivering in a tarp all weekend.
You can take a phone with you to check the weather using an app, but don't leave home without ensuring you'll be able to handle the elements.
Always park close enough to your campsite
It's okay to give up and drive home if the weather is dangerous when you're camping. But you won't want to walk too far to your car when it's freezing and snowing.
Hypothermia can set in pretty quick depending on how cold it is, so you might not have time to make it back to your car if it's too far away.
Frostbite is a danger too when it's freezing. It doesn't take long when you add wind and water into the mix.
It's not worth risking your life when tarp camping so if you're wondering how you can camp without dying it's maybe better to wait until it's warmer.
Tarp Camping In Winter
Maybe you'll love tarp camping in winter so it's worth trying out. Just make sure you know how to stay safe and comfortable when it's cold.