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  • Writer's pictureJack M.

Winter Backcountry Camping Guide (Part 3)

Food and Hydration

Snowy pine trees in the foreground, an enormous snow-covered mountain looming in the background in Big Sky, Montana

Big Sky, MT - Photo Credit: Tyler Gemmer


This is part 3 of Jack’s Winter Backcountry Camping Guide - if you missed the previous editions of this series, check out Part 1 to read up on Trip Planning & Safety, and Part 2 for an overview of cold-weather gear needs!


The final installment of our series on backcountry camping deals with food and hydration. Food is obviously important, and can be one of the most fun parts of winter camping, as long as you do it right. Usually, you’ll have a bit of wiggle room with fair-season food and water considerations, but it’s a different game in the winter. If you’re going to be out in the cold backcountry, you’ll want to be extra careful with the type of food you’ll be bringing, mostly to keep weight and fuel savings in mind.

Setting up your camp kitchen in the summer is pretty easy - you just find a flat piece of ground, build a fire or set up your stove, and cook away. Winter requires a different approach. It is imperative that you make a sheltered area to prepare your meals. It would be a good idea to shovel out a table and seats if the snow conditions call for it. This may seem like a lot for an overnight trip, but it will really make the difference. While this isn’t necessarily a requirement, there are plenty of options out there.

snow and ice covered trees under a shockingly blue sky in White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire

White Mountains National Forest, NH - Photo Credit: Sharon Bernardino

Your Winter Kitchen

  • If you opt to cook over a fire rather than a stove, dig a small hole in the snow first, then put down some sticks. The fire will make the snow below melt and the fire will sink, so it’s a good idea to have something underneath that will prevent the fire from being extinguished by melting snow.

  • If you’re choosing to cook on a camp stove, use an old computer mousepad beneath the stove to stop the snow from melting underneath.

  • Take advantage of your stove’s windscreen and heat reflector. Also, don’t be afraid to get creative and make homemade koozies for your cookware. To make a koozie, I like to use an insulation material called Reflectix. You can use this material for a variety of things other than making koozies as well.

  • Butane and propane won’t work very well in cold temperatures. Alcohol stoves also have problems in the cold. It would be a good idea to put your fuel canister(s) in your jacket to warm them up prior to cooking.

  • Some alcohol stoves come with a built-in winter priming plate that helps warm up the fuel before you ignite it. This is a lifesaver in cold temperatures.

  • Stoves that you need priming for work great, so white gas stoves are best. Remember, liquid gas quickly becomes the same temperature as the air upon exposure, and you can easily get frostbite if you spill it on your bare skin in subzero temperatures.

the craggy plains of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, covered in snow, under a grey cloudy sky that the sun is desperately trying to break through

Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Chris Blake

Staying Hydrated

  • Dehydration can be a major issue when winter camping. It can lead to severe fatigue and can speed up the onset of hypothermia. However, gathering water, not only for drinking but also for making meals, is a challenge. Melting snow over a campfire or stove is definitely an option, but this takes a lot of time and fuel to do so, and the water will have a strange taste to it. To address this, try aerating the water by pouring it from one container to another - this should give some good flavor back to your water.

  • If a natural water source is covered by ice, not to worry! Start chiseling the ice from the outside and work your way in, moving around in a full circle.

  • If you have time, and it’s one of those sunny late-winter days, place a black tarp out in the open, atop the snow. Create a depression in the center, and place a layer of snow on it - the sun should melt the snow in a couple of hours.

  • Obviously, try to pack-in as much water as possible to avoid these sticky situations. Try to use an insulated container to store water while you’re traveling.

  • To keep your water from freezing overnight, store the thermos inside your sleeping bag or bury it outside in a snowbank, upside down so if it does begin to freeze the ice will be at the bottom of the container. The snow should insulate it enough to keep it from freezing solid.

  • No matter how desperate you may be, never eat snow for hydration. It is a myth that snow will rehydrate your body - in fact it does the complete opposite.

A magnificent winter sunrise over Bryce Canyon National Park. Yellows, pinks, and purples illuminate the sky over the snow-covered trees, striated rocks and hoodoos of the Park

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake

Food Considerations

  • Nutritious food is more critical than ever when the temperature plummets. Your body burns calories a lot faster in colder weather. If you’re going to be out there for any length of time, you will need to ensure you’re eating at least 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day.

  • You will want to look for foods that are very high in protein. Stews, chili, shepherd’s pie, and basically any kind of nut butter are all good options for winter camping as they will fill you up with plenty of calories.

  • Sandwiches for the day (PB&J, honey, deli meat, cheese or even Nutella) can be made up in the morning and kept in an insulated bag alongside a thermos of hot water for tea, soup or hot chocolate.

  • Crackers or freshly baked bannock are far better than sliced bread (which will easily freeze). Dry treats like shortbread won’t freeze either.

  • Remember that the fewer steps and less prep time, the better. Chances are you’ll be too cold or tired to bother with extensive cooking times, not to mention that stove fuel burns off more quickly in cold temperatures.

When you pack your food for a winter trip, it’s crucial that you count your calories carefully and portion out your snacks and meals in advance. The last thing you want is to find yourself eating less because you didn’t pack enough food. This will seriously wear you down in the cold weather and could create many more problems than you anticipate. With that said, don’t be afraid to pack some of your favorite foods. At the end of the day you’ll want to consume your calories without issue, so making sure that you’re packing food that you enjoy will do wonders for your morale!


This is part 3 of Jack’s Winter Backcountry Camping Guide - if you missed the previous editions of this series, check out Part 1 to read up on Trip Planning & Safety, and Part 2 for an overview of cold-weather gear needs!


Jack Malczynski is a Senior at the University of Rhode Island, with years of experience camping and hiking throughout the backcountry in all kinds of weather. Jack currently serves as a PR intern for Pathloom as he finishes out his degree, expecting to graduate in May 2021.


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