How to choose the perfect winter camping shelter

Winter camping

Camping in the summer is a ton of fun: campfires late into the night, cooking outside, hiking, stargazing—it’s a highlight of the season.

Well, you can do all those things in the winter, too. All you have to do is make sure you know how to deal with the cold—and that starts with knowing about the different types of shelters you can use. There’s a wide variety suited to different types of treks, so take a look and see which will work best for you.


For winter camping, you can either choose a hot tent or a cold tent. No, that’s not exactly a description of the interior temperatures (although it’s close). A hot tent can accommodate a woodstove, and is generally made of canvas, which keeps heat in and lets moisture out better than synthetic fabrics. Hot tents are meant to be set up and left—kind of a “base camp” set-up, since they’re heavy and need sleds to transport all their components. Plus, like any woodstove, the stove needs regular attention. Four-season tents, on the other hand, don’t incorporate a woodstove, but can include extra elements intended for mountaineering or winter camping, including extra guy lines, extra-strong poles, and a vestibule to store wet gear or provide a sheltered cooking spot.

If you’re not going to be somewhere with high winds, heavy snow or the risk of having to weather a bad storm in place, a three-season tent will work. With a good sleeping bag, pads and careful set-up (pack down the snow under the tent), cold tents can be perfectly comfy. Pack your clothes for the next day into the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm them up and reduce the amount of cold air around your feet.


A quinzee is essentially a cave dug out of a mound of snow. Sounds simple (and it is, in principle) but it takes a little time to make a quinzee sturdy and safe. Stomp a circle in the snow the size of your sleeping area, then pile snow in the middle of the circle until it’s about six or eight feet high. Use snow of different temperatures—some from closer to the ground, and some from the layer closest to the air. Then—and this is really important—leave it along to “sinter,” or settle and compress, for about 90 minutes to two hours. Dig an entrance hole, sloping it upward, then hollow out the interior. Keep the walls about a foot thick, and cut a small ventilation hole. Smooth the walls over, then lay a tarp down on the floor. You can use extra snow to create a platform for sleeping.


If you’re planning to do some winter camping but you’re not quite prepared to stay in a tent, several provincial parks have yurts—eight-sided framed tents—available to rent year-round. In most places, they include bunks, a table and chairs, electric light, and a heater. Most won’t allow cooking inside, so you’ll get a small taste of winter camping—but with the welcome option to go inside and warm up. For more info, go to Ontarioparks.com.

Bivy sacks

If you’re interested in super lightweight camping, consider skipping the tent altogether and using a bivy sack. Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is—a waterproof sack you can put your sleeping bag in to allow you to sleep out in the open. Some models create a tent-like structure around your head. Keep in mind if you take this option that there’s no shelter for your gear, so you’ll need to set up something separately. This may not be a great long-term option, but if you’re comfy with a relatively restricted sleeping arrangement, then bivy camping is a doable option.


If you don’t want to carry your shelter gear, then choose a campsite that has a lean-to already constructed (or, if you’re feeling ambitious, build your own). The benefit of lean-tos is that they’re sturdy, and often offer a solid floor off the ground to sleep on. The drawback is that they’re open on one side, so you’ll have to hang a tarp or other barrier in the doorway to stop the wind and snow from getting in. Otherwise, they’re a nice option for folks who don’t want to risk freezing in a tent.


Unlike a quinzee, an igloo is made of blocks of snow and ice, stacked to form a cave. They’re more labour intensive than other snow shelters, but once they’re built, they’re nice and cozy. You’ll need tools to build one—a snow saw (or large knife) and a spade or shovel will make the building go much quicker. The drier and more densely packed the snow, the better (so don’t try and build one right after a snowfall). Layer the blocks, which should decrease in size as you move up the walls of the igloo. Dig an entrance, block it off with more ice blocks, then pack snow into the crevices. From the inside, cut ventilation holes (this is a must). For detailed instructions, take a look at this post from How Stuff Works.

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