Camping in the winter means, most importantly, fewer people and less crowding! In Northern California, we're lucky that in many places even in winter, you can find mild weather and clear skies. (And if you're coming from foggy San Francisco, some of these places may be just as cold in winter as the City is in the summer!) Some of our top suggestions are below for places to go (and any special gear considerations). Don’t forget to explore other places! Most parks, especially National Parks, stay open year round; just be aware of any closures in place by visiting the park’s website first. Of course, local regional parks are also another option.
Along the Coast Point Reyes National Seashore & Big Sur State Park
Why go: The weather is pretty mild along the coast, without snow. And the views of the mighty Pacific (and that, end of the world feeling you get when there’s nothing but sea in front of you) only improve since there are fewer visitors than summer. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, there’s are even better reasons to check out the parks. Winter is the time when elephant seals mate and pup. You might see up to 1000 blubbery pups squirming along the beaches of Point Reyes near Chimney Rock or at Piedras Blancas in Big Sur. Winter is also when the gray whales migrate south from Alaska to their breeding grounds in Baja California. Rangers in Point Reyes estimated 60-100 whales passing the lighthouse everyday back in December, and the peak month is actually January, so get out there quick! Finally, in Big Sur, you may see tiny heads of baby sea otters from January through March; they’re a little hard to spot, but it’s a wonderful treat to catch one!
Practical advice: Because there isn’t snow, the equipment you’d need for camping, backpacking, or hiking isn’t fundamentally different than in the summer. Just be sure you have additional layers of clothing and warmer sleeping bags (you can rent down sleeping bags and/or bring or rent extra layers of clothing).
In the Mountains Yosemite & Lassen Volcanic National Parks
Why go: Of course, the cross country skiing brings unbeatable views (you are, after all, in a National Park). Then there’s also sledding and snowshoeing (and even ice skating in Yosemite) with far more dedicated terrain and tracks than your typical ski resort. But this article is about camping. In my opinion, camping in the winter isn’t about hiking, it’s about being. It’s all about staying still in the sensation of serenity and solitude in snow (wow, alliteration really hit hard there). It’s difficult to compare to the summer, when there are hordes of people everywhere, and you really have to get to the backcountry to feel remote. In the winter, all the campsites near yours might be empty (I’ve never had to even try to make a reservation), and you might wake up to the sound of only breath.
Practical advice: The weather will be cold, especially at night, and especially if you go where and when it might snow. Definitely check the forecast beforehand and go to the park’s website for current conditions for updates on any road closures and the need for snow chains. Bring extra emergency supplies and brush up on what hypothermia & frostbite look like—luck favors the prepared! And don’t forget to drink water and put on sunscreen; when it’s cold we often forget to do these things, but they’re always important. You will definitely want warmer sleeping bags (so if you normally go summer camping, try renting a down sleeping bag from us). Generally though, you will not need to rent a mountaineering tent especially for these parks unless you're actually summiting peaks or expecially very inclement weather
- In California, a 3-season tent may easily suffice unless you think it will snow very heavily or be very windy. (Curious about the difference? 4-season tents use extra-strong poles, more solid fabric for warmth, and have extra guy lines and larger vestibules, read more in our tent gear guide) 4-season tents are extremely pricey, but you can rent a 4-season tent from us for a one-off trip
- Pack down any snow and lay down the tent footprint or other ground cover, such as a tarp before setting up your tent, to prevent too much water from seeping inside
- Bring sleeping bags rated to colder, winter temperatures (the best will be filled with down, just be sure to keep it dry! Wet down loses insulation, and even the most “waterproof” bags can still get soaked); sleeping bag liners will add warmth, as will sleeping in your base layers or doing sit-ups in the bag (so the bag can trap the body heat you generate). You can rent warmer down bags and sleeping bag liners from us
- Bring full length sleeping pads (so your legs and sleeping bag aren’t dangling on the cold floor) with high R-values (insulation metric). Of course we rent sleeping pads too!
- Bring your boots inside the tent if possible so they aren’t freezing in the morning
- Keep your clothes in the sleeping bag with you for extra insulation, and so they’re warm the next day when you have to put them on
- Keep the tent ventilated to avoid your breath condensing inside (for this reason, don’t sleep with your face in the sleeping bag)
- Backpacks should be at least 50 Liters in capacity since winter gear is bulkier (you need more food calories to keep warm and give you energy to hike) and heavier. If you need a bigger pack than you have, consider renting a backpack
- It’s a good idea to bring or rent a backpack cover to protect your stuff against falling or melting snow
- If you’re going to bring or rent a stove, consider a liquid-fuel one, and depending on conditions, a windscreen or heat exchanger (if it’s really cold, insulate the container! the metal can be cold enough to cause frostbite)
- When camping in the backcountry, look around to see if you might be in danger of an avalanche; and generally, know where avalanche areas are and avoid them!
- You may need snowshoes on many backcountry trails. Again if you don't do this often, rent a pair of snowshoes!
- Consider bringing:
- Shovel (to dig out cars or campsites or snow to melt water [or throw at people] and to provide avalanche rescue)
- Extra batteries (cold decreases battery life); another tip: carry your batteries in an inner pocket of a clothing item
- Poles (for stability and testing snow depth), if you're renting poles, be sure they have snow baskets
- Stuff made out of wood (metal gets very cold and plastic can break)
- Vaseline, it’s a miracle guard against the cold
- Consider not bringing a physical water filter system that may not work in the cold. Instead, look to other filtration technologies (click previous link to learn more), or consider melting and/or boiling snow (don’t eat the snow since it’s a waste of energy to ask your stomach to melt the snow!)
- Check out our ultimate guide on outdoor clothing, or read quick tips below
- Remember: 1) base layers wick away moisture so you stay dry, 2) middle layers provide insulation, 3) outer layers provide protection against water and wind. We rent ski jackets and snow pants that can also be useful for winter camping
- A plastic bag around your feet or a latex glove around your hand before putting socks or gloves can further keep your gear dry, if you’re prone to heavy sweating
- Cover your head! That’s where you lose a significant amount of body heat
- Sunglasses/ goggles; just like at a ski resort, the snow can reflect a lot of UV light
- Cotton does not dry quickly; wool is the best
- Don’t let yourself overheat! If you sweat, remove layers, otherwise the sweat will make you feel cold the instant you stop moving. The reverse is also true, when you stop sweating or take a break, put on a layer so you don’t have to warm up more once you start moving again