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!)
Along the coast - Point Reyes National Seashore & Big Sur State Parks
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 (remember, that Point Reyes is generally an incredibly windy place!) and warmer sleeping bags (though additional layers of clothing can compensate easily here).
Point Reyes National Seashore, things to do
- On weekends & holidays through April, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard closes, so access the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock via a shuttle bus that departs from Drakes Beach between 9:30am & 3pm, more info here
- Park docents at the Elephant Seal Overlook (accessed from Chimney Rock) will have binoculars for you to see the seals up close on weekends & holidays through April from 11am to 4pm
Big Sur, things to do
- Meet at the vista point at mile marker 37 off Highway 1 north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for drop-in whale watching & condor spotting with rangers between 10am & 12pm on weekends through February
In the mountains - Yosemite National Park & Lassen Volcanic National Park
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 (Yosemite here, Lassen here) 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.
Gear advice for camping & backpacking in the winter
- 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)
- Pack down any snow and lay a ground cover 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)
- Bring full length sleeping pads (so your legs and sleeping bag aren’t dangling on the cold floor) with high R-values (insulation metric)
- 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
- It’s a good idea to bring a backpack cover to protect your stuff against falling or melting snow
- If you’re going to bring 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
- 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)
- 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 water purifier, they get cranky and may break in the extreme cold. Instead, melt snow (boil to be safe, but generally clean snow should be fine) and then drink (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
- 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
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.