Despite chilly temps and snow-covered ground, winter camping is heating up across the country, as more and more campers brave the cold to stave off symptoms of seasonal depression. According to recent data from Kampground of America (KOA), 38 percent of campers are interested in winter camping this year—double the rate from last year. And the benefits of winter camping are numerous.

Many winter campers cite mental stress as a main reason for getting outside; 45 percent of new campers are turning to camping to help them cope with cabin fever, while 29 percent of all campers are looking to recharge from the stress of everyday life. In addition, 33 percent of campers are turning to camping to address symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

In This Article

While the winter blues might make us want to curl up on our couch and hibernate until spring, getting outside can help: A dose of nature in the dreary months can give our brains and bodies the reboot they crave.

“Nature has always been known to be important in keeping us emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthy,” says Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, founder and clinical director of boutique psychotherapy practice, Manhattan Wellness. “Leaning into the outdoors during the dreary months can mitigate symptoms of SAD by forcing individuals to get out of their heads and out of their everyday tasks. So often we get stuck in our typical routines which can leave us feeling drained and unmotivated. When we step into nature, especially in the winter, our senses are sparked and curiosity and mindfulness can take over.”

Why? Mental health experts say that, no matter the season, the great outdoors can regulate our brain and body chemistry, break up our day, and allow us to feel more connected to the world around us.

1. It regulates our brain and body chemistry

It’s not just all in your head—winter can have various effects on our brain and body, especially as we spend more time indoors. Cori Wright, MS, CMHC, SEP, a wilderness therapist at Evoke Therapy in Santa Clara, Utah, explains that changes in temperature, daylight exposure, and lifestyle factors can disrupt our systems, purely from a chemistry standpoint.

“There’s a decrease in serotonin and vitamin D3 based on the environment changing, both of which help regulate your mood,” Wright says. “Then there’s potentially an increase of melatonin4, which affects our sleeping cycles—it’s kind of this perfect storm where it takes more active intervention personally for [people with seasonal depression] to be well.”

The antidote? Going outside, be it through cold-weather camping or otherwise. Being in the sunshine (especially when there’s less of it) can help boost your vitamin D. Physical activity can boost endorphins, while taking advantage of limited daylight can help re-regulate our circadian rhythms. “The hardest part is getting out there. But once you’re there, it has a tremendous effect on our well-being and shifting the chemistry that is responsible for SAD,” says Wright.

2. It induces ‘soft fascination’

Ever find yourself lost in the swirl of falling snow, or captivated by the rhythmic sound of a babbling brook? Turns out, it’s not just a pleasant pastime—it’s called “soft fascination,1” which refers to a state of gentle, effortless attention or interest that often occurs when individuals engage with aspects of nature. Wright explains that the alternative of sitting inside all day in artificial light on our computer screens can have a vastly different impact on our attention span and focus.

“There’s been so many studies2 recently on people walking through indoor environments and outdoor environments and how differently the brain interacts with those environments,” she says. “The outdoors offers us joy, curiosity, play—all the things that engage the parts of our brain that create health.”

Nature has a unique way of restoring your focus. Soft fascination with the natural world gives your mind a break from the constant hustle, allowing you to bounce back with a fresh perspective.

3. It puts things in perspective

Speaking of perspective, “There is huge value in being a part of something or experiencing something greater than just ourselves, and nature provides an easy resource in doing so,” says Teplin.

When you’re face-to-face with massive landscapes, whether it’s a mountain range or the vast ocean, it hits you—you can’t help but feel small compared to these colossal wonders. Many people describe a feeling of connection to something greater than themselves when immersed in nature. Whether it’s a sense of spirituality or a recognition of the earth’s inherent value, this connection can inspire feelings of humility and smallness in the face of something larger and more enduring.

How to enjoy winter camping safely (and warmly)

Of course, you don’t *have* to pack your bags and hit the trails to stave off seasonal depression in the wintertime—a simple walk around the block or casual hike can help, too. But if you do want to try roughing it for a night or two, Ryan Andrist, marketing director of North America for outdoor gear brand Sea to Summit has some advice.

The most important? Plan ahead and check the weather—this will determine what gear you need. Your camping style (overlanding versus tent camping) will come down to personal preference and temperature resiliency. If you decide to go the old-fashioned tent-and-sleeping bag route, make sure you have the following, at a minimum:

You can also read our entire winter camping gear guide here.

1. A four-season tent

“I caution everyone when buying a tent—a lot of tents will market themselves as ‘four-season’ but actually aren’t”, says Andrist. “It needs to be durable enough to withstand winter camping.”

Snow squalls, wind gusts, ridiculously chilly temperatures—your tent needs to be more durable to sustain the harsh winter weather. And if it doesn’t? Andrist says to tap your inner child: “You can always build some snow walls around the tent,” he says. “This will protect the tent from winds and keeps a bit of a buffer from the cold.” And of course, always pack a tentpole repair kit just in case.

2. A proper sleep system

“Having a complete and appropriate sleep system is essential so it is not just you laying at the bottom of your tent in a sleeping bag,” says Andrist. “Having an appropriate sleeping mat will create that separation between yourself and the cold ground.”

When picking out a sleeping bag and mat, he recommends looking at the appropriate R-rating, which will give you a general sense of how well it resists heat loss. He also recommends looking at the temperature rating of the sleeping bag itself, which will be essential for getting a good night’s snooze. Pro tip: If you plan on cold-weather camping in places where temps plummet, opt for something rated for 15 degrees or below.

3. Light and heat source

In addition to food and water, light and heat are essential for a safe night outdoors. As for light, headlamps are an easy source of hands-free illumination—just as long as you have backup batteries.

“The cold will suck the life out of your phone, your lamps—all sorts of things. The last thing you want is to have your headlamp die while you’re trying to set up your tent in the dark or get yourself situated for sleeping,” he says. At night, bring them to bed with you so they stay warm (and leave them in your bag during the day.)

As for heat, always make sure the area your camping allows for campfires before you build one. (You can learn more about that here.) If not, be sure to bring a controlled stove flame and dry fire materials to start it. And as for inside the tent, Andrist likes warming up a Nalgene water bottle with hot water and holding it to your chest or on your feet. “By the time you wake up and it’s lost its heat, you’d have had a good night’s sleep,” he says.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Basu, A., Duvall, J., & Kaplan, R. (2019). Attention Restoration Theory: Exploring the Role of Soft Fascination and Mental Bandwidth. Environment and Behavior51(9-10), 1055-1081.

  2. Aspinall, Peter et al. “The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 49,4 (2015): 272-6. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877

  3. Lansdowne, A., Provost, S. Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology 135, 319–323 (1998).

  4. Xu, Xiaoying et al. “Association of Melatonin Production with Seasonal Changes, Low Temperature, and Immuno-Responses in Hamsters.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 23,3 703. 20 Mar. 2018, doi:10.3390/molecules23030703

Leave A Reply