A practical guide with tips and gear to prepare yourself for hitchhiking and camping in winter.
Hitchhiking in winter is a real challenge. What is so hard about it, you may ask? After all, it’s just standing in the cold and that’s it right? Wrong! The scorching cold that will enter your bones after just a few minutes might actually just be the beginning of your troubles. Hitchhiking and camping in winter is a lot more complex and requires a lot more preparation.
We had to deal with icy roads, less traffic and shorter hitchhiking days. Not to mention blocked roads and the risk of being stranded in the middle of nowhere for the night when it’s snowing. Despite all of this, we safely reached our destination because we were well prepared for the trip. Hitchhiking in winter can be a very epic and fun experience and it can allow you to discover the country in a way that only a handful of people do.
We’ve put together this guide to help you hitchhike in winter while avoiding becoming a victim of the cold weather and all the other elements that won’t play in your favour. Hitchhiking in extremely cold conditions should be avoided at all cost and shouldn’t be attempted unless you know what you are doing. You have to make sure you have proper equipment and that you will have a place to stay for the night to begin with. Let’s look at other factors you’ll have to consider.
Travel & Camping Gear for Winter
First on your list of preparation should be warm clothes. Try to keep your body as dry as possible. Start with your feet. Avoid cotton socks at all costs. The reason for this is very simple: cotton has very little insulation value and it absorbs and holds moisture. Your feet will perspire and the socks, holding all the moisture, will make your feet wet after a while. In this kind of weather wet feet mean cold feet.
If you’re planning to hitchhike in cold conditions, you should have a good pair of wool socks. Those are usually a lot thicker, they have better insulation and your body heat is enough to dry them if they are wet. We recommend using wool, Isowool, fleece or similar types of thick synthetic materials. Cynthia and I usually wear two pairs at a time and we always carry an extra pair in the bag just in case our feet would get wet.
If you’re a full-time traveller, carrying a heavy pair of boots might not be the easiest option, but it’s crucial for hitchhiking in winter. Some good brands of winter boots and snow boots are Sorel, Baffin and Columbia. They are available in almost every major city worldwide and are an absolute must to hitchhike in cold conditions. Make sure they are dry before you leave and you’ll be really grateful you got them. Have a look at this selection of winter boots on Amazon here.
Again, say no to cotton. The best option in terms of underwear is a good pair of long Johns. Avoid the American brands as they tend to use a mix of cotton and polyester. Go for the European brands instead. They use a mix of Merino wool and a bit of spandex, which makes the underwear much warmer – even if it gets wet – and also much more comfortable.
Have a look at our selection here.
Warm clothes and winter jackets:
In my experience, what works best here is to think of yourself as an onion. Think layers, the more the better. If one pair of pants is not enough, try two. Same goes for the sweater or jacket. Since Cynthia and I are full-time hitchhikers and we have to travel light, buying extra jackets and winter pants is not always convenient. That’s why we put on as many layers of clothes as we can. It always does the trick. The last layer is usually a good water/windproof jacket (just in case we get stranded in a blizzard). Also remember to cover your ears, neck and head. Check these jackets out so you know what we’re talking about.
Get some fleece gloves and make sure they fit snugly against your fingers. Ideally, there are just small spaces between your fingers and the fabric of the gloves. Any glove that is too big for your hands will result in cold fingertips. Here’s a nice selection of gloves.
Chemical hand warmers:
These have kept hunters and outdoors men warm for decades, so for the purpose of hitchhiking in winter, they are an absolute must! Using a chemical hand warmer is quite simple. All you have to do is tear up the package, give it a shake and put them inside your gloves or the inner pockets of your jacket. They come in different sizes but we highly recommend buying the small ones to make sure they fit in your gloves. One of their advantages is that they don’t require any source of external power. They can produce heat anywhere from 8 to 16 hours and they are extremely cheap (60 to 75 cents if you buy them in bulk). Here’s an overview of the prices.
The only drawbacks are that they aren’t reusable and since they need oxygen to work, they will perform very badly inside your boots. However, you can use the toe warmers before crawling into your sleeping bag. We wished we had bought those on our trip to the Kolsai Lakes in Kazakhstan when we camped in minus 5 degrees Celsius. Our recommendation? Go for the Grabber Excursion Pack!
If you want to camp outside during the winter, it’s a priority to have a layer that isolates you from the ground. For this, we would recommend bringing a polyethylene foam mattress. They can be bought in any camping or military surplus store or on Amazon. Check this link for options and prices. They also make the ground a lot softer to sleep on. Cynthia and I have been camping on uneven and rocky floors for the last years without any discomfort thanks to these mattresses and we would never leave on a trip without them.
A foil blanket is often found in a first aid kit to prevent hypothermia. It is light-weight and once folded, it occupies less space than a small notebook. When it comes to travelling in winter or areas where the climate is cold, you should definitely have a foil blanket in your backpack. Apart from reducing heat-loss caused by perspiration and trapping body heat, the blanket is completely waterproof and windproof. If you ever find yourself stranded while hitchhiking in winter and you need to camp, you’ll be glad you brought this one with you. Click on this link to check out the prices and options.
Winter sleeping bag:
Don’t make the same mistake we did when we hitchhiked across Europe during the winter! We were freezing at night because we tried to save money by buying cheap sleeping bags. Pay that extra money to invest in a good one, you’ll be a happy and warm camper! After years of camping around the world, I realized that one of the best type of sleeping bag filling is synthetic material. Apart from being very warm, it’s very light and it allows you to fold the bag into a very tight bundle. Go for a 3 – 4 Season sleeping bag. Click here to have a look at the different options for a decent winter sleeping bag! Trust me when I say that it’s better to invest in a more expensive sleeping bag than to freeze your ass off at night!
Cooking stove and hot water bottle
It’s always a good idea to have a camping stove and a hot water bottle with you when you hitchhike and camp in the winter. It’s important that you fill your belly with a hot drink to stay warm. Go here to see an example. The hot water bottle is an excellent way to heat your sleeping bag just before you go to bed. Cynthia swears by it (she’s always complaining about cold feet). She recommends this hot water bottle with a soft fleece cover.
Assess the conditions of the road
Once you know you’ll be warm, it’s time to verify the condition of the road. Always double-check them! You’ll need to have a general idea of the weather forecast ( to make sure you’re not heading out into a blizzard) and avoid hitchhiking if there is a risk of an icy or slippery road. Ask local people how the roads are in the area where you are going. That will help you understand how far you’ll be able to go and where you should stop before night falls. Make sure you inform people where you are going and when you expect to arrive at your destination before you head out.
Shorter hitchhiking days:
This will be something to take into consideration. When the sun sets around 5 o’clock during the shortest days of winter, it creates an additional challenge for hitchhikers. If you don’t want to hitchhike at night or risk having to sleep outside, you will have to select your rides wisely and more carefully. In this case, it’s best to wait near a gas station and try to get a ride that will bring you all the way to your end destination. Waiting at a gas station has some great advantages. You can keep warm inside the station such as The advantages of waiting next to a gas station are being able to warm yourself inside the station and you have access to warm coffee or tea throughout the day. If night catches you there, at least you will be close to a source of light and a place where cars usually stop if you want to continue hitchhiking.
How to camp in winter
Sleeping outside is not recommended in winter and should be kept as your last option. Cynthia and I would first try to knock on doors and ask people if we can sleep in their house or even find a gas station. If you can’t find any of these places (also try bus stations or abandoned houses) you’ll have to find a place to pitch your tent. In winter it is best to stay close to the road since there is a better chance of people seeing you and maybe offering you a ride or a bed for the night.
The first thing you will need to do is find a place sheltered from the wind. If there are trees nearby, get some branches and try to make a fire as soon as you can. This will provide heat and a source of light while you set camp. Always carry a bit of paper, some matches and a lighter to start a fire . Evergreen trees burn quite rapidly so try getting your hands on some pine branches.
Clear as much snow as you can from the ground and use it to build a small mound around the area where you will put your tent. Once the area is cleared, try to make a small soft mattress of pine needles and small branches from any type of evergreen tree that you can find around. This will create a small layer that will protect you from the cold coming from the ground. Once you have your tent set up, use the foil blanket that we mentioned earlier to cover the bottom of your tent and set your floor mattress on top of it. Do some exercises to warm up your body (like running a few laps) but make sure you put on some fresh dry clothes before snuggling into your sleeping bag. It’s important not go to bed while wearing damp or sweaty clothes as this will make you cold during the night.
Good hitchhiking strategies (in winter)
Wait for a ride somewhere warm:
Try as much as you can to hitchhike from a gas station or a corner shop at the exit of a town. It’s even better if you can wait inside but be careful not to wear too many clothes to reduce sweating to a minimum. Remember a wet body is a cold body.
Make a sign:
Make a sign on a piece of cardboard with the name of the place you are trying to reach and either stand next to a gas station with it or approach people directly.
Study the map and know where you are going:
Make sure you have an idea of all the villages,small towns and cities that might be between you and your end destination. That way you can divide your trip in different stages and you’ll know when to avoid a ride if the driver might drop you off in the middle of nowhere. Contacting people on couchsurfing or trustroots ahead of time could provide you with places to get a good night of sleep and a hot shower before you continue the journey.
Communicate well with your drivers:
Make sure your drivers understand what your end destination is. If you can’t speak or don’t understand the language of the country that you are visiting, try to prepare a small introduction about who you are and where you are going on a piece of paper. Get the help of local people in writing this if they understand your language. If not, you can always try using google translate or any other translation websites.
Eat appropriate food:
Just like a huge percentage of top tier athletes will eat slow carbs the night before a competition, it’s always good to eat slow carb foods before starting a winter hitchhiking journey. A good hot pasta meal and some vitamin rich vegetables will do the trick. Once on the road however, make sure you have some chocolate and sweets. Not only will it give you energy, it will also help you keeping a good moral.
Keep moving and drink warm beverages:
Make sure you keep moving while waiting for a ride, especially if you’re outside. Keep your body warm by running back and forth. Also consider carrying a Thermos bottle so you can travel with warm coffee or tea. You can find a huge selection of thermos bottles here!
Have extra transport options:
Unless you’re committing yourself to only hitchhike your way to reach your destination, you should be aware of the different bus lines and public transport that you can use along the way. If the weather becomes colder than expected or you realize that you are not properly prepared to camp outside, it’s always a lot wiser to resort to public transport. Make some research ahead of time to know exactly where the public buses stop or where you can catch the train. See it as the “safer” option in case the hitchhiking conditions become too extreme.
We hope all this information will help you prepare for your winter hitchhiking trip. Good luck and stay warm!
If you’ve hitchhiked in winter and would like to share your tips and stories, feel free to leave a comment. We’ll be very happy to read your stories!
Disclaimer: This posts contains affiliate links from Amazon.com. If you purchase a product through any of these links, we’ll earn a small commission so we can buy extra warm gear to continue our hitchhiking adventures in the winter.