Camping during the biting cold months of winter is FUN?
This is something you don’t hear very often. The more common response from the average sterile, dirt-avoiding, carbon-emitting city slicker is…. “are you $%*#@# crazy!”
I very well may be crazy, however not because I choose to venture out into a glorious winter wonderland and spend a few cozy crisp nights with a close friend in a snow cave or tent.
When you are equipped with the right gear, knowledge and a positive attitude…. winter camping simply put… is glorious.
I put together some winter wisdom tips… Enjoy!
Winter Camping Tips:
- Test your gear – Your backyard is a great place. Camping gear generally works well in a forgiving summer environment… however, it doesn’t always work the same in a challenging frigid winter blizzard. Equipment breaths differently below freezing and campers have different metabolisms… simply put… some people are hotter and sweat more than others. So what is good for Jack may not be good for Jill. It’s best to discover that your -20˚sleeping bag is really a -10˚ bag for your delicate constitution in your geographically friendly backyard, where you have quick access to an extra layer, rather than deep in the backwoods some 2 days from your getaway car.
- Keep it dry – When things get wet in the winter, they generally stay wet until you can dry them out in a warm place. Drying your gear is rarely an option with cold weather camping. The trick is “wet avoidance”. You need 2 things; firstly clothing and gear that is weatherproof or better still… don’t get it wet in the first place. Remember wet gear can be the kiss of death. Stay dry and survive!
- Water bottles – Use insulated wide-mouth plastic bottles and store them upside down. The water surface will freeze first, leaving the top easier to open and your bottles will remain ice-free for longer. Hydration bladder systems are not reliable in freezing temps. Bring waterproof plastic bottles, not metal (your lips and tongue can freeze to a metal bottle). Start your day with the bottle in an insulator, and a second tucked mid-pack wrapped in a puffy layer.
- Insulation Layer Accessible – Plan easy access to essential insulation layers during rest stops, or when the weather turns nasty. Keep an insulation layer and your waterproof layers in an outside pocket or at the top of your pack. Winds usually strengthen above the tree line, so as you climb, your clothing layering needs will change fast.
- Sleeping Bag Design – A head-to-toe mummy bag – rated for a few degrees colder than the anticipated overnight lows you expect to encounter. Use the smallest volume bag possible and remain comfortable. Consider full zipper draft tubes, a shoulder yoke, and a generous foot box. Everyone sleeps at different temperatures, so the manufacturers’ temperature ratings are only guidelines. Test them in your backyard first to ensure the rating is good for you.
- Sleeping Bag Fill – Size matters. The thicker the better. The tech term used is “loft”. It doesn’t matter what fill type, the thicker the loft, the warmer the bag. Quality down generally will have the greatest loft per gram and is more compressible, however, when down gets wet it drastically loses loft and insulation. Synthetics generally are heavier and bulkier to attain the same loft as down, however, they keep relatively warm even when wet. Recently companies such as Sierra Designs have been producing “dri-down”, a chemically treated down that is hydrophobic, yet still maintains the cozy qualities of regular down. This is my current fill of choice.
- Longer Sleeping Bag – A sleeping bag that is too big means there is more space to heat and is generally colder than a size-appropriate bag. However, in the winter… a little extra room at your feet is a great place to stash your boots and moist day socks. During a long and rewarding day skiing or snowshoeing, your boots will naturally accumulate some water and sweat. Turn your waterproof sleeping bag stuff sack inside/out, put your boots and socks in the bag, and then place the “boot bag” deep into the foot of your sleeping bag. When you wake in the morning, your boots and socks will be toasty warm (possibly even dried out a tad). The alternative is leaving your boots in your vestibule, and by the morning they will have turned into rock-hard frozen “boot-cicles”.
- Sleeping Bag Stuff Sack – If your warmest piece of gear gets wet, you’ve lost a huge safety net against the cold and hypothermia. Your last line of defence. Pack your sleep bag in a waterproof sack.
- Pack Snacks – Carry your daily snacks in a small sealed nylon stuff sack (prevents your jacket from smelling tasting for animals) and then place this food stash bag inside an internal jacket pocket. The snacks will not freeze. Warm snacks take less energy for your body to digest. Cold snacks can damage your teeth and will cool your core temperature. Try salami, gorp, mixed nuts, cheese, chocolate, energy gels, and cliff bars.
- Good Car – There is nothing more frustrating than returning to your car at the trailhead parking lot after a multiple-day trip, and finding your car battery dead, your fuel line frozen or your tires flat. Make sure your car is in tip-top shape and full of gas.
- Check the Latest Forecast – Forecasts can be deceiving. Don’t rely on how you feel in the city, and always be prepared for the worst no matter what the forecast predicts. However, if the forecast is -40˚… you may want to stay home!
- Hats and Mitts – No matter what you do, it is difficult to keep them dry. When they get wet they stay wet. Bring spares. Also, bring a balaclava for sleeping… toques tend to slip off during the night.
- Four-Season Tents – These are designed to handle a snow load, high winds and cold weather. They are generally tougher and heavier, making them a burden to lug. Double-wall tents are warmer than single, however, well-vented single-wall tents can also work because there is no need for protection from bugs.
- Sleeping Pad – To keep your body from the cold ground. Closed-cell foam mats are more reliable and foolproof compared to inflatable pads. They also generally have a higher insulation value at the get-go. Let the snow provide comfort, and the pad the insulation.
- Waterproof Boots – Consider waterproof footwear. When your boots get wet your feet get wet. Be mindful that there is no place to dry out your boots, however, you can easily pack an extra pair or 2 to dry socks. One concern about current modern waterproof membranes is they often don’t breathe fully … increasing sweat retention. The goal is not to get wet!
- Sleep Socks – No matter how well your boots breathe or how little you sweat, your socks will still hold some moisture. Even if you think your socks are dry, switch to a dry pair of “sleep socks” before you slide into your sleeping bag for the night. Consider down socks like Goosefeet for extra warmth. Slip your “day-socks” into the bottom of your sleeping bag as you sleep (inside your sleeping bag stuff sack turned inside-out), they may be dry by morning, but at least they won’t be frozen. NOTE … if your day socks were victims of a soaker, it is unlikely they will ever dry until you are home ☹️.
- Fire – Bring a handful of lighters and some fire-starting cubes such as Esbit or Wetfire. You don’t want any problems starting a fire when it’s -30˚. However, consider not having a campfire at all when it’s super cold. There are many reasons. First of all… campfires are cold. Yes, you heard that right. Although you get some warmth from the front, your back is exposed to the full bite of the environment, including wind, snow, rain or -30˚. Secondly, it takes a great deal of valuable body energy to gather and cut wood, which doesn’t even consider how wet you will get from inside and out when tromping through the forest in search of any elusive dry wood. When tenting… consider retiring to the tent early, spark up a candle lantern, slide into your sleeping bag and play cards. A quality 4 season tent will get remarkably warm with a single candle lantern and a couple of warm bodies … plus there is no wind nor snow. Very cozy!
- Redundant Navigation – A paper trail map could be in tatters by the end of your first day, always pack your trail map in a case or better yet laminate it. Plus bring a compass or two … or a GPS with spare batteries and a compass. Getting lost in the winter can be deadly … be prepared.
- Extra Long Johns – Synthetic or Wool … NEVER NEVER cotton. Some park services prohibit winter park entrance if you have cotton clothing. Cotton is comfy in the big city but deadly in the backwoods. Once wet, cotton will stay wet and your body loses massive amounts of heat when wet. While synthetics are hydrophobic, and still keep you warm even if you get them a little wet. Staying dry is so important… bring a spare pair of both the tops and the bottoms. They act as backups and when doubled they make one extra warm layer. An inexpensive and light-safety insurance policy.
- Headlamp – So much better than a flashlight. Hands-free light is very important when it’s cold outside and every second counts. Setting up a tent, cooking dinner, or doing the “nature dump” … you need to see and be fast. Plus a spare headlamp. Headlamps are smaller and better than ever, and a spare is likely easier than spare batteries. Keep the headlamp close to your body inside your insulation layer … cold batteries don’t perform well.
- Absorbent Towel – You will get some snow in your tent. The towel will help keep your gear dry by soaking up puddles.
- A Pee Bottle – When it’s – 33.6˚, crawling out of your warm sleeping bag isn’t nice. It can take a long time for your natural body heat to warm up your sleeping bag … so you don’t want to lose that valuable trapped heat leaving your bag. Simply expose your natural “peeing devise” into your dedicated “pee bottle”, seal the bottle tight and go back to sleep zzzz. Men have the advantage here … however, I’m told “go-girls” work, and I have no direct testing.
- Look Up – Your tent pitch location has some additional concerns. Much of nature’s seasonal pruning is done during the winter when the branches are icy and brittle. Always look up before you choose a campsite. Large dead branches, or “widowmakers”, can be death from above.
- Pack the Snow – Level and pack down your tent footprint with your snowshoes or skis. Give it at least an hour to sinter (set solid). Also, pack down the areas for cooking and the campfire.
- Pitching your Tent – Regular tent pegs don’t work. Consider snow tent pegs, or better yet use your snowshoes, shovel, or skis as large yet effective substitutes.
- Use a Single Door. Most 4 season tents have two vestibules and doors. Consider cooking and storing gear in one, and use the other for moving in and out of the tent. This will reduce the snow tracked in the tent.
- Candle Lantern – Warm and comfortable however be careful. Ventilate your tent or snow cave. Light your candle outside your tent, and once the burning candle is secure inside the candle lantern, bring it into the tent and hang it in a safe place in the tent away from any flammables. The heat emitted from the lantern will damage the fabric of your tent … so “McGyver” an extender with carabiners or cord, to ensure the lantern is a safe distance from the tent wall.
- Campfires are Cold – Your body is the best heat source. Stay warm in your tent or snow cave. Consider not having a campfire.
- Keep Moving – Don’t lounge around camp. Set up camp and then go for a ski or snowshoe … eat… then curl up in your tent for an epic game of cards.
- Light Exercise – Before crawling into your sleeping bag for the night, do some light exercise to create some body heat, but not enough to sweat. This way you will start warm.
- Snow Walls – Surround your tent with a snow wall. The sweet spot for wind protection is five times the wall’s height. So if your wall is 4 feet tall, the protection is up to 20 feet away. Insulation is another matter.
- Enjoy and Explore – After dinner, take a night hike. The stars can be amazing – plus, if you go to bed warm from the exercise, you’ll sleep better.
- Hot Water Bottle – Fill a quality bottle with hot water before bed, and put it in the foot of your sleeping bag… plus you will have a bottle of warm-ish water to drink the next morning that isn’t frozen.
- Go to Bed on Empty – Squeeze it out … try to empty your bladder before curling up in your sleeping bag for the night. Leaving your sleeping bag at night is not nice. Consider a dedicated pee bottle.
- Bring Friends – The more the merrier, and much safer. The only warning I wish to pass on is, to ensure all members of the team are prepared and have the appropriate clothing and gear. Otherwise, you may have to put yourself at risk to save the rookie’s frozen ass.
- Adult Beverages – DON’T – first of all, alcoholic beverages are diuretics … and you don’t want to be dehydrated. Plus being drunk, or more likely – reduced judgement – during winter camping can be deadly. Finally, you want to reduce night time water works, and drinking alcohol only increases the likelihood of the dreaded “Winter Wee Wee”
There you have it … an easy-peasy introduction guide to winter camping. If you truly want to make it safe and fun, venture out with an organized group, or perhaps good friends you trust when they say …”I know how to winter camp”.