For many, the tent and sleeping bag get stored away once the snow flies, stashed in a forgotten closet until the spring thaw. It is easy to understand why winter camping may not appeal to everyone: it’s cold, it’s wet, and the days are significantly shorter than they are during the summer. But, here is the thing: winter camping is incredibly rewarding if you are willing to brave the uncomfortable. Of course, there will always be a learning curve. These winter camping tips will help you get outside regardless of the season.
Before you go
Winter camping takes a fair bit of preparation; it is much harder to grab your stuff and run out the door on a Friday evening after work. It requires more gear and more organization, which can often feel like a hassle. Trust me: it is always worth it! Before you head out for your first winter camping trip, here are few pre-trip tips to keep in mind:
Don’t go alone.
The penalty for failure is much higher in the winter, so it’s always a good idea to bring a friend or two. There is safety in numbers.
Check the forecast.
Weather can turn nasty in a minute, and no one wants to be caught off guard and unprepared when that happens. Check the weather before you leave so you can be sure to plan accordingly.
Know your snow science.
Snow science is a fancy term for understanding what the snow is going to do and how it behaves. Often, people think that only backcountry skiers should take an avalanche course, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. If you plan on camping on or near a slope that is 20 degrees or steeper, you definitely need to be trained in avalanche awareness.
Leave a trip plan.
This rule applies year-round: leave a trip plan with a friend or neighbor. If something goes awry, this plan may be the single most important factor in getting you home safely.
What to pack: the gear
Knowing what to wear and how much gear to bring is the age-old question of winter camping. After all, it can be easy to throw everything in your backpack in an effort to stay warm, but that pack is going to get heavy quickly! As always, the first items you need to include are The Ten Essentials: navigation (compass and map), sun protection, extra clothing, illumination (headlamp), first-aid supplies, something to make fire, repair kit and tools, extra food, extra water, and an emergency shelter like a bivy sack or tarp. These items should come along on every camping trip, winter included. Tip: Be sure you know how to use the map and compass that you bring! Often wintry snow drifts bury trail markers or otherwise hide the markings indicating a route. A map and a compass may be the only way you find your way to the correct location. Then, assess your clothing. A proper layering system is going to keep you warm regardless of the weather. This system is based on three layers: a base layer, an insulating layer, and an external shell layer. The base layer is designed to wick sweat away from your body, ensuring the cold moisture doesn’t sit on your skin. The insulating layer goes in the middle. This will be a fleece or puffy jacket designed to keep you warm. Lastly, a shell goes on the outside. Frequently, many brands use GORE-TEX product technology in their shells. The purpose of the shell layer is to keep weather out. In addition to your clothing, take a look at your footwear. A warm pair of insulating boots is going to go a long way in keeping you toasty warm. Be sure they are waterproof, since you don’t want to end up with wet feet. Tip: Bring a pair of tent booties! Usually you can find a down pair at an outdoor goods store for less than $30. They are lightweight, warm, and a comfortable way to keep your feet warm during a long night of cards in the tent. After establishing the basics, there are other sundries to include in your kit: a hat, gloves, warm socks, a neck gaiter, and sunglasses or goggles. Depending on the outside temperature, you aren’t going to want much skin exposed, so consider items that offer both warmth and protection from the wind. Clothing aside, you are going to need some gear! Of course, a tent and sleeping bag are critical items; be sure to bring a four-season tent and a sleeping bag that is warm enough for your overnight lows. A sleeping pad is also a crucial item. Not only is a pad comfortable but it is insulated. This will protect you from the cold ground while sleeping at night. It’s also a good idea to bring snow stakes. These will grip the snow better than regular tent stakes, and you won’t run the risk of your tent collapsing in the middle of the night. If you sleep extra cold, consider packing an extra sleeping bag liner. These are sold in varying temperatures, but they essentially add a few more degrees of warmth to your bag. Plus, you can use them on their own in warmer weather. Tip: Pack down the snow before pitching your tent; snowshoes work great for this. This will provide a stable floor for your tent which will prevent you from post-holing into soft snow from inside your tent. Don’t forget your food and water, along with a stove to cook everything. Warm food is exceptionally pleasing in the winter, so a stove and gas are critical items. Tip: Water filters are near useless in the winter since they freeze. Boil snow for drinking water and you will be much happier.
How to stay warm
Staying warm is usually the first concern for first-time winter campers, and for good reason. It is miserable to be cold! Fortunately, the right gear will go a long way in helping you stay toasty. Beyond that, there are some tried-and-true hacks that will make your life a lot easier. Hack #1: Sleep with a Nalgene bottle. If you are a cold sleeper, boil some water before bedtime and fill a Nalgene. Seal the lid tightly and toss the bottle in the toe of your sleeping bag before climbing in. Zip up your bag to the top. The Nalgene will radiate warmth all night long; I’ve even frequently had to unzip my bag to dump heat thanks to this trick! Hack #2: Store your clothes in your sleeping bag. It can be a bummer to wake up in the morning only to realize your clothes are cold….and maybe frozen. If you put them in your bag overnight, it will be a lot easier to dress yourself and climb out of the tent in the morning. This rule applies to shoes too. If your boots have liners, stash those in your sleeping bag. If they don’t have liners, put the entire boot in a waterproof stuff sack before tucking it into bed with you at night. Frozen boots in the morning are a guaranteed way to start your morning off cold. Hack #3: Eat a lot! Eating and drinking will fire up your metabolism, which stokes your inner fire. Consume plenty of calories before bed to ensure you stay toasty. Hack #4: Consider a pee bottle. I know, it sounds gross. But when the wind is howling and temps are sub-zero, a great way to stay warm is avoiding stepping foot outside. Hack #5: It may seem counterintuitive, but open the vents on your tent at night, even if it is bitterly cold outside. This will prevent condensation from building up on the walls while you sleep. In cold temps, this condensation turns into ice crystals. There is nothing worse (or more bone-chillingly cold) than waking up in the morning to an ice shower on your face. Brrrr! What would you add to the list?