Winter camping for beginners

07 Nov

Winter camping can mean different things to different people.  For some, it means renting a cabin heated by a wood stove. For oth­ers, it means pack­ing snow­mo­bile trail­ers to the brim. For the more adven­tur­ous, it means grab­bing a pack and haul­ing in all the neces­si­ties to a remote loca­tion. No mat­ter how you win­ter camp, the fol­low­ing tricks are useful.

If you are going to build camp­fires, either for the sake of cook­ing, warmth, or morale, make sure that your outer layer of cloth­ing is less likely to end up ruined if struck by an errant ember.  Wool is one of the best, most fire-resistant nat­ural mate­ri­als and is great for this.  Down jack­ets are down­right (no pun intended) awful, and you can lose tons of feath­ers this way.

Before set­ting up your tent, pack down your camp­site. If you have skis or snow­shoes, that means tramp­ing around hard until all the snow is packed.  If you’re shod only in boots this will take some time, but if you don’t do this, you run the risk of step­ping into a soft bit of snow in your tent and tear­ing the floor.

Always carry a spare hat and a set of mit­tens. No mat­ter how dili­gent you are, no mat­ter how reli­gious you are about using idiot strings and keeper cords, you will lose a hat, and you will lose a glove.  Keep a cheap spare, or be pre­pared for frost­bite or a fore­short­ened trip.

Being cold can cause you to want to uri­nate more fre­quently, and we all know how incon­ve­nient it is to dis­robe and undo your sleep­ing bag at 0 degrees F.  For women, I highly rec­om­mend look­ing into the var­i­ous acces­sories that allow you to pee whilst stand­ing, and for both gen­ders a WELL-MARKED pee bot­tle will keep you warm and sim­plify your nightly con­ti­nence. For the love of god, don’t con­fuse your water bottle—color is not enough, make sure your bot­tle is well-marked and maybe wrapped in some duct tape.

If there is snow, you can stake out your tent.  You can always make dead­men out of sticks or fallen trees, stuff sacks full of snow, buried skis, snow­shoes, poles, ice axes, or what have you.  There is no excuse for a poorly staked-out tent.  If you expect no snow and frozen con­di­tions, plenty of com­pa­nies make hard tent stakes meant to push through frozen ground, either out of tita­nium, steel, or 7075-t6 aluminum.

As Bear Grylls says, two lay­ers on the bot­tom are worth one on the top.  That is, you lose more heat through con­duc­tive heat loss when sleep­ing than any­thing else, so win­ter is no time to skimp on your sleep­ing pad.  Make sure you have a pad with an r value of four or more, and if you have one, throw a closed-cell foam pad under­neath. If you feel like your pad isn’t cut­ting it, stuff extra cloth­ing under­neath you, and toss your down jacket on top of your sleep­ing bag.

Leave your water fil­ter at home.  Chem­i­cal fil­ters take longer to work in the cold, and mechan­i­cal fil­ters can crack and fail. Your best bet for water fil­tra­tion is boil­ing your water, as you prob­a­bly have to melt snow any­way. Don’t be suck­ered into think­ing glacial melt or fresh snow is sterile–it isn’t. Snowflakes often form around small bits of dust (nucle­ation sites) which can be bac­te­ria or viruses float­ing in the upper atmosphere.

Use boots with remov­able lin­ers, so you can put those lin­ers at the bot­tom of your sleep­ing bag to keep them warm.  If you only have single-layer boots, put them in a water­proof stuff sack at the bot­tom of your sleep­ing bag.  Noth­ing means morn­ing hypother­mia more than frozen boots!

A can­dle lantern safely hung on the inside of your tent (far enough away from you and the ceil­ing so as not to be a fire haz­ard) does won­ders to both warm your tent and reduce con­den­sa­tion.  Despite this, a towel for scrap­ing off con­den­sa­tion is always welcome.

Use lithium bat­ter­ies in all your win­ter elec­tron­ics.  Not only does lithium per­form con­sis­tently down to much colder tem­per­a­tures than alka­line or NiMh bat­ter­ies, but they are lighter, last three times as long, and have a flat decay curve.

In the sum­mer, comfy leaves or soft river stones abound, but in the win­ter they’re few and far-between. While many have picked up pinecones in des­per­a­tion, the best read­ily found alter­na­tive is just plain old snow. It’s effective, ubiquitous, and leaves behind lit­tle residue.  If you do bring TP, please either pack it out or burn it. The ground is too hard for catholes and for those who have hiked along the Appalachian Trail dur­ing the first spring thaw, a mound of TP gen­er­ally sig­ni­fies a poorly hid­den scat stash.

If you’re out more than a week, use a VBL, or vapor-barrier-liner for your sleep­ing bag.  Con­den­sa­tion from your own body can freeze within the upper layer of your sleep­ing bag where the warm air meets the freez­ing air, and over time your sleep­ing bag can become frozen solid.  While they are not as com­fort­able to sleep in, it beats hit­ting your sleep­ing bag with a ham­mer every night like some polar explor­ers have had to do.

If it’s not snow­ing, turn your sleep­ing bag inside out on top of your tent to dry dur­ing the day.  This is a great rea­son to choose win­ter sleep­ing bags with a black interior–it absorbs more solar energy and dries out faster.

If you have a large water stor­age con­tainer, turn it upside-down when stor­ing it overnight.  Ice forms from the top down, so keep­ing the spout/opening of your con­tainer fac­ing down keeps it from get­ting frozen up. This can be com­bined with insu­lat­ing the con­tainer, of course.

Cover exposed skin in Vase­line or ani­mal fats. Inuit have been doing this for years–simply slather any exposed or poten­tially exposed skin on your face, ears, neck, wrists, or hands in a thick oil and they’ll be less prone to wind­burn and frostbite.

Stay warm!



Prefer traditional camping without snow?  Check us out!



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