Now that you’ve learned how to layer, what you need for a day on trail and the basics of winter camping, you’re all set for some tips and tricks to help stay comfortable and safe at camp. And really, this is the important part. It is a bit easier to stay warm and comfortable when you’re moving around and out exploring. It’s when you get back to camp and aren’t moving around as much where things can get tricky. Sure, you’ve got tasks to do and places nearby to wander. But it’s not quite the same as moving aerobically. So camping part 2 is going to focus on your time at camp. When you don’t have to set up and aren’t on trail. Which in many cases will be the majority of your time in the winter.
The time spent at camp in the winter can be one of the most magical and romantic things you’ll ever experience. Crisp, clean air. Stillness. No one else around. The whole world glittering in white, while snow falls gently in the trees, making the most peaceful pattering noise. You may hear wolves or coyotes in the distance, while birds sing winter songs on a nearby branch. Life becomes clear and feels simple. And everything is okay.
The experience above is why I love winter camping. It’s why I do it and why I love to encourage others to do it as well. It really can be a life changing experience. If you do it properly, safely and with an understanding of what you’re getting yourself into. I never want to scare people off, with talk of dangers and things that can easily go wrong. But I must always emphasize that this time of year can be very dangerous and overwhelming. It is not the same as camping in the spring, summer or fall.
As per usual, if you have any questions, feel free to comment here or shoot me an email. I am more than happy to answer any inquiries you may have.
Personal management in camp.
Change to dry socks once camp is set up. Just do it. And do it whenever you switch from being active to not active. If you’ve been very active, change everything. You sweat a lot in the winter, but it can go unnoticed in the cold. The problem here is hypothermia. It can happen suddenly, with zero notice and it is deadly. Changing out of even mildly wet clothing can totally prevent the risk of hypothermia... depending on what other activities you’d like to do while out in the wild.
Get camp shoes. Or camp boots. Something warm and super easy to put on. I have a pair of ankle height Sorel winter booties that I live in at camp. They’re warm, waterproof and have grippy bottoms. Plus the liner does not come out, making them super simple to put on and kick off. It’s really annoying to have to lace up or deal with taking boots off when you need to come and go from the tent quickly. UGGS ARE NOT WINTER BOOTS. UGGS ARE NOT WINTER BOOTS. UGGS ARE NOT WINTER BOOTS.
Use closed-cell pads (those basic Thermarest pads) to sit on. They add some cushion and much needed insulation for your butt. You can use these pads for all kinds of things around camp. Get creative.
Be sure to bring an insulated thermos or mug. It sucks to make coffee or tea or soup, only to have it be cold in a couple minutes. I believe in preparations beforehand, so you don’t need to panic about getting something hot inside of you. I try to always have a thermos full of a hot drink waiting for me. If I am cooking or using a stove, I keep using it until I’ve filled up a thermos, along with whatever else I was doing. It’s so, so important to stay hydrated in the cold months. I emphasize this point, because it’s really easy to forgo drinking during these months. Don’t do that. Plus, drinking hot things helps warm you up from the inside. And that’s a good thing!
Wear base layers to bed. What to wear to sleep is very subjective and depends a lot on if you’re a hot or cold sleeper. I am a very cold sleeper. So base layers aren’t normally enough for me, unless I am using my -40 bag. But if I am just using my 0 degree bag, I usually wear base layers, with wool socks, a fleece hoodie and a wool beanie. The goal should be warm enough to stay sleeping, but never so warm that you sweat.
Snack before bed. Really. This will help your body maintain heat through the night. Even if it’s just a couple hundred calories you consume, it will help you to stay asleep.
Put a well sealed bottle of warm water in your foot box or next to you somewhere. This will not only prevent it from freezing, it can also warm you up. Nalgene bottles are good for this. Although the water wont remain hot, it will stay hot long enough to keep you toasty. And then you wake up to drinkable water. Yay!
Put your clothing you plan to wear the following morning into your sleeping bag. That way when you undress, the clothing you’re putting on will be nice and warm. Also, throw your boots or boot liners, into a dry bag and toss them in your sleeping bag as well. That way your feet wont be cold. If this seems like a ton of stuff to cram into your sleeping bag with you in it as well, you would be correct. It’s a cramped sleeping arrangement, but it is all worth it. Plus, it takes up empty space in your sleeping bag, which can be a really, really good thing.
Vent your tent to reduce condensation. Yes. You read that right. Unzip parts of your tent partially during the freezing cold night of winter. This prevents your bodies heat and your breath from creating condensation and ice on your tent walls, which all ends up melting and can soak everything in your tent. Your sleep system should be warm enough to handle this.
Keep toilette paper handy and nearby. So when you have to pee at night or in the dark morning, you can just do it all quickly. Some people say to keep a dedicated pee bottle in the tent. To that I say, don’t be a monster. I think first off, that’s a guy thing. Guys are gross about where they pee no matter where they are. Have some class, step outside and pee. There is too much room for error here, for me to recommend you take off your pants and squat over a bottle in the freezing wilderness in your tent, where we’ve talked endlessly about how you need to keep that space dry. Just pee outside.
In the morning.
Before you get out of your bag, wiggle around, flex muscles, do some sit-ups, etc. Try to get your blood flowing so you don’t feel quite as cold when you emerge. Your morning should be mildly to very active, so that you stay moving/stay warm.
When you’ve changed, stuff your sleeping gear into your sleeping bag and zip it shut. If you chose to use a bivy (which I recommend) seal that shut too. That way everything in there is safe and dry.
No stoves in the tent! If you have a vestibule you can open, then cook there. But don’t bring fire into your tent. It could end very bad.
Start drinking water and hot drinks. There is no better time to start hydrating. If you’re a fire kind of person, have a little fire. If you aren’t, find a different task to stay moving for a little bit. I like to swing my arms wildly and do squats.
Leave No Trace.
Always follow the seven basic principles and relevance to winter camping. Leave No Trace is impactful to you, anyone else in the wilderness, and uhhh... the wilderness. If you like nature and like being in it and don’t want it to be destroyed, know these principles and follow them. Nag people about them, speak out and promote them. As a refresher, I am listing them below:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare. We discussed this in Winter Camping Part 1.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. Again, WCP1.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly. This includes all trash, all toilette paper, everything that could count as litter, toothpaste spray, poop (which should be buried) and all other things that make it look like you’ve been there.
4. Leave What You Find. Seriously. If everyone took everything they thought was beautiful or unique, there wouldn’t be any nature left.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts. Keep a very tiny fire ring and only have fires there. Be sure to always put out fires before going away or going to bed. Don’t chop down living trees or break off living branches.
6. Respect Wildlife. Leave wildlife alone and don’t get close to them.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors. I cannot emphasize this enough. BE QUIET. Don’t be rowdy. Don’t go into other people’s camp sites or areas near them. Don’t let your dog run wild. Don’t assume everyone has the same views and comforts as you. Be nice. Everyone who is out in the wild is seeking solitude and peace. Let them have that.
Wrapping it up!
Winter camping, when done properly, is beautiful, safe and exciting. It is peaceful and magical. The keys are to stay dry, stay warm and stay prepared.
If you have any questions or input, don’t be a stranger.