Now that you’ve read through the previous posts in the Winter Series (Layering 101, winter daypack, foods that don’t freeze) you’re probably itching to just get to the good stuff; winter camping. The reason I laid out this series with camping towards the end is simple! If you don’t have the clothing, basic gear and acceptable food figured out, you’ll have a bad time camping. And there is nothing more disheartening to me than someone trying a thing, but getting off on the wrong foot with it, only to never try it again, because it wasn’t fun. That’s a shitty thing. So I hope with the previous lessons I have helped to set you up for success in the cold and snowy wilderness.
Winter camping will be broken into two parts, because there is a lot to talk about! Some of the straight forward things about camping are not so straight forward in the winter. And the gear you’ll need is a bit more extensive. But not to worry! By the end of this series you will be educated, motivated and ready to go!
In the past, I have taught winter camping as an in-person classroom style course. These two parts of my series are based off of that course. We’re going to start off very basic, and work our way up to the finer details. This is meant as an intro to winter camping, but even seasoned winter explorers may find some new and useful tips.
If you have any questions regarding winter camping or winter adventures, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me. I am here to help!
Planning a winter camp.
- Where do you want to go? No really. This seems pretty simple, but you’ve gotta do a little research and choose where you want to camp. Research here is important for a few reasons. One of them being accessibility. Is it a campground? Is it open in the winter? If it’s dispearsed, where will you park your car? Do you need a permit?
- What’s the forecast? You must watch the forecast until the day you leave for your trip. Winter weather can change quickly. Being on top of it can help you with packing, planning and expectations. It also alleviates some of the dangers that come with cold weather camping.
- How far will you be traveling? And how far on foot? I mean this in both time and distance. Remember that when it comes to foot travel, in deep snow, double your normal time. So a 12 minute hiking pace becomes 24 minutes in the snow. It’s helpful to know these things, so you can time it out with the bullet point below!
- Daylight hours. Remember that the sun goes down very early and comes up very late. Depending on your plan, you may be setting up camp in the dark. This has happened to me a few times. And nothing is wrong with it, it’s just not what many want to do. Especially if you are new to winter camping.
- Will you be camping alone, with a partner or in a group? For a first time winter camper, I don’t recommend camping alone. Unless you camp frequently during other times of the year. There is a bit more room for error in the winter, and having someone who can help you to make tea or food if you are too cold to move can be super nice.
- Make a list of the equiptment and gear you’ll need. Be sure to note the things you may need to pick up; extra fuel, winter stakes, parachord, etc.
- Tell someone the plan. Always, always, always make at least one person aware of your plan. That way if the worst happens, someone will come find you. Even if you plan an easy overnight trip, tell someone.
Read about layering for the winter HERE in Layering 101.
I don’t believe in being super ultra-light in the winter. So don’t worry about pairing everything down a whole lot, and just know your backpack will be heavier.
Bring extra socks and extra base layers. When you are moving all around dress for activity. When you aren’t moving, quickly change out of those clothes, get them laying out flat to dry, and change into new clothing for hanging out; this means thick fleece, down, wool, etc. Think warm and comfy. At night, change again into a wool base layer set. Maybe throw a wool beanie on too. Don’t forget socks!
The trick with clothing in the winter is to change often. Whenever you switch activities pretty much. This will keep you and your clothing dry. Having wet clothing, even if you don’t notice it, will cause hypothermia. Which is one of the biggest dangers you face in the cold months. Changing into dry and activity-appropriate clothing helps with this more than anything.
Yes, getting naked in the winter is cold. Because I do mean naked. Bras and underwear need to dry out too. While you’re undressed and chilly, just think about how good the cold air is for your skin.
- 4-season tent. While teaching this course in person, this is typically the only point I get kickback on. Some people insist that you do not need a 4-season tent. To that I say “uhh okay then...”
Here’s the deal. The tent you choose is what you are going to be depending on to keep you safe, warm and dry. I’ve seen 3-season tents collapse under the weight of snow. I’ve heard of people freezing overnight, poles snapping in the cold, everything inside tents becoming saturated with moisture, and on and on. So while I am sure some 3-season tents would be totally fine, I urge everyone to be smart. Think about how much snow you’ll be dealing with and possible snowfall. Think about the temperatures you’ll be in. Think about how quickly you’d like to throw up a tent in the cold. And then decide whether or not to use a 4-season tent. I will never not recommend that you choose 4-season.
- Sleeping bag. I prefer down, some prefer synthetic. The choice in sleeping bag depends greatly on the kind of weather you’ll be camping in. I run very cold, so for anything 10 degrees or below, you’ll find me using a very, very burly -40 down bag. You may think, wow, this bitch is nuts. Nah, friend. This bitch is cozy. I find sleeping bags to be the most personal and varied piece of gear. Remember that for women, you need to choose a warmer bag, since for us, sleeping bags have more empty space. Always err on the side of a bag rated to lower temps. Remember, nights get very cold. I’ll be reccomending gear at the bottom of this post, so if you feel kind of confused, no worries. There are many options, but I’ll let you know what I use.
- A bivy. You may want to use a bivy to protect your sleeping bag from getting wet. Some sleeping bags are water-resistant or have a goretex exterior. The fact is, you will get snow into the tent and you may even have a spill. You might have really sweaty clothing. Or moisture might be a problem due to condensation. It’s a good rule of thumb to put your bag in a bivy during snowy months just as an insurance policy. And when you aren’t in the sleeping bag, zip that bivy up! Keep everything safe, dry and ready to be used.
- You need a big backpack. Winter gear is larger, heavier and there’s more of it. Generally, an 80L pack is the smallest you’ll want to go. Now if you’re car camping, you don’t need to worry about this one. But if you plan to backpack, just know you will be dealing with a much heavier pack. And be sure to use a rain cover if you think it might snow. Even if you’ll be trekking through dense forest, really. The name of the game is to keep everything dry. In the winter, compression bags are everything. Anything that can be compressed should be. The biggest challenge can be finding a pack that fits your winter sleeping bag. So be sure to go to some gear shops and actually try packs out. Make sure your things all fit. Even if that means bringing some of your gear along with you!
- Sleeping pads. I recommend using a closed cell pad and an air pad. A sleeping pad is what gets you off the very cold ground and insulates you against it. So it’s a very important thing to think about. A closed cell will add some light cushioning and is a nice backup for if your air pad deflates. As for air pads, there are many options just for cold months. Choose one of these. There is a massive difference between an air pad for warm months and one made specifically for cold.
- Stove. You’ll need a stove that will work with the weather you’ll be in. In the warmer months, I would not hesitate to just recommend a Jetboil and call it a day. But in the winter it’s a little bit more complicated. Canister stoves are light and easy and great. And for three seasons, do the trick perfectly. But in the frigid months, when you need a stove most, you should probably bust out the liquid fuel stove. The probably changes to a for sure if you’re going to be below 15 degrees. The colder it is, the more you’ll need a liquid fuel stove. Canister stoves do not work if it’s very cold out. Do not plan on using an alcohol stove or wood stove system. Unless you plan to hot tent, but thats not what we’re talking about just yet! Go with a liquid fuel stove. You’ll be happy. And learn how to use it before you need to use it. Practice at home.
- Snow gear (crampons, ice axe, snowshoes, etc). Again, this depends greatly on where you’re going and how you plan to get there. Also, the activities you plan to do once you’re camp is set up. For most, snowshoes will be a good rule of thumb. Even if you think you wont need them, it’s a good idea to bring them along. It might snow overnight, or you may end up in some deep powder. Plus, snowshoeing is fun!
- Long zipper pulls that you can use to zip/unzip without taking your gloves or mittens off. Because it’s dark out so much in the winter, I recommend getting zipper pulls that glow in the dark. MSR makes some really basic and quality ones.
- Bag liner. I use my bag liner constantly. This is essentially a sheet for your sleeping bag that adds extra warmth to it. These come in wool, silk and synthetic.
- Water bottle parka. These fit a Nalgene or similar shaped bottles. They help to prevent or prolong freezing. So you’ll be really happy to have one or two of these. I always fill my water bottles up before bed, zip up the parka and put them in the tent. That way I am ensured drinkable water.
- Trekking poles. They’re just a handy winter tool. Whether you need to knock snow off of trees, check if water is frozen, balance in deep snow or something else. I am not always a trekking pole lover, but in winter I almost always use them.
- Shovel. Get a collapsible shovel. That way you can dig out your vestibule, dig a toilette, maybe dig a spot for your tent. You’ll find many reasons to use a shovel.
- Batteries! Batteries die way quicker in the cold months, so bring plenty of backups, especially for your headlamp. Keep them in a very warm place.
- Extra TP. You’ll be bringing TP anyways, so bring some extra in case you need it to start a fire or blow your nose or any number of things.
Food and water.
I’m not going to get very deep into food here, since I had a whole post about that in the Winter Series, which you can find RIGHT HERE.
As for water, be sure to pack plenty in. If you car camp, bring all the water you think you’ll need and leave it in your car. You can definitely melt snow, but it’s time consuming and you need to melt a whole lot of it to get a good amount of water. Keep a water bottle inside your jacket and constantly fill it up with snow, so it’s a constant rotation of drink/fill/melt/dink/fill/melt. It’s hands down the simplest way to always have some water. For larger amounts though, you’ll need to melt it with a pot on your stove. And that’s pretty basic, right? Just be sure to not spill it on the ground or on yourself. Especially not on yourself!
Drink plenty of water in the winter. Maybe even more than usual, since you cant really be sure how much water you’re losing. Don’t stop drinking water because you don’t want to pee a lot. Bad idea.
Other general things to keep in mind as far as food is concerned...
-Increase your carbs. Depending on the temperatures, double what you’d normally consume.
-Simple cooking/no cooking. Winter is not really the time to make a bunch of fancy camp meals. Trust me here. You’ll be way happier going very basic.
-Foods that don’t freeze. Again, find all of my recommendations HERE.
Setting up camp.
- Make sure you pitch your tent out of the wind- or as out of the wind as you can be.
- Be sure to pitch your tent on a durable surface. Pack down snow before you set up. And always know where exactly the water around you is; once Jon and I pitched a tent on a frozen lake that wasn’t all the way frozen. Don’t do that. Ever. Take your time to be sure.
- If there is really deep snow or harsh winds, consider just digging a one or two foot pit to pitch your tent in. Those walls will help keep you and your tent more secure.
- Use snow stakes or attach long parachord to your stakes so you can find them easily.
- Create a dedicated “bathroom” a walk away from camp. Dig yourself a hole to squat over. Remember to follow Leave No Trace rules.
- Tent: Hilleberg Nammatj
- Tent: Hilleberg Saivo
- Sleeping bag: Western Mountaineering Bison GWS
- Liner: Sea to Summit Reactor Liner
- Closed cell pad: Thermarest Z Lite Sole
- Air pad: Thermarest Neoair All-Season SV
- Backpack: MHM 5280
- Stove: MSR Whisperlite