Many of us are apt to consign our camping kit to the store cupboard for the year when the first frosts arrive in the Fall.
By doing so, however, we miss out on the many rewards that camping in the year’s colder months can bring: quieter trails and campsites, the absence of bugs and hibernating fauna, the aesthetics of the snow-clad wonderland in which we’re doing our hiking, and, of course, the snow itself—it’s free, fun, and usually unavailable at other times of year!
But winter camping is not, unfortunately, without its difficulties and risks, and staying safe requires a little more know-how and care than camping at other times of the year.
To that end, we’ve compiled a list of ten expert tips to help you make your camping a four-season affair without falling foul of any of the many misadventures or calamities that await the unprepared winter camper.
1. Do your research
The risks inherent to winter camping are, as you might expect, much higher than those of summer camping. On the plus side, we don’t have to deal with the threat of heat-related ailments, snakes, bears, or carrying back-breaking quantities of water, bug spray, and sunscreen, but, on the downside, there are a number of other equally spooky hazards that come into play.
The most notable of these include the following:
- Avalanche risks
- Snow blindness
- The added weight of winter gear
- The need for technical winter skills (use of crampons and ice-axe)
- Frozen water sources
- Snow-bound (or blocked) segments of trail
- Shortage of daylight hours
Before heading on a winter camping trip, it’s wise to research the area in which you’ll be doing your camping thoroughly. The aim of your research should be to minimize or mitigate each of the above risks by:
- Assessing avalanche danger so you can either put your trip off or avoid avalanche-prone terrain
- Gauging weather conditions and temperatures so you don’t sell yourself short on insulation and shelter
- Getting a more accurate idea of the gear requirements for the trails leading to your proposed campsite
- Locating reliable (not “seasonal”) water sources
- Determining whether or not all portions of the trail will be passable
- Giving yourself plenty of time to reach your campsite and make the return journey in daylight
2. Gear up
The Scandinavians have a saying that goes as follows: “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” The adage can also be applied to the gear requirements for winter hiking, both with regard to our clothing and the rest of our cold-weather kit.
Below, we’ve included a short list of the must-have kit you should be wearing or carrying when camping in cold weather.
- Breathable (non-cotton) baselayers
- Substantial midlayers
- Wool or synthetic hat and spare
- Socks (again, non-cotton) and spares
- Liner gloves
- Insulated gloves
- Spare gloves
- Down jacket
- Four-season boots
- Waterproof shell pants and jacket
- Tent slippers
- Glacier sunglasses
- Four-season tent
- Four-season sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
Discretionary and Condition-Dependent Gear Items
3. Leave your route with someone back home
Getting lost or having an accident while hiking or camping at any time of year can spell disaster. In winter, the dangers are exacerbated by the fact that there will be fewer people on the trails to provide assistance if need be, the additional time required to return to safety because of conditions underfoot and heavier gear, and trail signage or markings being obscured by snow.
Additionally, the time frames in which a successful rescue might be made in winter months are far shorter than at other times of year, so narrowing down the search area for rescuers as much as possible is vital to maximizing your own prospects of survival if things go south.
To give yourself the highest chance of surviving an emergency situation when heading into the backcountry to camp in winter months, leave a detailed trip itinerary with someone back home before leaving.
Try to stick to this itinerary as closely as possible and be sure to include the location of nightly campsites and any potential deviations you might envision taking.
Finally, establish a time at which your contact will raise the alarm with emergency services should you not return and, of course, be sure to call them as soon as you get back to civilization.
While all of the above measures might strike you as a touch drastic, they’ll seem a lot less so should you happen to find yourself in trouble and in need of urgent assistance.
4. Thermal efficiency—maximize heat inside your tent
Any form of insulation works not by actively producing heat but by trapping in the heat produced by your body. Because our bodies don’t quite have the same thermal capacity as our heaters or radiators back home, making the most of their heat depends on minimizing the amount of space to be heated.
Some steps we can take towards achieving this goal include:
- Bringing all of your gear inside the tent (not the porch area) with you at night
- Buying a smaller tent with less square footage in the sleeping area
- Stuffing the bottom of your sleeping bag with items of clothing to reduce the size of air pockets and also keep clothes warm for the morning
You can also boost your tent’s inherent insulating capacity by:
- Pitching a tarp over the rainfly to provide a third (or second, if using a single-walled tent) layer of insulation
- Carrying an additional groundsheet or laying out clothes under your sleeping pad to minimize the amount of cold air seeping through the tent floor
- Making use of natural windbreaks like trees, hollows, or boulders
5. Choose your camping spot carefully
The tick list of desirable attributes for a summer-time camping spot is usually fairly short, but in winter months we have to be just a little more fussy to ensure we can get our slumber on as safely and comfortably as possible.
The ideal camping spot in winter should be:
- Far from the run-out path of avalanche-prone slopes
- Not directly beneath snow-laden branches—high winds and the weight of the snow can cause rotten branches to fall…bad news if your tent is pitched on their landing spot
- Sheltered by trees, scrub, rocks, or other natural features
- East-facing so as to receive the morning sun and warm up quicker
- Not on ice—while you may think this a Darwin-Award-worthy mistake to make, it’s not unheard of and, in a landscape carpeted by snow, it’s frighteningly easy to do. To avoid this hazard (and ending up having to make an involuntary swim to safety should your body heat cause the ice to collapse) get your map and compass out, triangulate your location, and make sure you’re not pitching up on a frozen lake or pond
6. Make your tent a fortress
If you happen to be car-camping and don’t have to worry about pack size and weight, then there are a number of steps you can take to make your tent capable of dealing with the absolute worst the weather can throw at it. In addition to the thermal optimization mentioned above, these include:
- Reproofing your tent before setting off
- Carrying extra blankets to place over and on the floor of your tent to improve insulation
- Using snow to build small walls around your tent to keep the worst of the wind at bay
- Using stones or rocks to pin down the tent fabric between stakes in order to minimize drafts
- Bringing snow stakes instead of regular tent pegs (the latter will likely be ineffective in soft snow)
- Stomping out a “footprint” for your tent in the snow to ensure it has a solid foundation
- Pegging or staking out all guy lines to make your tent as stable as possible
- Using a tarp or emergency bivvy bag and trekking poles to make a windbreak like those you’d more readily associate with the beach
7. Do a pre-sleep warm-up
Getting into your sleeping bag cold at night is a fairly sure way to guarantee you stay that way for most—if not the remainder—of the night.
To avoid shivering the night away in your tent, it’s a good idea to do a few quick exercises to raise your core temperature before hitting the hay—star jumps, push ups, squats, and jogging on the spot all work well.
Also, if possible, eat a quick snack before turning in as this will not only allow you to benefit from diet-induced thermogenesis (meaning, in layman’s terms, simply that your body heats up during the process of digestion), but also give you the energy needed to shiver, which is your body’s natural means of generating heat.
8. Build a fire, even when there’s snow cover
If you’re not one for the type of pre-sleep cardio session mentioned above, there are other ways of keeping yourself warm before turning in for the night.
The most obvious, of course, is that age-old bringer-of-heat that has warmed the chilled bones and extremities of many a camper for many a year: fire.
But what do we do, you might ask, if there’s snow?
Well, the presence of snow isn’t necessarily prohibitive to making yourself a roaring fire, it just means you’ll have to be a little more meticulous with your prep. Here’s how it’s done:
Before leaving home:
- Soak a small handful of cotton balls in Vaseline or another petroleum jelly as a firestarter
- Pack an egg box with a few lumps of coal
- Stow matches in a sealed, waterproof sandwich bag
- Stomp out a section of snow to make a fire pit
- Line the base of this with rocks or branches (the drier the better)
- Place the cotton balls and egg box on a flattish stone in the center along with any other dry wood you can find in a tepee-type shape
- Get that fire started!
- Carry, or find, a single log that can be stood upright and saw vertical slits to make a Swedish fire log
9. Choose your fuel wisely
Certain types of fuel are more effective and efficient in cold conditions than others. The three main fuel types each have their advantages and disadvantages, but propane is usually the burner of choice for winter wanderers:
- Liquid fuel burns well even in sub-zero temperatures but is heavier to carry and less efficient for cooking
- Butane is a poor performer in cool conditions but is light and energy efficient
- Propane is the best performer in freezing conditions but burns very quickly, meaning you might have to carry a hefty load if camping for more than just a night or two
A few further tips related to fuel use around your campsite include the following:
- Bear in mind that you’ll need extra fuel to melt water
- Never cook inside your tent or use your stove to heat your tent as the fumes could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning
- For the same reason, make sure your tent is not downwind of your cooking area
- Leave your fuel and cooking utensils in the open to cool down at night to reduce the risk of fire in your tent (tent fabrics and hiking clothing are, for the most part, highly flammable!)
10. Know the “Hacks” that Can Help You Beat the Brrr
A few smaller but very handy “hacks” can be used to make sure you stay warm, safe, and comfortable when camping in cold weather. The most notable of these are:
- Carry your spare gloves, hat, and socks inside your jacket while hiking. Your body heat will warm them up nicely and, by alternating between your spares and your originals, your hands, head, and toes will remain toasty for the duration of your hike
- Pack a hot water bottle for bedtime
- Pack an emergency blanket/shelter in case you get caught in a blizzard, a member of your team shows signs of hypothermia, or to add further insulation to your tent or sleeping pad
- Keep batteries close to your body both while hiking and sleeping as cold conditions can quickly drain their power
- Keep water in bottles instead of hydration bladders (which freeze more easily)
- Stow your water bottle upside down in your pack—water freezes from the top down, so this will stop the bottle’s lid freezing over
- Bring a pee bottle so you don’t have to leave the warmth of your the tent in the middle of the night to take care of “business”
- Wear glove liners underneath your insulating gloves so you can have the dexterity required to perform more intricate tasks without exposing your skin
- Leave your sharps (ice axes, crampons, snowshoes) in the tent’s vestibule to avoid rips and tears—it is, we assure you, no fun trying to repair these with frozen fingers in the middle of the night!)
How did you like our tips? Please feel free to comment, share, and point out anything we might have missed.