Winter is coming, as they say. As the temperature drops and most normal people are (still) cooped-up indoors watching Game of Thrones repeats; opportunity knocks for the more intrepid among us.
Have you ever tried winter camping? It's easy to say no to an experience like this. After all, who wants to be out in the wild during the coldest, darkest days of the year, when you could be relaxing in the warmth of your home?
Well, as it turns out, you can also stay comfortable if you're out camping and hiking in the winter, provided you follow the tips we're about to give you. In fact, some say backpacking is even better in the winter since there are fewer bugs, fewer crowds, and a whole different kind of natural beauty. Oh, and more importantly: the beer always stays cold.
First of all, let's think about where you want to go. Is it your first time winter camping? Are you used to extreme climates? If not, then don't try to bite off more than you can chew. Pick a reasonably warm location for your first adventure, as it can get really cold out there. Try not to pick anything too remote, either, so you can bail if things go south.
It would be wise of you to take some precautions before heading out. Here are some things you can do:
You've arrived at your destination? Great. So, first things first: let's choose a site to set up camp.
Here’s some points to consider when searching for a suitable pitch:
When you've decided on the best location, it's time to prepare the area. First, trample on the snow to create a flat area where the floor is compact. If you don't have skis with you, this operation can take some time. But don't skip it, as you can tear a hole in your tent floor if you step on a soft spot later.
Decide carefully which way you want your tent door to be facing. Having a nice view is all good, but it is more important that it is not facing the wind. As a rule of thumb, the door should be pointing downhill.
You may also build a snow wall to protect you from the wind if you feel that your location does not provide enough shelter.
Instead of taking a tent with you, you may choose to travel light and try to build a shelter on the spot. One downside to this is that the area must have abundant snow for you to have enough resources to work with. Also, the snow must be at a temperature that allows it to be worked on properly.
There are basically three approaches to this: build an igloo, a snow cave or a quinzhee. An igloo is a construct made with blocks of snow and is quite hard to do properly if you lack the experience. One thing that might help is the Icebox Igloo Maker, which at least makes it easier for you to make the building blocks.
The difference between a snow cave and a quinzhee is that with a snow cave, you dig a hole into the existing snow, whereas with the quinzhee you first make a big pile of snow, and then hollow it out. They are both easier to make than an igloo, but all three of them can take quite a while to put up, so plan ahead.
The advantage of such constructs is that they can provide a really good wind shelter, and temperatures inside can be much warmer than on the outside.
Before actually going out, you'll need to get your gear first. Let's start with the tent.
There are mainly two types of tents: three-season and four-season. Basically, four-season tents are more appropriate for winter. But can you use a three-season tent for winter camping and get away with it?
The answer is yes, it is possible. But there are some conditions. First, your camping site should be especially guarded against the wind, because the walls of a tent like this are thin and don't offer much protection or insulation. For the same reason, if you have a three-season tent, you should sleep in a four-season sleeping bag, as it will be more exposed to the elements.
Also, if it is still snowing outside, a three-season tent may not be able to cope with the snow build-up properly.
Even though you can camp in the winter with a three-season tent, we recommend a four-season option. Some of the things to look for in a good tent are:
Earlier, we told you to gear up, so now let's see exactly what gear you should take with you.
REI has an excellent expert advice article, where they present a "ten essentials" list based on systems, rather than items. Here is the list:
Almost everything on this list is self-explanatory. Regarding the first item, while it’s great to have GPS, there’s no substitute for carrying a map and compass since they don’t rely on those pesky batteries!
We recommend carrying these items in your backpack at all times, rather than leaving them in your tent. The emergency shelter could be a lightweight tent, a sleeping bag or a blanket. It might not be much, but it's better than nothing in case of an emergency.
First rule: dress in layers. This allows you to insulate better and remove a layer if your body temperature rises. The final layer before the puffy jacket should be a soft-shell or hard-shell jacket. A softshell gives you more breathability and flexibility, while a hard-shell is usually waterproof. It will depend on what type of activity you’ll be doing.
As far as hand wear is concerned, consider wearing mittens instead of gloves. They don't give you much dexterity, but keep your hands warmer because they allow your fingers to share the heat.
Choose a pair of warm and waterproof boots. This is important for more than the support they provide. It is also important to use several layers of socks, but only if it doesn't make your boots too tight. Tight boots cut off blood circulation and don't keep you warm.
Make sure to throw a sleeping pad under your sleeping bag, because you lose much more body heat to the snow through conduction than to the air. Choose a pad with proper insulation, this is indicated by the pad's R-value. For winter, look for an R-value of 4.0 or more.
Don't even think about trying to put those freezing boots on in the morning. If they have a removable liner, it is enough to throw it inside your sleeping bag. If they are single-layered boots, cover them with a plastic or waterproof bag and keep them at the bottom of your sleeping bag.
It may be tempting to stuff your head inside your sleeping bag during the night. However, this causes moisture from your breath to get trapped inside the bag, ultimately eliminating its insulating properties.
If you feel the urge to pee during the night (and you will), don't hold it in. Your body loses heat trying to keep the urine warm. If you're a guy, use a pee bottle (properly labeled) so you don't have to strip down. Girls can try using a urination funnel for the same purpose.
Pack extra items of clothing too. Even if you are extra careful, you could end up losing a glove somewhere, and during winter camping, this is game over.
Lithium batteries are usually better than alkaline ones. Despite being more expensive, they last longer and can handle cold weather very well. However, sometimes they can be too powerful for some devices, like headlamps, so keep that in mind.
Cotton is simply no good for cold, and especially wet weather, as we can see in this tragic hiker incident. It soaks water like a sponge but does not wick it away from your skin, so as soon as you start to perspire you'll get cold really quick. Wool is acceptable, but synthetic fabrics are the way to go.
When near fire sources, you should be careful not to wear easily combustible clothes. Down is one of the worst types of materials in this regard, so switch to a wool jacket before starting a fire.
You should avoid taking large breaks to have big meals, because this allows your body temperature to drop too much. Short, frequent snacks are much better. Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they mess with your blood flow and can also cool you down.
This could be your tent's vestibule, or you could dig a trench in the snow, which is much more fun. This helps you and the food to stay warmer. Also consider making surfaces with your shovel to sit, cook and eat on, with some insulated pads for sitting.
Avalanches are a force to be reckoned with. An average of 27 people die in avalanches each winter in the US. Obviously, as we've pointed out, you should check the forecasts and avoid risky areas. But what to do in case the worst happens?
You should stay away from areas with large slopes, as they present the largest risk. Also, wear an avalanche rescue beacon that signals your location. And if you're actually caught in an avalanche, try to get off the slab or grab a tree. Check out this article by National Geographic for more information.
If there’s one hard and fast rule for winter camping, it’s stay dry and stay warm. Keep it in mind when you’re out in the wilderness. Also, don't forget to eat heartily, eat plenty of snacks and drink a lot of water. It may not look like it, but your body loses a lot of energy trying to keep you warm. Read more about the essential survival skills for hikers in our guide here. =ZIP=