13 Essential Winter Camping Tips

Don't let cold temperatures and snow keep you from camping this season.

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November 05, 2019
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Quick Tips for Winter Camping

Just because the temperature drops doesn't mean you have to say goodbye to camping for the season. With the right knowledge and gear, you can camp comfortably in the cold. You may even come to prefer it. Familiar landscapes look magical in the winter, and even a short backpack trip can seem like a great adventure in the snow. Here are a few basic tips for those interested in cold-weather camping.

Home Sweet Home

Tents obviously keep the snow and rain off and provide protection from the wind. Using the rain fly will trap some warm air, but tents typically are not that much warmer than the outside air. Your three-season tent will probably work just fine, even in the snow. Companies such as Big Agnes offer both three- and four-season tents, the difference being four-season tents are built to withstand higher winds, and the fly edges are flush with the ground to better keep out snow. Any waterproof tent can be used for winter camping, however. Unless the tent is specially vented, never cook in your tent as carbon monoxide build up can make you sick. Or worse. A larger tent should be considered when winter camping to allow for bringing gear inside. If there's snow on the ground, you'll want to pack down the snow by doing a dance before pitching your tent. If you need to stake your tent in the snow, fill small stuff-sacks with snow, tie your lines around them, then bury the bags in the snow as you would your stakes.

Sleeping Bag, You'll Want Your Mummy

Your sleeping bag is your most critical piece of gear when winter camping. Bags are rated by temperature, so a 20-degree bag is rated to be comfortable when it's 20 degrees F outside. It's advisable to use a bag rated at least 10 degrees warmer than what you'll think you'll need. Down bags are considered the warmest bags and are lighter, though down can clump and lose its insular properties when wet, even from your breathing at night. You'll hear the term "mummy bag" in reference to cold-weather bags. These snug sleeping bags have an insulated hood and tapered body to decrease the amount of space to heat, and resemble a sarcophagus. A favorite winter camping trick is to boil water and pour it into a Nalgene bottle before going to bed. Roll the hot bottle into the toe box of your sleeping bag to preheat your bag, and as a bonus you'll have a liter of water ready to go in the morning. Sleeping bag liners such as those from Sea to Summit are a simple way to add even more heat retention to your sleeping bag.

Layering Is Key

Layering clothing is key to staying warm when winter camping. Cotton clothing should always be avoided as once wet it stays wet, and keeps water close to your skin instead of wicking it away. Start with non-cotton underwear and a base layer top and bottom (long underwear), then a fleece and /or midlayer such as Sherpa's Om jacket and finally a waterproof shell. Layers can be zipped or taken off as needed.

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Proper Pants

A warm coat and hat are givens, but pants are equally as important when winter camping. Most hiking pants are too thin, and ski pants are too bulky. Specially made cold-weather pants such as Mammut's Winter Hiking Pants allow mobility when hiking through snow while being insulated with venting zippers to adjust temperature, and zippered pockets keep the snow out. They are specially treated to be waterproof while offering a comfortable stretch. Paired with a base layer such as Smartwool's Intraknit thermal underwear, you'll stay toasty and dry in the most demanding conditions.

Get the Boot

Next to your sleeping bag, a good pair of winter boots such as the Vasque's Coldspark UD boot is a must. Boots should be waterproof while still allowing your feet to breathe to avoid condensation. As with all clothing, socks should be synthetic or wool, never cotton, as cotton absorbes water and stays wet. Sock liners such as Icebreakers' Snow Liner help keep your feet warm while wicking away moisture.

Shine a Light

Winter days get dark quickly, so plan on using your headlamp and other light sources more than you would in the summer. Cold air can drain batteries faster, so having spare light sources and extra batteries is recommended. Keep spares in an interior jacket pocket to keep them warm when not in use. Waterproof lights such as Black Diamond's Storm375 headlamp are recommended for snow camping.

Water, Water Everywhere

Snow camping is essentially camping in water, but it needs to be melted before you can use it. Placing snow in your mouth takes valuable heat away from your body to melt, and it's mostly air, anyway. Building a fire, even if possible, takes a lot of time. A small camping stove such as the Kovea or MSR's Pocket Rocket 2 is easy to set up and provide instant fire for melting snow and cooking. The fuel canister should be placed on a small stand or piece of insulation as snow will freeze to it as the liquid gas is used. To melt snow, start with a little water in a pot and simply add small chunks of snow until you reach your desired amount. Snow is mostly air, so this can take some time, and some fuel. Make sure you have plenty. A stove can also provide quick heat in an emergency. Even though you may not feel as dehydrated in cold weather, you're still losing water through exertion and respiration. Remembering to drink and keep property hydrated will help your body maintain its core temperature.

Fast Food

Most winter campers want hot food, and want it quick. Meals such as Heather's Choice are designed to be nutritious and flavorful with quick preparation time. Simply boil water and pour into the bag. Mountain House, FishPeople, Backpackers Pantry and other options offer a range of tastes. When starting out, have at least two cups of water budgeted for quickly preparing a meal upon reaching camp to save time and fuel. As a bonus, these warm pouches can be cradled under your jacket as they absorb the hot water, making a great hot water bottle while you wait to eat.

Traction for Action

In extreme snowy conditions, snow shoes and skis may be necessary. If the snow isn't too deep, good winter boots are usually fine. Microspikes such as Hillsound Trail Crampons can be invaluable in icy sections where slipping is a risk. They simply stretch over your hiking boots and dig into ice and snow for traction, and can be quickly removed when done. Gaiters can be wrapped around your boots and pants to keep snow from getting under your cuffs, too.

Be Snowshoe Sure

For deeper snow nothing beats a pair of snowshoes, when staying above the surface of the snow is a matter of safety. Postholing — when your leg plunges into the snow — is exhausting and wastes valuable calories. You could twist an ankle, fall into a hidden crack, or worse. MSR has a variety of snowshoes depending on your terrain, and they're just fun to use, too.

Pad Your Pad

Most of your body heat is lost through the ground when sleeping in your bag. Sleeping pads not only make for a comfortable slumber, but they help keep your body heat next to your body. Sleeping pads are rated in R-values, and the higher the R-value the more insulation it provides. For winter camping, a pad of at least a value of four is recommended. Inflatable pads tend to have a higher R-value and pack down small, but can run the risk of springing a leak; so always carry a patch kit. For extra insulation carry a thinner foam pad on the outside of your backpack to use this as a base for your inflatable pad, providing extra insulation and protection for your inflatable pad. The foam pad can also be used for sitting on the snow at camp to help keep you warmer. It's also good in emergency situations if a person has to sit or lie down due to injury.

How to Survive an Avalanche

SOS Devices

Winter camping can magnify problems, and small issues can quickly snowball into big ones when the temperature drops. SOS devices are no substitute for being prepared and careful, but are a lifesaver when truly needed. Devices such as the Garmin inReach Mini send your location to rescue teams when activated, and can also act as a standard GPS navigation device.

Treat Yourself

Having warm, let alone hot, water on a long, snowy backpack in or out can seem like a gift from above. Hydro Flask bottles can keep water hot for 12 hours. Fill with boiling water before breaking camp, and enjoy a hot tea or cocoa on the hike back to the trailhead.

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