Most of my friends tell me I’m crazy to camp in winter. Their only question is always, why?
To respond to all the nay-sayers out there I have a laundry list of reasons I love to take a break mid-winter and sneak away into the woods.
Just imagine heading to your favorite remote lake in February. There will be no loud parties, no dogs invading your space that are off leash, no crying babies at 6 AM (unless they are your own), most likely you won’t be sharing your lean-to or cabin with a snoring stranger, no bugs, no bear (unless you try to take refuge in their sheltered hibernation spot) and my favorite, you get to make fresh tracks in the untouched snow.
If’ you’re a backcountry skier, snowboarder or snowshoer you’ll have access to more virgin snow you could ever imagine.
The key to a successful and really fun backcountry camping trip in winter is to pack smart, dress in layers, and keep warm.
The great news is that winter sport clothing is a far cry from when I was young. Don’t laugh, we all used to wear two pair of dungarees (that’s right – they are still called dungarees in my head), our snorkel coat, cotton socks, rubber boots and if we could find them – hats and mittens.
After a full day of sledding or horsing around outside I remember my thighs being almost cranberry red and as the skin warmed up it hurt to touch it. Fast forward to these days, you’ll pay a bit for what they call technical gear but, it’ll be SO worth it! Educate yourself about your sleeping pad, tent and sleeping bag and your night’s will be toasty warm.
The type of clothing you purchase and bring is dependent on the extremity of the weather. In other words, if it’s going to be as cold as a “witch’s [blank], you’ll need the big kahuna of outer gear. If the weather forecast is for more temperate conditions, you can ease up on how much you pack. Keep reading for a description of typical winter camping gear and when to use each type.
Staying Warm – Your First Priority
Layers are your new best friend.
Wildly, merlino wool is a great pick in all seasons. It’s not cheap but it wicks sweat away from your skin in all weather. If you sweat like crazy, you might want to pick another material because wool dries more slowly that other fabrics.
My die-hard hiking friends love to chant – Cotton Kills. That might sound a bit dramatic but let’s think about this friends.
Remember the last time you jumped in the lake on a cool day with your cotton shorts and t-shirt? When you got out, what did you do? Shiver like crazy! If you get that wet cotton clothing off your body, you will immediately warm up. You DON’T want this to happen on a winter camping trip. A good pick for long sleeve t-shirts would be some kind of syntetic fabric. If you partner this with a fleece layer, you’ll be a happy camper in a wide range of temperatures. As the temperatures drop, you’ll want to have hardshell and softshell jackets to top off your fleece.
Hardshells will keep you dry in rainy or wet snow conditions but they don’t breathe so you’ll be apt to sweat more.
Softshell is great for dry, cold conditions that you will be doing something physical like; skiing, snowoarding, snowshoeing, or even breaking trail. You hardly know you have them on and they are breathable so you won’t work up more of a sweat. Down or synthetic Puffy Jacket These days you have a plethora of choices when it comes to puffy jackets (in my day we collectively referred to them as “down jackets” even though none of us could afford one!). If you’re out and about on a really cold day, you’d be a smarty pants to roll up your puffy jacket de jour and stuff it into your pack. You t-shirt, fleece and shell jacket will probably be all you need when you’re movin’ and groovin’ but once you stop, you’d be wise to fish out ol’ puffy and put her on. Not only will it keep you warm, but it’ll wick some moisture from your under layers too. I prefer synthetic insulation because they keep you much warmer than most down when wet and let’s face it folks, the worst time to be cold is when you’re wet. Plus, your puffy will be getting wet from your under layers and mother nature so you really want something that keeps on working for you. Most activities you engage in on your winter camping trip, you’ll be colder when you start then when you’re getting physical. Keep in mind that once you start sweating, you also need to start shedding some layers. Take extra care to ensure your puffy jacket stays dry. When you need it, it’ll be your best friend if it’s dry
Sleeping Bags – There’s One for Everyone
Just like ol’ puffy, you’ll have to decide whether you want synthetic or down. There are more opinions about which type is better than there are raindrops.
In my not so humble opinion, here’s the deal on synthetic vs down sleeping bags, Synthetic • Cheaper • Dry faster • Insulate better when wet • Water resistant • Hypoallergenic • Less durable than down • Less warmth per ounce • Can do in your washing machine on gentle Down • Higher warmth per ounce • Compresses easier and better • Very durable • Loses it’s warming power when wet and take a long time to dry • Requires special cleaning (like drycleaning) • Not hypoallergenic • More expensive • Should invest in a water resistent shell You might want to consider a dry bag or waterproof bag to carry clothing and bedding Also, purchase, borrow or bring a sleeping bag rated for the lowest temp you think you might encounter.
If you bought one that is not rated for temps as low as you will encounter, bring a sleeping bag liner. It will add 5-15 degrees more warmth and it’s easier to wash out the liner than the sleeping bag on a long trip. You always want to make sure that moisture is not added to your sleeping bag when you are asleep. This means that you cannot breathe into the bag. If you do, you’ll wake up to a wet and cold sleeping bag in the AM.
You can tighten the bag over your head but leave a small opening at your nose and mouth. If you’re still cold drape something over your face to keep the cold at bay.
Sleeping Pad – My Best Friend
I used to pack my yoga pad as a sleeping pad for winter camping. That was until I knew better!
A great pad can be the difference between a great night’s sleep and an OK one. No one wants to wake up with a sore shoulder or hip from lack of cushioning or chilled to the bone from the ground sucking the heat out of your body.
Sleeping pads come in three basic types; inflatable, self-inflating, and closed cell foam.
Here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Chilly of Sleeping Pads
Inflating or Air Pads
- Use your breath or external pump to inflate
- Usually inflate in less than 3 minutes
- Are much lighter than they used to be
- Only have about 3 R value
- Can adjust firmness when you lie on them
- Easily punctured
- The lighter they are, the more they cost
- They make a crinkly sound that might annoy you or your bunk-mates
- They are a combo of air and closed foam pads
- They are pricey
- Can be punctured but easily repaired
- Don’t feel like they lose air overnight
- Good for kids because they are more durable
- Heavier than foam pads
- Adjust firmness while you are on them
- No blowing up manually
Closed Foam Pads
- Dense foam with tiny air cells
- Mostly fold in a Z pattern
- Good insulator
- Not as comfy as air
- Not as compact as air
Tent – You’re Home Away From Home
If you’re headed out winter camping, you really want to consider a tent that is made for winter.
A winter tent can be completely sealed off from the cold, wind, rain, and snow. You’ll need that if you want to stay snugly and dry.
The pole system of a winter tent tend to be stouter than the other 3-season tents. You’ll want good quality poles so Mother Nature cannot huff and puff and blow your tent down! The other possibility is snow load collapsing your tent. Imagine dreaming away and suddenly having the roof of your tent be in your face. NOT fun at 3 AM.
Double wall tents are a great option because they are warmer, more comfortable and get less condensation on the walls.
Make sure whatever tent you choose, you leave a vent and your zipper not fully zipped. If you seal yourself in tight, you’ll wake up wet and cold with gear you have to dry off somehow.
Stove – The Cooking Machine
Most folks own a butane stove from camping in summer. Winter camping requires liquid fuel stoves for easier cooking. They like the frigid weather better than the butane ones plus, to make a butane stove work in very cold temps, you have to retrofit it which voids the warranty.
Liquid fuel stoves work well in all types of weather so your money will be well spent.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to use your stove several times a day to melt snow for water. That could pose a big problem if you cannot get your butane stove lit or keep it going once it’s lit.
Tried and True Winter Camping Tips
- Butter – bring lots of it. It’ll help keep you warm by adding it to oatmeal, hot chocolate and on sandwiches
- You’re still cold even though you have all the right layers. Boil some water and put the water bottle between your legs on your artery. Warming your blood will quickly warm you!
- Go to the bathroom often. You use energy by holding it and your body needs all it has to keep you warm.
- Two pair of socks are enough. Take your daytime socks and put them against your body at night to dry them out. Put the other pair on to stay warm.
- Eat, eat, eat. Your body needs lots of carbs, fat and calories to keep you warm
- Stake down your tent like it’s going to be a windstorm. You won’t be sorry.
- Bring lots of gloves because they take a long time to dry
- Bring a fireproof shell. You don’t want an ember from the fire to ruin your trip
- Lithium ion batteries are best for cold weather. Any battery operated gadget will work better if you keep it under wraps – literally. Keep them warm by storing them close to your skin
- Down bootie slippers are great at night
- Pack the snow with snowshoes or boots where you’re going to pitch your tent. It’ll prevent you tearing the floor of your tent when you step on a patch of soft snow
- You WILL lose a hat or a glove. Pack an extra
- Keep a pee bottle bedside. It won’t take a half hour to warm back up if the urge strikes during the night
- Boil the snow to purify it instead of your water filtration system. They don’t work great in very cold weather
- Sleep with your boots so they are not ice cold when you put them on in the AM
- A candle lantern in your tent will reduce condensation
- Potty – in a pinch us snow. You cannot bury toilet paper in winter
Enjoy winter. Camp safely and have wonderful time!
Photo by Gabriel Coast on Reshot