If you’re like me, you’ve been stuck inside for months now due to the cold weather, ice and snow (I’m writing this in February). Maybe you get outside every now and then to try some walking, snow shoeing, skiing, sledding, and other winter time activities, but I bet you spend way more time outside in the warmer months than you do in the winter. Probably most of your outside time is spent running to the car, shoveling, or trying to get somewhere indoors as fast as possible.
If you enjoy camping in the summer, you may have at least heard of winter camping. You probably thought to yourself, “people do that?” and then immediately wrote the whole idea off. I am here today to tell you that maybe you should reconsider.
While winter camping is difficult, and it can be dangerous, with some proper planning and precautions, it can actually be quite safe and fun. At the very least it is an adventure (although a simple one) that you will remember for the rest of your life and you can brag about it to your friends.
In this article, I am going to write a little bit about several things you’ll want to consider when planning a winter camping trip. You can use the links below to skip to specific sections:
Winter Camping Safety
The first thing we need to consider in regards to winter camping is how to do so safely. Almost each section below has the theme of safety running throughout it and safety really is one big thing that I am trying to push on campingquartermaster.us. As I’ve said before, the biggest thing about safety is to be prepared. The boyscouts even made it their motto. After that would be diligence. Watch everything and just be careful. Use common sense. Have a backup plan.
For more on safety, check out my safety guide.
Obviously the major difference for most people between winter camping and summer, spring, and fall camping is the weather. The only exception would perhaps be if you live in a warm area like in the south or in a different country.
For our purposes, winter camping refers to camping in most of North America or Canada during the winter months when there are cold temperatures (below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) and there is snow.
When you are considering winter camping, the first thing to look at will be the weather. You want to pick a time frame when the weather won’t be too bad. You really want the weather to be at least zero degrees (with wind-chill) and only experienced winter campers should consider going into the wilderness with a temperature under zero. You want to pick a time when there isn’t going to be a snow storm, ice storm, rain, or anything like that.
Having said that, some people do like to pick times when there will be some snow. A light snow fall can be quite nice, but you don’t want to get stuck in the wilderness in a huge snow storm.
I also would avoid days where it is going to be above 32 degrees or at least a lot above 32 degrees. Being stuck in the snow when everything is melting isn’t that enjoyable. Usually you get too hot, and all your stuff gets wet.
Even though you are selecting a time frame when the weather should be ideal, you’ll want to be prepared for things to go bad. If you are car camping (or camping near your car), then you’ll be able to get home. Even then, you should bring a cell phone and tell people where you are going and when you’ll be back. You’ll also want a survival kit, just in case.
Planning Your Route And Campsite
Besides planning for the weather, you also should plan the specific spot you are going to be camping at and the route you are going to take to get there and back. For car camping, this is pretty easy. If you are hiking or backpacking, it can get tricky.
Trails that are normally open in the summer are often snowed under in the winter, or can be covered in ice. Snow shoes or ice grips on your boots can help with those things, but it also is important to carefully consider where you are going to step and go before you actually do it. You often don’t really know whether the ground is solid until you step there as it can be snow or ice covered. A flat surface might actually be a hole, or maybe a snow covered surface has a log under it or something.
Sharp inclines are better left avoided in the winter. Another big thing to avoid if possible is walking on ice. Generally, two inches of ice is considered safe, and six inches is really safe. If you have a drill or other tool, you may be able to find the ice thickness before venturing onto the ice. Otherwise, I would avoid it.
If you are camping in a mountainous area, you’ll want to be mindful of avalanches. In the woods, look out for wildlife. You may want to read through my guide on dealing with dangerous situations in the wild.
What you bring with you is of course a huge part of winter camping. I’ve already mentioned survival kits, flares, snow shoes, and ice grips. There really is a ton of stuff that could help you, but lets first focus on the simple things you absolutely need.
The first thing is a sleeping bag that is rated for the appropriate temperature. If you are camping at zero degrees to thirty two degrees Fahrenheit, you probably want a bag that is rated for negative twenty degrees or below (that is the temperate at which it will keep you alive). If you are hiking or backpacking, it also will need to be lightweight and space can be an issue.
For winter camping, I would always recommend a tent. Shelter can be really important in a snow storm. It also provides some warmth. For winter camping, the tent can be your regular tent, but you’ll need to take some extra precautions.
First, you’ll want to put something under the tent as sharp ice can wreck the materials that most tents are made of. The floor mat that goes under the tent could be a tarp, blanket, or something else that ideally is water proof and fairly thick.
Secondly, make sure that you try to leave as much snow and water as you can outside of the tent (as in do not bring a lot of snow in the tent). Snow inside will add to the humidity and can become a mess when it melts.
Some people like to build their own winter shelter, like an igloo, snow mound, or snow cave. If that is something you want to do, of course you should read up on it beforehand and be super cautious. It might be useful to read about that even if you aren’t planning on doing it, as those things can be used in an emergency.
Besides a tent and sleeping bag, the last thing I think you really need is fire or heat. This could be from a lantern, stove, or portable heater, but of course building a campfire is really the best and most fun way to keep warm. What is a camping trip without a campfire? Keep the fire away from your tent (ten feet should do). Starting a campfire in the winter can be difficult if it is wet or if the wood is frozen, but generally you can find some dry twigs that will work eventually. You might want to bring fuel, and of course a lighter or matchsticks.
Another way to stay warm is your clothing. Winter campers are encourage to layer. You’ll want warm stuff, and may also want to consider getting bright colors as a safety precaution (it is easier to spot bright colors in snow than say, a white, beige, or black jacket). Gloves are preferable to mittens, and you may want to bring two pairs and perhaps even layer your gloves. That way, if you wear thinner gloves underneath, you can take off the outer layer for handling some things (like matches) and you also have a backup in case your gloves get wet. If the outer ones are wet from snow, just wear the inners for awhile. If the inners get sweaty, take them off and just wear the outers. You can dry wet ones by a fire.
The last thing I wanted to talk about in regards to winter camping is the food you need to bring with you. Winter camping is a bit more tricky than summer camping, as your food has to work in the cold. You also can burn a lot more calories in the cold, as it takes more work to keep warm and also to move around with more equipment and heavy clothing on.
Some food that works great in the winter is meat (particularly dried and precooked but it could be something you bring half frozen and cook yourself), cheese, and nuts. People also recommend stuff like M&Ms, chocolate, peanut butter, cookies, brownies, and more. With sugary foods, you’ll want to be careful that you don’t get a sugar high and then crash, as that can lower your body temperature.
I like bringing cans of soup (along with a pot and spoon) and then cooking it in the fire. It warms you up. Make sure to get the kind you can open without a can opener. Most Progresso soup is like that now (and it is delicious!), while most Campbell’s is not.
For drinks, bring plenty of water in multiple containers. Warm it by the fire to unfreeze it(if it freezes). Milk for hot chocolate also is great. You may also want to bring something alcoholic, which doesn’t freeze. I would use a lot of caution when consuming alcoholic beverages in the wilderness as it can lower your body temperature and also make you not as aware. You certainly shouldn’t drink a lot or become drunk.
This section is taken from Princeton.edu and describes some things to do before bed when winter camping. I should include that you should put out the campfire first, and hang any food with scent away from camp from trees.
- Get warm before you get into your bag. Do some jumping jacks, etc. so your heat is built up for when you get in your bag.
- Get any clothing/gear you will need out of your pack as well as full water bottles and tomorrow’s lunch.
- At the tent door, brush off any snow with the wisk broom. Sit down inside the tent entrance and, keeping your boots outside, either have a friend brush them off, or remove them and brush them yourself.
- Climb into the tent and close the door.
- Strip off your layers of clothing to what will be appropriate in your sleeping bag. The more layers you wear the better insulated and the warmer you will be (contrary to the myth that says sleep in your underwear). However, too much clothing can compress dead air space in the bag and reduce its effectiveness.
- Remove any wet/damp layers and replace them with dry ones, particularly socks.
- Pre-warm your bag with your body (get it nice and toasty).
- Place damp items in the sleeping bag with you near your trunk. This will help dry them overnight.
- Place your boots in your sleeping bag stuff sack (turned inside out) and place the stuff sack between your legs. This will keep them from freezing during the night and the stuff sack keeps your legs from getting wet.
- Put water bottles and food with you in the bag.
- A hat and polarguard booties are recommended to help keep you warm.
- Try to sleep with your face out of the bag. This reduces moisture build-up inside the bag (which could be catastrophic for a down bag). A scarf on your neck may be better than using the sleeping bag neck drawcord (which makes some people feel a little claustrophobic and creates a difficult nights sleep).
- You will probably wake up a number of times during the night. This is normal in cold weather. Your body needs to change position to allow for circulation to compressed tissues and to move around a bit so that muscle movement generates more heat. If you are still cold, eat some protein to “stoke up your furnace” If that doesn’t work, wake a tent-mate for some extra warmth.
- With 10 or more hours in the tent, you are likely to need to urinate in the middle of the night. Go for it! Otherwise you won’t get back to sleep, and your body is wasting energy keep all that extra fluid warm. You will be surprised how quickly you can get out and back in and your body really won’t chill that much.
- It is useful to have a thermos of hot drink in each tent.
That does it for my Introduction to Winter Camping. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, more like a quick introduction to winter camping for people that might be interested. I would recommend that anyone who likes camping at least consider winter camping. It is an adventure and can be a lot of fun. If you do decide to try out winter camping, please follow my advice. Research and plan your trip, bring the right equipment, food, and drinks, and, most importantly, do everything you can to be safe out there!