By Jen Rogers
So, you have decided to brave the elements and go snow camping but aren’t quite sure how to camp in the winter conditions. Winter camping offers you a rare glimpse into a wonderland of untouched landscapes that only winter can provide, absent of footprints and crowds - no summer bugs biting and some of the most incredible sunsets streaking across the skies as you sit in utter solitude surrounded by the deafening sound of silence.
However, being unprepared for harsh winter conditions and freezing cold temperatures is a sure-fire way to ruin a trip that might otherwise be one of your favorite vacations of all time, for camping in snow is nothing like camping in more temperate conditions. Here are 4 (+14) of my best tips and tricks to stay safe and warm, making your trip much more enjoyable and memorable:
1. CHECK THE WEATHER
Before you leave home, be sure to check the local weather to determine what conditions you will likely encounter. Winter camping conditions can be unpredictable and change quickly so always pack for the worst-case scenario.
Weather will also affect road conditions so it is extremely important to know what you are in for so you can safely reach your destination and return home with no issues. Always carry tire chains even if you don’t think you’ll need them and an extra tarp to lay on the ground because putting on chains laying down on icy roads is never fun. I also bring along fingerless gloves because installing chains will make your hands feel frozen.
Always carry the following safety gear in the winter so you don’t end up stranded on the side of the road in the bitter cold: battery pack car self-jumper and jumper cables, ice scraper, de-icer windshield fluid, shovel, cat litter, headlamp (or flashlight), flares, spare tire and a pocket multi-tool. Before you leave home, be sure to check all fluid levels and tires and/or get a tune up. Also, check your windshield wipers to make sure they don’t need to be replaced.
2. WHAT CLOTHING TO PACK FOR WINTER CAMPING
Layer Your Winter Clothing
Most people already know my number one tip—dress in layers. It’s a well-known tip for several reasons. Wearing multiple thin layers keeps you warmer than a single thick layer because warm air becomes trapped between each layer acting as a thermal insulator. Wear a close-fitting base layer to trap heat and several other layers over it.
Dressing in layers also allows you to remove clothing as you start to become too hot, especially while hiking, so you don’t sweat. Sweat is 99% water and nothing will make you colder camping in winter than having wet clothes. As temperatures drop, be sure to add layers BEFORE you feel cold rather than waiting, because it’s a lot harder to warm up once your body temperature drops.
Winter Camping Clothing List:
Below is a list of clothing I always bring along on my winter camping trips:
- Lightweight long sleeve base layer in a moisture-wicking material, not cotton.
- Midweight long sleeve base layers made of micro-fleece or merino wool.
- Light weight sweater.
- Heavy sweater or thicker fleece sweatshirt.
- Soft shell jacket.
- Waterproof rain jacket.
- Down jacket.
- Double layered fleece cap. Wool makes my forehead itch but if you don’t have that problem, bring a wool cap instead. Be sure to bring at least two so you have a spare.
- Heavy weight fleece neck warmer.
- Thick, long scarf.
- Waterproof gloves. Be sure to bring a spare pair as you will likely lose one at some point in time no matter how diligent you are.
- Fingerless gloves. Cooking in the snow or taking photos with your camera can cause your hands to freeze, so I always have a pair of fingerless gloves with me to keep my hands warm while still letting me work. This is also a lifesaver when putting on chains on the side of an icy road.
- Waterproof pants.
- Snow or ski pants. I wear these around the campfire at night even if there is no snow, as nothing will keep you warmer.
- Long underwear or another base layer. I typically take a pair of heavy tights and cut the feet out and wear these under my pants as I think they are warmer than long underwear and other base layers.
- Multiple pairs of wool socks. When I hike in the winter, my feet always get sweaty. It’s embarrassing but true. This means my socks get wet quite often and I have to change them constantly in order to keep my feet warm and dry so I bring several extra spare pairs. Nothing is worse than cold, wet feet in the snow.
The key to staying warm when it comes to clothes is to keep your clothes dry; so bring extra as needed.
3. ESSENTIAL WINTER CAMPING GEAR LIST
Winter is not the time to skimp on camping gear. Be sure to choose gear that’s made for winter camping or you will not enjoy your time outdoors. Must-have snow camping gear includes a sturdy tent, a warm sleeping bag, two sleeping pads, and a stove suitable for cold temperatures.
The difference between winter tents and other seasonal tents has to do with wind resistance and the ability to withstand heavy snow. I recommend a four-season tent that has a more robust frame structure and durable poles so it won’t collapse under the weight of snow. It will also be able to withstand more intense winter winds especially if camping in higher elevations. If weight is not an issue, try a double-wall tent with less mesh. I also recommend one that has a generous vestibule for storing bulky winter gear and a large footprint just in case you need room to wait out a winter storm.
Traditionally in the US, sleeping bag ratings indicate the lowest temperatures at which the bag will keep an average sleeper warm. For example, a 10°F bag should keep the average camper comfortable in temperatures down to 10°F. Regardless, I recommend a mummy style bag with a temperature rating of -20° if camping in the snow.
I have a tendency to always be cold, which is something I absolutely hate despite my love for snow camping. So, what is my secret to staying warm at night? First, I stuff a 0° sleeping bag inside my -20° bag, double layering my sleeping bags. I am short, so I stuff a large scarf or blanket down by my feet to take up any extra space inside my bag. Empty space will create cold pockets. I always wear a hat to bed as well as a fleece neck warmer and keep a scarf nearby to lay on top of any parts of my body that are unusually cold as I try to fall asleep. I am not sure if this really works, but I also put a blanket to the side of my bag between it and the tent wall so there is no empty space which seems to do wonders.
In order to stay warm, it is also extremely important to insulate yourself from the ground. A frozen ground zaps away body heat faster than the air outside and you lose more heat through conductive heat loss when sleeping than anything else. I recommend using two sleeping pads because two layers beneath you are as effective as one on top. Be sure you bring pads with an r-value of 4 or more and, if you have one, throw a closed-cell foam pad underneath. If you still feel like your pads are not cutting it and you are desperate, stuff extra clothing underneath you.
Liquid-fuel (white gas) stoves are better than canister stoves for winter camping for several reasons, the most important of which is the ability to deliver output regardless of temperatures. Liquid fuel has the ability to regulate the fuel bottle’s pressure even in low temperatures delivering consistent, powerful output compared to canisters which generate output from the pressure inside the canister that decreases as temperatures drop.
They are also more stable on uneven ground like cooking on snow or ice. Although you can use a stand, liquid fuel stoves with inverted canister designs are better suited. Liquid-fuel stoves can also be field maintained if something goes wrong. It’s rare a canister stove will malfunction, but if it does, there’s little you can do to fix it. Liquid fuel bottles are also much better for the environment as they can be refilled instead of being thrown away.
4. WINTER CAMPSITES
Choose the Perfect Spot
Choose your campsite wisely so as to shelter from the elements and avoid the dangers of an avalanche. Avoid both the bottom of hills where cold-air troughs form, and the tops of hills where you will likely be exposed to wind. Choose a flat site and pitch your tent with the door perpendicular to prevailing winds or pick a spot that’s naturally sheltered from the wind such as those blocked by large boulders. If car camping, you can use your vehicle as a wind block, parking it strategically to block the wind from hitting the tent. It’s amazing what a difference this can make.
You can also park your vehicle using it as a wind block for your campfire at night or put up an umbrella or half shade guided out around the fire pit to not only block wind but also to help trap heat.
Another tip for camping in the snow is to put up a tarp or pop-up structure over your tent and areas where you will be cooking and congregating. Be sure to keep firewood underneath it to keep it dry.
Pack the Snow
Before setting up your tent, pack down the snow where you plan to pitch it by walking around and compressing it. Packed snow insulates heat better than loose snow. Plus, if you don’t do this, you run the risk of stepping into a soft bit of snow in your tent and tearing the floor.
Use Your Tent Stakes
If there is snow on the ground, be sure to stake out your tent. Plenty of companies make hard tent stakes meant to push through frozen ground, either out of titanium, steel, or 7075-t6 aluminum. If you don’t have stakes for some reason, you can make deadmen out of sticks or fallen trees, stuff sacks full of snow, or use skis, snowshoes, poles, or ice axes. In addition to staking it out, be sure to use the guidelines in all directions to keep the tent from blowing around, as winter winds tend to pick up at night. There is no excuse for a poorly staked-out tent.
BONUS: 14 ADDITIONAL WINTER CAMPING TIPS & TRICKS
- Stay hydrated and eat plenty of calories. Proper nutrition and hydration help you stay warm so be sure to make hot nutritious breakfasts and dinners and enjoy quick snacks and lunches. Do not skip meals and hydrate throughout the day.
- Use a hot water bottle. Fill a hot water bottle before bed, be sure the lid is on tight and sleep with it.
- Use the restroom frequently. Experienced winter campers not only know to drink plenty of water, they know not to be idle when nature comes calling. Your body will burn up valuable calories to heat any urine stored in your bladder so go the bathroom as soon as you feel the urge, to stay warmer.
- Embrace the pee bottle. Many winter campers, especially men, use a well-marked bottle to urinate in if the urge strikes in the middle of the night. I admit this is something I have yet to try but probably should. Being cold can actually cause you to want to urinate more frequently and it’s always inconvenient to have to get out of the tent in the freezing cold at midnight to walk to the restroom or find a bush. For women, there are various products that can make this ritual easier. I recommend wrapping duct tape around the bottle you use to avoid all chances of mistaking it for your water bottle in the dark.
- Avoid alcohol. It is an urban legend that drinking alcohol keeps you warm. The truth is that it makes you colder by decreasing blood flow near the skin, makes you sweat and causes you to stop shivering which is a mechanism your body uses to generate heat. I also rarely drink alcohol while winter camping because it makes me need to get up out of my warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night to use the restroom.
- Sleep with your gear. I always stuff the socks, underwear, pants, and shirts I plan to wear the next morning into my sleeping bag at night so that they stay warm. It makes getting dressed in freezing temperatures much more pleasant come daylight. Be sure any clothes you bring into a tent never smell like food, especially when camping in bear territory.
- Sleep with your boots. If you have boots with removable liners, put the liners in the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep them warm at night. If you only have single-layer boots, put them in a waterproof stuff sack at the bottom of your sleeping bag.
- Use lithium batteries for electronics. Lithium performs much better at cold temperatures than alkaline or NiMh batteries. They are also lighter, last longer, and have a flat decay curve.
- Consider a VBL. Use a VBL (vapor-barrier-liner) for your sleeping bag to fight condensation if you plan on winter camping for extended periods of time. Condensation from your own body can freeze within the upper layer of your sleeping bag where the warm air meets the freezing air, and over time your sleeping bag can become frozen with ice that later melts and gets the bag wet.
- Bring a towel in the tent. Keep a towel in your tent for wiping off condensation and keeping gear, like your sleeping bag, dry.
- Store water containers upside down. Turn large water storage containers upside down at night. Ice forms from the top down, so keeping the spout/opening of your container facing down keeps it from freezing up.
- Pack Vaseline or salve. Bring Vaseline or other salve to put on exposed skin on your face, ears, neck, wrists or hands to help with windburn and frostbite. I use this under my nose from day one because, without fail, the area above my lip always gets sore from wind burn when camping in extremely cold temps.
- Hike with an umbrella. Even if rain is not in the forecast, I always carry an umbrella when hiking and use it the moment it starts to snow because all that snow falling on you will melt and nothing will make you colder than wet clothes and wet hair.
- Wear ice crampons or cleats. Be sure to bring a pair of ice crampons or cleats that fit over your boots or shoes to help prevent falls. I cannot stress this enough. They are an essential piece of winter gear that will add much-needed traction to keep you from slipping and falling on ice.
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