Primer to winter camping

snow camping

Many campers tend to think of camping as a summer- and fall-only activity. However, the winter offers  a unique perspective on most outdoor activities and familiar trails and camping areas. The woods are quieter and the trails are usually less crowded, but there are several things to consider before you set off on a snow-covered camping trip.

Preparation and planning go a long way toward an enjoyable trip, especially if you’re just testing the waters of the chillier cousin of the classic summer night under the stars. Some of the best advice to consider when planning a trip is to not overshoot your abilities. Many campgrounds close during the winter, so most campers find their first snow trip occurring in the backcountry. Try repeating a summer trip that you’re familiar with, preferably one without tricky terrain or confusing trail junctions. It’s important to remember that you’ll be moving slower due to snowy terrain and the extra weight in your pack.

Some things you might encounter during the warmer months may be simply inconvenient on the trail, but quickly become dangerous in the winter. Large rocks or drop offs on the trail can be totally hidden by snow drifts. Streams can be totally frozen over, or full of frigid melt water, and both are to be treated with caution. The crack of ice followed by shock of ice water is a less-than-enjoyable experience, to say the least.

winter camping 1

Photo via Yuchiro Haga

One of the trickier aspects of cold snowy camping adventures is water. When dry winter air is combined with the extra strain of doing physical activity in a cold environment, it’s easy to get dehydrated and not realize it until it’s too late. Be sure to keep water accessible, and you’ll be more likely to drink it on a regular occasion.

Most of the challenges associated with a winter time camping trip can be avoided with proper gear selection.

Our winter camping gear picks

snow camping gear

1. Hydro Flask Insulated 21 oz. Tactical Bottle, $25.99

2. REI Space All-Weather Blanket, $16.95

3. Montbell North Pole Cap, $52

4. Poler Wunder Bundle, currently sold out (but check back soon)

5. REI snow stake, $1.95

How to plan

To insure you have exactly what you need, start at the bottom. The right boots and the right socks can make or break your trip. One common misconception is that boots with waterproof membranes will keep your feet warm no matter what. However, those with nylon panels or suede can absorb water and freeze, and that layer of ice pulls heat from your feet. Full-grain leather boots are best, and even non-waterproof models can keep your feet dry when properly treated. Some might be tempted to double up on socks, but over-constricting your feet reduces blood flow and just makes them colder. If your feet are prone to excessive sweating while moving, carry plenty of extra socks and find the right blend of wool and synthetic to keep your feet warm and dry.

As for the rest of your clothing: think in threes. A base layer that wicks moisture, a mid layer that insulates, and shell that protects while breathing are the key to staying warm. Also consider your personal experience with the cold. Some who heat up quick can hike  with just a base layer, but when you stop, add insulation to avoid chilling. If you wait until you’re already chilled to add a layer of insulation, it makes it much harder for your body to warm back up once continue on the trail. Accessories, such as gloves and a hat, are just as important. You lose the most heat through your head and cold, numb fingers make everything more difficult. Consider the fitting rules for your gloves the same as your socks and boots: too tight can do more harm than good.

Most importantly, remember: NO COTTON. Cotton absorbs water quickly, stays wet forever, and pulls heat from you. There’s a huge variety of wool and synthetic products out there for every article of clothing, so there’s really no excuse for the cotton mistake.

As noted before, water is of the upmost importance. It’s important to remember a few facts so you don’t find yourself without. For starters, keep your bottles stored upside down to avoid frozen caps. Also consider that acquiring clean drinking water can be significantly harder in the winter time. For starters, boiling snow–a common thought for people looking for water when there surrounded by it in the solid form–requires a large amount of fuel. It also takes longer than most expect. Filters are not highly suggested either. If any water at all is left in the filter element, it can freeze and bust, rendering the filter useless. If the chemical route is your chosen method of purification, remember that most water treatments require more time to purify water under certain temperatures.

The last three items to note are your ground pad, sleeping bag, and tent. Once your campsite is selected, pack the snow evenly and avoids lumps of hard compressed snow under your tent. If your tent requires stakes, consider snow stakes or snow anchors. As always, sleeping pads are a matter of preference, but mats that rely solely on air are not advised for snow camping. Instead double up with a closed cell foam pad, or an insulated inflatable model. When picking a sleeping bag, use one that has a temperature rating at least 10 degrees colder than you expect to encounter. Also consider adding a liner to your bag to boost its rating. A few tricks to add a few degrees to your night of sleep: warm a bottle of water and sleep with it near your feet, and keep extra layers for the morning in the bag with you. That way, you won’t have to force yourself to pull on freezing cold layers first thing in the morning. Unless you’re expecting significant wind or snow accumulation, your regular three-season tent will work. Just don’t fall victim to the tempting idea of cooking in the tent, or using any open flame for that matter. Gas build up and the highly flammable nature of tent material can be a dangerous combination.


A few other things to note while on the snowy trail...

  • Battery performance suffers in the cold. Consider keeping electronics such as head lamps, cell phones, and cameras in pockets in your insulation layer so the share some of your body heat.
  • Carry a set pad to insulate you from the snow.
  • If the snow depth allows it, get creative with your shovel and make furniture: chairs, tables, etc. Your’re only limited by your imagination and the amount of snow you’re willing to move.
  • Carry an insulated container with your favorite hot drink. That way you don’t have to fire up the stove every time you want to warm up a bit.
  • Pelt your camping partners with a snow ball every chance you get. Remember, everything is fair except for ear shots. No one likes to get hit in the ear.

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