The worst thing about winter camping is the audience. The people who have never tried it, and irrationally try to discourage you from doing it.
“You did what?”
“Isn’t it cold?”
“How do you stay warm?”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
Skiers and snowboarders don’t get asked these questions. And, what is unfortunate is that this type of bullying from the uninformed keeps people from enjoying the great outdoors for a quarter to a third of the year.
Winter camping is a blast. There are no bugs. There are no bears. Water is everywhere but doesn’t get you wet and finding shelter is relatively straightforward. If you’re going out for just a single night winter camping is probably the easiest form of camping there is. Don’t believe me? Let’s go through a lot of the common camping challenges.
In the summer you need to camp next to a body of water or carry it with you.In the winter you find some clean snow and boil it.
Blackflies and Mosquitoes
“Alright, we’re going to unzip the fly on three, and then RUN into the tent. Are you ready?”
Bugs are not an issue in the winter.
Don’t cook near your tent. Don’t eat near your tent. Don’t enjoy slices of cheese and summer sausage in your sleeping bag. Not too mention the whole finding a tree to hang your food thing.
In the winter you don’t need to worry about bears in your campsite.
In the summer you need to carry a tent or hammock or what-have-you shelter dealy.
In the winter you can bring a lightweight shovel and make your shelter as needed.
Alright, rant aside, the two biggest barriers to winter camping are people’s attitudes and sleeping bag ratings. Once you have successfully dealt with these two stumbling blocks winter camping is a breeze.
Attitude Fix #1: Don’t Go Winter Camping
For a lot of people camping is an activity. Don’t think of winter camping as one. Go skiing or snowshoeing, and make it more fun by skiing out one evening and back the next day. Go night sledding. Go for full moon hikes. I was introduced to winter camping by my father who suggested it as a birthday party. For all of middleschool, every February my friends and I would trek up Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield and spend the night in a three sided lean-to. It was awesome. I smile every time I remember running through the woods with our laser-tag vests, jumping off snowbanks, and racing each other in plastic torpedo sleds. We would have a great evening outside, having fun, and then when it was bedtime we would go to bed. The camping was a bonus, not a goal. Think of winter camping as another tool like ski wax, or toe warmers that make your favorite winter activity even more enjoyable.
Attitude Fix #2: It’s Just One Night, And You Can Leave Whenever You Want
If you’re willing to get up early then a night of winter camping is only maybe 8 hours in the dark in a sleeping bag. The same amount of time that you’d spend outside skiing. But as long as you know that you can go home whenever you want it’s not a big deal. If at 2 am you’re not having fun you can always flip on your headlight and hike back to the car. I’ve done it before. It happens. As long as you know that is a possibility then the whole idea will feel less daunting.
Attitude Fix #3: Winter Camping Is Not Extreme Or Dangerous.
Know this. Believe it. No one get’s hypothermia winter camping. Hypothermia happens in 30-40F degree weather when someone dressed in a t-shirt gets rained on. You won’t get frostbite winter camping. Frostbite happens to people climbing 8000m peaks, or skiers exposed to windchill. If you’re that cold, then utilize Fix #2 and go home. Winter Camping is a vanilla activity based around the non-extreme activity of sleeping. BORING!
Sleeping Bag Advice #1: Subtract
In the summer, most of us pack for camping by grabbing a sleeping bag and going outside. A 30 degree sleeping bag will work for nights where the temperature ranges between 40F and 70F. In the winter take your sleeping bag and subtract. If the average temperature is 0 bring a 0F bring a -15F sleeping bag. If the temperature is 20F bring a 0 degree bag. Do not bring a 30 degree bag because it could get down to 31 degrees. Always bring a bag rated to a colder temperature than forecasted. Usually you’ll be camping at an elevation colder than where the weather forecasting station is located, and those ratings are more like survivability guidelines, not for comfort. You won’t die in a 0 degree bag, on a 0 degree night, but it might not be fun.
Sleeping Bag Advice #2: Buy Warm
My life changed in 2010. I got a -20F sleeping bag. It weighs well over 3 lbs. and it is my favorite article of outdoor gear. I got the bag for a climb on Denali where the temperatures often drop below zero. When do I use it? I on every trip I go on where the temperatures could go below freezing. On a 30F degree night nothing feels quite as good as jumping into a loftly insulated bag.
Sleeping Bag Advice #3: Light is Stupid
I get it. You’re super into hiking, you’ve cut the buckles off your pack and hollowed out your toothbrush. If you’re only looking to be alive in the morning bring your ultra-light sleeping bag and do jumping jacks every hour. Seriously though a big part of camping is being a smart camper and knowing what worth the weight and what isn’t. Warmth is worth the weight. (WiWtW) For six years my only sleeping bag was an EMS 0 degree synthetic bag. It was heavy. It was bulky. When it came to sleeping out under the February sky on just a sleeping pad and a tent fly I was warm. I was warmer than my friends’ whose bags weighed half of mine. As you spend more winter nights outside you learn what you need and don’t need. But until you get there please don’t trade warmth for weight, if so you may never enjoy those winter nights.
Sleeping Bag Advice #4: Clothes
You’re excited. You’ve always wanted to try winter camping. The attitude tips didn’t help because you have dreamed about sleeping in the snow for years. But, you only have a 30F bag and can’t get anything warmer. (SHAMELESS PLUG – We do have great deals on great brands of sleeping bags at Sierra Trading Post) Don’t forget about your clothes. Sure in the summer you might strip down to get into your sleeping bag, but in the winter it is okay to bulk-up. Do you have insulated pants? An extra jacket? A wool sweater? You can easily increase your warmth at night by adding more layers, just like you do in the daytime.
Tips and Tricks
Urinate before going to bed. Urine acts like a heat sink in your bladder, get it out and you don’t have to keep it warm.
Designate a place to go to the bathroom. You, or someone else, is relying on the snow as their water source.
Set up your camp late, preferably after 9 pm. Sure this goes against the meticulous pre-pepared mantra minded woodsman ethos,but hear me out. You leave the car at 2 pm. Get to the campsite at 4 pm. It gets dark. You cook dinner. It is 5:30, cold, and all you have planned is to sit in your sleeping bag for the next fourteen hours. Ugh. If you roll into camp tired and close to your normal bedtime it will be much easier for you to fall asleep in the wintery nature and wake-up refreshed.
More socks and more gloves. People always ask me what the best pair of gloves or socks are. My answer is always “many.” Carry a few pairs of each, as one pair gets wet put it into your shirt or jacket to dry and switch to a dry pair. With three pairs you can have one pair on, one pair drying, and one ready to go.
No more than one pair of mittens. Mittens are warmer than gloves, but more cases of frostbite are associated with mittens than gloves. The reason is that you can’t do anything in mittens. You have to take them off to turn on your campstove, get into the tent, tie your shoe etc. Layer light gloves inside heavier ones and your fingers will be both toasty and functional.
Don’t take your pants off all the way. Nothing makes fresh 0 degree morning quite as brisk as getting out of your tent in your skivies and putting on your long underwear and snowpants. Wear your insulation layer, or DRY outerlayer, into your sleeping bag and then just push it down to your ankles. In the morning you just have to pull it up and you’re already insulated before you leave your bag.
More Food, More Hot CoCoa, More Fun
Accept your heavy pack. Bring more of the fun stuff and make your night outside luxurious and pampered.
*This post was written by Keese Lane, the Sierra Trading Post Twitter Master*
Check out a trip report from our recent Winter Camping Trip.