Almost Everything You Need To Know About Winter Camping - Part 1
Updated: Jan 19, 2020
Cold Winter Camping in Adirondacks. Photo Credit (Catharine Gerhard)
When the days get short, the air turns cold and the ground is covered in snow the woods and trails you know transform into something completely new. It is a world of both beauty and danger if you are ill-prepared. I think this is one of the reasons why I love winter camping so much. There is a pleasure that comes from being someplace you don't belong. So while this isn't an environment we can survive in naked, with the right gear and knowledge we can thrive and extend our camping into a 4 season sport.
I titled this Almost Everything You Need To Know because while I've tried to include everything I know about winter camping there is always room to learn more. I've been winter camping for over 30 years and keep adding skills and tricks to make it more enjoyable. Winter is an amazing time to be out in the wild but is very unforgiving of errors so while this will be a good place for you to start, keep learning and adding tools to your toolbox.
Winter camping is both challenging and rewarding as it lets you get out when everyone else is cooped up inside. Lots of people hike and camp in the summer but going out in the cold and snow requires both preparation and commitment. There is something soothing for the soul being out in a land covered in deep snow cutting your own path through the forest and frozen lakes.
Benefits of Winter Adventures
There are a number of benefits that winter grants the outdoor adventurer.
No Bugs - Instead of getting eaten alive you are free of insects when the ground is covered with snow. This alone makes it worth it.
The Silence - The absence of bugs and many birds combined with the sound damping effect of the snow make winter almost eerily quiet.
No Bears - The dead of winter find our furry friends taking a very long nap so bear hangs or canisters are not an issue.
Fewer Crowds - Most people are fair-weather campers so you will have the pick of all the prime spots.
Unlimited Calories - You need to eat a lot to stay warm in the cold so high calories meals, chocolate, and hot drinks are all on the menu.
Walking on Water - Winter is the only time you can actually walk on water. Frozen lakes can be part of your route but read up on the safety precautions outlined below.
How To Dress For Winter Trekking And Camping
Layers, Layers, Layers - When dressing for the cold you are best served by choosing multiple layers rather than one heavy one. This will be both warmer and easier to adjust the amount of clothing you wear based on your activity level. Start with a wicking base layer made of synthetic material or merino wool. Then add as many insulating layers as needed and finally cover it all with a shell that will cut the wind and keep snow off of you.
Manage Your Moisture - I use synthetic thermal base layers top and bottom. I find synthetic wicks slightly better than merino wool so as a sweaty individual I will take any help I can get. On the lower body, I run just a softshell pant with reinforced knees and butt over the base layer. This gives enough weather protection and warmth for just about any temperature. On the upper body, a light fleece vest with a wind front and a Gore-Tex shell will keep me warm in almost any temperatures when I'm moving. I will often strip off the shell if I don't need the wind or snow protection to vent out as much moisture as possible. It is better to be a tiny bit cooler than it is to get wet from sweat. I keep a down puffy jacket in my pack to put on when I stop for a break to keep from getting cold when I've stopped moving. I carry an additional fleece jacket to layer under the shell if the temperatures are cold enough.
Start Off Cool - When you are hiking you will benefit from starting off a little cool as this will help keep you from sweating as you warm up. If you are warm enough when you aren't moving you will very quickly overheat and start sweating, especially when going in deep snow or uphill.
Protect Your Extremities - Your head and hands need to be protected from the elements as well so carry a number of options depending on your work output and the conditions. I carry a lightly insulated work glove, shell mitts, and an extra pair of gauntlet style super warm mitts. I will also keep a light liner glove as a backup and for sleeping in if it is particularly cold. If you are prone to cold hand consider gloves with a pocket for chemical heating packs to add warmth to your hands.
For my head, I carry a light beanie, a thermal headband that covers the ears and a balaclava. I always have a spare thermal toque for sleeping and as a dry backup. This combination will give options depending on temperatures, wind, and work output.
How To Keep Your Feet Warm
Unlike the rest of your body, your feet aren't an easy place to adjust layers so aim for warm feet and adjust your temperature with the upper body layers. If you are going to be hiking a pair of waterproof insulated hiking boots would be the best option. While warmer, boots with removable liners tend to be sloppy to hike in making it more likely you could get blisters. Look for a boot with 200-600 grams of insulation and room for thick socks. I like my boots to have a gaiter clip on the front as well as
For socks, a double layer of merino wool with a thin liner sock against the skin with a thicker hiking sock will help with moisture management and increase warmth. There will be moisture coming off of your feet all day so the insulation in your boots can build up frost. At night try to keep your boots in a warm place so they can dry out overnight. This is simple if you are in a hot tent but when in a cold tent try putting them between peoples sleeping pads. The warmth of people in close proximity can be enough to dry them out.
If the daily temperatures are below -10 Celcius then vapor barrier socks are a viable option to keep the insulation in your boots from getting wet. Using Reynolds Oven Cooking Bags (size large), put these between your liner sock and thicker sock. This will keep your feet warmer and keep any moisture from getting into your boots. Bring a few pairs of liner socks so you can swap them out for a fresh pair before bed. Then put the liner socks in the foot of your sleeping bag to dry overnight.
Add Gaiters to your wardrobe to help increase the warmth of your feet and keep snow out of your boots. The best is the Outdoor Research Crocodile gaiters which are Gore-tex which will keep you dry from the outside but have some breathability to limit the amount of condensation. They are also very rugged and come with a great warranty. Whichever gaiters you choose make sure that they fit just below the knee and sinch snug so as to keep the snow out.
Tips For Managing The Cold
Stay In The Right State
When winter camping you have three states of being:
Moving to generate heat
By fire or stove
In your sleeping
Limit the time you are not in one of these three conditions to avoid hypothermia.
If you going to move you need fuel. Make sure you are eating a lot of calorically dense foods to give you the energy you need. While on the move foods such as trail mix, chocolate, energy bars, bagels with peanut butter, and nuts are easily consumed.
If you are hiking you will be burning a lot more calories than at rest and when you combine this with the extra energy need to keep yourself warm the number of calories you need will go up substantially.
Take your body weight and multiply by 15 to figure your base caloric need. Times this by an extra 20% for the extra due to activity and the cold.
Keep the food you plan to eat next inside your jacket so it doesn't freeze. You don't want to break a tooth on a frozen Clif Bar.
Normally you can rely on your thirst to dictate how much to drink but in cold weather, it seems like the thirst signals decline. Additionally, you lose more water through respiration in the cold which can lead to dehydration. Since the only warmth, you will get in winter is warm blood pumping around if you get dehydrated it will be harder for the body to warm itself.
You should aim to drink at least 4 liters per day on winter camping trips if you are hiking or very active. It is a good idea to add electrolytes to your water to help replace what minerals you sweat out and aid body function. Sodium and Potassium are needed to regulate your body's fluid levels while low magnesium levels have been linked to muscle cramps.
Staying dry is the first step to staying warm in the cold.
Make sure you pay attention to your heat levels and strip off layers before you start to get sweaty.
When you expect to see a lot of falling snow make sure to keep your head covered so you don't get wet hair as this can take a long time to dry and can lose a lot of heat from your body. Bring a camp towel to dry your head and any other areas that have gotten wet so you don't get cold due to evaporation.
Bring a spare set of dry clothing including base layers and socks so you have something to change into if you do get wet, whether from sweat or external moisture like snow or falling through the ice. Keep these clothes in a waterproof bag to protect them from getting wet.
To avoid windburn and frostbite keep all of your skin covered even if only with a light layer.
Apply petroleum jelly to exposed skin on your face to protect from the wind and cold.
Sunglasses or goggles will protect your eyes from the cold and harsh UV rays. Snow blindness is a real risk on bright days. Wear eyewear that is polarized and has side protection to prevent this from happening.
Thin liner gloves with tactile gripping material on the fingers are great for protecting your hands when you need to take off your mitts to do tasks that require fine dexterity.
Add Some Heat
Any time you stop for an extended period consider making a fire if the terrain and regulations permit it. A little external heat can go a long way to warming you up plus the act of collecting and preparing firewood will help keep you warm.
Heating packs such as Zippo hand warmers or chemical hand and toe warmers can give your extremities a little boost of warmth if your body is having a hard time keeping up. Some people have less circulation to the hands and feet than others. If you are in this camp then use any tricks necessary to make your winter adventures fun and comfortable.
Carry a thermos with a hot drink so you can warm up by adding heat internally. This will help with both warmth and hydration and keep your drinks from freezing.
When Is It Too Cold For Winter Camping?
The exact temperature will vary for everyone but at the beginning of your winter adventures, I would suggest limiting yourself. Day time highs of -10 Celcius and overnight lows of -20 Celcius would be the lowest for new winter campers.
I personally limit myself to -40 Celcius for night time temperatures as it stops being fun below that for me. This will often mean daytime highs of -25 Celcius. I would go lower than this if I used a hot tent with a stove as it adds considerably to the temperatures you can safely handle.
Super low temperatures narrow your margin of error so if you experimenting with them then do it in an area where you have an easy retreat if it proves too cold.
Keep in mind that at extremely low temperatures you may have a hard time starting your vehicle if you do decide to bail on the trip.
The Wrap Up
This is the end of Part 1 of our winter camping series. Due to the risk of camping below freezing you need to be more prepared than any other time of year. Like most things in nature, winter is beautiful but can be dangerous if you don't prepare properly.
Continue to Part 2