The weather is harsher and the daylight hours shorter, but winter camping has rewards that you just can't get any other time of year. With some extra gear and preparation you can enjoy the beauty and solitude that comes with camping in the snow.
Follow these safety guidelines when planning your trip.
1) Don't go alone. As alluring as the empty wilderness might sound, nature is unforgiving. That's why you should always share the adventure with a camping buddy or two, preferably people who have an assortment of winter skills such as navigating through snow, finding routes, and making shelter.
2) Scope out the region. Study maps to get the lay of the land. Physical maps show rivers and lakes, plus mountains and their elevations. They also show roads and provide a scale, so you can figure out how long it will take to get to your destination.
Topographic maps show landscape features using contour lines. When lines are close together the terrain is steep.
3) Research the area. Check road and trail conditions. Are there reviews online from others who have camped the area? What about support businesses? More important: what emergency services are available? How long would it take for medical or search and rescue teams to reach you?
If your plans include deep snow areas, know how to recognize and avoid avalanche areas. Check local avalanche forecasts and stay out if danger is high.
4) Leave a trip plan. Let others who aren't going know where you'll be and when you'll return. Include vehicle information, and the names and contact information of fellow campers.
5) Check the weather. Winter storms can appear suddenly and are merciless. Check with the National Weather Service to see what's being forecast for the areas you'll be in.
6) Bundle up. One of the basic rules of winter tent camping is to stay warm and dry. The best way to do that is to wear layers that insulate, wick moisture, dry quickly, and are weatherproof and breathable. Simply by adjusting the layers you can stay warm as toast.
- Layer 1: This is the basic lightweight base layer, which includes shirt, pants and socks. Synthetic or merino wool fabrics are best for wicking away perspiration to outer layers where they can evaporate. Avoid using cotton as your base layer.
- Layer 2: This is the insulating layer that retains body heat. Find shirts, pants and jackets made of expedition-weight fleece or microfleece. A goose down jacket is a good alternative. Wear another, heavier pair of socks over the first pair. The thickness of the socks will be determined by your boot fit. Boots that fit too tightly will not keep your feet warm.
- Layer 3: This is your waterproof, windproof, breathable shell. At minimum wear a jacket of Gore-Tex, and consider adding Gore-Tex pants as well. Look for core and underarm vents to expel heat and moisture. And don't forget a windproof hat or cap to keep your noggin warm, and gloves or mittens to protect your digits. Bring extras in case they get wet.
- Boots: While traditional hiking boots may suffice, winter or mountaineering boots provide better waterproofing and insulation. Tip: Keep your boots with you in your sleeping bag at night so they stay warm. You can also dry damp socks this way.
- Glasses and Goggles: They'll protect your eyes from glare, wind and cold temperatures. You can buy different lenses to fit the conditions you'll be in.
Winter Gear and Gadgets
Beyond clothing, camping in the snow requires winter-specific gear. Mother Nature can get aggressive in the winter, but the right gear can help keep her at bay. First up: shelter from the snow.
4-Season Tent: These are somewhat heavier than standard 3-season tents to offer better snow and wind protection. Look for a dome shape with extra-strong poles and guy lines for stability in windy conditions. Choose solid fabric over mesh, dual doors for easier access, and a large vestibule for sheltered cooking and wet gear storage.
A few extra add-ons can make a big difference too. A gear attic helps to get small items up off the floor, and a ground cloth helps keep melted snow from seeping into the tent.
Tips to Set Up Your Tent in the Snow:
- Position the tent near natural wind protection, if available, and away from avalanche danger and falling trees or branches.
- A sunny spot will warm you in the morning.
- If wind shelter is not available, build a snow wall, or dig down in deep snow to reduce wind impact.
- Pack down the snow before setting up the tent. Loose snow can be melted by body heat, leaving you with an uneven floor to sleep upon.
- Make note of landmarks so you can find your site in the dark.
Winter Sleeping Bag: A winter sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees F below the coldest temperature you expect is best. You can always open it up if you get too warm.Add a sleeping bag liner to keep the interior of your bag cleaner, and warmer, and closed-cell and self-inflating sleeping pads.
How to Use:
- Insert the sleeping bag liner inside your sleeping bag.
- Place the closed-cell sleeping pad on the floor of your tent with the self-inflating pad on top.
- Your sleeping bag goes on top of the pads.
Backpack: Even if you're going out just for a short hike, a backpack with packaged food rations, water, first-aid kit, fire starting kit, camping knife, and compass and maps are a must. A pocket stove and small pot are desirable to melt snow for drinking water. And if you're carrying skis or snowshoes, make sure the pack has tie-on points to secure these items.
Lighting and Batteries: You can keep both hands free by wearing a headlamp instead of carrying a flashlight. And because winter nights are long, make sure your batteries are new or fully charged before a trek, and always take extras.
Lithium batteries are good for cold weather, but can overpower some headlamps so check the owner's manual. Alkaline batteries are inexpensive, but they drain at a faster rate. Tip: Batteries don't like cold, so store yours and battery-operated devices inside your sleeping bag to keep them warm.
Mobile phone service is mostly non-existent in the backwoods, so two-way radios are the way to keep in touch with other members of your expedition. Some models tout ranges of 10 miles or more, but that is line-of-sight—something rare in heavily forested regions.
Map and Compass
Two of the most important items to have on a trek, especially when snow or bad weather may obscure the trail or your destination. Know how to use them, and don't rely solely on GPS.
Food and Drink
Because of low temperatures and high calorie-burn activities, such as staying warm and enjoying outdoor activities, energy-dense food and warm drinks are critical to any successful winter camping trip. Here's what you should bring:
Carbohydrates: At least 50 percent of your food should be carbs, because they are easiest to convert into energy, which helps your body stay warm.
Fat: About 30 percent of your camping food should be rich in fats. Fatty foods take the longest to convert into simple sugars that can be used to generate heat, however they enable you to produce heat over a longer period of time.
Protein: Only 20 percent of your camping meals should be protein when winter camping. These foods help satisfy hunger and repair muscle tissue that may easily get worn down during your favorite outdoor activities.
Liquids: It's hard to think about drinking water when you're surrounded by snow, still, you can get dehydrated and not realize it. To stay hydrated when winter camping, make warm, good-tasting drinks, like cocoa, warm lemonade, hot cider or soup. And always take plenty of water on the trail.
While you're going for the snow, double check to see if your favorite spot is actually open before you go. Regions where the snowpack is too deep might be off limits and you don't want to be disappointed by a “Closed” sign.
Be alert for hypothermia when winter camping. Should someone become very cold or lethargic, or if their speech becomes thick and slow, they may be in danger of hypothermia. Stop and set up camp immediately. Get the person into a sleeping bag and give them a warm drink as quickly as possible. If they don't warm up, put another person in the bag with them, ideally in very few clothes. Hypothermia can be deadly, so be sure you recognize the signs before you hit the trail.
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Jeff Adams is a California-based freelance writer, contributor to ReserveAmerica.com and an avid camping enthusiast. He's been dragging his trailer and willing family around the western U.S. for over a decade.