Guide to Winter Camping

With the right gear and attitude, camping can be a four-season activity. This January, get outside your comfort zone and try your hand at cold-weather camping
January 5, 2016Words by Michael van VlietPhotos by Megan McDuffie

Few people look outside of their warm cozy homes at the frost-covered thermometer and say to themselves: “Wouldn’t it be neat to sleep outside tonight?” In fact, almost nobody does. But for the handful of self-assured contrarians out there who think it might be a good idea, there’s winter camping. 

Unlike summer camping, where anybody with a sleeping bag and a 30 rack of beer can have a good time, winter camping requires a certain level of mental and physical preparedness. Extended exposure to the cold means basic survival is a constant consideration. The stakes are higher and the consequences are more dire if something should go wrong. But despite its challenges, cold weather camping offers a lot of rewarding benefits. 

Despite its challenges, cold weather camping offers a lot of rewarding benefits

To start with, the winter landscape can be beautifully serene. Covered in a layer of pure white snow, even a familiar location can be transformed into someplace new and magical. Bugs are obviously no longer an issue and concern about bears is greatly reduced. But the biggest thing winter camping has going for it is the lack of crowds.

True, the vast majority of campsites close down during the winter. But at many of the country’s most popular National Parks (e.g. Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone), camping is available year round. Places that would be impossible to book during the summer are now completely deserted. 

So if you want to embrace the cold and experience the outdoors in a totally new way, we’ve compiled few winter camping tips to help you get started.  

Editor's Note: This is a guide for car camping in the front country, in an established campsite. Winter camping is extreme enough, without added things like backcountry orienteering and avalanche safety to the list. Plus, it’s comforting to know that if it all goes bad, you can always pull the ripcord and drive to a Motel 6. 

Check The Forecast
There’s a big difference between camping with snow on the ground and camping during an active blizzard. On a calm clear day, you can really enjoy yourself. But when the wind is howling and it’s dumping snow, everything is miserable. Don’t get caught unprepared, know the weather before you go. 

Check Your Gear 
Make sure your gear can handle the conditions. If the night time low is 5° Fahrenheit and your sleeping bag is only rated to 15 degrees, either this isn’t your weekend or you need a different bag. Also, double and triple check you have everything you need before you leave. Again, the stakes are high and forgetting even a single item (e.g. gloves) can ruin your trip.
Check Your Expectations
Cold weather camping is nothing like summer camping. In fact, it's better to think about the whole thing like you’re going into outer space. While the environment is breathtakingly beautiful, it is also completely inhospitable. The car is your spaceship and the sleeping bag is your space capsule. You can exist in warmth and safety inside these two places. Everything else is a space walk that requires proper attire.

Layer Up
We’ve all been told to dress in layers since elementary school, but that doesn’t mean you should throw on every piece of clothing in your closet. There’s a specific way to layer to maximize your warmth and comfort in a variety of conditions. 

The base layer should consist of a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of long johns made from wool or synthetic material. This layer is responsible for keeping your body dry and should wick away any internal perspiration.

The mid layer should be a jacket with either down or synthetic insulation. This layer is responsible for trapping your body heat and is the chief thing keeping you warm.

The outer layer should be a waterproof and windproof shell made from a three-layer synthetic fabric. This layer is responsible for repelling external water and precipitation while wicking internal moisture and perspiration out.

Cotton Kills
Avoid wearing anything made from cotton - including underwear. When wet, cotton loses all its thermal properties and takes an extremely long time to dry. Instead, opt for wool and synthetic materials, which perform much better when cold and wet. 

Socks, Hats, and Gloves
These are critical items that complete the overall clothing “system”. Extremities are the first part of the body to get cold, so make sure you have them properly covered. Again, look for wool and synthetic material that will not degrade if they accidentally get wet. You can double layer gloves and socks, but be careful they are not so tight as to restrict blood flow. 

One Pot Meals
There’s absolutely no shame in taking a few shortcuts when it’s freezing cold outside. The fewer number of steps between you and a warm meal, the better. 

Keep Hydrated
It is very easy to get dehydrated in cold, dry conditions. Make sure you’re drinking water throughout the day. We recommend drinking warm water or a light tea, which both hydrates and warms the body. 

Whiskey Weather
Forget beer. If the temperature is below freezing they’ll just explode anyways. Warm whiskey drinks are the way to go. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, we’ve got a recipe for a great Apple Maple Hot Toddy

Extra Fuel
Everything takes longer to cook when it’s cold outside, especially when you’re trying to bring near-frozen water to a rolling boil, so make sure to pack extra fuel canisters. 

Hot Water Bottle
At night, fill your water bottle with boiling water and put it inside your sleeping bag. Not only will this warm up your bag, but it will ensure you have some non-frozen water to use in the morning. (Make sure the cap is on securely!)

A specifically designed 4-season tent is ideal for severe winter conditions, but for more mild winter weather a quality 3-season tent can work just as well. A strong, self-supporting structure is a must, though. Deep snow and frozen ground make it difficult for tents that need to be staked in to stay up. 

Be Selective
You’ll probably have your pick of the campground, so look for an ideal location. Someplace with good sunlight and buffered from the wind. Don’t set up under a tree, especially if you are making a fire. If there is snow in the branches, this virtually guarantees it all comes crashing down on your tent. 

Build A Foundation
Pack down the snow with your feet before setting up your tent. If your tent is set up on soft snow, you can accidentally punch a hole through the bottom when you step inside. 

Sleeping Bag
Your sleeping bag should be your happy place. So whether it’s down, synthetic, or a mix, make sure your sleeping bag is rated for 10 degrees lower than the lowest expected temperature. Don’t cut it too close to the rating, or you’ll have all night to lie awake and regret your decision. 

Insulation From The Ground
It is absolutely critical that you insulate yourself from the snow covered ground. An insulated sleeping pad with an R-rating of at least R4 is a good start, but adding in a few yoga mats or blankets is a good idea as well.  (Do not use a regular air mattress. The air inside never warms up and it will drain your body heat all night long.) 

Snack Early, Snack Often
Less effort than cooking a full meal, continually snacking throughout the day is a great way to keep warm. Eating a little bit here and there keeps your metabolism fired up.

Take A Hike
Winter camping is for active individuals. The best way to enjoy yourself is to keep moving throughout the day. Take a hike, go snowshoeing, have a snowball fight, go sledding. But whatever you do, keep the blood moving. 

Conserve The Heat
After hiking for a while, you may start to get warm. Remove layers as needed to prevent yourself from sweating. But when you stop, immediately layer back up. 

While getting a tan might be the last thing on your mind, it’s important to wear sunscreen.  Sun glare off the snow can very quickly result in a sunburn. Bring chapstick and hand lotion. Apply regularly to keep skin from cracking. 

Ten Digit Warning Sign 
Don’t ignore cold fingers and toes. These are the early warning signs that your body is losing heat faster than it is generating it. Address the issue immediately. Get another layer on, get moving, or throw another log on the fire. 

To Build A Fire
A well-fed campfire can be a blessing on a cold winter's night. Even if it isn’t putting off that much heat, the flickering light still offers a psychological feeling of warmth. Bring plenty of wood. The last log always comes sooner than you think. 

Tent Time
After the sun goes down, dinner is over, and the last log has been thrown on the fire, you may look at your watch and discover it’s only 7:45 PM. At this point crawling into your sleeping bag is the only way to stay warm, but tent time doesn’t necessarily mean bedtime. Pack a deck of cards or a board game and move the party inside. 

Don’t Hold It
Getting up to pee might be the absolute last thing you want to do when you’re wrapped up inside your sleeping bag, but it’s actually going to make you warmer. Your body prioritizes heating your torso, which is full of critical organs, but also includes your very full bladder. It takes a lot of energy to keep all that liquid at a constant 98.6  F degree, so help your body out and break the seal. 

Battery Life
Lithium-ion batteries will drain much faster in cold weather and will eventually stop working altogether if it gets cold enough. To extend your cell phone battery life, keep your device close to your person during the day and at night bring it with you inside your sleeping bag. 

Above all else, the most important thing required for winter camping is a positive attitude. Nothing warms the spirit like a bit of humor, nothing breaks the ice like some levity. Yes, it will be cold. Yes, it will be somewhat of a struggle. But for those sanguine individuals willing to brave the elements and put up with a little discomfort, there are pretty spectacular rewards. Like being able to see Yosemite covered in snow, with hardly another person in the entire park. [H]

Michael van Vliet is one-half of the team at Fresh Off the Grid, a camp cooking blog. They feature recipes specifically designed for cooking in the outdoors, written on the road as he and his girlfriend travel the United States.


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