Winter camping is a great way to have fun outside. It’ll also help you learn to stay warm and dry when you’re out in the elements.
“Everyone hates being cold,” says Kristin Arnold, American Mountain Guides Association guide and trainer. “You can repurpose a lot of the gear you use for three-season camping for winter camping. You don’t need to buy all new gear.”
STAYING WARM OUTDOORS
Arnold’s top tip for staying warm is to layer wool, fleece, down and synthetic clothing you already own so that if you sweat, the fabric wicks the moisture away from your body. You can fine-tune your temperature by taking off layers.
“Avoid cotton,” Arnold says. “It freezes when it gets wet. Wear wool socks. Always wear a hat. Once you’re cold, it takes more energy to get warm. Maintaining body temperature is more efficient.”
DEALING WITH THE ENVIRONMENT
For your first winter camping adventure, start with an overnighter and build up to a multiday trip. When there’s snow on the ground, shovel or stomp it to create a flat surface for your tent. This will make sleeping more comfortable. Stakes pull out in the snow, so instead, tie stuff sacks filled with snow or use sticks placed parallel with the ground to your guylines and bury them.
Place blocks of snow around the outside of your vestibule to block the wind. If you live in avalanche country, avoid camping near open trees and open slopes where there could be a slide.
EAT AND DRINK!
“Have a plan, tell people where you’re going and don’t forget the snacks,” Arnold says. “In winter, eating and drinking are key to reducing the chance of frostbite — and to having maximum fun.”
Bring food that’s easy to prepare. Dehydrated meals are perfect for winter camping because meal prep is simply boiling water, and there’s little clean up. Hot drinks are the best when you’re winter camping. Another pro tip from Arnold: If you have to pee, don’t wait. Holding your pee can make you cold.
You’ll also want a sleeping bag rated for the coldest temperatures you’ll experience (or colder). If your bag isn’t quite warm enough, add a sleeping bag liner, double up bags if you have more than one and wear all your layers.
Anything outside your sleeping bag will likely be moist in the morning from frozen condensation. If you want to dry clothing overnight, place it between your bag and pad. Turn your boots upside-down in your tent so the insides stay dry. Open your tent vents before you go to bed. Your breath will freeze at night and make the inside of the tent frosty, which will make it feel like it’s snowing inside.
To stay warm while you sleep, fill a Nalgene water bottle ($17) with hot water before bed and tuck it into your sleeping bag, too. If the bottle is too hot, slide it inside a sock.
For winter camping, you need insulated waterproof boots that are high enough to keep out the snow. MUCKBOOTS (starting around $110 a pair, muckbootcompany.com) makes highly insulated, high-traction boots rated to 40 below zero. They’re great, especially for a weekend campout. Insulated hiking boots work, too. For longer trips, consider winter boots with a removable liner that you can take out and keep in your sleeping bag overnight. That way, your feet will stay warm after you put your boots on in the morning.
In deep snow, skis or snowshoes are essential. Both keep you from punching through soft snow, which is tiring and makes the trail terrible for other travelers. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Try ALPTREK’S PEAK SNOWSHOE KIT ($180, alptrekgear.com), which comes with a set of aluminum trekking poles with winter baskets and a carry bag.
If you have a canister stove, bring an extra fuel canister for winter camping and warm it next to your body. If your stove sputters out, turn it off and swap canisters. We like GSI’S PINNACLE FOUR-SEASON STOVE ($80, gsioutdoors.com) paired with GSI’s winter-optimized isobutane fuel, which can be used with any canister stove.
A white gas stove is the most dependable for freezing weather. MSR’s tried-and-true WHISPERLITE UNIVERSAL STOVE ($200, msrgear.com) works with both canister fuel and white gas. Learn about BSA chemical fuels and equipment safety guidelines at go.scoutlife.org/fuel
A three-season tent can work in winter if there’s no snow in the forecast. A four-season tent has the best weather protection and the best moisture management. Eureka’s heavy-duty wind- and rain-shedding EL CAPITAN 2 OUTFITTER TENT ($260, eurekacamping.johnsonoutdoors.com) is one of the most affordable options.
If you’re looking for a winter sleeping bag, consider BIG AGNES’ BENCHMARK 0 ($160, bigagnes.com). It’s one of the most affordable, backpackable, high-quality zero-degree bags. Made from high-loft synthetic with a water-repellent shell, it’s oh-so-warm.
You’ll pay more for a down bag, but down is more packable, lighter and has a cozy warmth. MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR’S BISHOP PASS 0 ($325, mountainhardwear.com) is a toasty mummy bag with a spacious footbox.
If you already have an insulated sleeping pad, you don’t need to buy another one. But do add a closed-cell foam mat to whatever you’re already sleeping on to increase the R-value, which describes how insulative the mat is. Try NEMO’S SWITCHBACK ($45-$55, nemoequipment.com), which uses a thermal reflective layer and heat-trapping depressions to boost your current pad’s warmth.
A good backpack is key to getting gear to your winter camping spot. You might be able to make your summer backpack work, though winter gear is often bulkier. DECATHLON’S FORCLAZ MT500 AIR BACKPACK ($149-$159, decathlon.com) offers 55-liter and 60-liter versions, both of which are adjustable to give you 10 more liters of space. They feel good to carry even when fully loaded.
If there’s one thing extra you might want to pack, make it a cozy pair of slippers with a good sole. THE NORTH FACE’S THERMOBALL TRACTION BOOTIES ($69, thenorthface.com) are comfortable and keep you warm out in the snow.
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