Fifteen Tips for Winter Camping

Winter CampingFor some, win­ter camp­ing means rent­ing a cab­in heat­ed by a wood stove. For oth­ers, it means pack­ing snow­mo­bile trail­ers to the brim. For the more adven­tur­ous, it means grab­bing a pack and haul­ing in all the neces­si­ties to a remote loca­tion. No mat­ter how you win­ter camp, the fol­low­ing tricks are useful.

Wear a Fire­proof Shell
If you are going to build camp­fires, either for the sake of cook­ing, warmth, or morale, make sure that your out­er lay­er of cloth­ing is less like­ly to end up ruined if struck by an errant ember.  Wool is one of the best, most fire-resis­tant nat­ur­al mate­ri­als and is great for this.  Down jack­ets are down­right (no pun intend­ed) awful, and you can lose tons of feath­ers this way.

Pack the Snow
Before set­ting up your tent, pack down your camp­site. If you have skis or snow­shoes, that means tramp­ing around hard until all the snow is packed.  If you’re shod only in boots this will take some time, but if you don’t do this, you run the risk of step­ping into a soft bit of snow in your tent and tear­ing the floor.

Pack an Extra Hat and Gloves
Always car­ry a spare hat and a set of mit­tens. No mat­ter how dili­gent you are, no mat­ter how reli­gious you are about using idiot strings and keep­er cords, you will lose a hat, and you will lose a glove.  Keep a cheap spare, or be pre­pared for frost­bite or a fore­short­ened trip.

Embrace the pee bottle.
Being cold can cause you to want to uri­nate more fre­quent­ly, and we all know how incon­ve­nient it is to dis­robe and undo your sleep­ing bag at 0 degrees F.  For women, I high­ly rec­om­mend look­ing into the var­i­ous acces­sories that allow you to pee whilst stand­ing, and for both gen­ders a WELL-MARKED pee bot­tle will keep you warm and sim­pli­fy your night­ly con­ti­nence. For the love of god, don’t con­fuse your water bottle—the col­or is not enough, make sure your bot­tle is well-marked and maybe wrapped in some duct tape.

Use those Stakes
If there is snow, you can stake out your tent.  You can always make dead­men out of sticks or fall­en trees, stuff sacks full of snow, buried skis, snow­shoes, poles, ice axes, or what have you.  There is no excuse for a poor­ly staked-out tent.  If you expect no snow and frozen con­di­tions, plen­ty of com­pa­nies make hard tent stakes meant to push through frozen ground, either out of tita­ni­um, steel, or 7075-t6 aluminum.

Bring the Right Sleep­ing Pad
As Bear Grylls says, two lay­ers on the bot­tom are worth one on the top.  That is, you lose more heat through con­duc­tive heat loss when sleep­ing than any­thing else, so win­ter is no time to skimp on your sleep­ing pad.  Make sure you have a pad with an r val­ue of four or more, and if you have one, throw a closed-cell foam pad under­neath. If you feel like your pad isn’t cut­ting it, stuff extra cloth­ing under­neath you, and toss your down jack­et on top of your sleep­ing bag.

Boil the Snow
Leave your water fil­ter at home.  Chem­i­cal fil­ters take longer to work in the cold, and mechan­i­cal fil­ters can crack and fail. Your best bet for water fil­tra­tion is boil­ing your water, as you prob­a­bly have to melt snow any­way. Don’t be suck­ered into think­ing glacial melt or fresh snow is sterile–it isn’t. Snowflakes often form around small bits of dust (nucle­ation sites) which can be bac­te­ria or virus­es float­ing in the upper atmosphere.

Sleep with your Boots
Use boots with remov­able lin­ers so you can put those lin­ers at the bot­tom of your sleep­ing bag to keep them warm.  If you only have sin­gle-lay­er boots, put them in a water­proof stuff sack at the bot­tom of your sleep­ing bag.  Noth­ing means morn­ing hypother­mia more than frozen boots!

Camp by Candlelight
A can­dle lantern safe­ly hung on the inside of your tent (far enough away from you and the ceil­ing so as not to be a fire haz­ard) does won­ders to both warm your tent and reduce con­den­sa­tion.  Despite this, a tow­el for scrap­ing off con­den­sa­tion is always welcome.

Embrace Lithi­um
Use lithi­um bat­ter­ies in all your win­ter elec­tron­ics.  Not only does lithi­um per­form con­sis­tent­ly down to much cold­er tem­per­a­tures than alka­line or NiMh bat­ter­ies, but they are lighter, last three times as long, and have a flat decay curve.

Wipe with Care 
In the sum­mer, com­fy leaves or soft riv­er stones abound, but in the win­ter they’re few and far between. While many have picked up pinecones in des­per­a­tion, the best read­i­ly found an alter­na­tive is just plain old snow. It’s effec­tive, ubiq­ui­tous, and leaves behind a lit­tle residue.  If you do bring TP, please either pack it out or burn it. The ground is too hard for catholes and for those who have hiked along the Appalachi­an Trail dur­ing the first spring thaw, a mound of TP gen­er­al­ly sig­ni­fies a poor­ly hid­den scat stash.

Fight Con­den­sa­tion with a VBL
If you’re out more than a week, use a VBL, or vapor-bar­ri­er-lin­er for your sleep­ing bag.  Con­den­sa­tion from your own body can freeze with­in the upper lay­er of your sleep­ing bag where the warm air meets the freez­ing air, and over time your sleep­ing bag can become frozen sol­id.  While they are not as com­fort­able to sleep in, it beats hit­ting your sleep­ing bag with a ham­mer every night like some polar explor­ers have had to do.

Flip your Bag
If it’s not snow­ing, turn your sleep­ing bag inside out on top of your tent to dry dur­ing the day.  This is a great rea­son to choose win­ter sleep­ing bags with a black interior–it absorbs more solar ener­gy and dries out faster.

Flip your Water
If you have a large water stor­age con­tain­er, turn it upside-down when stor­ing it overnight.  Ice forms from the top down, so keep­ing the spout/opening of your con­tain­er fac­ing down keeps it from get­ting frozen up. This can be com­bined with insu­lat­ing the con­tain­er, of course.

Cov­er exposed skin in Vase­line or ani­mal fats. Inu­it have been doing this for years–simply slather any exposed or poten­tial­ly exposed skin on your face, ears, neck, wrists, or hands in thick oil and they’ll be less prone to wind­burn and frostbite.

Stay warm!