For 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.
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.