Don’t let the cold months keep you from sleeping in the mountains! Winter camping requires more planning and preparation than sleeping outside in the summer, but with these simple tips you can avoid the shiver-bivy and camp in style all year round.
A successful winter camping trip begins long before you hit the trailhead. Pick a moderate destination, staying close to a road if it’s your first time sleeping out in snow. Watch the weather forecasts carefully, and consider being flexible with timing or having a Plan B in case of an apocalyptic storm front. Learn to recognize and avoid avalanche-prone areas, and check the local forecasts before you go. If you’re traveling through or camping on any snowy slope that’s pitched more steeply than 20 degrees, your crew should have avalanche training.
Plan Your Site
Once you get to your campsite, look around before you pitch your tent. Where will you be the most sheltered from the wind? Is there any overhead hazard—snow-covered tree limbs, ice, or rocks that could fall? When the team has agreed, pitch the tent together, making sure that somebody always has a hand on every piece of the tent so nothing blows away. And be very careful about where you put things down in deep snow, because it’s easier than you might think to lose a glove, tent pole, or camera.
Get Off The Ground
If there’s one key to staying warm while camping on snow, it’s this: do whatever you can to insulate yourself from the cold stuff, which sucks the heat of your body. Consider bringing two sleeping pads—an inflatable pad for comfort and a closed-cell foam mat for insulation—and make sure your system has an R‑value of at least 5. Try not to sit directly on snow or ice either; opt to sit on a backpack instead.
It seems counter-intuitive, but when you’re camping on snow it can often be hard to find running water. If you’re not positive that you’ll have access to a lake or stream for potable agua, be prepared to melt your own. If there’s enough sunlight, you can make a solar still out of a black plastic trash bag; otherwise, crank up your stove. Just be sure to put a little water in the pot before you add snow, because—believe it or not—it’s actually possible to scorch snow and ice, which will leave your water with a burned taste.
Keep Electronics Warm
Anything with a lithium-ion battery—including smartphones, cameras, tablets, rechargeable GPS devices, GoPros, etc.—will lose charge when exposed to cold temperatures. To protect your battery’s usable charge, keep small devices and extra batteries in a chest pocket where they’re close to the warmth of your body, and tuck them into your sleeping bag at night. Minimize exposure to cold air, and carry back-up batteries for anything essential.
Always leave a detailed trip plan and emergency contact information with somebody at home. Double-check that you have the ten essentials. And always be extra cautious when you’re outside in the winter months.