You might be wondering why any sane person would want to try winter camping. The apparent negatives are myriad: It’s cold, wet, snowy, windy, and miserable. Why would you want to experience that? Well, the positives are also that it’s cold, wet, snowy, windy, and miserable. The positives are the negatives.
Everyone’s been on a vacation that was “ruined” by bad weather or crazy bad luck befalling them, only to have it become one of the most vivid, best memories of their lives because it was so intense, difficult, and out of the ordinary. It becomes a story you can tell for years after. Even though it’s “bad” in the moment, it’s a source of joy for the rest of your life.
There are more reasons to winter camp, of course:
To harden yourself. Rather than wait for them to happen, we should prepare for difficult situations before they’re thrust upon you. Consensual hardship, like camping in the winter, prepares you for the unforeseen.
To improve your metabolic health. Cold weather exposure is beneficial in its own right, increasing metabolically-active brown fat deposits, improving your cold tolerance, and boosting mitochondrial function.
To learn how to enjoy all seasons. It’s not as easy as warm weather camping, but winter camping is a way to appreciate and treasure three months of the year that most people write off. If you can appreciate winter camping, that’s extra time you get to spend out in nature. That’s three more months of living.
Winter camping is not the same as winter backpacking. There is some overlap, but camping implies access to a car, while backpacking implies severe weight limitations. This post is about winter camping—so it assumes you have a little more room to pack things.
What to Remember When Winter Camping
Accept that you will be cold and uncomfortable
To begin with, the most important part of winter camping is to prepare yourself for the physical reality of being outside in the cold. It’s going to be cold and possibly wet, but you are prepared for it. You can handle it. It will not break you. You have to know what you’re signing up for. Accept the climactic realities, and you’ll be able to focus on transcending them and having fun.
You can’t just sit around in the cold and hope to have a nice time. You must be active. You have to be hiking, snow-shoeing, cross country skiing, skiing or snowboarding or sledding. You should be having snowball fights and building snow forts. Staying active keeps your body temperature up and makes meals all that much more satisfying.
Keep calorie intake up
If you stay active like you should, this will take care of itself, but maintaining a higher calorie intake will help you maintain body temperature and cold tolerance.
Know how to build a fire in the snow
With a large enough fire you can handle any amount of cold weather. If you’re lucky, your campsite will come with a fire ring. If you’re not, you’ll have to build a fire directly in the snow. You can’t just start the fire right on the snow. It’ll melt and put out the fire. Instead, spend some time stomping down the snow until it’s compressed and flat, then lay down a piece of sheet metal or create a “floor” of heavy logs upon which you can build the fire.
If you didn’t bring your own wood, you’ll have to find it in the area. To identify burnable wood in winter, keep these tips in mind:
Smaller branches or twigs should snap cleanly and audibly when bent.
Larger logs should be “light” for their size and have long vertical cracks.
Standing dead trees will usually be dry and burnable (that’s where your axe and saw come in).
This is a nice foldable fire pit you can throw in the car and take camping. This is a decent one with a grill attached.
Choose the right location
Ground should be flat and sturdy, so you may have to pack down snow until it’s level and compact. You should have a windbreak, either natural (large trees, rocks, etc) or manmade (build your own out of snow) to minimize the amount of wind hitting your tent.
Avoid camping under dying or rotting trees that look liable to break off in high winds or drop a 20 foot branch on you. Get a spot with ample views of the sunrise. Nothing like our sun’s rays to cheer you up on a cold morning.
Cover your extremities
If you can only cover one thing with warm fabric, focus on the extremities. Keeping your head, hands, and feet warm and dry are the most important part of surviving winter camping. You could be in a T-shirt and shorts and as long as your extremities are warm and dry (and you’re staying active), you’ll feel fine.
Use synthetics sparingly, but using them
Synthetic water repellant gear is extremely helpful when layered over more natural materials. So get the plastic rain jacket, but layer wool underneath it. You’ll also want the most synthetic rain fly for your tent you can find.
Winter Camping Essentials
Pack basic tools
You’ll want a few things on hand to survive and thrive in the winter:
Shovel: for moving snow, digging into (and out of) it, preparing campsite
Hacksaw: cutting wood, branches
Hatchet: chopping wood, kindling
Firestarters (various kinds: matches, lighters, magnesium)
Get the right footwear
If there’s no snow or just a few inches, you can get around just fine in boots. I’d recommend sticking to minimalist waterproof boots; look here for a discussion of the best ones.
If there’s a lot of snow, my absolute favorite way of getting around is on snowshoes.
Wool was designed by the hand of natural selection across millions of years to provide breathable protection against cold weather. Then humans take that raw, near-perfect substrate and make it even more perfect by turning it into fabric. If you want to survive cold weather, wear wool clothing, wool socks, shirts, gloves, and sweaters. Use wool blankets. Use wool insoles.
If you really want to splurge, you can even get a sleeping bag made entirely of wool (with a little cotton).
Sleep in a four season tent
A four season tent has sturdier poles (to withstand wind), thicker material (to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth), and better/more extensive water and snow resistance than three season tents. This is a solid choice I’ve heard good things about: the REI co-op basecamp tent.
To really live it up, splurge for the “glamping” tent, complete with a heat-resistant jack for a wood stove. Go Hemingway-on-safari style.
Use two sleeping pads
Start with one foam pad directly on the ground with an inflatable on top of that. This minimizes body heat loss to the cold ground.
Foam pad should be closed cell.
Indoor propane heater
Indoor-safe propane heaters can extend your ability to camp into even bitterly cold winters. This one is nice—it’s a good price, it’s reliable, has great reviews, and it has instant shut-off when knocked over.
Get the right cook stove
You’ll want the ability to cook reliably on a stove in case the fire isn’t working out. The Trangia from Sweden is very well-regarded. Glue some aluminum foil to a piece of plywood and use that to cook on.
Most importantly, enjoy yourself. You come from a long line of ancestors who braved cold weather and even lived outside in the cold their entire lives. You can handle a weekend camping in the snow.
How do you guys like camping in the snow? What are your best tips and tricks?
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