Camping in the snow brings the beauty of a pristine winter landscape – and no bugs! With a little planning, it can be very comfortable and a uniquely relaxing experience. You are unlikely to meet crowds at your favorite camping space, and besides, snow offers such exhilarating activities as skiing and snowboarding. Why wait? Here are some great cold weather camping tips:
Don’t go by yourself, or at least make sure you are within contact or reach of emergency services. Let others know where you’ll be, and if you go completely off the grid, think about acquiring a Personal Locator Beacon (PBS) which you can activate in times of distress.
Check the weather forecast and don’t go if conditions are expected to be poor. E.g. the NOAA-NWS website or WorldWeatherOnline includes detailed backcountry forecasts and be prepared to face the unexpected with some extra food and clothing.
Don’t forget sun protection, as harmful UV rays are reflected from the snow’s surface. Do some research on the area and make sure you will be able to navigate it safely, and add a compass and map just to be sure. You will need warmth, light, insulation, food, water and shelter, and always keep a first aid kit nearby.
Layering is common sense
Stay dry and warm! Start with natural wool fabrics for the base layer next to your skin to wick perspiration away and direct it to the outer layers for evaporation. Cotton is a poor choice as it will retain moisture next to your skin, but merino base layers will keep you warm without making you uncomfortably sticky.
The middle layer adds warmth by retaining body heat. Fleece and microfleece clothing and goose down jackets sound about right.
You need a water- and windproof, breathable outer shell, and this is where technology can be very helpful. Choose from laminates like Gore-Tex or cheaper polyurethane-coated fabrics. Look for underarm or core vents that will allow excess heat and moisture to escape when you toil up a steep trail.
Keep those vulnerable extremities covered
Choose footwear like mountaineering or insulated winter boots. Layer up with boot insoles and more than one pair of socks, and take along a good supply. In the evening, put your insoles and socks into the sleeping bag for instant warmth in the morning, and don’t leave your boots out in the cold! Pop a chemical hand or feet warmer into your boots before you go to bed to dry out your boots overnight.
Protect your eyes from the elements and dangerous UV levels with clear/tinted glasses or goggles.
If you’re really tough, you might consider using a good camping tarp but most people find that a mountaineering or “4-season” tent will be much more comfortable. It should be easy to set up while you wear thick gloves in frigid conditions. You can choose between single or double wall constructions (warmth vs. weight) but a dome shape, dual doors so you can get in and out fast and extra guy lines are highly desirable.
- Leave one of the tent zippers slightly open to cut down on condensation and interior frost.
- Overcome the wind chill factor by pitching a rain fly or extra tarp to serve as a windbreak. You can also build a snow wall or dig out a few feet to lower the wind profile.
- Pitch your tent on even ground. Pack down that snow first! Uneven melting of loose snow due to your body heat can make for a very uncomfortable night.
- Never go snow camping without a ground cloth. A ground cloth protects you from water seeping through the tent floor.
- Forgo the camping cots and air mattresses. The ground may be cold, but the air is likely to be much colder, and you don’t want fresh, cold air circulating underneath your body!
- A piece of cardboard at the tent entrance will keep snow off your sleeping bag and is handy to stand on when you change your clothes.
Winter sleeping gear
The layer principle applies to your sleeping bag as well – you can always vent the sleeping bag if you overheat in the night, so try to buy a bag rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest expected temperature.
Insulation comes from goose down or synthetic materials, and Nature wins hands-down due to down’s superior ratio of warmth-to-weight. Just don’t get that down wet, or choose a water-resistant down bag with a synthetic shell. Winter bags are shaped differently from standard sleeping bags – there are special draft tubes on the zippers and the collars and hoods to prevent heat from escaping the bag.
- Sleeping bag liners can add between 8° and 15°F extra warmth.
- Sleeping pads are great for extra insulation, but since we are forgoing the air mattress, they are quite necessary to provide some cushioning. Use 2 or more full-length sleeping pads to prevent your body heat from seeping into the cold ground.
- Keep your nose and your mouth outside of the bag. The moisture from your breath collects in your bag and can make it cold.
- Use a fleece throw or coat to cover the bag for an extra layer of insulation.
- A hot water bottle at your feet at night will keep your toes warm, and be a handy source of water when everything else is frozen in the morning.
- Chemical hand or toe warmers can provide extra heat for up to 8 hours.
- Wear woolen underwear in the sleeping bag. Put tomorrow’s clothes inside your sleeping bag or wear tomorrow’s clothes at bedtime to prevent a cold start in the morning.
- Wear a stocking cap or beanie, even in a mummy bag.
Winter camping light
You will have fewer daylight hours, and you need longer lasting batteries for headlamps and flashlights. Low temperatures will decrease battery life, so keep them insulated or inside your sleeping bag. Always take a few extra batteries.