For most, camping is an adventure to be conquered during the summer season, when the birds are chirping, the pine trees are vibrant green, and the weather is warm. For a small group of dedicated outdoors men and women, however, camping isn't limited to the sunny months, it is a venture to be had whether there's rain, sleet, snow, or sunshine- during all seasons of the year.
Contrary to popular belief, camping in the winter can be quite a comfortable affair if executed properly. Just like every other season, winter contains its own natural beauty - imagine soft falling snow, the absence of bugs, painted white landscapes, etc. - and with the right knowledge and equipment, anyone can enjoy the experience of living under nature's rule when the weather drops below freezing.
In the guide below, I'll walk you through the steps you'll need to prepare for your icy venture into the wild, making sure that your winter camping experience is a safe and memorable one:
Camping in the winter will present new challenges to the seasoned summer camper. With shorter days and the potential for severe weather, it is important to have a thorough plan to make sure your snowy trek goes smoothly. Before you leave home, make sure you check off these requirements:
1. Don't go it alone. Make sure you bring a few friends along who are ready and able to help out. If you know someone with snow knowledge, be sure to bring him or her along. It is important to be familiar with useful winter skills such as how to set-up a snow shelter and travel through the snow.
2. Study maps and research the area. You'll want to have a good idea of where you'll set up camp, how you'll get there, and how long it will take. Also, familiarize yourself with the closest emergency services in case something goes awry.
3. Talk to people who have been camping during the winter in the same area before you head out. They'll be able to offer you insightful tips and tricks which may prove useful during your trip. Forums are usually a good option for gaining knowledge of this sort.
4. Check the weather forecast.
5. Check local road and trail conditions.
6. Leave a trip plan. Let others know where you'll be heading, how long you plan to stay there, and your route. Also, be sure to add to the plan your vehicle information and the names of whomever you'll be heading out into the wilderness with.
Make sure you're bringing most, if not all, of the ten essentials for winter camping.
7. Carry cash.
8. Expect the unexpected. Carry extra food and clothing.
As you may have learned from watching Bear Grylls or Survivorman, the golden rule of camping in the snow is to stay dry and warm. Choose impermeable clothing that insulate, dry quickly, and are breathable. By adjusting these three basic layers, you can regulate the amount of warmth you'll need when camping in the snow:
The base layer is the first layer I'll address, and is the layer of clothing closest to your skin. Synthetic and merino wool fabrics work best. The reason wool is best for base layer clothing is because it wicks away moisture to the outer layers and is able to dry quickly. When snow camping, it's common to wear two base layers: a lightweight or middleweight base layer, then a heavyweight layer over that.
The middle layer is your insulating layer, serving to capture and retain as much of your body heat as possible. Consider expedition weight fleece or microfleece shirts, pants, and jackets for your middle layer. These materials are known to do the job when it comes to insulation.
The outer layer, or shell, is your waterproof, windproof, and breathable layer. Laminates such as Gore-Tex, eVent or REI Elements offer some of the best protection when it comes to making sure you have a worthy protective shell. Polyurethane-coated fabrics, a less expensive option, will work as well, but while they are waterproof, they aren't as breathable as the aforementioned laminates.
Boots; when trekking through the snow, the right boots are a vitally important. While traditional boots will work, your best bet is to make sure you're wearing insulated, waterproof boots specifically designed for mountaineering/hiking. Of course, the type of boots you choose to wear will depend on your means of traveling through the snow. If you're hiking, you'll choose waterproof hiking boots; If you're snow-shoeing, you'll choose boots that are compatible with your snow shoes; And if you're skiing or snowboarding to your campsite, you'll be wearing the required skiing or snowboarding footwear.
Hint: Make sure to wear warm, thick socks. Another layer of insulation is always helpful during the winter season. At night, tuck your socks and boot insoles into your sleeping bag when you hit the hay. This will keep them warm for when it's time to suit up in the morning.
Making Camp In The Snow
Having good time management is vital when it comes to setting up camp. When you arrive at your destination, you'll need to make sure that there is plenty of daylight left for you to set up everything properly. Your trek to the site will probably have required you to strip your outermost layer of clothing to reduce body heat. Once you've arrived, take a break, drink some water, and replace your outermost layer so that your body doesn't get too cold. Then, consider these questions when setting up your campsite:
Is there natural wind protection?
Is there a good water source nearby? Or will you need to melt snow?
Is the site free of avalanche danger?
Is it reasonably safe from falling trees and branches?
Are there landmarks to help you find your campsite in the dark?
Where will the sunrise? A sunny spot will help you warm up faster in the morning.
For snow camping, you'll want to bring along a "mountaineering tent" (or 4-season tent) for shelter. Most are easy to set up in extremely cold conditions and don't require too complex a procedure. The typical snow tent will be heavier than 3-season backpacking tents and will offer better wind/snow protection. Below are features that will be ideally included on your mountaineering or snow tent:
Dome shape and extra long pole structure
Solid fabric for warmth and strength
Dual doors for easy access
Extra guy lines for more stability in high wind conditions
A "gear attic" to stow small items
When choosing a place to set up your tent, either dig out a space in the snow (to increase wind protection and create a comfortable base) or pack down the snow on which you will place your tent. Loose snow is more likely to melt from body heat, making sleeping a very uncomfortable experience.
If you're an ultra lightweight traveller, or are simply an extremely experienced mountaineer, building yourself a snow cave can offer just as much protection as a tent.
Cooking In The Snow
Liquid-fuel stoves are recommended for snow camping, rather than canisters. White gas is readily available in outdoor stores in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. If you aren't from one of these countries, consider a multi-fuel stove that allows you to burn auto gas. Also, make sure to test your stoves before you leave home to avoid that painful moment when you realize your stove won't work and you'll have to survive off of frozen granola bars for the next three days.
Potential Health Concerns
Symptoms: Shivering, slurred speech, non-communication and lethargy.
Prevention: Stay warm, stay dry, stay hydrated and eat well.
Remedies: Put on dry clothing. Eat and drink warm foods and fluids. Put the person in a sleeping bag pre-warmed by another person—a hypothermic person doesn't have enough heat to warm the bag. Put warm water in bottles and place them in the sleeping bag with the person. Use another person to warm the hypothermic person. In severe cases, careful evacuation to a medical facility is required.
Symptoms: Numbness to an area, loss of sensitivity to touch, tingling that feels like burning, shivering and skin appears red, then white-to-purple.
Prevention: Don't put yourself in that position. You don't have to reach a summit, your health and well-being are more important. Be aware of your body signals. Stay warm and dry.
Remedies: Place the cold/frostbitten appendages against warm skin, such as your feet against a companion's stomach or armpits, or your fingers in your own armpits. Use warm water—99ºF to 104ºF—on the afflicted area. Do not use fire to thaw area—speedy relief can increase the injury. Do not rub because the abrasive action could damage tissue more. Evacuate to a medical facility.
Using this guide in addition to your own research should fully prepare you for your winter camping adventure. As long as you're safe, smart, and insightful, your camping trip will be a rewarding success. Beware, though: Summer camping may lose some of its appeal after you've overcome the many trials and tribulations of camping in the snow.