Oh, waking up to the sound of birds chirping in the morning, warm sun rays inviting you to go barefoot through the crystal dew drops hanging by each grass thread, the smell of last night’s campfire still lingering in the air…it’s all those little things that make camping such a magical experience.
Too bad winter is coming… Should you stop doing what you love once the first snowflakes begin to fall? No! Even though they may appear as warm-weather outdoor activities, not all of them are limited to summer months. Sure, we all know that hiking is a year-round activity. But have you ever considered snow camping or winter paddle boarding?
Winter surfing spots like Norway, the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, Iceland, and Alaska welcome water sports enthusiasts who are not afraid to get a little wet even if they are surrounded by snow and the air temperature is below freezing. Sometimes, these surfing spots are so remote that there’s no other option except camping.
Whether you decide to do it on a narrow mountain ridge, go snowshoeing through the forest and set up camp by a lake you plan to paddle board on (if it’s not already frozen!), follow my tips and tricks to make your first winter camping adventure a success!
Choose the right winter camping equipment
Winter hiking and camping are quite different from their summertime counterparts. To start with, you need to layer up. This means a base layer (thermal underwear), an insulating layer (the one that’s actually keeping you warm), and the outer layer, or shell (the windproof, waterproof and breathable layer that protects you from the weather).
While trekking, skiing or paddle boarding, you might feel comfortable even at -15°C (5°F). But that also means that you’ll be sweating, and you’ll want your clothes to be able to evacuate all that perspiration effectively. Once you stop moving, you should not feel wet and should have some warm clothes to throw on, including a goose down jacket, gloves and hat. These items can take up quite a lot of space, which is why you should start with choosing an appropriate backpack.
When winter camping, you need to carry extra gear and clothes that take up a lot of space. Your backpack should have enough room to accommodate all that, but not be too bulky. Make sure the backpack is lightweight and fits your size. I’m 1,60 m (5’2’’), and a 60-liter backpack is the maximum I can handle. Also, try to pack the bare minimum. Winter hiking is hard work as it is, and you wouldn’t want to be carrying too much weight.
Make sure the backpack has lash points so you can attach snowshoes, trekking poles, snow shovel, skis, crampons, ice axe, etc. Split the tent between your trekking partners. You can attach the poles to the outside of your backpack, and you can do the same with your sleeping pad (just make sure you use a waterproof cover for it).
Winter sleeping bag
Goose down is superior to synthetic insulation, but it is also more expensive. You must also make sure to keep it dry, or it will not do such a good job at keeping you warm. As a rule of thumb, choose a sleeping bag that is rated at least 10 °C below the minimum temperature you expect to encounter. Read the labels carefully and see the ratings for comfort, limit, and extreme.
The comfort rating means the lowest temperature at which you will not feel cold and will be able to sleep in a relaxed posture. The limit is when you are fighting the cold but are not shivering. Your posture will most likely be curled up inside the sleeping bag, but you are not at any risk just yet. However, this is not very comfortable, and if you have a strenuous trek the next day, you will not wake up feeling refreshed.
The extreme rating is the lowest temperature at which the sleeping bag can protect you from frostbites. I’m telling you, sleeping in these conditions is out of the question – you are shivering and literally fighting to stay warm.
There have been a couple of times when I had to use the emergency blanket inside the sleeping bag because I was simply too cold. And I still couldn’t get any sleep. But hey, I survived the night, right? That doesn’t mean that I want to do it again, though. I learned my lesson and I now postpone my treks when temperatures around -33 °C (-27 °F) are expected.
Winter sleeping pad
While some may recommend using two sleeping pads one over the other for extra insulation, they can take up too much space. That’s why it’s best to get one that can withstand the weather on its own.
Sleeping pads are rated using an R-value indicator, that can be between 1.0 and 8.0. The higher the value the better the insulation. Unfortunately, an R-value over 5.0 usually means bulky inflatable mattresses that are better suited for RV camping. Closed-cell foam pads and self-inflating pads with an R-value between 4.0 and 4.9 should do a pretty good job at keeping you warm.
Four-season tents are the most popular option when it comes to snow camping. Opt for double-wall tents, as they do a far better job at maintaining the warmth and provide better ventilation, which means less condensation (water drops by night and snowflakes in the morning over your sleeping bag).
Make sure you pack down the snow before setting up your tent. Loose snow might melt over the night and result in an uncomfortable sleeping position. Keep in mind that it’s always better to sleep on snow than on rock or ice. Not only will it provide a more comfortable surface for sleeping, but also snow is a very poor heat conductor and thus a good insulator.
Canister stoves are the go-to option for three-season camping. They are lightweight, easy to use and readily accessible. But come wintertime, canisters can struggle in freezing temperatures. Luckily, there are special winter butane-propane mixes that work quite well regardless of the temperatures. They are more expensive, but certainly worth it if you are not planning to stay for too many nights or do a lot of cooking.
The performance of liquid-fuel stoves does not depend on the temperatures. White gas is readily available in most outdoor gear shops, and there’s also the option of using autogas. However, if the latter is not clean, the debris might cause the stove to clog.
They may be a little trickier to operate, but liquid-fuel stoves remain the best option for multi-day winter camping trips, as they work just as well in bitterly cold temperatures as they do in summer. Furthermore, they perform well in windy conditions when covered with a windscreen, whereas covering canisters can lead to overheating.
Useful winter camping tips & tricks
(some learned the hard way)
Sleep with your boots inside your sleeping bag
Never leave your boots in your tent vestibule. In the best case scenario, they will only be freezing cold in the morning. In the worst case, they’ll be frozen. Trust me; spinning your boots over your stove as if they were roast chickens is not funny! It’s a waste of gas, time and nerves.
Sleep with your boots inside your sleeping bag. If you have boots with removable liners, you can sleep with the inner boot on your feet and keep the outer boot near the sleeping bag. If not, use a plastic bag to keep your boots inside.
Bring a snow shovel
Leveling the surface where you wish to pitch your tent with your bare hands, trekking poles or ice ax can take ages. Nowadays, snow shovels are lightweight and foldable, and can easily be attached to your backpack. They are indispensable in digging a snow shelter around your tent, digging for fresh water and in avalanche rescue. They also come in handy when you plan to sleep in a mountain shelter, where blizzards can cover the door entirely and you must dig your way in.
Melt snow to make water
There’s no use carrying fresh water when there’s plenty of snow just outside your tent door. Don’t just melt the snow, boil it! Snow may seem immaculate, but it can still carry bacteria and dirt that can lead to all sorts of stomach issues.
Keep in mind, though, that snow is demineralized water and therefore cannot hydrate you properly. To add some nutritional value and ions, squeeze a lemon inside, add vitamins powders, oral rehydration salts or throw in some tea bags.
Eat a hot meal before you go to sleep
Your body needs fuel to generate heat, and you should go inside your sleeping bag warm. What insulation does is that it keeps the warmth within, but you need your body to be warm in order for this to work. I tend to get very cold as soon as I stop moving, and eating a big hot meal rich in fats and carbs helps me stabilize my body temperature. An aspirin also helps.
Opt for wide-mouth bottles
It’s best to bring wide-mouth bottles. These make pouring water you make from melting snow easier and less messy. Use insulated covers for your water bottles and keep them upside down so that the lid does not freeze shut. Alternatively, wrap your wattle bottle in warm clothes inside your backpack.
Use lithium batteries
Lithium batteries last three times longer than alkaline or Ni-MH batteries and are much more powerful in cold weather. Cold temperatures drain the life out of your batteries, so make sure you bring enough extra batteries and keep them warm in a pocket close to your body when you move during the day and in your sleeping bag by night.
Whether it’s your first time or if you’re a seasoned Winter camper, being prepared for the elements is the key to a successful Winter Camping Adventure.Good luck on your next Winter camping trip!
Author: Octavia Drughi