Most folks are inherently afraid of the idea of camping out in cold weather, but before we go further let’s define cold weather. A person from Alabama is probably going to have a different definition of what cold weather is than someone who lives in Maine or any of the northern latitudes. I consider temps 30 to 50 degrees pleasant to sleep in. Anything below 30 degrees is starting to get cold and once the temperature hits 10 degrees, I consider it true cold weather camping. The coldest I’ve ever slept in was -40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty cold!
So why would someone want to subject themselves to the torture of sleeping in the cold? A couple of reasons:
- To prove to yourself that you can do it. If you ever have to bug-out in the cold with just a tent and sleeping bad you know you’ll be able to do it.
- Once you’ve done it a couple of times you’ll have your gear tweaked for the cold just the way you like it.
- Experience. Nothing beats actual hands-on experience when it comes to any kind of camping, but particularly cold weather camping.
- It’s actually fun once you understand how to stay warm out there. It only sucks when you’re not prepared for it!
Shelter and Sleeping: A four season tent is good if you’re going to be camping in higher elevations or where it’s windy; however, I’ve slept in three season tents in dead winter and they worked just fine. They’re just not as sturdy in a high wind. I’ve also slept in tipi’s, five and ten military tents, and snow shelters, all of which did a good job of keeping the weather off. In my mind the sleeping bag is the most important piece of gear you can take with you into a cold weather environment. The colder the bag rating the better you’ll sleep. I’ve had a few nights where I slept cold (meaning I was shivering in my sleeping bag) because I took the wrong bag or was experimenting with different sleep systems. A sleeping pad is important too because it separates you from the ground, which will try to suck the heat out of your body.
Stove and Fuel: Other than small wood stoves, you can put in wall tents or military tents my favorite stove is the MSR Whisperlite. Check out this video I made a couple of years ago.
Sled or Toboggan: An easy way to move gear through deep snow is with a sled or toboggan. I’ve pulled sleds called ahkios, which we used in Norway, but probably the most prevalent sled I’ve used is the toboggan. The toboggan isn’t just a death ride into the valley, it’s actually designed to carry gear. It’s slim width is well suited to fit into your snowshoe tracks as you pull it behind you.
Snowshoes: If you think you’re going to hike long distances in deep snow without snowshoes, think again. Let me save you the trouble and tell you that it is exceedingly difficult moving through deep snow without them. Invest in a decent pair and your life will be much happier.
Clothes/Boots: Synthetics and wool are your best choices here. Remember the old adage, “Cotton kills!” When it gets wet, cotton is pretty much useless when it comes to keeping you warm. Dress in layers using synthetics and wool and you’ll be fine. A good, warm pair of boots is also a good investment.
Water Filter: If it’s warmer than 32 degrees F., you can get by with a filter.
Pot Set/Mess Kit: If it’s really cold, you’ll likely be melting snow into water, so make sure you’ve got a pot to go with your stove. Snow is super fluffy compared to water, so you’ll need a bunch of snow to make just a little water. Plan accordingly.
Fire Starter: Lighters are good, but remember that butane doesn’t perform that well when it gets really cold. I always carry a firesteel as a back up. Matches are good as long as they are fresh and don’t get wet. I’ve used the wax tipped matches with mixed results in cold and wet weather and would rather have a lighter. Experiment and see what works for you.
Flashlight: Since it gets dark around 1630, it’s wise to have a couple of flashlights and even a lantern on hand. I love lantern light and that’s what I use 95% of the time when I’m cold weather camping in my tipi or military tent.
Toilet Paper: When there’s three feet of snow under you and no leaves, you’ll want to have some TP with you. You’ve been warned!
First Aid Kit: You’ll want a comprehensive first aid kit. In cold weather you could see anything from a cut by an axe to trench foot. Be prepared with knowledge and how to treat the injury.
Navigation: You all know how I feel about GPS. Yes, it’s totally awesome when it works. I love looking at my phone and seeing what’s over the next hill, but when the phone or GPS dies where are you going to be? Carry a map and compass. More importantly, know how to use it! If you’re in the back country snow shoeing and get lost, you have suddenly entered into a true life and death situation. Make sure you know how to get home, or at least to the nearest road.
Some things to think about in cold weather. Carry extra long underwear with you. When you stop for the night and you’re still warm from moving change into something dry as soon as you can. If you’re already dry, no worries, but if you’ve been sweating you’ll be a lot more comfortable if you change. Everything takes longer in cold weather. Moving, setting up your tent, getting water… everything. Make sure you give yourself extra time when setting up camp the first time, so that you can get a feel for how long it takes.
Things tend to break easier in cold weather too. The cold makes plastic brittle so it cracks easier, cold metal sticks to wet skin, batteries die faster, and other fun stuff you’ll discover when you get out there.
You won’t feel as thirsty in cold weather. Remember to stop and take frequent water breaks as you’re moving. One good thing about snow is when you urinate it’s easy to gauge how yellow it is. If it’s dark, you need to drink way more water. If it’s as clear as the snow, good job!
Going to the Bathroom At Night
Of all the things about cold weather this is the one that sucks the most. When you have to get up at 2:00 am to go to the bathroom and it’s -10 outside you might wish you were dehydrated, but don’t do it. I sleep with wool socks and as soon as I get up I stick my feet in my boots, grab my soft coat, and go outside. Usually there’s a designated area to go to the bathroom, but what you’ll probably find is at night people will take about five steps away from the tent and let fly. If there’s no wind it’s not too bad. Look up at the sky and marvel at how crystal clear it is. If it’s windy and snowing, you’d better hurry because you’re probably going to freeze your ass off. Once done, race back to the tent and crawl into your sleeping bag and get warm again. You’ll be surprised at how fast you get back to sleep!
Read Also: Cold Weather – The Great Equalizer
Another option is to use an old water bottle as a “piss bottle”. Just maneuver around inside your sleeping bag until you’re in position, open up the old bottle and urinate into it. Be careful you don’t miss!! Cap it up and slip it outside the bag when done. It’s more comfortable, but riskier if you can’t see what you’re doing.
Despite all the things I’ve told you to watch out for here winter camping is still an enjoyable experience. Once you’ve got your gear nailed down and your winter knowledge solid, you’ll enjoy those trips into the back woods. The only way to know for sure is to get out there and try it. Remember, when you’re walking from your heated car to the office and you’re wearing thin pants and winter jacket you’ll tell yourself, “No way in hell am I camping in this!” But as soon as you put on three or four layers and climb to the top of a mountain somewhere, the wind hitting you in the teeth feels refreshing.
Don’t sit around for life to pass you by, folks. Get out there and grab it by the tail and live it like it was meant to be lived! Questions? Comments? Sound off below!
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