Not many people enjoy camping out in the cold. The first time I took my wife cold-weather camping it got down to -4 Fahrenheit that evening and it was all I could do to get her out of her sleeping bag the next morning. The secret to enjoying cold weather is dressing warm and having the right gear.
Just because the temperature drops below zero, or it gets dark at 4:30 doesn’t mean you should hibernate like a bear for the winter. Instead grab your warm clothes, your head lamp, and a warm sleeping bag and head into the woods for a night. I’ve camped many nights in cold weather and those camping trips have ranged from super fun to miserable depending on what I had for equipment. One night when it was well below zero I was going to camp on a mountain near where I live. When I got to the trailhead I put my pack on and started looking for my gloves, which – as it turns out – I’d left at home. At that point I was unwilling to turn around to go back and get them, so I went camping without them. Overall it wasn’t horrible, but setting my tent up when the temps were below zero was pretty rough. Other than that I kept my hands in my coat pocket and managed not to lose any digits. Manageable, yes. Fun. No. Lesson learned. Don’t forget your gloves.
What You’ll Need
No matter what your winter sport of choice is you’ll need a base layer of clothing to help keep you warm and dry. One of the big mistakes newbies make is to just throw on a heavy coat and head outside. A pro tip is to dress in layers with synthetic or wool long underwear. Avoid cotton because once it gets wet it loses it’s insulating properties and you’ll get cold. Thick wool socks, good boots, a good pair of pants and if you’re going to do some snowmobiling or go rolling around in the snow you’ll need some snow pants too. You’ll also need a warm jacket with a hood, hat, and a good pair of gloves or mittens. Even when you’re snowmobiling with heated handgrips you still need a good pair of gloves. I was out on my sled earlier this season during the cold snap we were having and those expensive gloves were worth their weight in gold!
In between your long underwear top and jacket you’ll need a medium layer or two, depending on what the temperature is. I have several different tops I wear depending on whether I’m snowmobiling, hiking, or snowshoeing. I have a military cold weather wool shirt that works very well when I’m hiking or ‘shoeing.
Regulate Your Core Temperature
When you’re moving through the snow with a pack or pulling a sled with gear on it you’re going to heat up fast. One thing I like to do to regulate temperature is to start unzipping layers as I go.
Take your hat off, pull your hood back, unzip your coat, take the coat off if you’re getting really hot, take your gloves off. Basically you don’t want to sweat if at all possible even though you will if you’re working really hard. What I do when I’m hiking is have another inner-layer shirt in my pack and when I get to wherever I’m going I pull it out and change into it immediately while I’m still hot. By the time you get done changing you’ll have cooled enough to start adding your layers back on plus you’ll be dry up top.
In the winter you don’t feel thirst like you do in the summer, so it’s easy to become dehydrated. When you stop to urinate check to see what color it is. If it’s yellow you’re getting dehydrated and need to drink water. Have a water bottle handy and every time you stop make it a point to drink some water.
If you’re camping a good sleeping bag is your most important piece of gear. I’ve slept in cold weather in at least ten different types of sleeping bags with mixed results. I’ve got one bag rated for -20 and I’ve slept in -10 with it and stayed reasonably comfortable.
The warmest bag I ever slept in was one of the older military extreme cold weather bags. It came with a silk liner that was a sleeping bag in its own right, but put the two together and you have a bag that will keep you comfortable at -40. No, that’s not an exaggeration. In the early 80’s we camped out at Camp Ripley, Minnesota for ten days in temps that never got up to zero degrees at their warmest and down to -40 at night. We stayed in the big ten man arctic tents in those sleeping bags and stayed warm. Getting up to go the bathroom was a miserable experience, but the bag itself was unbeatable. Its one downside is the weight. It weighed about 15 or so pounds and was huge, but if you’re sleeping in arctic conditions I’d highly recommend this type of mummy bag.
The newer military sleep systems aren’t too bad, but I slept out a few nights at -10 and could feel the cold creeping in. I’m not sure how it would feel at -40. If anyone has camped in colder temps than I have in one of these sleeping bags post about it in the comments and let me know how it worked out.
Civilian bags are pretty good depending on what you buy, but very pricey the better and warmer they get. The older military bags are reasonably priced, but heavy… more suited for car camping or being pulled on a sled rather than alpine camping. The newer military bags are ok, but when you’re sleeping in temps colder than zero expect to sleep cold.
Tents and Shelters
Alpine style four-season tents are designed to be more sturdy than warm. They are designed to hold up under high winds on the side of a mountain, which means they have to be light enough for you to carry them up there. They are well engineered and sturdy, but also expensive.
I’ve used three-season tents in the winter and as long as it’s not blowing a a gale they’re fine.
Other shelters I’ve used are the arctic military tents, which are really heavy. I used them in the military, but also bought one for home use and it lasted about five years before it collapsed after a blizzard here in Maine.
I also have a tipi which holds up really well. My uncle in Canada has a tipi as well and I snowshoed out a few years ago in the middle of winter to find that a couple of poles had collapsed under the heavy snow load. It was still standing, but two of the poles needed to be replaced. The most important maintenance task to perform is to make sure your structure is shoveled off as soon as you can get to it.
Now that you’ve got your gear it’s time to take it on a shake-down cruise. The first step is to put everything in your big backpack.
Here’s a list of some of the things you’ll want in your pack:
- Stove and fuel
- Extra clothes
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Flashlight or headlamp (or both)
- Lighter/matches/firesteel – some way to start a fire
- Cook pot and eating utensils
This is in addition to what you’ll be wearing and it’s not everything you’ll need, but it’s a good start.
A winter pack is usually pretty heavy. One good way to move it through the snow is by pulling it on a sled or toboggan. Make sure everything is lashed down tightly or you’ll wind up picking it up a hundred times.
Find a good patch of woods and if there’s plenty of snow you’ll want to pack down a patch of it with your snowshoes. When you figure out where you want your tent to go start packing the snow down with your ‘shoes. Walk back and forth on it for about ten minutes or so and then let the snow harden up. After it’s left to sit for awhile you should be able to walk on it, or least put your tent up without worrying about sinking into the snow.
Now it’s time to lay your gear out. Put your tent up and then the sleeping mat and sleeping bag should go in. Once you’ve got that done put your pack in next to you or in your vestibule if you have one. At this point you can work on your camp. Get firewood if you’re going to have a fire and get it ready to light. How do you get a fire going in the snow?
Once the work is done light the fire and kick back. Now it’s time to relax and watch the stars. Have some cocoa or coffee and something to eat and enjoy the evening.
When you get in your sleeping bag it’s a good idea to sleep with just a t-shirt and maybe your long johns and socks and a hat or balaclava. That way if you sweat you won’t get them wet. If you get cold by all means put them back on. I’ve slept in an inadequate bag with my coat on before, so do what you have to do to stay warm.
The reason you’re out here this first time is to experiment. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t. I’ll usually write something like this in my journal:
“The new gloves sucked. They were too tight and caused my hands to get cold. Probably good for ice climbing, but not for general camping purposes. Good news: the new sleeping bag rocks. It’s got plenty of room and kept me good and warm with last night temps around 15 degrees.”
Take good notes, modify your gear as necessary, and pretty soon you’ll be a winter camping pro.