Brave the elements.
By Trent Jonas
Winter camping is far different from warm-weather camping. You’ll need to bring more, typically heavier, gear, and because you can’t rely on things like running water or foraged food, you need to pack extra everything. Although the burdens of winter camping may be bigger, the benefits can be well worth it: no crowds, clear skies, open trails. Here’s a half-dozen tips for making your winter camping trip a success.
When considering a tent for winter camping, you need to choose one that can handle the elements and protect you from them. Typically, such tents are described as four-season or expedition-rated models. You’ll want a model that is double-walled, to inhibit condensation, but adequately vented for sufficient airflow. A bathtub floor and a full fly are also key features to look for. Large vestibules for storing boots and packs, or for cooking in bad weather, are also nice to have. Nemo’s Kodiak is a good example of a tent that can be used for winter camping.
The most important gear in your winter camping kit may well be your sleep system: sleeping bag, liner and pad. If your sleep system can’t handle the temperatures in which you’re camping, you will be miserable. Worse, you could actually put yourself at risk for hypothermia.
The first thing you’ll need to do is determine what your lowest limit for winter camping is. Are you willing to camp in weather below 30 degrees? Below 15? Once you have your answer, choose a sleeping bag that is rated well below your threshold temperature and test it out at home (sit outside in it) before taking it camping. Bag manufacturers tend to be a little optimistic with their ratings, so if you use a bag rated for 20 degree weather in 20 degree weather, you may find yourself shivering in your sleep. A bag filled with down is going to be lighter, more packable, and likely warmer than a bag with a synthetic fill. Look for something like the Inferno, from The North Face, which, with its 15 degree Fahrenheit rating, makes it a good bag for winter camping in temperatures around 20 degrees or higher. If you plan on camping in even colder weather, look for a bag that’s rated for even lower temperatures.
Choosing the right liner can make a huge difference in your winter camping experience. By adding an extra layer to the inside of your sleeping bag, a liner can boost your bag’s internal temperature by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit when you’re inside it. Sea to Summit’s Thermolite Reactor Extreme bag liner, for example, boasts a 25 degree temperature bump.
Finally, an insulated sleeping pad will make sure that all your warmth doesn’t leech out through the floor of your tent. The insulating qualities of a sleeping pad are described as its “R value.” An average pad has an R value that falls between two and five. For colder temperatures, you’ll want a pad that has an R value of at least five, and for winter camping, you probably want something even higher.
The Exped Sim Comfort, with an R value of 8.1, is a good example of an inflatable pad that can be used in colder temperatures.
While gas camping stoves tend to be lighter and more convenient, they simply don’t perform all that well in cold weather. So, for winter camping, you’ll need a stove that can burn a liquid fuel, like white gas. If you’re a year-round camper, the MSR Whisperlite Universal Camp Stove is a good choice. You can use it with a gas canister in warmer weather and white gas, or other liquid fuels, while winter camping. Given the sometimes harsh conditions of winter camping, it’s not a bad idea to have a backup stove, like the ultralight, pocket-sized Toaks Titanium Siphon Alcohol Stove, which you can use for quick tasks like heating water or melting snow, or in the event of a stove malfunction.
In winter conditions, wet clothes—even from perspiration—can be deadly. Avoid cotton in all of your layers, choosing breathable, quick-drying technical materials, silk, or wool, instead. Wear a moisture-wicking base layer and a water-resistant outer layer, including rain or snow pants. Water-resistant gloves or mittens are also important pieces of apparel when you’re winter camping.
Often, winter camping involves snowy or icy conditions, which, in turn, put you at risk of injury—something you don’t want, especially in cold weather. So, for getting around on packed snow or icy trails, you’ll need some extra traction that’s easy to put on and take off. Mini crampons, like Kahtoola’s MicroSpikes, or another traction device, like YakTrax can make a big difference in safely getting around your camp.
During winter, weather conditions can change quickly, so you need to be prepared to spend an extra day—or several days—in your camp in the event that you’re stranded. Pack in plenty of extra food and stove fuel. Bring a charger or extra batteries for anything that runs on electricity. You’ll need a packable shovel, like MSR’s Responder, for moving and removing snow. A whisk, like Coghlan’s is handy for keeping snow off your tent. And, as always, be sure to pack a first aid kit in the event of illness or injury. NOLS sells several wilderness medical kits, the most comprehensive of which is the 5.0.