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Safety First: 10 Hacks for Successful Winter Camping

Be prepared for even the coldest conditions. 

By Trent Jonas

Safety First: 10 Hacks for Successful Winter Camping

When you set out on a winter camping trip, you probably don’t expect that anything will go wrong—and most of the time, you will be right. The thing about cold weather, though, is that if conditions or circumstances do deteriorate, it can happen quickly, and the consequences can be really dire. So to keep yourself safe and warm when you head out in cold weather, use these 10 hacks for successful winter camping.

Use an uninsulated, unpainted water bottle

When camping in winter weather, bring along an uninsulated, unpainted water bottle, either instead of or in addition to a regular vacuum-insulated bottle. The advantage of using a container like the Klean Kanteen classic water bottle is that you can boil water or melt snow directly in the water bottle. At night, keep it in the foot of your sleeping bag to warm your feet and prevent the bottle from freezing.

But bring an insulated sleeve

Keep your water bottle in an insulated sleeve, like the Mountainsmith Water Bottle Holster to prevent your water from freezing too quickly. Carry it upside down in the sleeve. The water in your bottle will freeze from the top down, so if the cap is on the bottom, it won’t freeze shut.

Always carry fire-making gear

In the winter—or any time you’re heading out into the wild—always carry a way to make fire with you. A regular butane lighter and something to get a flame going, like Coghlan’s Emergency Tinder Kit, will take up very little space in your pack or coat pocket but will make a huge difference if you become stranded. If you want to start a fire with a nice cedar scent, try out Coghlan's fire discs which are also good for starting a fire. 

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A light source is a vital piece of gear

Winter means short days and long nights. Darkness falls quickly and can catch you away from camp—and your phone is not a good source of illumination. It’s always better to have a more powerful beam and, ideally, to keep your hands free. So, carry an easy-to-pocket headlamp like the Petzl Zipka to use when the dark catches up with you.

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Pack in snow moving equipment

Winter camping is not the same as ultralight backpacking—you should expect to carry more gear than you would during warmer months. One essential extra piece of equipment is a way to move snow like the MSR Responder shovel. You can use it for everything from clearing space for your tent to creating wind-blocks or, if you run into a dangerous situation, you can use it to rescue someone buried in deep snow. You would definitely miss it if you don’t have it.

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Be prepared to be stranded

Winter weather is not always predictable, and snow-covered trails can be difficult to follow. Should you get pinned down by a storm or bewildered away from camp (or if you simply don’t have time set up your tent), an emergency shelter can be a literal lifesaver. Look for something light and packable like the SOL Escape Bivvy which will not only keep you dry, it’s heat-reflective fabric will protect you from the wind and keep you warm.

Remain upright

Slipping and falling on icy or snowy trails is a common way to get injured in winter weather. Snowshoes are a good option for deeply snow-covered trails. Otherwise, use a traction device like Kahtoola Microspikes, which you can strap right onto your hiking boots.

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Pack the right kind of power

Use lithium batteries in any electronics that you bring along on your camping trip. Not only do lithium batteries last longer than their nickel cadmium counterparts, they perform in temperatures as low as -40° Fahrenheit.

Bring a compass

Just like your phone’s flash is not a replacement for a flashlight or headlamp, its GPS is no replacement for a compass or a map. Batteries die and reception can be lost. And in winter landscapes where the light gray sky blends into the white horizon and landmarks can be covered in snow, a good, old-fashioned analog compass, like the Suunto M-3 D/L compass can get you back to camp in any conditions.

Keep your gear dry

There are a lot of ways to keep your gear dry in the winter—rain covers for packs, gaiters for your boots, etc.—but one of the simplest ways is to just remove the snow from it. Bring a tent brush, like Coghlan’s Tent Whisk to brush snow off your clothes and outerwear before you get into the tent. Then, before packing up, use it to brush frost and snow off your tent and fly—it may not look wet now, but once it melts, your packed tent will be soaked through.

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