The Delights and Challenges of Winter Camping

Winter camping in snowy Wyoming offers exquisite scenery, profound silence and a memorable wilderness experience — with no bugs.

But it’s also not for the faint of heart. Winter camping can be difficult, tedious and simply unpleasant. The days are short, the nights are cold and long. And crawling out of a cozy sleeping bag on a freezing morning to melt snow for coffee is not most people’s idea of a dream vacation.

Winter Camping Horror Stories

Creative Commons Image by Kevin Teague

Just about everyone who’s done their share of winter camping has their own horror stories. These typically fall into three categories:

  1. Inexperience. Such as wearing denim instead of waterproof Gore-Tex, or cotton underwear instead of moisture-wicking synthetic.
  2. Unavoidable. Such as when you find yourself confined to your tent for four days during a blizzard.
  3. Pure Stupidity. Forgetting a compass or matches, storing food in the tent while camping in grizzly country, or using a sleeping bag unsuitable for temperatures colder than 35 degrees.

For campers who don’t know what they’re doing, a cold-weather trek in the back country can be fatal. So if you’re even considering a wintertime camping trip, pay heed to some tips from the experts.

Rule #1: Don’t Go Alone

As enticing as the empty wilderness might seem, nature is unforgiving. That’s why you should always share the adventure with a camping buddy or two. Choose companions who have an assortment of cold-weather skills, such as navigating through snow and setting up camp in winter.

Along these same lines, be sure to let others know where you’ll be and when you’ll return. Include vehicle information, and the names and contact information of your fellow campers.

Location, Location, Location

winter camping

National Park Service Photo, Public Domain

It’s important to pick your campsite carefully, especially if you’re an inexperienced cold-weather camper. Choose a scenic and sheltered destination that’s not too far off the beaten path. That way, if things go wrong, you can bail.

Also, make sure there’s available firewood, in case you want to build a fire. If possible, camp near open water, so you don’t have to spend all your time melting snow. (Melting snow usually requires about three times the fuel you would use for normal summertime camping.)

And check out the weather forecast before you go. You don’t want to be surprised by sudden cold, storm, wind, or even a thaw that will make for soaking wet conditions.

Gearing Up

Dress in layers. You’ll need more clothes than you would for day-long activities like skiing.

Your boots need to be warm and waterproof. Support is less important than warmth and durability. And don’t cram extra socks into your boots unless there’s plenty of room for them. Tight-fitting boots will cut off circulation rather than keeping your feet warm. And if you plan on doing a lot of hiking, you’ll want to consider spikes or snowshoes.

Public Domain Image

With regard to hand and head coverings, choose a thick, warm hat and mittens instead of gloves for warmth. Don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Reflective snow can really cook you, especially from late February on.

If you don’t have a winter (4-season) sleeping bag, take two 3-season bags and nest one inside the other. For your tent, many three-season tents will work fine, unless you expect heavy snow or high winds. (In which case, as a beginner, you may not want to venture out.).

“White” gas camping stoves are best for winter, but in most conditions alcohol or canister stoves will also work. If you’re using a gas cartridge stove, you’ll want to use isobutane. You can warm cartridges in your sleeping bag or parka before firing up.

Lastly, bring a good headlamp with fresh batteries. You’ll want lots of light to deal with those long nighttime hours.

Setting Up Camp

Upon arrival at your campsite, immediately put on all your warm clothes. The idea is to preserve the heat you generated while hiking to the site.

When camping on snow, stomp out a tent platform using skis, snowshoes or just boots and a shovel. Make it larger than you think you’ll need, and be diligent about packing it flat. Here’s how one couple tackled camping in the Bighorn Mountains during a Wyoming cold snap:

It’s best to set up camp so you can cook food and drinks from your sleeping bag. If you cook in a tent vestibule, prime your stove outside the tent, then bring it in. Be sure to allow for plenty of ventilation.

If you start to chill, don’t just sit there. Go for a walk, do some sit-ups or deep knee bends. Or generate a little metabolic heat by building a campfire.

–Article Continues Below–

Staying Warm

Public Domain Image

In forested areas, a campfire can change the whole atmosphere of a winter camp. Your evenings and mornings will certainly be warmer, but much of your time will devoted to finding wood and tending the fire. Be sure to find solid ground to put it on, and it’s best to use established campsites and fire pits. In harsh conditions, a fire pit forms an oven-like reflector that can throw winter back into the darkness.

Hot water bottles also work miracles for chilled campers. By simply boiling a liter of water, filling a strong, solidly capped bottle, and burying it as close to your body as you can stand, you’ll stay warm sitting around in the harshest conditions.

You’ll probably find that mornings are the toughest time for winter camping. The temperature is coldest just before dawn, and since you’ve been inactive for a while, it’s easy to get chilled. The best thing to do is get up and go for a walk.

Once you’ve warmed up, you’ll be ready to break camp and set off on your next adventure.


Featured Image: Creative Commons Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The New York Times

Reserve America