Winter Camping For Beginners
Winter camping? Now there’s a cool idea. It may not be as easy as pitching a tent at the height of the summer but camping under canvas at the coldest and darkest time of the year is not as mad as it sounds. In fact, as any winter camping aficionado will tell you, it can be a totally magical experience. You just need to be prepared.
Winter camping enables you to see and experience nature in a whole new light. There will be less people out on the trail, the frozen landscape looks breath-taking and you can stargaze under a pitch-black winter sky as you get warm around the campfire. And let’s not get started on those spectacular winter sunsets and sunrises.
To be serious for a moment – winter camping shouldn’t be taken lightly, and you should make like a good Scout to safely get the most out the cold canvas experience. But for the adventurous soul who is well packed and prepared, it can be totally rewarding as well as a load of cold weather fun. So, if a few nights under canvas out of season appeals, then check out our Essential Guide to Winter Camping:
Planning Your Winter Camping Trip
Deciding to embark on a winter camping adventure is one thing, planning the trip is a whole different ball game. We’re not asking you to plan an arctic expedition, but winter camping is more than just strapping a large camping tent and a sleeping bag onto your backpack. Safety and enjoyment are the objectives here, and without proper planning and preparation, you’ll be heading out on a risky trip.
The first step is to decide why you are venturing out into the cold and where you plan to set up camp. Are you looking to stay close to civilization on a known campsite or is it more about getting off the beaten track for some proper winter wild camping? Wild camping at any time of the year needs to be carefully planned, so if you are an inexperienced camper, don’t risk it in the winter and stick with an established site. If you are planning to wild camp, then do your homework and make sure the location you have in mind is safe to head for and is in a permitted area. Even with established campsites, your choice may well be limited in the winter as many sites close out of season.
Do Your Research
Once you have chosen your winter camping destination and decided with your canvas buddies how long your trip will last, do your research on the location and surrounding area. This includes the distance and route you intend to travel each day and the sites you will pitch camp along the way, as well as the natural water sources around you and where the nearest towns are. And it goes without saying you need to assess the weather – and keep checking it right up to the day you set out. Ongoing monitoring of the weather on your camping trip, speaking to locals and keeping connected will also help you to constantly assess your plans and react to any adverse effects the changing winter weather could have on your trip. Better to know a weather front is coming and bail rather than get caught in the eye of a winter storm.
With all your plans in place, don’t forget to make sure someone knows where you are going, when you are expected back and who you are with before heading out into the winter wilderness.
Sort Out Your Gear
When winter camping, there is one main rule – pack for the worst. And especially for the worst of the weather. With night temperatures likely to drop several degrees below zero or even more, you need to ensure you can keep as warm, dry and comfortable as possible. And this means a good shelter at night and extra warmth when you are not moving or asleep. Yes, your trip is totally about enjoying yourself and the winter outdoors, but you are going into an environment made more hazardous by potentially extreme weather and the cold.
For winter camping you will need some essential gear, so here is what you need to pack:
A Winter Tent – Sorry, but your lightweight summer tent and a few extra camping blankets are not going to cut it. You need a strong, winterized tent that can stand up to extremes of wind, rain and snow. Ideally, you should opt for a waterproof four-season tent, that has been built to cope with low temperature, driving rain and ripping winds. The structure of a four-season tent can also withstand the weight of snow and the double walls work to keep condensation at bay as you generate your own heat inside the sleeping compartment. Not only does your winter tent need to be a tough dude, it needs to be lightweight too as you will be carrying it with you. And go for a two-man tent if you can, to keep in the extra warmth, especially if you double-up with a camping bud.
Groundsheets And Sleeping Mats – The night time is when the ground’s freezing grip will start to get to you. Make sure you have several groundsheet layers and a good, insulated sleeping mat to keep this ground chill at bay and create a warmer environment inside your tent. Go for a high insulation value foam mattress that is lightweight to roll up and easy to carry. You can also get a camping cot, so you don’t sleep directly on the ground.
Sleeping Bag And Liner – When it comes to your sleeping bag, go for the best quality you can afford, then add an additional internal liner to make it extra snug against those winter night time extremes. A liner is a simple but effective way of creating an insulating compartment that will help you to retain essential heat. And don’t forget to check the temperature rating of your sleeping bag to make sure it really is up to the winter job. A mummy-shaped bag or wearable sleeping bag with a high rating will keep you snug as the temperature drops and protect you from the extremes of the cold, including potential hypothermia.
Waterproof Rucksack – The backpacking backpack you take on a winter camping trip needs to be larger than normal to carry all the extra items you need. It also needs to be lightweight enough to be able to carry on what could be some treacherous winter surfaces and inclines. Also, check the straps to make sure they are sturdy and comfortable enough to carry in all weathers.
Winter Extras – We will look at the clothes you need in a moment, but along with your canvas home and sleeping gear, you will also need to take the essentials tools and equipment you need to pitch your tent, light a fire and cook a meal. Water bottles, torches, head torches, batteries, walking poles, a foldable snow shovel, first-aid kit, maps, your smartphone, a knife and ideally a GPS should all also find their way into your backpack.
What To Wear
The layering system is the only way to go when winter camping as it enables you to control your body temperature as the weather changes or the degrees start to drop. And good waterproof outerwear and winter walking boots (that you have already broken in) are a must. To help with your packing, here’s our must-have winter camping clothes list:
- Waterproof walking winter boots designed for harsh weather
- Plenty of different thickness socks (you can layer these up) that also wick away moisture
- Warm, wicking base-layers (tops and bottoms – you can sleep in these too)
- A selection of mid-layers, including fleeces
- Outer layers such as shell jackets
- Waterproof jacket with storm hood, cuffs and zips
- Fleece-lined walking pants
- Outer waterproof pants and gaiters
- Waterproof/fleece gloves (can be worn with an inner liner for extra insulation)
- Insulated woolen hat
- Fleece scarf or buff
- Sunglasses, lip balm and sun cream (you may just catch some winter sun!)
Setting Up Camp
One downside to winter camping is the shorter window of daylight, but plan around the quick setting winter sun and you’ll be able to get ahead with pitching your tent. But this does mean being a bit more disciplined in the distance you cover each day and how long it takes you to get to the next campsite. Simply put – you don’t want to be setting up camp in the dark!
Not only are you making life more difficult for yourself, but as the sun sets, the temperatures will drop even further, meaning you will get colder quicker as you set up camp. You will also need some decent light to pick the right camp spot – go for a location that is sheltered from the wind and a safe distance from any natural hazards such as overhead branches and hillside snow drifts. Also, look for a spot that is near to a clean water supply and while it is still light, familiarize yourself with your campsite layout and any distinguishing features around the perimeter in case you get a little lost on the way back to your tent should nature call in the middle of the night.
Once your tent has been pitched, you can then set about sorting out the campfire. Even better, if there are several of you in your winter camping squad, share out the tasks so the wood can be collected and the fire lit while the rest of you set up the tents.
Staying warm and keeping as dry as possible are key obsessions of many winter campers. And knowing the cold and wet trigger points that can make a winter camping trip really miserable is a handy skill to have. Protecting your feet and the inside of your tent from the damp and wet is essential to keeping a spring in your step and you looking forward to a good night’s sleep. And always stick to the clothes layering rule to keep your body insulated, warm and happy.
Food can also play a big part in keeping you warm on a winter camping trip – eating plenty of high-calorie snacks when on the trail will really help your body and muscles to keep generating energy and much-needed heat. And, at the end of an awesome day’s hiking out on a snowy trail, that camp fire back at base is much more than a pretty thing to gaze into while grilling a burger and drinking a beer. It can actually be a lifesaver so make sure your campfire building skills are totally up to scratch. A dry pack of firelighters should already be in your winter camping rucksack but if you’re a little rusty in the campfire stakes, check out WikiHow’s Six Steps to Building a Campfire for some hot tips.
Food And Hydration
Your calorie and water intake are crucial when camping and hiking in tough winter conditions as the body burns far more energy trying to maintain its core temperature. The rule for fueling your body in harsh, cold weather is little and often to keep those energy levels topped up and steady. Snacks that are high in good carbs, protein and fats such as nuts, trail bars, dried fruit and even chocolate will ensure a constant release of energy to keep you on the move.
And while drinking water is the last thing you probably want to do when out in cold/extreme conditions, you really need to keep yourself hydrated to replace the fluids your body loses through heat, sweat or simply breathing. And, if you are hiking all day or taking part in outdoor winter sports, you will also need to replace lost electrolytes so, to make it easier to get all the hydration you need, include some sports drinks as well as fresh, plain water.
Back at camp, before you hunker down for the night, it is a wise idea to also have a hot, carb-based meal to re-fuel and to get some extra warmth into your system. If you have been able to bring a winter-proof camping stove on your camping trip (not all fuels are equal in extreme temperatures, with butane gas-based camping cookers a no-go whereas solid fuels are more able to cope) all well and good, but keeping it even simpler, a pot set up over your campfire can work just as well. Dehydrated food packs that you can buy from most camping stores are easy to pack and carry and will give you enough carbs and nutrition you need to weather out a cold night. Or packet soups and pasta can be just as warming and tasty.
So now you’ve got the essentials of winter camping and planning down, it’s time to strap on your rucksack and get out there on the wilderness trail to enjoy the colder side of canvas life. With the right gear, the right clothes and the right attitude, a winter camping trip can let you see the natural world from a different angle and really add to your experience of the great outdoors.
But before you go, here’s the final checklist of our winter camping essentials guide to help keep you safe when out in the elements:
Go With Friends – It’s not really a good idea to winter camp on your own so enjoy the experience with a group of friends. This way you will also have your winter camping wingmen should anything go wrong.
Always Have A Back-Up Plan – From letting people back at home where you are and what time you’ll be reporting back to base camp and ensuring you have a phone signal (or know you can get to a town that has one) to back up cash or credit card, a pre-agreed ‘Plan B’ is always a good idea in case your winter camping trip goes a little awry.
Take A Dry Bag – To store your essentials such as matches, spare clothes or money. Think which items could be a ‘camping trip-ender’ if they got wet and then stash them safely away.
Seek Shelter – If you get too wet and cold, don’t push on but make for the nearest shelter or set up camp so you can get dry and changed. Staying wet will sap your energy and could lead to you making some wrong decisions.
Keep Your Eye On The Weather – Winter weather can be unpredictable, so you want to have some advance notice of any adverse conditions if you can, rather than being caught out by a storm. Know the weather forecast before you start your trip and keep checking on any developments via weather apps on your smartphone.
Pack A Whistle – And use it to locate others in your group when out on the trail or get their attention if you find yourself in a bit of a sticky situation.
Don’t Be Afraid To Call Time – You are out winter camping to enjoy yourself, so if the conditions get too difficult or dangerous there’s nothing wrong in bringing the trip to an early but safe end. There will always be other winter camping trips so don’t sweat it. Just think about that warm bath and cold beer waiting for you at home instead!
- 10 Spectacular Places to Camp in Winter– HowStuffWorks