Winter Camping 101

For some people winter camping means renting out a cabin, while sitting by a beautiful blazing wood burning fireplace. For others, it means loading up camping gear necessities and heading out into the cold winter wonderland. Many people think winter camping is something impossible or extreme. But in reality, as long as you have the right gear and plan ahead, it can be an exhilarating outdoor adventure. 

Watch as the brilliant hues of light at sunrise and sunset cast across an unbroken blanket of snow, it is absolutely breathtaking. Not to mention the challenge. To simply get out there and brave the elements is very rewarding. Problems in life always seem more smaller and insignificant after a weekend spent outdoors. You gain a perspective of what is truly important in life.

The most helpful tip about winter camping is to always come prepared. If you are a first time winter camper, it is always best to choose a location that is easily accessible and plan a shorter trip so that you can fine tune your new skills.


PACKING:

Start with a gear list - You don’t want to forget anything, especially if it’s something you need to keep warm. Take a look at this basic camping gear checklist here!

Layer, Layer, Layer - Pack plenty of warm layers. Avoid clothes made of cotton if possible, instead go for synthetic or merino wool base layers that are great for damp conditions and will keep you warm. The middle layer of clothing is typically fleece or microfleece both upper and lower. A down-filled jacket or heavier fleece can be added for icier temperatures. The outer layer needs to be waterproof and breathable. High-tech options are made of Gore-Tex or other proprietary fabrics and can be pricey. Invest in good gear or borrow some if the trip is going to be long. Choose jackets with vents that allow moisture to escape.  Layering your clothing is probably the single best way to manage heat loss in the outdoors. It allows you to regulate your body temperature to match physical activity, wind, temperature, and moisture.

Pack extra hats and gloves - Always carry spares of both these essentials. No matter how diligent you are they can easily become lost or wet, so it is always best to have a warm dry pair. Use thin liner gloves under heavier gloves or mitts. You can take off your outer gloves to when you need dexterity without having to touch cold surfaces with exposed skin.

Wear waterproof boots - Choose boots that have soles with great traction for snowy trails.

Crampons - These definitely come in handy for me in icy conditions. They really help me from slipping and sliding during the winter months.

Hand and toe warmers are a girls best friend - These babies are what keep me out winter camping, without them I would be lost. 


SETTING UP YOUR CAMPSITE:

  • Bring a small shovel to clear the snow for your tent site. Dig an area in the snow for your tent to help protect you from the wind. Packing down snow under your tent gives you an even sleeping surface, and you won’t sink down into the snow at night.
  • Use those stakes. If there is snow, you can stake out your tent. If you expect no snow and frozen conditions, plenty of companies make hard tent stakes meant to push through frozen ground, either out of titanium, steel, or 7075-t6 aluminum.
  • Pack the snow. Before setting up your tent, pack down your campsite, tramping around hard until all the snow is packed. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of stepping into a soft bit of snow in your tent and tearing the floor. As well, after your tent is set up pack the snow up around the walls for extra winter insulation.
  • Arrive Early. Make sure you give yourself enough time to organize your campsite, since you’ll be doing some snow shovelling. Start preparing your site at least an hour and a half before sunset so that you won’t be caught in the dark.
  • Use a four season tent.
  • Bring a tarp to cover anything that will remain outside at night in case it snows.
  • When selecting your tent site, make sure you’re not under any tree branches heavy with snow.

SLEEPING WARM:

Closed Cell Foam Pad - Using a foam pad for an extra layer of insulation between your sleeping bag and air mattress.

Winter Sleeping Bag - Bring the right sleeping bag, rated for winter camping (-15°C to -40°C)

Exercise for Warmth - Before you get into your sleeping bag exercise for a few minutes until you start to feel warm. When you climb into your bag, the extra heat will be trapped so it takes less time to warm up the space inside.

Vapor Barrier Liner - If you’re out more than a week, use a VBL, or vapor-barrier-liner for your sleeping bag. It is another layer of material that helps to trap warm air close to your body. It goes between you and the sleeping bag and is designed to regulate the moisture your body produces. Condensation from your own body can freeze within the upper layer of your sleeping bag where the warm air meets the freezing air, and over time your sleeping bag can become frozen solid.  While they are not as comfortable to sleep in, it beats hitting your sleeping bag with a hammer every night like some polar explorers have had to do.

Bring an Extra Blanket - It is always good to have an extra layer, just in case you are still a little chilly.

Sleep with your Boots - Use boots with removable liners, so you can put these liners at the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep them warm. If you only have single layer boots, you can put them in a water proof dry sack and stuff them in the bottom of your sleeping bag for the same effect.

Sleep with Clothes - Keep tomorrow’s clothes in your sleeping bag with you to ensure they’re warm when you get dressed in the morning.


MAKING A FIRE:

Come Prepared - Bring fire starters, kindling, dry wood, paper, and an extra lighter

Bring Enough Wood - Do not underestimate how cold the nights will get. Since winter is the off season in many campgrounds, services can be limited and the park store can close quite early. It is always best to have extra, then to go cold for a night.

Dry Wood - Wet wood will not burn. It is always smart to keep your wood supply off the snowy ground, covered, protected from the elements. Once you get your first fire started, you can always dry out some of your wood on an over the fire rack.

Use a Sled - If your camp site is far away from parking or from the trail head, a sled will keep your supplies and wood dry during the transport.


MEAL TIME:

Extra Fuel - Always bring extra fuel, especially because you will probably be melting snow for water. White gas stoves work very well in freezing temperatures.

Quick and Easy Meals - Choose meals that are quick and easy. Single pot options or just add hot water freeze-dried meals are good ideas. Cooking and cleaning up in gloves/mitts can be quite challenging. Because of the colder temperatures, you will be eating more to stay warm as well.

Boil the Snow - Leave the water filter at home. Chemical filters take longer to work in the cold, and mechanical filters can crack and fail. Your best bet for water filtration is boiling your water, as you probably have to melt snow anyway. Don’t be suckered into thinking glacial melt or fresh snow is sterile–it isn’t. Snowflakes often form around small bits of dust (nucleation sites) which can be bacteria or viruses floating in the upper atmosphere.

Flip your Water - If you have a large water storage container, turn it upside down when storing it over night. Ice forms from the top down, so keeping the spout/opening of your container facing down keeps it from getting frozen up. Or you can simply bring your water supply into the tent with you at night.


A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA:

Lighting - Don’t forget to bring lanterns, headlamps and extra batteries are a must.

Lithium Batteries - Use lithium batteries in all your winter electronics. Not only does lithium perform consistently better in much colder temperatures, but they are lighter and last three times as longer.

Portable Power Packs - All electronic equipment loses power faster in the cold. Try portable power packs like the easily transportable Goal Zero. 

Seating - Bring camp chairs, blankets or closed foam pad so that you don’t have to sit directly on the snow. It’s the best way to avoid freezing your buns off.

Bring Vaseline - Cover exposed skin in Vaseline or animal fats. Inuit have been doing this for years–simply slather any exposed or potentially exposed skin on your face, ears, neck, wrists, or hands in a thick oil and they’ll be less prone to windburn and frostbite.

Insulated Travel Mugs/Thermos - Helps keep those wonderful beverages such as hot chocolate and coffee, warm on your winter adventures.

Dry Sacks - These work great for keeping belongings dry in the damp conditions.

Snow Shoes - They make walking long distances in the fluffy white stuff more manageable.

Googles - Can help protect your eyes from harsh winds and the bright glare from the glistening snow.



POPULAR WINTER CAMPING AREAS IN CANADA:

It is always important to do your own extensive research into any camping areas you would like to explore to ensure you’re able to properly plan the entire trip.

 

Alberta

British Columbia

Ontario

Manitoba

 

Any other winter camping suggestions? I would love to hear from you :)