5 Essential Tips For First Timers
Bundled up deep in a sleeping bag, I can see my breath against the orange tent walls. Our campsite: a frozen lake, deep in northern Canada’s Limberlost Forest. While I’ve overnighted in an ice hotel and camped WAY too early in the season at Bryce National Park, this is my first purposeful foray into winter camping, and I’m not frozen yet.
Sleep comes easily, and the next day brings breakfast on the ice followed by fat biking and snowshoeing around the lake. For me, it’s a perfect winter weekend. But if the easy access to winter adventures isn’t reason enough to try winter camping, consider the other perks.
Imagine the solitude of camping without summer’s crowds, the lack of bugs and bears (yay hibernation), and the ability to ski or snowboard the backcountry right from camp.
“When you have warm feet, you have a warm heart, and when you have a warm heart, you can do anything.” -polar explorer Eric Larsen’s winter camping motto
Turns out, plenty of adventurers want to winter camp, but don’t know how or have the proper gear. So this winter, I traveled with polar explorer Eric Larsen (the first person to reach the North Pole, South Pole, and Mount Everest in a single year) to Canada’s Camp Cold to learn the in’s and out’s of camping in the winter—without being totally miserable.
Eric judges the quality of life but the number of nights he spends in a tent, so he’s just the person to teach me how to love it. From essential gear to proper layering, we’re breaking down the winter camping basics into these simple steps:
1. Know the Conditions
Before spending a night outside, read the local weather (not the iPhone weather app—think NOAA) and avalanche reports (Utah Avalanche Center). High avalanche danger and roaring winds are great reasons to postpone your winter camping experience while others—like subzero temps—require extra gear and preparation.
When summer camping, you can forget something at home and it isn’t a huge deal. With camping in winter, forgotten gear can make the night uncomfortable, even deadly. Create a packing list and check it twice before departing. Look up potential campsites/recreation areas to see what’s open and available during winter.
Find at least one buddy to go with you, and let others know where you’ll be. Leave emergency contact information with someone at home, and know emergency numbers to use if something happens while you’re in the woods. Phones matters for more than photos in the backcountry. Preserve your phone’s battery life by stashing it in a cold-protected pouch at the bottom of your sleeping bag and pack a backup battery for recharging. If you’ll be out of cell phone service, bring two-way radios or a satellite phone.
2. Choose the Right Campsite
Know what avalanche zones look (sites pitched more than 20 degrees) and avoid camping in those areas. For your first winter camping trip, choose an easily accessible, sheltered destination that‘s close to roads and civilization. That way you can get help if needed, or bail if things aren’t going well.
An ideal winter camping location is one with firewood so you can build a fire (if needed) and access to running water. Watch for overhead hazards when pitching your tent like sagging tree branches or hanging icicles.
Photo Credit: Katie Botwin
3. Get Off the Snow
The best way to stay warm is obvious: stay off the snow. This means doubling up your sleeping pads by using a closed-cell foam pad underneath your inflatable one to boost the total insulation rating. Store your sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack, and let it dry out in the morning before using it for another night.
When cooking and eating meals outside, sit on your backpack or build a snow bench and put the closed-cell foam pad on top of it. For standing and walking on snow, come equipped with true winter boots that are temperature rated for the conditions.
4. Eat & Hydrate Right
Cold weather burns calories, making a winter camping weekend the wrong time to go on a diet. For an easy night one dinner, pack hearty soup in a vacuum food jar to warm you up before bed. Drink plenty of liquids, and melt snow for water if necessary.
Cook other easy meals (like one-pot or dehydrated meals) using a liquid-fuel (white gas) stove, which performs better in cold weather than butane. Eric says to up your fat intake, adding butter or olive oil to give you long-lasting energy. Don’t fret about carbs, drink plenty of water, bring snacks that won’t freeze, and packets of cider or instant coffee to help you feel warmer.
5. Layer Correctly
What you wear on your body and feet is essential to staying warm. For multiple days, pack two sets of synthetic baselayers (one for being active and one for sleeping) and a few sets of fleece and Merino wool midlayers. If you run cold, bring extra insulating layers along. You’ll also need a warm hat, a neck gaiter, two pairs of wool socks, two pairs of gloves/mittens, sunglasses, warm waterproof boots, and snowshoes or spikes for hiking in.
Start with a dry, moisture-wicking baselayer, add a warm midlayer next, and a wind- and water-resistant hard or softshell on top. When following this layering formula, stick to Eric’s golden rule: avoid sweating. It seems crazy to think about being too warm, but if you exert yourself hiking in or by wearing too many layers, you’ll overheat fast. When you stop, that sweat turns ice cold. If you’re getting warm, open zipper vents, take off your hat, and strip to your liner gloves to cool off. When you stop, put on your warm puffy to lock in generated heat.
On cold, dry days, choose a softshell for its breathability. When it’s snowing, keep your hardshell on and just open its vents to prevent overheating. It’s better to strip off your inner insulation layers and wear a layer that will stay dry. Save your down puffy for chilling at camp as it will become wet and cold when you’re sweating.
Still feeling chilly? Eric says the solution is simple: add a layer. Keep adding until you’re warm. Despite his love of polar exploration, he hates being cold. Eric always strives to be “just right” in the conditions and believes there’s no such thing as bad weather, just not enough layers.
With these winter camping basics in mind, and a little planning, you can enjoy camping in the winter—without freezing to death. Use our detailed gear list to ensure you have the right supplies for the trip.
Must-Have Winter Camping Gear
If there’s ever a time when having the right gear matters, it’s winter camping. Don’t cut corners as having the right items (and knowing how to use them) makes all the difference in having a great or terrible polar camping experience. Heck, great gear can save your life. Here’s what you’ll need to pack:WARM BOOTS: Don’t skimp on footwear. Typically, boots keep my toes toasty while I’m moving but are freezing when standing still on snow. Baffin’s Flare boots were different. I can stand for hours on snow, they’re surprisingly comfortable for hiking, grippy in snow, and most importantly—warm down to -20 degrees. Stash boots in your tent and liners in your sleeping bag to make putting them on easier.
CAMP SLIPPERS: Keep your toes cozy in the tent with insulated slippers. Choose a set with a hard sole for midnight bathroom breaks. Eric says to never hold it when nature calls, it will only make you colder.
WINTER TENT: Three-season tents work for most winter camping conditions, but especially cold, snowy weather requires a four-season tent. Remember: leave the zipper a crack open to avoid waking up damp. Quinzees (or snow caves) are often warmer than tents, but you’ll want to perfect this skill beforehand to avoid sleeping in a collapsed cave.
INSULATED MUGS AND FOOD JARS: Keep food and drinks hot (or at least not frozen) with double-wall, vacuum-insulated stainless steel mugs. Make dinner a snap by cooking soup beforehand and sealing it in a Stanley food jar—it will stay hot for 15 hours.
DOUBLE-LAYER GLOVES: You wear long underwear on your body, why not on your hands? Double-layer gloves protect your fingers, but allow you to strip to the liner when needed. As an insurance policy, pack hand warmers and backup gloves (in case yours get wet).
WICKING BASELAYERS: Sport wicking, synthetic fabric baselayers next to skin then layer up as needed. Synthetic layers tend to be better than Merino because they dry quickly.
NECKWARMERS/BALACLAVAS: Use a synthetic or Merino wool neckwarmer or balaclava to protect your face. When the wind is whipping, Eric recommends layering a neckwarmer and hat over a balaclava for extra protection.
HEADLAMP: Light your way (and tent) with a rechargeable headlamp. The red light setting preserves your night vision, and it does double-duty as a lantern when stuffed in an overhead tent pocket.
WINTER SLEEPING BAG: While a -20-degree bag is ideal, there’s a hack if you’re not ready to invest in full polar equipment. Just layer a three-season rectangle bag over a mummy bag to boost its temperature rating.
DOUBLE SLEEPING PADS: The most cost-effective, warmth-boosting solution is adding a closed-cell foam pad under your current pad. It’s far warmer than an inflatable pad alone, but you can boost it further by adding a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir® XTherm pad on top. With the most warmth per ounce of any air mattress in the world, it’s the best combo for frigid weather.