Planning a Winter Camping Trip

Poor planning often results in miserable campers and damage to natural resources. Trip planning is important as it:

  • helps ensure the safety of groups and individuals.
  • contributes to accomplishing trip goals safely and enjoyably.
  • increases self-confidence and opportunities for learning more about nature.
  • prepares you for Leave No Trace practices and minimizes resource damage.

When planning a winter camping trip remember that travel through the snow will be much slower than in the summer. Reduce your mileage goal by 50% to 60%. Daylight hours are fewer in the winter, which will also limit your time. Even normal activities around camp will take longer in cold weather.

Think about when to take your winter camping trip and consider the conditions for your time period:

  • November: Moderate temperatures, possible rain, thin snow cover
  • December: Short days and long nights, thin snow cover
  • January: Good snow cover, long nights, extreme temperatures
  • February: Good snow cover, long nights, extreme temperatures
  • March: Longer days, milder temperatures, adequate snow
  • April: Spotty snow cover, warm temperatures, longer days

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Elements to consider when planning a trip:

  • Identify and record the goals (expectations) of your trip. Is this a ‘jamboree’ or are members of the group trying to accomplish specific goals such as reaching a specific destination.
  • Identify the skill and ability of trip participants. Are there members of the group that are winter camping novices and if so, how will they be mentored?
  • Select appropriate destinations that match your goals, skills, and abilities and plan trip activities to match your goals, skills, and abilities.
  • Gain knowledge of the area you plan to visit from land managers, other hikers, maps, and literature. Use trail guides and the internet to perform as much research as possible prior to the trip.
  • Choose your equipment and clothing for comfort and versatility.
  • Know the weather forecast in advance
  • Understand the terrain you will be traveling. Bring maps and photos along to help locate your journey on the terrain.
  • Understand any regulations/restrictions that may apply, including parking.
  • Understand and respect private land boundaries
  • Anticipate the average hiking speed of group and likely food consumption
  • Plan to accommodate the group size. Does it meet any specified land management regulations and fit your trip purpose?
  • Evaluate your trip upon your return to note lessons learned and changes you will make next time.

You can prepare by:

  • Educating yourself on the area you plan to visit. Learn about winter regulations, closures, and weather hazards. In upstate New York, where I live, the DEC Regulations[1], specifically the DEC State Land Use Regulations, regulate where to camp on State Land. Tents may be set up at designated sites which have yellow “Camp Here” markers discs with a black tipi, and your tent must be within 15 feet of this disc. Outside of designated sites, tents must be 150 feet from any trails or water. Lean-tos do not count as designated sites, so tents must be 150 feet from any lean-tos or trails leading to lean-tos as well. Designated sites will have a marker disc, so if there is a fire ring but not a disc, the campsite is not a legal one (unless it follows the 150 foot rule). Obviously, you can’t camp at any site that has a “No Camping” disc.
  • Taking a winter back country course to gain experience.
  • Expecting extreme weather and gear up for it.
  • In mountainous country carrying an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel.
  • Planning a route appropriate for the experience level, size, and goals of your group. In the Adirondack Park one can contact the NYS DEC at (518) 897-1200 to determine trail conditions in the area you plan to visit. Adirondack Trail Information can also be found on the DEC web site[2].The web pages provide general information and seasonal conditions, specific notices on closures and other situations involving trails, roads, foot bridges, etc., and links to rules & regulations, hiker and camper safety, low impact recreation, weather and more.
  • Leaving your excursion plans with two people, including your expected return time. They can begin a rescue if you do not return in reasonable time and will know where to start looking for you.
  • Using a map and compass for navigation as trail markings may be hidden in snow and recognizing that batteries in GPS units may not work in cold temperatures.
  • Realizing that night falls early. You will have much less time to travel and set up camp, so plan accordingly and understand that everything takes longer in cold weather.
  • Ensuring you have appropriate gear for the worst-case environment. Use layering of clothes to keep warm and prevent overheating followed by freezing.

Weather Planning

NOAA’s National Operational Hydrological Remote Sensing Center has an Interactive Snow Information Map[3] for the US. It is a great mapping tool for analyzing snow cover. The map is highly configurable. You can re-center the map anywhere in the US. One can map Hourly Snow Analysis, Driving Conditions, and Daily Snow Analysis. You can look at historical data. One can select overlays to be plotted such as Hydrologic, Political, Point or Transportation features for reference purposes.

NoAA’s Interactive Snow Information Map is a useful planning tool

Group Size

Thoreau said “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.”[4] Thoreau knew of the dynamics of groups, but winter camping is more fun and a lot safer in group. When choosing your group try to select members that will be compatible with one another that have similar expectations and goals. Please don’t go winter camping alone but try for a small group to minimize human impact and keep the group operating efficiently.

A group size of more than eight becomes unwieldy and creates an impact on the environment. A group of four allows one to stay with an injured person and two to go for help. A small group allows for specialties to emerge. One person might set the tent while others cut fire word wood, make a warm drink, or begin cooking.

Compass Basics

Before you start trekking about the woods you should be familiar with use of a compass.  Practicing use of a compass is a skill best learned before it is required in the field.  Reading a compass can be an intimidating skill to many people. However, once you learn the basics and practice a little, you will find that you can read a compass with ease. Make sure you know how to use your particular compass before heading out.

Parts of a Compass

The first step to reading a compass is to understand its parts. These directions are based on the commonly used compass in the illustration below:

  • The base plate is the surface on which the compass is mounted, usually a hard rectangular piece of plastic.
  • The housing is the main part of the compass. It is a round plastic container that has the compass needle inside. It can be turned so you can select different bearings (degrees) for your direction of travel.
  • The direction-of-travel arrow is marked on the base plate. When traveling, you point this arrow directly away from you and move in the direction it is pointing.
  • The orienting arrow is marked in the housing. It rotates when the dial is turned.
  • The magnetic needle turns freely within the housing. It has one end painted red to indicate north.
  • A compass is divided into 360 degrees for precise locations using latitude and longitude. The cardinal points are marked on the outer ring of the housing. North is at 0 degrees (and 360 degrees), east is 90 degrees, south is 180 degrees, and west is 270 degrees.

Parts of a standard compass


How to Read a Compass

Now it is time to read your compass. Decide which direction you’d like to travel and rotate the housing until the bearing number you’d like is lined up with the “read bearing here” mark. For example, to head due north, rotate the housing until the 0 degree mark is lined up.

Hold your compass flat and still in the palm of your hand (and against your chest) so the base plate is level and the direction-of-travel arrow is pointing straight away from you. The magnetic needle should be able to move freely, without bumping the top or bottom of the housing.

Look down at the compass and see where the needle points.

Turn your entire body until the magnetic needle is centered between the red lines, as shown in the figure to the right. This is referred to as “keeping the red in the shed.” Make sure to do this; it will keep you heading in the right direction. The compass in our example is pointing due north (also 0 degrees).

To determine the bearing of an object in the distance, face the object with the compass held flat in your palm as before. This time, rotate the housing until the red end of the magnetic needle is between the red lines, and “in the shed.” Read the bearing number at “read bearing here.” In the example shown below, you are heading 250 degrees west.


Determining compass bearing

Trip Notification

A critical component of your trip plan is notifying others where you will be going and when you will return.  The search and rescue volunteer association of Canada has an excellent trip notification form[5] you can download and print that has all the information a search team wants if they have to come looking for you. You can adapt the forms to leave your information with family, friends, and/or in your car:


SARVAC Trip Plan Form

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