Perhaps you are intrigued by the thought of winter camping because:
- You want to visit a popular location, like the Adirondack High Peaks, without crowds.
- You have good warm weather camping skills and want to extend your skill base.
- You are a gear junkie who needs an excuse to acquire more equipment.
- You have a crazy friend/relative/boyfriend who wants you to accompany them.
Where do you start if now you want to try winter camping? Assuming you have some camping gear (e.g. stove, backpack and sleeping bag) and at least some warm weather camping experience it doesn’t have to be complicated. Try adhering to these guidelines, which are elaborated upon in subsequent sections, to start winter camping.
- Your primary goals should be making the trip enjoyable.
- Prepare prior to your trip.
- Borrow, rent or improvise gear for your initial trips, rather than purchasing.
- Start by extending your current camping season.
- Take extended day hikes and prepare a meal.
- Join experienced friends and/or hiking organizations to learn winter camping skills.
- Keep your initial trips close to your vehicle and/or home.
- Know and take the 10 essentials.
- Consider a sled to tow your gear.
- Use a checklist, go winter camping, discuss your lessons learned, modify your checklist and go again.
The many aspects of winter camping
Making the trip enjoyable should be your primary goal, not how many miles you cover or how fast you get to your destination. Some of my most enjoyable trips involved falling short of the intended destination. Select an appropriate destination that matches everyone’s physical conditioning level. You don’t want to be exhausted when you reach camp. You want to arrive at the camp only “knowing I have exercised” or, at most, “comfortably tired”. Frame the trip as winter camping, not winter hiking.
It’s the journey, not the destination.
Be prepared. Research books, internet web sites, discussion boards and blogs devoted to winter camping for tips and recommendations. There are a number of resources that one can read to get “How-To” advice to help get you started winter camping or just pick up some additional tips.
Winter camping requires advanced planning
- Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, Allen O’Bannon
- Backcountry Skier, Jean Vives
- Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Recognition and Pre-Hospital Treatment, James A. Wilkerson
- NOLS Winter Camping, Buck Tilton
- Okpik: Cold-Weather Camping
- Paradise Below Zero: The Classic Guide to Winter Camping, Calvin Rutstrum
- Secrets of Warmth for Comfort or Survival, Hal Weiss
- Snow Caves for Fun and Survival, Ernest Wilkinson
- Snow Walker’s Companion: Winter Camping Skills for the North, Garrett & Alexandra Conover
- Surviving Cold Weather: Simply Survival, Gregory J. Davenport
- The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation, Nat Brown
- The Outward Bound Staying Warm in the Outdoors Handbook, Glenn Randall
- Winter Backpacking: A Guide to Warm and Safe Winter Camping and Day Trips, Ben Shillington
- Winter Camping, 2nd, Stephen Gorman
- Winter Hiking & Camping: Managing Cold for Comfort & Safety, Michael L. Lanza
Make sure your preparation includes a contingency plan to bail out if the weather turns extreme, or someone is injured.
Borrow, rent or improvise gear for your initial trips. Winter camping can be gear intensive. Snowshoes, sleeping bags, down booties, and extra clothing can be expensive – especially if they are only used once. If you can’t borrow gear, improvise; use two summer sleeping bags instead of an expensive down winter bag. Quality gear tends to last for years so you want to make the right decision when you buy or can be stuck with something you don’t like or need for a very long time.
Winter camping can be gear intensive
Start by extending your camping season. Winter camping in late March or early April still provides snow, but temperatures are moderate and there is more daylight.
Spring conditions provide moderate conditions.
Take extended day hikes and prepare a meal. This is a great way to introduce kids and novices to winter camping and to acquire initial skills without worrying about sleeping over-night in cold temperatures. An extension of this philosophy is to try a hut-to-hut excursion.
Day trips are a good way to introduce kids and novices to winter conditions.
Join experienced friends and/or hiking organizations to learn winter camping skills. There is no shame in learning from veterans and most experienced winter campers will love sharing their insights. You can also use these contacts as a source to borrow your initial gear.
Keep it close. You only need to be outside in the woods, you don’t need to go very far in the winter to escape civilization. The closeness of your home or vehicle gives you a bail-out option if things go badly.
Take the 10 essentials. No matter what the situation, there are essential items that need be included to ensure your comfort and survival – the famous 10 essentials. The 10 essentials include navigation aids, a light source, extra food and water, extra clothes, protection from the sun, 1st aid kit, a knife or multi-purpose tool, and fire making tools. The 10 essentials are important enough to warrant a separate discussion later in the book.
Consider tailoring your list of essential items depending upon your situation. For example, if you are taking a novice or a child and have the space think of including some chemical hand warmers. They can make a big difference to little hands and feet especially when falling asleep at night.
Consider a sled. If the trip is short and level you can bring additional gear by towing a sled. This lets you start with heavy gear and transition to lighter gear as you get more serious. If you don’t have lightweight down booties you can add your Sorel Pac boots to the sled and ensure warm feet in camp. A later section presents ‘sled’ options including toboggans, sleds and pulks.
A sled may be suitable for towing your winter camping gear.
Go, apply your lessons learned and go again. Use a checklist, such as the one included in this book, to plan your first trip and ensure you aren’t forgetting a vital item. On the ride back home from your winter camping trip discuss ‘lessons learned’ with your camping partners. What equipment would you alter or leave home next time? Were there items you wish you had included? What would you do differently? Document these in your checklist to help smooth out your next trip and help you winnow out little used, nonessential items.