A Look At Winter Camping

Thinking of that dark forth season conjures up pictures of iced over lakes, snow covered hemlocks, silent seemingly empty hardwood forests and rivers running with floating cakes of ice.  Most campers have put their gear away and wont venture out again until May.  But those of us that accept the challenges and possible discomforts of winter camping know its a great time of year to be out. The bugs and most of the people are gone.   The woods are quiet and camping requires a whole new skill set.    

The first and foremost challenge of winter camping is of course the ever changing and unpredictable weather.  Forty-degree temperature swings, snow, rain, freezing rain and beautiful bright sunshine can and do all happen in a 24-hour day.  You never know what to expect so you need to be prepared for all of it.   Here's a case in point.

Just recently my long-time friend Derrick and I spent a weekend dispersed camping in the Allegheny National Forest.    For the uninitiated dispersed camping means there is no marked campsite or campground.   You just hike into the forest, find a spot you like and camp.   Yes, its legal in the National forests and better still it’s free. We were planning on using tarps for our main shelter with a fire, good sleeping bags and pads for warmth.  When we arrived at noon Friday it was snowing hard.  The forecast was for a 30% chance of snow showers till 5pm. Then the chance of snow tapered off every hour till it was 0% chance after 11pm.  We started out hopeful that the snow would let up soon.  That hope was to be short lived. We hiked in pulling a sled loaded with our gear.  At that point the snow was around 4 inches deep and we didn't really need snowshoes.   We set up one tarp as a lean to with our fire in front of it and a second as a windbreak on one side.   When you set tarp shelters like this it’s important to remember to set it up so the wind is blowing parallel to your tarp and fire.   If the wind is blowing toward your fire and shelter it will of course blow the smoke in on you.  If the wind is blowing at the back of your tarp shelter or tent it will travel up over the tarp, then as the air falls the smoke will roll right back at you.   That second situation is a common mistake beginners make setting up for winter camping.

At 5:30 that evening it was snowing harder than ever.    We adjusted our tarps and added a third to create more of roof.   Through the night we had to dump the snow off the top of our shelter frequently.   Temps dipped down into the low teens.   Much lower than had been forecast.   When we woke in the morning it was still snowing steadily.  Derrick checked the forecast to find that it was 0% chance of precipitation of any kind at that moment and the rest of the morning.  Great, no worries. Uh huh, you can guess.   It snowed off and on all day.    When we left late Sunday morning we had between 8 and 10 inches of snow. 

The experience we had that weekend is a perfect example of what you need to be prepared for when winter camping. Don't check the forecast and say, it’s not going to be that cold or it’s not going to snow much.    Don't depend on the forecast. Mistakes can become serious problems quickly in winter so proper clothing and planning are important. 

When choosing your clothing for winter camping there are a few things to remember.  You’re going to need three, possibly four layers.  Lets start with your base layer.   Your first, or base, layer should be of a material that wicks moisture away from your body and for that reason cotton is a poor choice.  We've all heard the old myth "cotton kills".  No. Cotton does not kill.  Cotton is a comfortable, durable fabric that is found in military uniforms and quality clothing the world over.   However, cotton does retain moisture from perspiration and weather. Its slow to dry and holds little or no insulation value if it is wet. The myth "cotton kills" comes from people who venture out in light cotton clothing, get lost, perspire, or get rained on and end up perishing from exposure in 50-degree Fahrenheit mild weather.    The cotton clothing didn't kill these unfortunates. Inexperience, lack of planning and forethought did.

So, a good synthetic choice would be polypropylene, or "poly pros."  Some good natural fibers are wool or silk.  Your second layer is important because it must continue to wick moisture away from your body while providing insulation.   Once again wool is good and my personal choice.   Fleece and merino wool are excellent choices.   Your mid layer should fit well and not allow many openings for your body heat to escape. If it is really cold you may need to add another mid layer. Thinsulate or down garments are also good mid layer choices. 

 Your outer layer is your final insulation and also your wind shell.  It should be wind proof so it needs to seal well at the waist and wrist and have a hood.  Goretex and wool are good choices. 

We have all heard the myth that "you lose 90% of your body heat through your head." Not true.  If that were true you could walk around most of the time wearing nothing but a really nice hat.   It is true that you lose quite a bit of body heat through your head and more so if you are follicle impaired like my friend Derrick.   You need two hats.   A light fleece ski cap for when you are active and a warmer wool hat for when you are stationary.   In windy or extreme cold condition, a heavy wool hat and hood combination will go a long way to keep you comfortable.

My choice for gloves is a close fitting wool glove covered by a wool and leather mitten.   I once bought a pair of European military surplus mittens.  I thought they would be durable and warm. I was half right. You couldn’t destroy these things with a flame thrower but they did not keep my hands warm at all.  I feel sorry for the soldier that had them before me.  Keeping your feet warm is a challenge for some.    I like to wear two pairs of wool socks.  A lighter sock goes on first followed by a much thicker heavier wool sock.   If it’s not too cold two light pairs will work.    You do not want to keep piling on socks until your boots fit tight.   That defeats your purpose. Warmth is retained in the air trapped in the layers you wear.   If your boots are tight there are no air pockets.

Tight boots also restrict circulation that will lead to cold feet.

What clothing choices will work best for you can only be found through trial and error.   Starting out remember it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. 

Of course, cold weather camping requires a little more in the way of sleeping gear especially if you are sleeping on the ground.  Don’t expect to get by without a good bit of insulation between you and the snow or cold bare ground.    On the trip I mentioned earlier Derrick used two closed cell foam pads and an air mattress under his bag.  I had two closed cell pads and a wool blanket undermine.  We both used the military modular sleeping bags that consist of a heavy black bag bag inside a lighter green bag with a gore-tex bivy as the outside layer.     We both wore poly pros in the bag and wool socks and watch caps.  The first night temps were in the teens and we slept comfortably. The second night the temperature dropped down into the single digits.   Derrick mentioned his feet were a little cold and I noticed a cold spot around my hips but we slept okay and we survived just fine.  

We'll talk about cold weather tents and shelters another time.  In the meantime, there is still a little winter left.   Why not go out and try a little forth season time outdoors, it might open up a whole new world for you.  

Dave is a life long outdoors men and can be found camping in all four seasons. He spends as much time as possible on the rivers and in the woods canoeing, camping, fishing and hunting. He teaches bushcraft and woodsmenship to beginners and people that want to feel more confident and competent in the outdoors. Check out the course page for course relevant information.

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