Safe Solo Winter Camping Tips
Going for a long hike or spending a night or two alone in the wild is one of the purest pleasures a person can experience.
When out in nature with the phone switched off, the noise of the traffic miles away, and no one around to interrupt your thoughts, a man (or a woman, but I’m speaking for myself here) can achieve a sense of clarity and center hard to summon in daily life. Add in the stark beauty of winter, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for perfection of experience.
But you also have the potential for serious danger.
Being out in the wilderness alone can always come with its share of hazards, from the broken ankle that renders you unable to walk, to the wrong turn that sees you stray from the path and lose you way, to the occasional Sasquatch attack that sees you attacked by a goddamn Sasquatch. Solo trekking and/or camping in winter only heightens the severity of these issues. That damaged ankle is a pain, so to speak, in warm weather; in the cold it may leave you exposed and freezing. Following paths in the wintertime can be all the more difficult for the snow the blankets the way. And in the frigid back country, while doing some solo winter camping, you may also face a Yeti. (Probably not but hey, be prepared.)
A safe solo winter outing involves careful planning and common sense; with those factors in place, there is no reason to avoid a hike or camp out alone even when the mercury has dropped well below freezing. I can’t help you on the common sense front, but here are some ideas to internalize when it comes to planning.
STUDY YOUR ROUTE AHEAD OF TIME
Whether you are using a topo map and a lensatic compass to plan a new path through the rugged backwoods or are simply going for a hike on a popular trail loop, take the time to study up on your trek before you set out. Bringing a map along with you is great; knowing the map well before you ever head out is much better. Make sure you note landmarks that can help you find your bearings (is that notable peak south or west?), potential hazards that might hamper your progress (will that stream be frozen solid? Or running high and swift with snow melt?), and be ready to adjust your route if weather conditions render parts of it impassable.
SHARE YOUR PLANS WITH OTHERS
Before you head out for any solo camping trip, you should always share your plans with other people. This must include at least approximately where you will be, and a window of time in which you plan to return from the wild. That way, if you don’t return in said window, you improve your chances of being found before you have to go the whole 127 HOURS way with things…
TEST AND KNOW YOUR GEAR
Once I found myself and the other members of my climbing team huddled down on a glacier as the sun set, the winds kicked up, and the temperature plummeted down past zero. The time had come to set up our shelters. Amateurs that we were, we had never practiced setting up these particular tents before. So in horrible conditions, with freezing fingers, limited visibility, and no time to stop and boil the water we needed to rehydrate because first we needed some goddamn shelter, we painstakingly set up a pair of fabulously capable, but complex four season tents. Don’t… ever… put yourself in that situation. It sucked. But hey, I have never not tested gear prior to field use since! Work with everything from your stove to your headlamp to your shelter until you know exactly how to use each item and you’ll save yourself headaches and your family future heartache.
There are a few essential pieces of gear that you can’t afford to be without in cold weather. I’m not talking about a good tent, waterproof outerwear, or a zero degree bag — the obvious stuff is on you to pack. (You can’t logically bring two tents and sleeping bags anyway.) But when it comes to a few of the smaller items you can’t be without, these warrant mention. Pack extra socks, and pack them in a ziplock bag. Also consider extra long underwear, glove liners, and a spare hat in a sealed bag. Bring extra batteries for your lights, at least three ways to make a flame, and keep some of your food apart from the bulk of your rations.
SOME GEAR TO CONSIDER
Again, it’s on you to pack the logical stuff you need, and that includes specialized gear like crampons for use on ice or snow and a mask to protect your eyes in biting winds. But here are a few pieces of gear you might not have thought of if you’re normally a warmer weather hiker.
A good hand warmer can be absolutely invaluable. Consider a traditional fuel burning warmer made by Zippo or one of the many chemical reaction style packets known well to those who were skiers in the 1990s. There are also plenty of USB charged electric hand warmers out there. Also don’t forget the sunscreen and lip balm. The worst sun damage I’ve ever endured in all my treks by far came during a frigid two day outing; the sun hits your from above and below when the world around you is white with snow and ice.
And while they cost a good chunk of change, a GPS unit can save you hours of searching for your way when the path is covered by snow. And one might just save your life when it prevents you from traveling the wrong way deeper into the hoary, frost-rimed hinterlands instead of trekking back toward your warm home and a much deserved glass of bourbon.