Winter Camping Tips: What to Know Before You Go

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. I recommend you do it at least a couple times a year; you’ll quickly realize that there’s really nothing to fear out there in the wild. Except for bears. And mountain lions. And injuries. And ancient curses. But most of those things are rare and can be avoided through proper campsite food storage protocol, supportive boots with multi-directional lugs, and the carrying of talismans.

When out in nature with the phone switched off, the noise of the city miles away, and no one around to interrupt your thoughts, a person can attain a level of clarity and calm hard to find in daily life. Add in the stark beauty of winter, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for perfection.

But you also have the potential for serious danger when winter camping.

winter camping hiking snow mountain

Being out in the wilderness can bring 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 your way to the Sasquatch attack that sees you attacked by a goddamn Sasquatch. Trekking and camping in the wintertime only heighten the severity of these issues.

That damaged ankle is a pain, so to speak, in warm weather; in the cold, it may leave you at risk of death through exposure. Following paths in the wintertime can be all the more difficult when snow the blankets the way, obscuring landmarks and covering trail blazes. And in some frigid climes, you may not have to deal with a Sasquatch, but you might face a Yeti, that most abominable of snowmen.

A safe winter outing involves careful planning and common sense; with those factors in place, there is no reason to avoid a hike or camping trip even when the mercury has dropped well below freezing. Here are some tips to internalize when it comes to planning.

Study Your Route Ahead of Time

Whether you are using a GPS system and/or topographical map and a lensatic compass to plan a path through the rugged backwoods or are simply going for a hike on a popular trail loop, take the time to study 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 large peak south or west?), potential hazards that might hamper your progress (will that stream be frozen solid or running high with snow melt?), and be ready to adjust your route if weather conditions render parts of it impassable.

winter camping hiking snow backpack gear

Share Your Plans with Others

Before you head out for any camping trip, you should always share your plans with other people. This must include, at the very 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 we needed some shelter — we painstakingly set up a pair of fabulously capable but extremely complex four-season tents. Don’t ever put yourself in that situation. 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.

winter camping tent snow sunrise

Pack Redundancies

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, a zero-degree bag, or any of the obvious stuff like that is on you to pack. The smaller items you can’t be without warrant mention.

Pack extra socks and pack them in a Ziplock bag. Also consider additional pairs of 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 so you never risk losing all of your food. Remember that your body burns through more calories in the winter than in the summer because keeping you warm is hard work.

Don’t Forget the Gear

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. However, here are a few pieces of gear you might not have thought of if you’re normally camping during warm weather.

  • Handwarmers: A good handwarmer can be absolutely invaluable. Consider a traditional fuel burning warmer made by Zippo or one of the many chemical reaction packets. There are also plenty of USB-powered electric hand warmers out there.
  • Sun protection: Don’t forget the sunscreen and lip balm. The worst sun damage I’ve ever endured came during a frigid two day outing; the sun hits you from above and below when the world around you is white with snow and ice.
  • GPS: 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. 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. Though a compass can help there, too, and for less cash.
  • Shovel: Consider bringing along a compact shovel, which can be used to move snow off the ground as you clear a campsite or as you build up a wind break or an actual shelter. Shovels can also be used to create dig out a fire pit or to create a latrine.

Article originally published November 2016. Last update December 2018.

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