10 Winter Camping Tips

Wednesday November 25, 2015 comments

10 Winter Camping Tips

Whether you are setting up your moose camp or just trying to get some time in the outdoors when the crowds are at home, winter camping can be a very rewarding experience.  If you are not prepared, winter camping can also be very miserable.  My first experience overnight with frigid temperatures was with the Boy Scouts when I was about 12 years old.  My troop made an annual trip to Mount Rainier to build and camp in igloos.  We had classroom sessions on building techniques, gear checks, and even made several practice day trips to rehearse the actual event.  But when the day came to put my practice and learning to the test, it seems I failed to remember the lessons my leaders so desperately tried to pound in my head.  And consequently I froze.  Of course those leaders would never have put me in a dangerous situation, but they did let me learn a couple tough lessons that I never want to repeat again.

 

10.) Be careful with down

Goose down is a great material for extreme cold.  It has one of the highest insulation properties of all fill materials… that is of course unless it gets wet.  This was lesson number one I learned on that first igloo trip.  Before we left, I dug into my parent’s coat closet to recover my dad’s awesome ski jacket from the 70’s.  Upon arrival I was warm and toasty, but while I was building my igloo, I failed to take off my jacket.  Soon my sweat and the melting snow began to penetrate into the jacket core.  What was once a nice puffy jacket, was now no more than a sloppy, wet, thin shell.

 

9.) Keep your clothes dry

 

This is a point I will emphasize throughout the rest of this entry.  Wet clothes will make you cold.  The water in the fabric will slowly evaporate.  Evaporation is an endothermic phase change meaning the very process cools things down (this is how the air conditioner in your home or car works).  Even a small amount of moisture can have a huge effect, pulling heat out of your body.  I am well aware of this principle, but somehow I still failed to embrace it a few weeks ago when I was camping with a fellow BigFoot owner in the snowy Rockies.  I didn’t change my slightly damp socks before I went to sleep and consequently froze all night.

 
 

 

  

8.) Water bottle in the sleeping bag (exercise caution)

 

 

This is one of my favorite cold weather tricks, but I must first encourage you to exercise extreme caution.  The concept works like this: before going to bed, you fill a completely sealable water bottle or hot water bag with warm water from your stove.  Be sure the bottle or vessel is completely filled and all air bubbles are removed and that there is absolutely no possibility for leaking.  You then wrap your sealed, leak proof water vessel with a t-shirt and place it in the bottom of your sleeping bag.  If you wake up in the middle of the night and the water is no longer warm, take it out of your sleeping bag.  Once the water cools, your body have to put heat into the water bottle versus it putting heat into you.

  

 

7.) Wool, silk, polypropylene, gortex

 

 

Wool and silk are far and away my favorite cold weather materials.  Wool is laden with lanolin oil that gives it a slightly waterproof factor but still breaths.  Silk has incredible insulating properties, doesn’t hold moisture, and is very comfortable against your skin.  Gortex is great for outer layers, but it is nearly completely waterproof.  That means no water gets in, but it also means no sweat goes out.  Just keep that in mind as you are planning your layers.

 

My Sheep always seem to stay warm in their wool coats

  

 

6.) Dress in layers

Have plenty of layers of clothes.  If you get hot, take some off.  If you get cold, put some back on.  It's that simple.

 

5.) Bivy or Bivouac Sack (sleeping bag cover)... That's just fun to say: bivouac

 

 

Want to amplify you sleeping bag temperature rating and simultaneously ensure water stays out?  Try using a bivy sack or sleeping bag cover.  The extra fabric and air layer between your sleeping bag and bivy sack increase the insulation factor tremendously.  As a general rule of thumb, your bivy sack will gain you about five to ten degrees from your bag’s factory temperature rating.  Just be cautious you do not sweat if your cover does not breathe well.

  

 

4.) Insulated sleeping pad

 

Sleeping pads provide more than a cushy layer between you and the rock on which you decided to pitch your tent.  They also serve as a layer of insulation.  When you lay on your sleeping bag, you crush the fill, essentially eliminating any thermal properties.  This is where your sleeping pad comes to the rescue.  Your sleeping pad should be rigid enough to roughly hold its form.  If it does, it will provide a nice layer of insulation between you and the ground.

 

  

 

3.) Eat a balanced meal

 

I have absolutely no background in medicine, but I do have an engineering degree which makes me qualified to talk about heat.  Food digesting in your stomach is basically a combustion reaction.  And just like your camp fire, you have many fuel options.  Of course you start your fire with easy-lighting, fast burning tinder: small wood shavings, lint, dried pine needles and occasionally some white gas.  This fuel burns quick and gets your fire going.  Then you transition to tinder, the larger pieces of wood that burn a little longer before finally switching to your main fuel.  Your body is the same way.  It uses the fuel you consume to produce heat which is then distributed throughout your body by your circulatory system.  The bottom line is, you need all different types of calories: sugars, fats and proteins and maybe a little fiber too for regularity ;)

  

 

2.) Drink water even though you may be cold and have to pee at night

The fluid in your body is what transfers the heat generated in your core to your extremities.  Your internal organs need fluid to function optimally.  It may help to heat your water a little bit before you drink.  Quickly consuming large amounts of cold water can cool your core.  One option would be to drink the now luke-warm water that was once in your sleeping bag.

 

1.) Have an emergency plan (and don’t take unnecessary risks)

 

 

I am not ashamed to admit I have foregone a few nights in the tent for the comfort of the back of my car.  There is no sense in pushing yourself beyond your abilities.  Don’t put yourself in a situation you cannot get out of.  Start slow or go with experienced companions and educate yourself.  Always bring a first aid kit and other emergency supplies such as a space blanket.