Winter camping

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From being pestered by fewer bugs and having no crowds to deal with to admiring the tranquil beauty of a pristine winter wonderland, cold-weather camping has its perks. But if you aren't prepared for cold temperatures and are missing vital gear, camping in the winter can be challenging or downright miserable. 

Here is what you need to know to prepare for a successful winter campout — from must-bring items and tips on staying warm to common challenges you may face in snowy terrain and unpredictable weather. If you have wisdom to share about cold-weather camping, do it in the comments.

Important things to know while winter camping

  1. Stay warm by dressing in layers. Perhaps a no-brainer, but cold injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite are concerns while winter camping, so being properly dressed is crucial. When preparing your wardrobe, make sure to pack: base and mid layers to wear underneath, fleece or ski pants, a puffy coat and waterproof jacket, warm socks (thermal preferred), a hat or beanie, gloves, and sunglasses. 

    Remember that as you move through the activities of the day, you’ll work up body heat. As your core temperature rises and you start sweating, the sweat can dry and cool quickly — wrapping you in a cold, uncomfortable cocoon. Managing body heat by adding or subtracting layers easily helps you stay warm and comfortable while out on winter adventures. 

  2. Stay hydrated and eat foods with lots of calories. In cold climates, your body burns calories faster to stay warm, so snacking on high-protein foods (think energy bars, peanut butter, and assorted nuts) will help keep your core temperature up. At night, high-fat and high-protein foods such as meats, cheeses, and butter will burn slower than high-carb foods and keep you sustained (and warmer) for longer stretches of time. 

    Hydration is also key in how well your body functions in the cold, as being dehydrated hinders the body's ability to generate heat and function at its best. Drinking enough water also helps reduce fatigue and keeps the mind sharp. If all that excess drinking results in having to go potty in the middle of the night, don't hold it in. Your body spends energy to heat the liquid in your bladder, so that quick trip outside is worth it. 

  3. Make sure you have the right gear. In particular, having the right camping mattress helps insulate you from the ground and snow. It is also suggested to use two sleeping pads to add warmth and comfort. A pad’s warmth (or thermal resistance) is measured by its R-value, and the tried-and-true technique of stacking two pads together offers more insulating power. You’ll also need a sturdy tent, a winter-grade sleeping bag with reflective fabric, a lightweight backpack, flashlights, batteries, and a stove suitable for cold temperatures to cook meals in. 

  4. Vent your tent. While it may sound counterproductive to expose yourself to the cold air, it's actually important to allow proper airflow in a tent because as you breathe, the hot vapor released from your body will turn into water droplets and freeze. By opening the vents on your tent even partially, you help prevent this and avoid waking up in an icebox.

  5. Place a heating pad at your core, not at your feet. Rather than placing a hot water bottle or heating pad at your toes (the typical advice), place it on your groin. From that core position, the generated heat will travel throughout your extremities faster and help warm your whole body. Just remember to use caution when dealing with hot water to avoid burns or spills. 

Other key takeaways

Follow camping guidelines and the credo to leave no trace. Even in winter, it’s important to follow camping ethics and protect the environment. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Stay on deep snow cover when possible to avoid infringing on natural habitat and feeding grounds.
  • Camp at least 200 feet from a trail and, to avoid contamination, from water sources. 
  • When camping on snow, pack human waste and toilet paper in a plastic bag and take it with you. At lower elevations, you can dig a hole in the dirt (at least 8 inches deep) and bury waste to deter animals from finding and digging it up
  • If you plan on having a campfire, forage wood from downed tree branches. Do not cut or break limbs from live trees.
  • Be respectful of wildlife and view them from a distance while exercising caution. Remember that winter is a vulnerable time for animals.
  • Always pack extra batteries, food and water supplies, and gas canisters. 

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