PLANNING A WINTER CAMPING TRIP
When planning a winter camping trip, especially if snow camping, remember that travel will be much slower than in the summer.
Reduce your mileage goal by 50% to 60%. Daylight hours are fewer
in the winter, which will also limit your time. Normal activities
around camp take longer in cold weather.
Three-sided A.T.-style shelters can be used comfortably in
the winter by hanging a tarp across the open side to block the
wind. The result is a roomier and sturdier place to sleep, cook,
and pack. Tarps are much lighter to carry than winter tents.
These shelters are usually not used much in the winter so finding
space is not much of a problem.
Dress in layers so you can easily adjust your clothes to
regulate body moisture and temperature. Three types of layers are
considered normal : a liner layer against your skin (longjohns),
an insulation layer (fleece), and a water- and wind-proof outer
In the winter, COTTON KILLS. Cotton loses its insulating
qualities when it gets wet, whether from rain or sweat. Cotton
also takes a long time to dry out. Wool or synthetic materials
are much better suited to cold weather conditions.
Your boots should have waterproof outer shells such as oiled
leather or plastic. Even though fabric and leather boots may have
Gore-tex linings, the outer layers will absorb water which will
eventually freeze, placing a block of ice next to your foot.
Protect against heat loss through your head by wearing a
toboggan, balaclava, etc. Over half of your body heat can be lost
through your head. One saying goes, "If your feet are cold, put
on a hat."
A balaclava helps protect your face and neck from cold and
wind. It can also be worn as a toboggan or scarf.
Do not wear too many pairs of socks. If the blood flow to
your feet becomes constricted, your feet will get cold regardless
of how many socks you have on. Tightening your boot laces too
tight will constrict the blood flow as well.
Make sure your gloves, especially liners, are not too tight
on your hands. If they are too tight, they can constrict the
blood flow and keep your hands from warming up.
Gaiters will keep snow, rain, etc out of your boots and
therefore help keep your feet drier and warmer. Gaiters also add
another layer of material around your lower legs to help keep
Attach "dummy cords", or security cords to your mittens to
prevent losing them in windy or snowy conditions.
Carry extra gloves or liners to change into if your first
pair gets wet. Gloves can be dried out overnight in your sleeping
Be sure to carry plenty of dry socks. Wet socks can be dried
overnight in your sleeping bag, preferably by placing them close
to your body.
FOOD and WATER
Include plenty of carbohydrates in your diet to provide fuel
for hiking and for simply keeping your body warm.
One-pot meals for supper are the easiest way to cook in the
winter. Food should be easy to fix and tasty enough to be
Drink plenty of water, even though you don't think you are
thirsty. Dry winter air will dehydrate you quickly without you
noticing until it is too late. Water is necessary for your body
to generate heat. A good rule of thumb for checking hydration is
the color of your urine. Urine will be light colored or clear if
you are properly hydrated.
Keep your water bottles from freezing in your pack by
putting them in a wool sock or insulated bottle cover. You can
make bottle covers by taping closed cell foam around your
Water mixed with something such as Gatorade, lemonade, etc
will freeze at a lower temperature than plain water.
Water filters are not suited to below freezing weather.
Water left in the filter matrix can freeze and split the internal
seals, destroying the effectiveness of the filter.
Chemical water treatments take longer to work in colder
water. Give the chemical time to work if you are treating cold
When melting snow for water, put a small amount of water in
the pot first to keep from "scorching" the pot before the snow
starts to melt.
Carry a few coffee filters to strain water melted from snow.
Snow invariably contains bits of dirt, leaves, bugs etc that you
might not want in your drinking water.
In below-freezing weather, turn your water bottles upside
down so that the ice forms at the bottom of the bottle instead of
in the opening.
The extra time needed for cooking and/or melting snow for
water will require you to carry more stove fuel than for summer
Three-season tents may not be sturdy enough to handle the
high winds and snow buildup that sometimes accompany winter
storms. They may also be too ventilated to provide much shelter
from a blowing storm.
On the other hand, with "mild" winter weather, three-season
tents can work fine for winter camping.
Select a tent site that is sheltered from the wind if
possible. Hanging a tarp between trees can help block the wind
from your tent if needed.
Try to avoid any vegetation and set your tent up on snow if
possible. Snow is the ultimate "No Trace" campsite because all
signs of your camp will disappear when the snow melts in the
Pack down the snow where you want to set up your tent before
you set it up. Otherwise your body will melt a deformation into
the loose snow. When that deformation refreezes it will make
changing your sleeping position quite uncomfortable.
In windy, exposed campsites on snow, dig a hole 1-2' deep in
which to set up your tent. This will reduce the amount of wind
that blasts your tent. Digging out a 1'-2' deep pit under the
vestibule area of the tent makes getting in and out of the tent
Attach 4' - 6' of cord to each of your tent stake-out points
so you can use rocks or logs for anchors if the ground is too
frozen to drive in stakes or the snow is too soft to hold a
Regular tent stakes usually don't work very well in snow.
Instead you can use snow flukes or special snow stakes or skewers
for anchoring your tent.
When camping on deep snow, you can fill 1 gallon size
freezer bags with snow and tie your stake-out cords to them for
deadmen anchors instead of using stakes.
DURING the DAY
Adjust your layers of clothing by adding or removing to
prevent heat buildup and sweating. Zippers in the armpits of rain
shells or fleece jackets work well to vent heat and moisture. Too
much moisture in your clothes will make you cold as it
If you stop for a long break or at the end of the day, put
on your insulation layers before you cool off too much, otherwise
your body will have to work harder just to warm you back up.
Instead of stopping for a long lunch, snack on food all
during the day at short breaks. This will keep you from cooling
down too much and having to adjust your layers of clothing too
Carry a small insulated thermos-type bottle full of a hot
drink or hot soup. If you get cold or just want a warming snack,
you will already have something hot prepared.
Be aware of the signals your body is sending you. Cold
fingers or toes indicate you should stop and address the cause of
the problem if possible. Cold toes can be caused by boot laces
being too tight.
Carry a water bottle on your pack hip belt to make it easier
to drink when you get thirsty. Hip belt pouches are also a good
place to carry small snacks.
If you know you will be on snow of 2-3 foot depth, carry a
snow shovel to aid in fixing a tent space and digging out a
kitchen trench. Dig a trench about 2 feet deep and 2 feet wide.
Sit on one side of the trench (on a pad), place your feet in the
trench , and use the other side as a table top.
Put on dry socks as soon as camp is set up. Socks that are
wet from hiking will not keep your feet warm for long.
To make putting frozen boots on easier the next morning,
open them as wide as possible when you take them off at night.
That will keep them from freezing in a closed position.
Insulated booties with closed cell foam insoles will keep
your feet warmer around camp than wearing your hiking boots.
Carry a closed cell foam pad to sit on in camp. Frozen
ground or a shelter floor will quickly pull body heat out through
your rear end. You can also use your sleeping pad to sit on.
An insulated coffee mug will keep hot drinks hot much longer
than regular cups. Large insulated mugs can also be used for
soups, etc at mealtime.
Keep plenty of hot drinks available as you sit around camp
in the evening. The extra fluids are helpful and the heat is
welcome. Limit alcohol intake as alcohol thins your blood and
inhibits the body's ability to warm itself.
Avoid caffenated drinks before going to bed. They may keep
you awake and will tend to send you to the bathroom in the middle
of the night.
Snack before you go to bed so that your body will have
enough fuel to generate heat during the long winter night.
Exercise for a few minutes before getting in your sleeping
bag. This will warm up your body and make it easier to warm up a
cold sleeping bag.
Increase the comfort range of your sleeping bag by putting
it inside of a bivy sack. Other options include cloth liners,
vapor barrier liners or space blanket bags, and doubling up bags.
Vapor barrier liners should only be used in temperatures well
below freezing. Doubling up bags should only be done if you still
have enough room to be comfortable in the bag.
Always use a pad under your sleeping bag in the winter. Many
people suggest two pads. Insulating yourself from the ground is
more important than insulating yourself from the cold air.
Sleep with a stocking cap or toboggan or balaclava on your
head to help hold in your body heat. Cinching up your mummy bag
so that only your eyes, nose, and mouth are exposed is another
way to hold in heat.
Don't breathe inside your sleeping bag at night. Breathe
through a stocking cap or bandana instead. Moisture from your
breath will wet your sleeping bag and reduce its insulating
Putting a bottle of warm water in the foot of your sleeping
bag will help keep your feet warm during the night. Don't forget
to seal it well.
Putting a bottle of warm water in your boots will help keep
them from freezing overnight. It helps if the boots are then put
in a stuff sack instead of being left out in the open.
To keep your boots from freezing at night, put them in a
stuff sack (you can use your sleeping bag stuff sack) and put
them inside your sleeping bag at the foot of the bag. A long
sleeping bag is helpful if you do this. You can also put the
boots in a sack and place them between your sleeping bag and the
Do not attempt to dry large articles of clothing such as
pants or a sweater in your sleeping bag overnight. Too much
moisture in your sleeping bag will wet the bag insulation and
make you cold.
Vent your tent as much as possible at night to reduce
condensation on the inside of the tent walls. The few degrees of
warmth trapped by a sealed up tent are not worth the trouble of
wet clothes, sleeping bag, etc that result from the
Put sealed water bottles in your sleeping bag to keep them
from freezing at night. You can also put them beside your
sleeping bag, away from the tent wall, to keep them from
IN THE MORNING
Stay warm longer in the morning by staying in the sleeping
bag as long as possible while cooking breakfast, packing, etc.
(Don't use a stove in a tent.)
Warm up socks, clothes, etc before putting them on in the
morning by pulling them into your sleeping bag a few minutes
before you get out of the bag.
To prevent your feet from getting cold when you put on cold
boots in the morning, remove the insoles and warm them up in your
sleeping bag or inside your coat before putting your boots on.
Remove part of your insulation layer before starting to hike
so that you don't overheat. Hiking will produce heat that you
don't have while standing in camp, so you may feel cold after
removing the insulation layer and before you start hiking. But as
soon as you start hiking you will warm up.
Arrange items in your pack, etc where they can be easily
found. Items such as snack foods, water, extra gloves, or a
headlamp / flashlight should be easy to get out when needed.
Stay organized. Know where each item of your gear is stored
in your pack. This will enable you find the items you need
quickly and prevent you from unpacking everything to find one
If your water bottles don't have loops on the caps, tie a
loop of cord around the bottle neck to make carrying them back
from a spring or creek easier and warmer.
Tie loops of cord to all of the zipper pulls on your pack
and jacket so that you can operate them with gloves or mittens or
Chemical heat packs can be used to warm feet and hands if
necessary. Most types usually last several hours.
Store extra batteries in your sleeping bag or close to your
body to keep them warm. Cold will reduce the life of the
Keep cameras and film as warm as possible. Frozen film
becomes stiff and brittle. A frozen camera will not work properly
and may result in torn film. If you keep it inside your clothing,
put it in a plastic bag to prevent moisture from wetting the
Instep crampons are helpful if you will be walking over a
lot of ice or hard packed snow. They will keep your feet from
Walking sticks or a ski pole is another way to help you keep
your balance on icy or snowy trails.
If you do slip while hiking with a full pack, try to land on
your back so the pack will take the brunt of the fall instead of
your rear end.
Contributors: Mark Clayton, Don Childrey, Brian Raichle, Andy Sowers (12/94).
Copyright © 1994 Don Childrey. All rights reserved.