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Let me start out this article with a little honesty…I do not exactly *love* winter camping. I have a very strong love-hate relationship with camping in the snow. This is mostly because I don’t handle big changes in temperature very well and once I’m warm I don’t want to face the snow just to empty my bladder before falling asleep.
However, winter camping has some amazing perks and that is why I will pack up my gear, pile on the layers, and venture out onto the snowy trails. I do it for the quiet nights, stunning views, and complete solitude.
The biggest learning curve I’ve experienced with winter camping is the added planning and preparation required. One on level it seems easier to go winter camping since you simply need to take your tent out into the woods — no need to find a previously established campsite if you’re camping atop snow. But on another, much more important, level you need to be prepared for a lot more “what if” moments and more extreme temperatures [and weather changes!].
Keep reading to get a breakdown of the tips and tricks I’ve learned through trial and error…use my mistakes and mishaps to help avoid your own!
Please keep in mind a lot of this is written from the perspective of someone winter camping and adventuring in the Rocky Mountains — avalanche risk is referenced often. If you’re planning to winter camp in an area without avalanche risk you can breeze over this information but tuck it away in the back of your mind in case you ever have the chance to explore the Rocky Mountains when they’re covered in snow!
One of the most challenging aspects of winter camping sounds pretty straight forward at first…planning.
If you’ve been camping [car camping or backcountry camping] you may think you have the basics down. You probably do, for not-so-wintery camping. When you’re planning for winter camping there are a lot of “little” things you’ll want to add to your planning list.
Weather: Winter weather is much more extreme than summer weather. This is bit of a blanket statement, but it is accurate. While temperatures may fluctuate and storms may mysteriously appear in the summer the risk is usually less extreme. With winter camping you’ll want to check the weather twice [or thrice, or four-ice]. It changes often, wind makes a *huge* difference, and variable snow pack will impact your routes [due to avalanche risk].
Travel Time: You’d think travel would be quicker when cruising over snow, especially if you’re on skis or other gliding contraptions. This is not true, especially on your first trip! Between navigating in the snow, potential post-holing or unbroken trail, and repeat breaks for layer/de-layer you’ll find winter travel to take up to twice as long as summer travel! Plan accordingly and give yourself enough daylight!
Evacuation Plan: We always recommend you have an evacuation plan in place but it is even more important in the colder winter months. An extra 30 minutes in the elements of a winter storm can quite literally be the difference of life or death. Plan ahead, know alternate routes, be aware of how to call for help, and have extra gear available!
Okay, cool…we have a game plan in place for where we’ll camp, but how do we get there? In the summer you just lace up your shoes and go!
It’s not that easy in the winter.
This starts at the trailhead — many are closed or limited in the winter and you may find that you’ll need to park miles from the main trailhead if you’re headed into the true backcountry.
Next you need to figure out how you will travel over/through the snow. You have a lot of options, but they aren’t all appropriate for every scenario. Here is a brief breakdown of the various methods of snow travel:
Lastly, but most importantly, you will need to know your route and be aware of all avalanche risk in the area. This includes terrain above your route as it does pose a risk.
Want more information on how to prepare for a successful winter camping trip?
Join us on Tuesday, January 26th for a 90 minute virtual workshop with a deeper dive into winter camping preparation.
This is a LIVE virtual workshop hosted on Zoom.
We will go into detail on exactly what gear you’ll want to pack, how you will need to adjust your navigation for snow, more tips on staying warm, and how to manage winter risk assessment! After the LIVE presentation there will be time for Q+A as well as post-workshop access to our inbox for more winter adventure questions. You will also get a recording of the workshop for future reference or if you can’t attend in real-time.
This is all available to you for only $25!
Staying warm is probably the biggest concern people have with winter camping and it is a *very* valid concern. Keeping warm when your “home” is a single layer of nylon fabric is no easy feat!
The first step to staying warm is layering. Not only do you need to pack the appropriate layers you also need to know when to add or remove layers. Don’t let yourself to get sweaty — that moisture on your body will start to freeze as soon as you slow down and it is very difficult to reheat your body when it is wet and cold.
Beyond your layers be sure you’re packing winter appropriate gear. This includes a four-season tent [you *will* find a three-season tent lacking in the winter] and a camp stove with fuel that will not freeze [white gas is best, butane works in most temperatures]. Having a sleeping bag rated for colder temperatures than what you expect is also helpful.
You will also want to be sure you’re packing food that will work with you to stay warm. Foods with higher levels of fat and protein will take longer to digest which will help your body maintain a steady temperature. Hot tea, hot chocolate, and hot cider are also great ways to add a little warmth to your time at camp.
This may sound a little silly at first…but think about the fact you’ll be sitting at camp in the dark for 12-14 hours. That is a LOT of time to just be hanging out in the dark [and cold]. You will likely want to crawl into your warm sleeping bag right after dinner…but then what?!
Card Games: great if you’re sharing a tent with your whole crew…or for intense games of solitaire if you’re flying solo.
Books / Audiobooks: the sounds of nature are the reason we head outdoors but even the birds sleep at night — have a book or audiobook along for evening entertainment [personally recommend the Libby app if you have a library card!].quote abou
Offline Trivia Games: download an offline trivia app onto your phone [Quizoid, Trivia 360, etc] and play through the walls of your tent after you’re tucked in for the night.
**Side Note: Staying entertained during the daylight hours is easy peasy — the snow is there to be played in, channel your inner child and start building forts or sledding luges!**
Are you feeling ready to head out for a winter camping trip? Hopefully these tips have peaked your interest, even if you’re a bit apprehensive about the added planning and gear. The solitude and beauty of a quiet winter night and late sunrise makes the extra effort more than worth it.
Looking for more information on winter camping? We have you covered with an upcoming How To Actually Enjoy Winter Camping workshop. This virtual workshop is hosted through the Kula Academy on Tuesday, January 26th. Sign up today and join us as we delve deeper into how to set yourself up for a successful winter camping adventure. We are also hosting a Dress For Winter Weather Success workshop that covers the ins and outs of winter layers, traction device, and hydration/nutrition for day hiking in the snow.
Want some help planning? We have you covered here too! Check out our custom itineraries to start the planning process. All you need to do is tell us how you’d like to adventure and we will do all the planning for you!