Sunday, March 9, 2014

Winter Camping Considerations

If you are like me, then your favorite conditions for backpacking are during early and late winter, and the shoulder seasons bracketing the coldest months.  When daily highs are in the 40s and lows dip to the 30s, that’s when I enjoy the outdoors the most.  Calm, cold, and serene - and often the trails and forests are yours alone.

However, just as you need to be prepared for sudden showers during summer months, cold weather camping has its own considerations.  In the mid-atlantic area, periods of sustained temperatures below freezing are typically only experienced in January and February; but almost any time between late October and early April, temperatures can plunge into the low 30s and below.  While summer rain can make you wet and miserable, freezing conditions can make you dead if you are unprepared.

The threat of freezing conditions does not mean you need to scared of cold weather camping - it just means that you need to be more prepared.  The primary considerations for backpacking and camping in cold conditions include Water, Warmth, and Food:

Having water to drink and cook with may seem obvious, but the ability to keep that water in the liquid state takes some planning.  It doesn’t take water bottles long to freeze solid when temperatures drop into the 20s, and melting ice or snow takes a lot of energy/fuel (and I don’t find that much fun either).  A hydration bladder/reservoir when in your pack and against your back stays surprisingly insulated, but the drinking hose and bite valve are very vulnerable and will freeze up as soon as you hit 32-degrees.  So, invest in an insulated hose and bite valve attachment for your bladder.  If things really get bad, you can always stick the bladder inside your coat to thaw it out (but that may rob you of some of your own warmth, so be careful).  In cold weather, I also carry a vacuum insulated water bottle or thermos to keep a backup supply of liquid water - because those plastic bladders can also become brittle in the cold and may split.  Finally, drain your reservoir before bed (or at least the hose), or insulate it in your pack with spare clothes.  Use your thermos for water in the morning, then resupply early.

‘Warmth’ refers to a few factors, including clothing, sleep system, and shelter.  Make suer to dress in layers, so that you can adjust your insulation to conditions and your amount of activity.  You don’t want to be too cold and risk hypothermia; but being too warm is also bad - sweat will make you wet and cold once the temperature drops or your activity level decreases.  It’s good to have spare socks and t-shirt or baselayer in case you get wet.  Spare socks are also great for sleeping (along with HotHands warmers).  Don’t forget the basics, like hat, gloves, and scarf or baliclava.

At night, your activity level obviously drops when sleeping (along with the temperature), so a quality sleeping bag is essential - and pay attention to the comfort rating as well as the survival rating.  The comfort rating of your bag should be around the lowest temperature that you expect, so that the survival rating will cover you for unexpected conditions.  Survival rating means just that - you should stay alive, but you won’t enjoy it.  Layer your cloths if you are cold, use HotHands type chemical warmers in your bag (between your layers of socks), and empty your bladder before bed (so that you don’t need to keep that extra mass warm).  Make sure that you put your sleeping bag on a well-insulated pad, too.  Foam pads are more durable than inflated pads in freezing temps.  And, always wear a cap to bed to retain heat.

If you are camping in cold weather, you have probably given a lot of thought to your shelter/tent.  Good tents will have less mesh and more fabric to retain some heat and block wind.  Double-walled tents help retain heat, and reduce condensation over single-skinned tents.  4-season tents are beefier, warmer, and can hold up to more extreme wind and snow loads - they may be heavier, but well worth the extra weight in extreme conditions.  Look for a tent that is easy to erect with cold fingers (I like exterior frame tents that pitch fly-first or all-in-one).  Bring extra tent pegs, too - I don’t know how many times I have bent pegs that froze into the ground overnight.  Freestanding or semi-freestanding tents might be good to make it easier to set up with frozen ground (or use rock-sling anchors).

What should be said about Food?  You may need extra fuel in cold weather.  Gas stoves can be finicky in the cold, and alcohol stoves can be harder to light/prime.  Good storm-proof matches can help light an alcohol stove.  Solid fuel tablet stoves and whitegas stoves work well in sub-freezing conditions.  I use Esbit tabs as a backup to my Trangia (lit with Coghlan’s storm matches).  Stick with dried foods - dehydrated meals, oatmeal, dry rice or pasta dishes, powdered potatoes or beans.  Meats and moist foods will freeze, including tuna, chicken and ground beef packets; or heat and serve soups, rice meals, or ready to eat curry.  Even candy bars and chewy granola bars will be rock hard - watch your teeth.  Bring plenty of electrolyte replacement and vitamin rich drink mixes to supplement your diet (I am partial to Emergen-C packets).

Keep these things in mind, and be prepared for the cold weather and accompanying issues, then there should be no reason to avoid camping in colder weather.  Start out easy, with a trial overnight at a familiar and nearby spot when conditions are not too extreme (that way you can always bail out) - and see if cold weather camping is for you.


  1. That looks like a cool tent. I am planning to start using my sil-nylon tarp this spring/summer and see how that works - that and my bivvy sack. I am trying to start up a blog myself. Stop by

  2. I'd really appreciate it if you could include your pack weight, and a complete load out when you go on your camping trips. I'm in PA near philly, just getting back into camping. Trying to gather gear and get a sense of what to take and what not to.

    1. I'll complete a post on my winter gear list and pack weight...stay tuned.

  3. The weather is certainly challenging during winter, but my family and I always go camping. Successful winter camping is determined by the considerations one make. I like all your considerations; they are indeed relevant and helpful. Thanks for sharing. I was lucky enough to find more suggestions here: