The knowledge of how to stay safe and warm during a winter or cold weather camping trip has the ability to unlock new adventures in the mountains all year round
Wintertime in the mountainous backcountry means that a new world is available to those willing to seek it. This world is cold, wet and uninviting, yet brings feelings of exploration, adventure and new experiences in familiar terrain. Traveling and exploring these snowy landscapes means routes are created in the moment with a renewed sense of wonder for the natural environment. Taking into account the following details will ensure a safe and exciting escape into the winter backcountry for overnight adventures
Clothing is the first, if not the most essential part of staying warm and dry in the winter backcountry. If your clothing doesn’t retain heat while staying dry in these wet and cold environments, hypothermia and frostbite can become serious problems. Layering is the most effective way to assist in staying warm and dry. Make sure base and insulation layers are made out of synthetic or down material so that they can hold heat in even if they become wet.
Insulation is a huge component to keeping you warm during the mornings, evenings and nights in the winter backcountry. Multiple puffy jackets of varying insulation work extremely well for layering systems when you’re constantly moving. Big expedition or belay-style parkas and puffy jackets work well when worn over a waterproof shell in camp. The addition of puffy or fleece pants is a game changer for cold mornings and cooking at night. Waterproof layers are also an essential component to winter camping. GORE-TEX outer layers are perfect for waterproof layering, however depending on the conditions you decide to camp in, soft shells or DWR treated outer layers will also do the trick.
Without a good night’s sleep, your time spent in the winter backcountry can quickly turn into a sufferfest. To ensure you stay warm throughout the night, make sure you have the proper sleeping system for the conditions. During the height of winter, a sleeping bag rated to zero or -20 degrees paired with a closed cell foam or insulated sleeping pad will be your best bet for staying warm.
Extra tips for staying warm at night:
- Eat more than usual for dinner; those extra calories will come in clutch during the late hours of the night.
- Heat water and put it into a Nalgene wrapped in an extra piece of clothing, creating a bundle of warmth to cuddle with in your sleeping bag; it will also help keep your water bottles from freezing during the night.
- Going to sleep with an empty bladder and keeping it empty will prevent your body from dumping precious heat to keep the extra fluids at body temperature.
- Making sure to go to bed hydrated will also ensure that your body temperature stays well-regulated through means of increased metabolism throughout the night.
It goes without saying that in order to travel in winter terrain, you must have the necessary means to travel efficiently across the snow. Snowshoes, touring skis and splitboards are the perfect means of transporting you and your gear over long distances and variable terrain. Traveling in the winter backcountry also means that there is an inherent risk of avalanches. Make sure that everyone in your group has the proper avalanche equipment — beacon, shovel and probe — and the necessary skills and knowledge on how to use them. Snow saws are another useful tool that can be used to build campsites as well as digging avalanche testing pits. A fun component to multiday, winter backcountry trips is the use of gear sleds. Sleds are pulled behind a touring individual and are very efficient at transporting large amounts of gear over long distances. However, don’t be surprised to have a slow pace when wearing a large pack and pulling a heavy sled.
For most winter camping excursions, four season tents are some of the best forms of manufactured shelters in terms of protection from the elements. While heavy, these tents are made specifically to withstand the extreme weather and snow loading possibilities of wintertime. On the other hand, tarps are extremely versatile forms of shelter. Much lighter than a tent, tarps can be used in conjunction with skis, poles, ice axes and some creative shoveling to erect an efficient and comfortable shelter. For the minimalist, bivy sacks can be the only necessary shelter needed for a winter camping trip. Bivies are perfect for single person shelter and easily fit into packs for emergency uses.
Without the right stoves or proper amount of fuel, your group will have no means to cook or get enough water for the trip. White gas or liquid fuel stoves work extremely well in all conditions, including high elevation and extreme cold, making them ideal stoves for winter camping in the mountains. While canister stoves will still work in all conditions, the efficiency of a canister stove significantly decreases in cold and high-altitude environments. If you’re using canister stoves, use winterized or four-season isobutane canisters that are made for colder environments. Make sure to calculate how much fuel you’re going to need for your trip, you don’t run out while out in the backcountry. Take into account that cold weather, melting snow or ice for water and longer cooking times for meals will result in using more fuel than your normal summer backpacking trip.
As with any camping trip, the 10 essentials are a crucial part of your overnight kit. These items help ensure your safety if something were to go wrong while out in the backcountry. Have a checklist and make sure to go through and double check to make sure you have everything you need:
- Navigation: map, compass, GPS device
- Headlamp and extra batteries
(Pro Tip: try the rechargeable BioLite HeadLamp 330)
- Avalanche safety gear
- First aid
- Fire starter or stove
- Shelter: emergency bivy sack or tarp
- Extra water or the means to make some
- Extra food
- Extra layers
Some extra tips for making your gear perform to the best of its ability:
- Waterproof layers don’t stay waterproof forever. Extend the life of waterproof fabrics by keeping them clean and drying them out completely every time you come back home.
- Cold weather and batteries do not mix. If you’re staying out in the backcountry for long periods of time, then make sure to bring extras for headlamps, avalanche beacons and cameras. Sleeping with battery powered devices in your sleeping bag will also help extend the battery life by keeping them warm throughout the night.
- If you get wet while winter camping, you will get cold which could be very dangerous. Make sure to take any amount of sun during the day to dry out sleeping bags and other camp gear on trees or skis and poles stuck into the snow. On a similar note, you are your own best dryer when out in the backcountry. Wearing a damp layer or placing wet gloves in between two dry layers will expedite the drying process using your own body heat.
- A small amount of closed cell foam goes a long way. Closed cell foam pads of any size make for great changing platforms, seat cushions, stove platforms and tabletops that insulate you and everything on top from losing heat to the snow underneath it.
FOOD AND NUTRITION
There are several things you need to consider when planning your food and water for a winter camping trip.
1. High outputs of energy require high inputs of calories. In a winter camping environment, your body will consistently burn more calories just to stay at normal body temperature than it would during a spring or summer camping trip — so plan for it!
2. Fats produce more than twice the amount of energy over a longer period of time than simple carbohydrates and proteins. Single strand carbohydrates like candy and energy gels work great during the daytime when touring or climbing is the focus of your energy. Meals with high amounts of fat from sources like oils, nuts and butter at the end of the day will ensure that your body has enough calories to burn throughout the night, keeping you warmer. Think of it in terms of fire; carbs are kindling, and fats are logs that burn slowly over time.
3. The average acclimatized person drinks one and a half to three liters of water per day when hiking. It would be physically impossible to take that much water into the backcountry. While there might be a stream or creek available in the latter half of spring, the majority of your water will come from melting snow with either the sun or your stove, so plan accordingly!
WINTER TRAVEL AND CAMPSITES
Avalanches are one of the biggest potential hazards while camping in the winter backcountry. Make sure you have the knowledge, gear and skills necessary if you are traveling in avalanche terrain. If you don’t have these skills, then take an AIARE course from a local guide service to learn more about the danger of avalanches and how to safely avoid them. One of the best ways to avoid avalanche danger when winter camping comes down to terrain selection and avoiding avalanche terrain altogether. When choosing your campsite location, be hyper aware of the different terrain features all around you, making sure that you avoid overhead hazards that could send a slide directly into your camp.
One of the best parts about winter camping is building your campsite. With snow, your campsite is now a sandbox that you can build and customize to your heart’s content. This is where tools like shovels and snow saws become incredibly useful. You can use these tools to construct walls of snow blocks to form wind screens, dig out pits and tables for a camp kitchen or eating area and build quinzhees, or snow caves, to sleep in and take shelter from the elements. Utilize the incredible insulating ability of snow and cut out anti-freeze cubbies for storing water, food, boots and other items you would want to insulate from the cold overnight.
Winter camping and its associated skills opens up an opportunity to find new appreciation for the mountains while allowing you to get out into the wilderness all year round. You’ll find that cold weather camping, if done correctly and safely, will open up numerous opportunities to achieve mid-winter or early spring mountaineering objectives, provide the ability to travel into new ski terrain and allow you to experience the mountains in ways that would otherwise be impossible.