Winter Camping 101

Your guide to get started on Winter Camping.

So you've been killing it on your most recent backpacking trips, devouring mileage like an endurance athlete and dialing in your gear Bear Grylls-style. Just as you're hitting your stride, the snows come, dumping all over your backcountry dreams and closing off terrain until next spring. In the past you were content to hibernate, wait for the spring thaw, and relegate adventures to the back burner until trails were clear. But now that you're a bit more experienced and a tad more adventurous, you've decided you might actually like to experience backpacking in the winter. With a little bit of preparation, the right gear, and an adventurous attitude, you don't have to take a forced five-month sabbatical—winter camping is stunningly beautiful and surprisingly simple. This winter camping guide will have you post-holing, snowshoeing, or skinning in no time.

The most important thing to realize about winter camping is that it's just that: camping. It's just camping that happens to be in cold weather and sometimes snow. If you've got cold feet about diving right in, try some car-camping trips in winter conditions as a way of easing into the process. With your car close by, you'll feel more confident and can discover what works and what doesn't.

Once you've decided you're into snow camping, you'll need to gather some gear. The easiest way to plan a winter adventure is by dividing your gear into systems: sleeping, cooking, clothing, etc.

This quick guide defines the aforementioned systems, includes some of what I personally bring, and provides a rationale for the items. Don't treat this as a complete list, but merely a jumping-off point to inspire you to create your own personal winter camping kit.

Sleep System

Your sleep system comprises everything that you need to sleep on a backcountry adventure: tent, sleeping pad(s), sleeping bag, and a liner. Many people like sleeping in snow caves or using tarp setups strung between trekking poles for winter camping, but I prefer the protection and ease of an actual tent. Winter tents are often lighter than their three-season counterparts because they are frequently single-wall structures. Whereas three-season tents must protect you from rain with a second layer (rainfly), winter tents are mainly concerned with snow, which is much drier and doesn't saturate fabrics like a summer deluge might. I alternate between a superlight two-person tent and a beefier and roomier expedition-style tent. If you have ambitious mountain objectives or plan on going fast and light, consider a tent that is compact and lightweight. Conversely, if you plan on a longer trip with more gear and you need your shelter to serve in a basecamp capacity, choose a tent that has more space and weather-worthiness.

In addition to a tent, you'll need a sleeping pad for insulation between the tent floor and your sleeping bag. I like to use an inflatable pad in conjunction with a closed-cell foam pad. I use a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite pad cut down to knee height (these are incredibly light but can be somewhat bulky when folded) as well as a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pad to go on top of the closed-cell. This pad system is lightweight, versatile, and super warm; gives you plenty of protection from the cold ground; and doesn't weigh down your pack (closed-cell foam pads don't absorb water and can be used to sit on snow as well).

Perhaps the most important part of the sleep system is the sleeping bag. This is your main source of insulation and can be the difference between a night of restful sleep or hours of frigid tossing and turning. Generally, winter bags should be rated to at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably lower. If you're sleeping in a tent, the temperature inside will be considerably warmer than outside, but being cold always sucks. So, it's easier to be on the safe side--the lower the temperature rating, the better.

The other dilemma with sleeping bags is deciding between down and synthetic. While down bags pack smaller and weighs less, it is significantly more susceptible to moisture and doesn't insulate when wet. For most trips, I use a zero-degree down bag, but I do own a 20-degree synthetic bag for super wet conditions. A sleeping bag liner is optional, but using one will add some warmth to your bag (especially if you have any doubts about your bag's temperature rating) and increase its longevity by shielding the bag's interior against oil and sweat off the interior of your sleeping bag. I also use a chair kit that works with an inflatable pad and lets you sit up in the tent; you might be spending a lot of time inside depending on the weather, so be ready to hunker down. Finally, don't forget to ventilate your tent at night so you don't wake up to a glistening, condensation-induced ice cave in the morning!

Cooking

The good news about winter camping is that you can bring perishables on your trip because you're basically camping in a refrigerator. The bad news is that it's easy to lose track of pack weight and find yourself suffering under a heavy load of gourmet food. Prioritizing a couple of luxury food items in conjunction with dehydrated meals will help keep weight manageable. Dehydrated meals, such as those by Good To-Go, weigh almost nothing and you'll appreciate the lack of preparation, short cook time, and general ease of these dinners when it's cold out and all you want to do is eat a tasty hot meal.

The most important aspect of your cooking system is an effective stove. When summer camping, you depend on your stove for food, but in winter, your stove does double-duty cooking and melting snow for water. Jetboils work well for canister stoves because they are super efficient without being bulky or heavy. If your cooked meals are all dehydrated, the only campware you'll need is a spoon for eating and a large pot for snow melting duties. Pro tip: avoid burning snow by always starting with a little bit of water and adding snow to it slowly. Also, bring at least two water bottles; melting snow is time-consuming, so when you do it, stockpile water into the extra bottle(s). Insulated bottles and mugs will prevent water from freezing and keep your coffee/tea/cocoa warm.

Clothing

Shelter, sleep, and food are all crucial, but clothing is probably the most important aspect of winter camping because you'll spend the majority of your time in it. Extra wool socks, a warm beanie, and gloves (or mittens with glove liners) are critical. In addition, choose footwear according to the activities you plan on doing while camping. If you're just hiking, a winterized hiking boot in conjunction with gaiters fits the bill. If climbing is more your speed, a mountaineering boot will allow for snow protection, crampon compatibility, and some climbing ability as well. If skiing or snowboarding is your preferred method of travel, then you'll be in either ski or snowboard boots. Either way, some kind of tent slippers are a good idea; getting a break from boot living is a luxury and one you won't go without after experiencing the glorious feeling of a soft, warm slipper instead of a rigid, cold boot. For moving around, bring a lightweight top and bottom, either synthetic, silk, or wool. These pieces work well as base layers for active pursuits or outer layers for sleeping. Next, some sort of mid-layer fleece; for me, I pack my beloved Patagonia R1 (this is what I wear 75% of the time) but any comparable fleece jacket will work. Softshell pants are also a must for moving around, as they provide adequate weather protection while offering superior breathability compared to shells. These types of layers regulate heat very efficiently yet keep you warm during momentary stops on the trail, so you'll neither overheat nor freeze. The last main clothing items should include an insulated down or synthetic puffy jacket (same rules as for sleeping bags!) as well as a shell jacket and shell pants--softshell is fine, though you may want to pack hardshells if it looks like it's going to be wet. While these items are generally not worn while moving and are packed as "camp clothes," having enough warm clothing is very important once the sun goes down, especially if you're staying in an area where campfires are prohibited. Other small clothing items to consider are a balaclava, light gloves, waterproof shell gloves, compression tights, insulated pants, and long underwear.

Gear

If your winter camping takes you into the mountains and potential avalanche terrain, you need avalanche gear: beacon, shovel, and probe. Don't leave home without this gear--what I've listed is just the minimum requirements--and the knowledge of how to use it. Before you head out, ensure you're prepared: take an avy course, read books, and practice often until you're confident. Otherwise, the gear does you no good--it's only as useful as your ability to correctly and quickly respond to situations in a trained and purposeful manner. Other pieces of recommended gear include a Black Diamond Avalung and an airbag. If you are just getting started with winter camping, avoid mountainous terrain until you have the skillset and in-the-field experience to travel safely and responsibly in avalanche terrain.

Whether you are venturing into the mountains or snow camping in the flats, a collapsible metal shovel (also known as an entrenching tool or "E-tool") will prove invaluable at digging out tent platforms, moving logs and coals in campfires, and various other winter tasks. Additionally, for winter travel, trekking poles equipped with snow baskets are mandatory for stability while walking--you won't believe how much ice can be under otherwise dry-looking snow and dirt. First-aid and repair kits often morph and overlap into each other, but at a minimum they should include duct tape, superglue, small knife, medical gauze, bandages, butterfly bandages, blister care supplies, disinfectant spray, topical pain relief, and a safe sleeping aid. I also include a needle and thread, utility tools (tweezers, scissors), ibuprofen, and a Coban or ACE bandage. A pair of sunglasses and ski or snowboard goggles (perferably polarized) will protect your eyes from snow blindness and enable you to see comfortably during snow or wind storms. Similar to camping during other seasons, the ten essentials should always be in your pack: navigation, sun protection, extra insulation, headlamp (with extra batteries), first aid, fire starter, repair kit, extra food, extra water, and an emergency shelter.

Do not treat my advice as canon. This guide is merely a push in the right direction to get you started. The best way to discover what you need and want for winter camping is simply to go do it. Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, the impetus for a better pack-list. Many seasoned winter backpackers (who you should definitely consult if you know any) know that DIY solutions often work best; be creative, bring a notepad, and write down ideas or things you wished you had, and, most of all, have a blast! Winter camping in all its various forms is an amazing way to experience areas in a vastly different light than three-season backpacking allows. The lack of crowds, snow-covered landscape, and noiselessness contribute to a completely different and special experience--one that may remind you why you love camping in the first place.

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