Brrrrgh! Ughh! Why would you ever go camping when
it's so cold and snowy? 'I don’t like cold weather,'
you might think. 'I would freeze to death out there
right now.' Fact: Winter is a cold time of year. Fiction:
When winter camping I will be cold and wet.
Unfortunately, many people’s first thought
on winter camping is their last, but for those willing
to try it out the rewards are many. With proper techniques
and equipment, you can enjoy what the winter wilderness
has to offer: silence, tranquility, fresh, untracked
powder skiing, custom built snow shelters that merge
art and warmth, dry housing, and glimpses of seldom
seen wildlife, all without the crowds frequently associated
with being outside in the summer. The skills and knowledge
gained from summer camping provide a good foundation
for the winter. But there are some differences between
the two and here are some tips to make your first
or fiftieth winter trip a success.
How to Get There
Walking, snow shoeing, skiing (cross-country, telemark
or randonee alpine touring) or split-boarding (snowboards
that convert to skis) are all human-powered ways to
access the backcountry in winter. Generally, walking
is only a feasible option if the snow isn’t
very deep and cross-country skis don’t provide
enough floatation to carry a big pack and/or sled.
Snowshoes, telemark/randonee ski set ups and increasingly
commonly split-boards (a snowboard that converts to
small skis for uphill travel) can all be rented at
quality outdoor shops.
TIP: Make sure to get skins when
you rent skis or boards. Skins stick or strap on to
the bottom to facilitate uphill travel and then come
off to slide down.
If you will be traveling on or under any terrain
or slope, no matter how big or small, steeper than
20 degrees (about the steepness of “green”
slopes at a ski area) than a Basic Avalanche or Avalanche
Awareness course is a must (see the Avalanche Education
sidebar for more details).
What to Eat
Food is your fuel and metabolism is your fire. To
stay warm and happy out there you must supply your
fire with plenty of fuel. 1.75 pounds per person per
day make up a NOLS summer ration. In the winter that
quantity is increased to 2.25-2.5 pounds. Large gourmet
meals are guilt free in the winter. Calorie dense
foods and fats like butter, chocolate and bacon are
necessities not luxuries.
The cold outside temperatures mean that you can bring
frozen foods like veggies, meats and sauces, and that
they won’t spoil. Be sure to pre-slice and freeze
anything ahead of time. The last thing you want to
try and cook is a two-pound block of cheese or hamburger
when it is 20 degrees below zero.
TIP: Crack eggs and pre-freeze them
in ice cube trays to make cheffing omelettes a breeze.
Your stoves will be running a lot to melt water and
supply you with plenty of food and hot drinks. Doubling
your summer fuel calculation will give you a rough
TIP: Always save some “starter
water,” that is water you will add snow to,
slowly at first, so you will not burn the snow and
then have burnt water. The NOLS Cookery has more details
and a plethora of excellent suggestions for food and
What to Wear
Layers, layers, layers. If you want to stay warm then
you must bring plenty of clothes to keep the cold
at bay. Start with a synthetic or wool long underwear/base
layer to wick away moisture and sweat and follow that
with four to five upper body layers and three lower
body layers that are synthetic or wool and can be
worn together without constricting your movement or
circulation. Lastly, bring a nylon or Gore-tex outer
layer to keep out the snow. Of course, warm socks
and boots and gloves and hats are a must. A common
mistake is to wear too many clothes when active. While
hiking or skiing, wear as few insulating layers as
possible and then add more layers whenever you stop.
TIP: Outfitting yourself for a winter
camping trip does not mean working the rest of the
year to buy the clothes. With a quick trip to the
thrift store or attic you can probably find used wool
sweaters and ski clothes for free or cheap.
What Else to Bring
With a few additions, your summer camping gear should
work nicely in the winter. If you can’t rent
or afford to buy a winter (-20 to –30 F degree)
sleeping bag, then there are several options available
to you. You can add a wool or synthetic blanket, buy
a sleeping bag liner, or use two summer-weight bags.
Also add an extra sleeping pad to further insulate
you from the ground when sleeping. Another necessity
is a shovel to build shelters and kitchens.
There are several additional things that make winter
camping easier but aren’t strictly necessary,
including an extra stove and pot for melting water,
a lantern, a snow saw for cutting blocks and adding
those stylish touches to a shelter or kitchen, and
a sled to pull all of this extra stuff.
TIP: Instead of buying an expensive
pre-made sled, make one from a plastic kiddie sled.
Run rope through the holes for the handles and then
attach that to you backpack waist belt. The sled won’t
maneuver as well through tight trees or down hills,
but it will save you a few hundred bucks.
And Don't Forget…
Lastly and most importantly, get psyched. Winter camping
requires a ton of energy, a positive attitude and
hard work. I always start my NOLS winter courses by
telling my students that one of the most valuable
things winter camping will teach them is that “hard
work and fun are not mutually exclusive." So
far, it's a philosophy that has proved itself correct
every time. Everyone returns tired but with smiles
on their faces and excited to rush to the phone and
share their stories with their friends and families.
So enjoy, and happy adventuring out in the winter
wonderland of snow and silence.
Avalanche Safety and Education
When traveling in avalanche terrain, there are five
things each person should always bring.
- An avalanche transceiver and the knowledge and
practice to use it. (A transceiver is a small radio
device that both transmits and receives signals
so that a person buried in the snow can quickly
be located by their companions.)
- A shovel.
- An avalanche probe or probe poles.
- A partner, i.e. never venture into avalanche
- Your brain, in working order. This means that
you must possess skills and knowledge to safely
travel and play (ski, ride, snowmobile, hike etc.)
in avalanche terrain. A NOLS course is a great way
to acquire these skills. You'll learn about assessing
the hazards of mountain winter environments, avalanche
terrain and weather, avalanche assessment, snow
pack dynamics and snow physics. Some courses also
include a Level I Avalanche certification (see specific
course information for details).