Winter Camping: Subzero to Hero

By Ned Morgan.

Instead of dwelling on the obvious limitation of winter camping—namely, subzero temps that can reduce you to morbid hypothermia if you’re unprepared—let’s accentuate the positives. No crowds, no bugs, no bears—these are some major upsides. Not to mention the winterscapes you can discover in parks and any other wild places you’re accustomed to visiting only during the warm months. We asked Hugo Voyer—MEC Camp Product Manager and Leave No Trace trainer—for a few basic tips on how to turn winter camping from subzero to hero.

 

Cold-weather camping in Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. KARI MEDIG PHOTO, COURTESY MEC.
Extreme-weather camping in Cordillera Darwin, Tierra del Fuego, Chile. KARI MEDIG PHOTO, COURTESY MEC.

 

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First things first. What are my shelter options?

I recommend a good 4-season tent for winter camping. The 4-season tent won’t keep you warmer than a 3-season tent, however it will hold up against winter winds and snowfall. Sleeping pads, synthetic baselayers and a good sleeping bag is what you need to stay warm. For winter camping I’ll pack two sleeping pads; a close-cell foam (those classic blue foam pads) and an inflatable one for on top. It also means I have a foam pad if my inflatable pad gets a leak. I recommend wearing breathable synthetic baselayers to bed and you can stuff your sleeping bag with your insulated outerlayers and midlayers if you have room.

Choose your sleeping bag based on the temperatures you’re planning to experience on your trip. A “mummy” shape sleeping bag with a hood is a great choice.

 

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MEC Phoenix Hybrid, rated to -20C.

 

Cargo will be heavier because of all the gear I’ll need to stay warm. Do you suggest a pull sled?

A pulka (pull sled) is great for big loads on flat land without deep snow, like in the Arctic. In rolling and mountain terrain they pull you down and become a nuisance. I would not consider bringing a pulka for anything less than a 10-day trip. A big pack like the MEC Serratus 70 Backpack is so much easier to travel with and will fit what you need. Here are some ways to stay light: you don’t need a lot of clothes. For a short winter campout you’ll probably only need one outfit. Luckily because of physics the cold hides scents so unlike a summer hike, scent-neutralizing materials like merino and clean clothes are less important.  You also may not be able to bring the extras, like a second cooking pot, extra bowls (eat straight from the freeze-dried food bag) or multiple booze options.

I don’t plan to be in Nunavut but could you outline any safety precautions I should take, i.e., emergency gear, shelter, first aid kit?

As always, avoid going solo and always tell someone exactly where you’re planning on going. Having some way to communicate in 2016 is not hard or expensive. The DeLorme InReach SE helps you stay connected when there’s no cell phone coverage.

 

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This compact device uses satellite technology to let you send and receive text messages and your location anywhere on the planet. If you know that your cell phone will get coverage make sure you’re saving the battery or have a power pack that can help recharge if you go overboard with taking and uploading photos. Instagram may have wait. First aid kits are important, but more importantly you need to know how to use them. Check out your local MEC events page for classes offering wilderness first aid training. A repair kit for winter is also a must as things break in the cold. You don’t need an emergency shelter if you have a tent. Lastly make sure you store your gear in a place that won’t get covered in snow overnight. You may never find that trekking pole or shovel in the morning.

Any general tips on keeping warm, either with gear or with old mountaineering tricks (such as: taking a hot Nalgene into your sleeping bag)? Ie, should you pack snow up around your tent to help with insulation?

-Stay dry because moisture is your enemy in the cold. You can get very warm hiking up a hill with a backpack on, so dress in layers to avoid overheating and sweating.

-Do not insulate your tent using snow because it will encourage condensation, which results in a wet tent. Four-season tents are designed with ventilation for a reason.

-Warm up your sleeping bag before you’re tired by socializing or reading in your bag. You don’t want to get into a cold sleeping bag super tired, because it will take a while to warm up.

-If you use a hot water bottle make sure to take it out of your sleeping bag once it’s cooled down otherwise your body heat will be used to keep the water warm instead of your body. Also remember to dump out the water or you’ll wake up with a heavy, frozen bottle that will require hot water or body heat to thaw.

-Keep an eye on your friends for frostbite and signs of hypothermia.

-Have some nuts before bed to provide your body some energy before sleeping.

-Be prepared for a late-night pee. You may resist but you won’t be able to sleep with a full bladder and your body will spend energy warming the extra liquid in your body. So before you go to bed plan what you’ll need to get up in the middle of the night and relieve yourself in the cold. You’ll be happy you did.

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