How to Go Winter Camping for the First Time

Adam Nelson 
Founder of The Daggerfish Gear Co.

We're approaching the holiday season and, this being 2020, the prospect of going home for the holidays is remote. If we can't be together, why not use this as an opportunity to go commune with nature and try our hand at winter camping?

There's no denying that the winter is definitely the most challenging time to go into the backcountry, but meeting challenges like that is a big part of what makes camping so much fun. Plus, gaining experience camping in the winter opens you up to a ton of new and awesome activities like cross country skiing, mountaineering, or ice fishing (a great use for a Daggerfish Handreel, by the way). With a few adjustments to your approach, you can go camp in the winter without issue.


Your First Trip: Use a Shelter

Interested in winter camping? Try using a trail shelter to make your first trip as easy as possible

"Warm Comfort " Acrylic painting by artist Brian Ford, HBF Outdoors Art. Prints are available on his website.


There are lean-to and other camping shelters constructed on public lands across the US, often as projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps or other similar entities. While these shelters can be crowded or difficult to reserve in the summer, they're deserted in the winter, making them the perfect place to try winter camping for the first time. 

One like the Laurel Highlands shelter in the painting above has several advantages for your first foray into winter camping:

First, using a shelter means you don't have to carry a tent. This frees up space in your pack for extra warm clothes and a heavier-duty sleep system (see tips #1 and #2 below). 

Second, these shelters are typically built on wooden platforms, making it much easier to insulate from the ground. Being well-insulated from the ground and the air is the key to sleeping comfortably, especially in winter (see tip #2 below).

Finally, these shelters can be very roomy, especially for small groups, and will often have a firepit directly in front of them. Some shelter areas will even have split firewood available, though you may have to let it thaw out a bit before it's usable. Spacious, fire-warmed areas are excellent for winter camping, since the nights are long (see tip #3 below). 

A few minutes of searching on the internet or a call to your local park agency will usually help you find trail shelters near you. Using a shelter will give you a leg-up on  your first winter camping trip, but even if you can't find one, it's possible to go winter camping by keeping some tips in mind.

 

Three Tips for Winter Camping

Three tips for winter camping | How to go winter camping for the first time

1. Adjust Your Clothes Often

At rest, a human body generates roughly 100 watts of energy, but with strenuous exercise a body's heat production may exceed 1000 watts, a 10X increase in energy output! This means that your body's temperature will change significantly between moving and resting, so you'll need to adjust what you're wearing to keep your body's temperature stable. 

(Why not just be as warm as possible all the time? Because hiking with your heavy jacket on will cause your body to cool itself by sweating, and sweating into your clothes will rob them of their ability to keep you warm when you stop.)

When winter camping, you'll have your "moving clothes" which include your base layer polypro underwear and undershirt, a midweight layer and pants, and a shell jacket, plus a set of lightweight gloves, a hat, and a neck gaiter or buff. As you move, you can take off the hat, gloves, gaiter, or even the shell jacket in order to keep your temperature stable.

Once you stop to rest,  you'll want to don your "resting clothes" which in most cases may be heavier gloves or mittens and a puffy jacket you can put on over top of your shell. 

The first time I did this, I was convinced that putting a jacket on over a jacket wouldn't work, and boy was I wrong. It's amazing how much heat you can retain by putting a puffy jacket on immediately when you stop to rest.

Finally, you'll want your "sleeping clothes" which should be an extra base layer made from polypro or fleece and an extra set of very warm socks. Keep these articles of clothing in your pack so they stay dry throughout the day, and only put them on for sleeping. Speaking of which...  


2. Insulate Yourself Well for Sleeping

Surprisingly, you don't need a heavy-duty tent for winter camping, unless you're dealing with extreme  conditions. More important than your tent is your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, because just like a good set of clothes keep you warm while you move, a good sleeping setup will help keep you warm while you sleep. 

One common recommendation is a double layer of insulation from the ground, including both a foam cell pad and an air mattress. In addition, a heavy-duty sleeping bag is typically recommended, something rated down to 0 degrees. 

Personally, I prefer a more modular approach, so I don't have to own two sleeping bags: I use a 30-degree bag with a bag liner inside, plus an insulated blanket (sometimes called a jungle blanket or a woobie) over top of my sleeping bag. This setup lets me mix and match for a variety of temperatures throughout the year, and I'll often wear the blanket around camp, making it easier to stay warm while resting.

When you're getting ready to sleep, go pee first - there's nothing worse than having to get our of your warm cocoon to empty your bladder in the middle of a cold winter night. Once that's dealt with, change into your sleeping clothes and keep your hat on, but make sure your nose and mouth are exposed so that the moisture from your breath doesn't get inside of your sleeping bag. And settle in - winter nights are longer than summer nights, meaning...


3. Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Since winter nights are long, I find myself going to bed earlier on winter nights, and becoming active earlier in the day. When winter camping, bring extra batteries for your headlamp or flashlight, and be prepared to spend most of your time at camp in the dark. 

While this sounds a little scary at first, a cold winter night in the woods is one of the most peaceful and serene experiences most people will get to have. Cold, dry air is crystal clear, meaning the stars shine through with unparalleled brilliance, and a warm firelight flickering in the midst of a dark forest is a beautiful reminder of our humanity. Bring a classic novel or a deck of cards and enjoy a peaceful night by the fire, the way generations before us have. 

Bonus Tip: Have an Evac Plan

Done properly, camping in the winter is safe, fun, and exhilarating. But it takes time to develop comfort and confidence in your gear and abilities. The first time you go camping in the winter, stick to a location you know well, or one that is close to a main road or parking lot. 

If things get hairy (like an unexpected storm, a fall in a puddle, or damage to your gear) there's no shame in evacuating. After all, the point is to enjoy yourself and relish the opportunity to be comfortable where others would be afraid. 

So there you have it - a basic strategy for taking your first winter camping trip. Enjoy this opportunity to be out in nature, and let the brisk air and stark landscape help you feel alive. 

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