Outdoor Smarts: How to Keep Warm in Camping's Fourth Season

To enjoy a winter outing, you need the right gear, know-how, and a good attitude.

IT’s SNOWING OUTSIDE, the temperature is shrinking toward single digits, and TV meteorologists are predicting record lows and storms of the century. It’s a great time of year to be hiking.

Or cross-country skiing, or dogsledding, or tobogganing, or skating, or camping.

Yes, even camping.

Think about it: Winter means no crowds, no bugs, no snakes. And under a cover of fresh snow, even a modest county park becomes a wonderland of adventure and discovery. Going outdoors is a great time to combat winter stir—craziness and give Scouts a taste of real adventure—not to mention new skills.

All you need to enjoy camping’s fourth season is the right gear and the know-how to stay warm and dry. And a good attitude.


Follow this strategy: Load up with calories. In winter, your body has to burn more fuel just to stay warm. Figure on about 20 percent more food than you’d carry in warm weather. Look for high-calorie snacks like nuts, energy bars, and cheese.

In very cold weather, some foods can harden or even freeze—you may have to put that bar of cheese on top of your head and under your hat to get it to thaw! And forget about canned foods: They’ll be solid as ice.

If you are hiking, it’s better to take lots of short breaks for snacks than one or two long breaks. Why? Long breaks are an unwelcome opportunity for everyone to lose body heat and get cold. And regular light snacking helps you continually replenish the calories you burn up.

To prevent hypothermia, you need to stay adequately hydrated. In winter, you may not be aware of how much you’re sweating, especially in dry mountain air. A gulp of ice-cold water is hardly appetizing, but it is important to keep drinking.

Hot drinks and soup are a great way to replenish liquids, electrolytes, and heat. Keep extra tea bags on hand, as well as bouillon cubes, and hand out hot drinks liberally, especially at the end of the day when energy is low.


For serious winter camping, you’ll need good winter gear—tents that can withstand loads of snow, sleeping bags rated to at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe lower), and a pack that can handle all the extra clothes.

But there are ways to make your three-season gear suffice for moderate winter conditions. Instead of using tents, consider trails with shelters. You still need to carry tents for emergencies, but three-season tents will be adequate as backup. Similarly, rather than spending money on winter sleeping bags, you can use a three-season bag and a summer bag together. Bungee cords can be used to tie extra gear to your pack.


Hats and balaclavas are your first defense against cold. The old saying has it, “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” Balaclavas keep the neck and face warm, too.

Pile or down booties are must-haves for evening. Down booties even allow you to walk around camp a bit without having to put your hiking boots back on—a huge advantage if you have to get up in the middle of the night.

Glove systems consist of an inner layer of pile or fleece and an outer waterproof layer, which you can wear separately or in combination. Mittens are warmer than gloves.

Glove liners let you perform tasks that require finger coordination, like lighting stoves and threading tent poles through grommets. Thin polypropylene liners give you the most dexterity.

Bottle warmers made of insulating fabric keep hot liquids warm for a couple of hours.

Battery-powered socks are available in hunting and fishing stores. Their performance tends to be uneven—batteries can go dead, and the wires can cause blistering. But it’s a good idea for a group to have a pair as an emergency item in case someone feels as if he is getting frostbite.

Chemical heat packs are another handy emergency item. You break them open, and they generate enough heat to warm cold fingers and toes.

Vapor barrier liners (VBLs) are most commonly used to line socks and sleeping bags. The principle is the same in both cases: They keep heat (read: sweat) inside. On the feet, they are worn between liner socks and the wool socks. In sleeping bags, they are used like an ordinary sleeping bag liner; you simply crawl inside them. People who sweat more than average will probably find them clammy and uncomfortable, but they can be helpful in extremely cold temperatures.

Gaiters keep snow out of your boots and help keep feet and lower legs warm.


Being comfortable in winter isn’t just a matter of gear—it’s also a matter of know-how.

Hikers can stay more comfortable by adjusting their layers of clothing. Taking off a hat or unzipping a jacket can help you regulate your temperature so you don’t sweat too much. In camp, change into dry clothes immediately (including socks). Otherwise, the damp clothes will wick heat away from your body.

Maintain a steady pace while walking. It’s better to stroll along at a comfortable pace that you can maintain all day than to race and rest, which overheats you and then leaves you to chill.

Finally, give yourself plenty of time. Everything takes longer in winter, from pitching a tent to cooking a meal. Leave yourself at least two hours to make camp (and remember that night comes early).

How far you hike is secondary. The objective of a winter trip shouldn’t be to get somewhere—it should be to enjoy camping’s magical fourth season.

Karen Berger writes for www.gorp.com, an online resource for outdoor recreation. Her latest book is Hiking the Triple Crown (The Mountaineers Books).

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