There’s nothing like camping in cold weather. The bugs are gone, and campsites that were crowded in summer are largely yours alone. And if there’s snow, new adventures beckon: Ski or snowshoe a trail; follow animal tracks; sleep in a snow trench or quinzee hut.
Winter camping is wonderful — that is, if you know what you’re doing. The dangers are dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. Before you set out, read Chapter 18 of the Fieldbook, “Cold-Weather Adventuring.” Add these tips, and everyone will come home smiling.
Traveling in snow
If there is snow blanketing the ground, use it to your advantage. Carry lightweight backpacks and load up toboggan sleds with heavier items like tents or cooking equipment. Pull the sleds behind you while snowshoeing or hiking through the snow.
Fueling your body
You burn a lot more calories in winter than in summer, particularly when you’re exerting yourself. If you want to stay warm, fuel your fire — that is, feed and hydrate yourself adequately. Fatty foods should make up at least one-third or more of your total calories. Don’t shy away from carbohydrates or proteins. Consider these foods that work: hard sausage, nuts, dried fruits, crackers, cheese, dehydrated soups and hot-drink mixes like cocoa. Cut snacks like cheese or sausage into edible bites, in case it freezes.
Icy temperatures and wind reduce stove efficiency. Plan to dig a cooking trench deep in the snow. Set stoves on a piece of plywood. Liquid-fuel stoves work better than propane stoves at low temperatures. You must insulate butane fuel canisters with closed-cell foam or set them in a pot of warm water before you use them.
Each camper should bring an 18-inch square of closed-cell foam on which he or she can sit or stand when cooking or eating. Standing on snow or ice for very long (like when cooking meals) can chill you quickly. It’s helpful to pack one 72-inch-long closed-cell foam sleeping pad per patrol to be used as a “tablecloth,” helping prevent cooking gear or utensils from sinking into the snow. It can also double as an extra sitting pad.
Fill one stainless steel thermos bottle for every four Scouts with hot water each morning, providing hot chocolate or soups on request. Wrap vacuum bottles in closed-cell foam.
Freezing begins at the air interface of a liquid, so store water bottles upside down in the snow. Keep your water bottle inside your parka when hiking.
Dressing for the cold
Camping in the winter doesn’t mean you need a whole new set of equipment. Go with what your Scouts have, using these tricks:
When dressing for cold weather, focus on a layering system including the three Ws: wicking, warmth and wind. Your base layer should be wicking (like an athletic shirt), an insulating layer should be warming (like fleece or wool) and an exterior layer should block the wind. Use clothing you have, focusing on the right combination of fabrics.
Mittens are warmer than gloves. If insulated mittens get wet, they stay that way. Wool mitts worn inside leather or nylon shells are removable for faster drying. Wool gloves are needed for dexterity when cooking.
For overnight warmth, wear wool, polypropylene or polyester (never cotton!) long johns, socks and a balaclava to bed. Place a scarf across your neck to seal drafts. Be sure to change into dry clothes for sleeping — moisture retained in field clothes will cause chilling.
Two sleeping bags — one placed inside the other — should provide enough warmth down to about zero degrees. If you don’t have a closed-cell foam pad to use as a sleeping mat, try half-inch-thick foam carpet padding.
In warmer months, a plastic ground cloth should be used inside your tent to stay dry. However, in winter, use the ground cloth beneath your tent to keep it from freezing to the ground.
Avoiding cold-weather dangers
Be very careful around open flames, since you won’t feel the heat of a burning stove or campfire through thickly insulated winter clothing.
Wearing waterproof clothes in subfreezing temperatures while hiking or sleeping is a recipe for hypothermia. Opt for a breathable, windproof shell that won’t trap perspiration. However, you’re in big trouble if snow suddenly turns to rain and you don’t have a waterproof raincoat. Tuck the waterproof shell away in your pack or sled.
Double up on clothing that might get wet: two sets of wool underwear, mittens, warm hats (a balaclava and stocking cap) and wool socks.
Small stuff disappears in snow, so take pre-emptive measures to prevent this. Tie colored plastic surveying tape (available at hardware stores) to small items that might get lost. Each patrol should use a different color. Your pocketknife and compass can be kept on a lanyard attached to your belt. A security strap for eyeglasses is important.
Days are short in winter, so plan accordingly. Every Scout should have an LED headlamp with lithium batteries. (Store it in a jacket pocket close to your body to keep the batteries from draining in the cold.) A candle lantern provides light and some heat in a quinzee or snow cave.
With some planning, a cold-weather camping trip might just be the ideal challenge for your Scouts.
Take this quiz to see if you’re ready to camp in the winter.
Check out these winter jackets to keep you warm.
I like the preventive measures to keep small items from getting lost, and color coding them by patrol. Neat technique!
Does color coding work for you in the dark?
In the early 1900’s, my mothers great aunt, as a very young girl in the North Dakota area was sleeping to close to the fireplace and in her sleep, rolled into it. Needless to say that she was scared for life. This was a open fireplace in a farmhouse, the kind that all used around that time, and when weather dropped below -0 degree’s, everyone would pack in the living room for comfort. It’s important to be observant of fire anywhere you have it. Stones around a circle of fire will not stop sparks from catching hair or anything else connected to you on fire… Not flammable on products is just a way to get your business…..the proof is in the pudding…..or in the sleeping bag.
Please send me info on camping and catguts
Want to learn more about having fun in cold weather? Cold Weather Leader Training at Northern Tier will train you to safely lead these adventures, and give you the chance to learn by doing! They have the gear, so look it up on their website.
Nice article. I use all of this tips when camping in the winter with my wife. Always take with myself the portable propane heater! Helps good!
Winter stove life hack: sandwich a plumber’s fabric flame protector pad (available at any hardware store or home supply centers) between two pieces of aluminum cut from the bottoms of pie tins. staple together or tape around the edges with aluminum foil tape. trim to the size of your stove base or wind screen. use under your stove to insulate snow from melting and reflect heat up to your pot. Light, cheap, durable, fireproof, packable.
Reflectix works well for a seat pad and undr stoves. We even use it to make pot insulators for when we’re cooking to retain heat.
If you have a water source near your camp site, such as a frost-free valve at a Scout Camp, dump all of your water before you go to bed. It is less work to re-fill containers in the morning than to deal with partly or completely frozen containers.
Our 12 man crew returned from a Philmont Winter Adventure yesterday. A great learning experience incorporating all of these tips and more, under the guidance of a very knowledgeable and experienced group of guides. I can think of few better ways to learn about Camping comfortably at -7F !!
Winter camping in NY state temp. below zero. We had fun sliding around on this newly frozen pond. Against my directions our heaviest scout wanted to slide down the steep hill and slide across the pond on his back. He weighed over 200 lbs and when he got to the bottom of the hill and hit the ice, he broke through and got soaked with ice cold water. It took the entire group in a tent and a fire to keep him warm until we got his clothes warm enough to wear and rejoin the group.
So if your scoutmaster says not a good idea remember he has more experience than you do.
Eat high-calorie foods are super important when it comes to winter camping!! Great tips!