Ten Winter Camping Tips

Winter Camping

A couple of weeks ago, I was winter camping up in the Ghost River Wilderness Area during an ice climbing trip to Alberta, Canada. With temps dropping down to -20°C or lower each night, I was quickly reminded of all those little winter camping tips collected over numerous high altitude mountaineering expeditions in the past. Looking after yourself in the cold can really make or break your trip. Below are ten tips to help you stay warm, dry, and happy on your next winter camping adventure.

1. Eat: If you wake up cold in the middle of the night, it is probably because your body ran out of fuel to keep you warm. I always have a snack at the ready in my sleeping bag that I can chomp on if I wake up in the middle of the night. If I get up to go to the bathroom, I always come back and have a small snack before going back to sleep. 

2. Hot water bottle: Fill one of your water bottles with hot water and throw it in your sleeping bag. It will help to keep you warm and help dry your gear. 

3. If you have to pee in the middle of the night, just get up and get it over with. The longer you hold it, the colder you will get as your body works to keep your pee warm and you won't be able to sleep. Guys can easily use a pee bottle so they don't have to get out of the tent. Top tip- put the pee bottle back in your sleeping bag to keep it from freezing (easier to empty in the morning) and to help keep you warm. Ladies- if you are a pee funnel master than go for it in the tent. I have tried and failed more times than I can count so I now just go outside and get it over with. 

4. Warm up BEFORE you get into bed. You can do this by drinking hot tea (be careful of how much you drink after a certain hour- see point 3). I run laps around my tent and do squats to get all warmed up, then jump into my sleeping bag.

5. Sleep with both a closed cell foam pad (RidgeRest) and a Therm-a-Rest beneath you. The closed cell foam pad will insulate you from the ground, while the Therm-a-Rest will provide comfort. 

6. Stuff all your clothes for the next day and your boot liners in your sleeping bag. Take any wet gloves and shove them down your shirt when you sleep. Gear is more likely to dry when in the warmth of your sleeping bag and surrounding yourself with clothes will keep you warmer, with less empty space to keep heated. 

7. Bring the right bag. In the Ghost, I slept in a -40°C sleeping bag and was toasty warm all night wearing just my Patagonia Cap 4 onesie. I brought four different bags into the Ghost that we were helping to test for Backpacker and I was very impressed with the water-resistant down one. With the frozen condensation accumulation you will inevitably encounter night after night, down sleeping bags can quickly wet out. I had this experience on Denali and even after only three days in the Ghost, my down bag was pretty wet when we got back to Calgary. Drying them out in the sun during the day helps if you are able to do so. 

8. Wear a hat and socks to bed. The hat keeps heat from escaping from your head, the place you lose the largest percentage of body heat. I keep a pair of wool sleeping socks in my sleeping bag to change into when I get into bed at night. Having separate sleeping socks ensures they will be dry and you can use them as activity socks on the last day. 

9. If you are in a deep snow situation like on Denali, shovel out a seating platform in your vestibule so you can easily remove your boots and other wet gear before getting into your tent. This platform will help keep snow out of your tent and protect your gear from getting unnecessarily wet.   

10. Liner gloves: I am always tempted to remove my gloves when I need to do a fiddly task such as tie my boots, put on crampons, or light my camping stove. I have gotten the screaming barfies just from trying to stuff my very cold sleeping bag using bare hands. Thin wool or some type of liner glove make all the difference to keeping your hands warm. I buy cheap ones from Target for this purpose.

Have any other winter camping tips you would like to share?

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