Winter Camping; How to Survive It

I have been winter camping a time or two. Four times, to be exact. Each time got a tiny bit more bearable, but at the end of the day — winter camping has not completely won me over. That said, I have learned a thing or five along the way. I am sharing these tidbits, not because I believe I have mastered the art of winter camping but because they might help you enjoy [tolerate?] the beauty of winter camping.

1. Everyone has their own version of “cold”.

Temperatures that I consider to be cold really aren’t that cold to some people, while other people will be shivering 15 degrees before I am. It’s all subjective. Be prepared for this when you’re planning and packing for your winter camping trip. Just because you favorite explorer is perfectly comfortable in a 10 degree sleeping bag when the nightly temperatures drop down to 5 degrees does not mean you’ll feel the same way. If you’ve never had to truly test out the temperature rating of your sleeping bag…bring two! No, seriously, pack extra! Extra puffy jackets, extra sleeping bags, extra candy bars!

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Yes, your bestie may have gone winter camping a bajillion times but if you’re operating on two different ends of the this-is-so-cold-my-teeth-hurt thermometer then their advice regarding packing may not be the best advice for you to follow. This may; however, make them the perfect person to snag extra gear from…especially if they are one of those people who can find a way to be comfortably warm in every possible scenario!

2. There is no such thing as “over prepared”.

No, seriously. When you’re winter camping it is almost impossible to take too many things along for the adventure! Since snow is an integral part of winter camping you might as well put it to use — pack a sled or snow tube with extra layers, extra sleeping pads/bags and extra food. Sure, you’ll survive without all the extras but why not make every aspect of the adventure as comfortable and enjoyable as possible!

When I’m “summer camping” or doing any other sort of backcountry exploring I tend to pack very lightly — I don’t want to carry more gear than necessary because of the weight. It’s a whole different ball game when I’m winter camping. First off, you don’t need to go very far into the backcountry to get the peaceful seclusion of an “off the grid” adventure so you’re not trudging along with extra weight for very long. Secondly, gear and food is much easier to carry when you’re pulling it on a sled behind you!

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[Extra Tip: Don’t blow your money on a fancy sled, make your own! It’s not a long term solution, especially if you fall in love with winter camping, but it will get you through your first few trips. Simply purchase a cheap kid’s sled, run some rope around the perimeter while leaving extra to stretch up to your waist. Next, use two sections of about three feet of PVC pipe to create poles that stem between your hips and the sled. Lastly, tie a knot at the end of the rope sticking out of the PVC pipe and attach a carabiner to each knot. This carabiner will be used to attach the sled to your hips via your packs waist strap. Voila, a cheap, effective sled for your first bout of winter camping! Just criss-cross the PVC pipes when you’re pulling the sled, it’ll give you more control.]

3. Get creative with your food!

Don’t let your streak of genius stop with your homemade sled…bring it into the kitchen, both before and during your winter camping expedition. Food just might be my favorite part of winter camping, simply because it can be so much more elaborate than food you take backpacking during the warmer months. There are not ferocious animals to be concerned about and the winter weather will definitely keep your food from spoiling. The only thing you do need to keep in mind is that your food will probably freeze in the chill of the night.

Now, going with the dehydrated meals you’ll find in the aisles of REI is technically an acceptable route for your winter camping food; however, do not be that person! Especially if you’re camping with a group and splitting up meals! Spend a little time preparing your meal at home and wow’ing your friends with the delicious meal you create. It just might make them a little more willing to share their layers or midnight snacks with you!

IMG_20160306_151715[a test run of “chicken + waffles” — we replicated this in the backcountry with some pretty serious success]

The key to a fantastic backcountry meal is planning ahead and doing most of the prep work in your own kitchen a few days before your adventure into the snowy wilderness. For example, if you’re going to make chicken quesadillas for your dinner in the backcountry chop and portion your toppings, sautee your veggies and cook up your chicken at least two days in advance. Dole everything out into their own resealable bags and toss it all in the freezer. Once your in camp all you need to do is build the quesadilla, fry it up over your cook stove and indulge. Bam, an extremely easy yet delicious meal in the backcountry. It’ll be one of the best meals you’ve ever had because you spent the day frolicking in the snow [aka: earning it]. Plus, it’ll earn you some extra adventure cred from your friends.

Of course, the food creativity cannot end with a crafty quesadilla! Let that be the catalyst for your indulgences in the backcountry. Chicken and waffles for breakfast? Boom, done. Pad thai? Shazam. Salmon pesto? No problemo. And I’m not kidding — I’ve watched all of these meals being flawlessly whipped up in the backcountry with little to no clean up courtesy of a little pre-planning and prep in the kitchen before the adventure even started.

4. Know your gear!

A lot of people like to live by the “never try anything new in the backcountry” but we don’t all have backyards to test our winter camping gear in so that may not be the best rule for you. [Another perk of winter camping, according to me, you get to pick and choose which rules you want to adhere to!] If you’re not in a position to test out every little niblet of your gear before you head into the wilderness, that’s okay. However, you definitely need to know how to use your gear in some setting. If you’ve never used a white gas stove do NOT let dinner time be the first time you attempt to warm up anything with it — chances are it will not work nearly as smoothly as you hope!

Trust me, I’ve been there and struggled so hard to attempt to do that! You’ll quickly lose all your adventure cred you were hoping to earn with a tasty dinner if you haven’t mastered the art of your cook stove!

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The technical aspects of your gear aren’t the only things I’m talking about here, though. Rather than just know what your gear is initially intended for make a point to know what your gear is capable of. An avalanche probe is meant to be used to find someone buried in a heaping pile of snow.

While I’ve used my avalanche probe many times I have never experience any aspect of an avalanche. Instead, I’ve used my probe to determine snow depth in a myriad of other situations. When we built our snow quinzees to sleep in we need to know how deep the snow was and create a marker for how high we needed to build up the dome. Enter, avalanche probe! While traverse along a ridge line that had a cornice we needed to know if we were on solid ground or an unstable slab of wind blown snow. Again, we dug out our avalanche probes. This is just one tiny example of how gear intended for one thing can be used in a whole slew of different ways. And this is exactly why you should know your gear — it’ll keep you safer and it’ll make your life easier!

5. You NEED to work together!

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork…blah, blah, blah. But, seriously. When you’re out in the backcountry with a group of people you will always end up relying upon each other for one thing or another. Pick your team wisely and then let them help you! I am of the female descent and sometimes I really, really hate playing my “girl card” but let’s be realistic — I cannot shovel nearly as much snow with my little shove as a whole passel of boys can shovel with their mighty shovels. You bet your booty I let them help me! But never just take someone’s kind heart and hard work without returning a favor…or a rice krispie treat.

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With winter camping, you cannot do it alone. If you’re out there learning how to survive the elements it is okay to reach out to your friends for help. Whether you’re asking to borrow gear before you leave home or you’re asking for help with that stubborn white gas stove — ask! Chances are the person you’re asking is going to be ecstatic to enable your adventurous life choice. Just always, always, always repay the kindness!

If someone is willing to take on the load of your extra gear when your sled breaks while trekking through Post Hole Central don’t just “forget” your gear is there! Take over all the sled weight and let them go play on the fun rollers that’s lead us all back to the car. Yes, it’s called teamwork and sometimes teamwork isn’t all fun but at the end of the day you’ll be glad you were there to help out…believe me! Winter camping might be cold but it is full of excellent opportunities to stir up those warm fuzzy feelings that come with being a nice person.

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So, there you have it, my list of random advice for your first [or fifth] winter camping trip. I stand by my “not an expert” status with great pride and I will always be able to say “winter camping; I hate you”. However, I just might like the snowy, silent wilderness enough to want to enable you into getting yourself out there to see it for yourself, just once. And then twice, when someone swears they’ll show you how to do it warmer. And quite possibly a third time, since you forgot to pack an extra XYZ last time…and so on and so forth.

Winter camping is a metric heap of work and there is a very narrow margin for error, but give it a chance. You just might be one of those weirdos who actually likes it. A lot. Which I won’t judge you for, I’ll just force you into being my winter camping spirit guide. Consider yourself warned.

About the Author

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Heidi Kumm

Heidi Kumm is a trail runner, world traveler, mountain climber, and all around adventure enthusiast. She is so stoked on adventure that she has made it her career as the owner of Adventure Feet First, a travel company that focuses on getting people outside to explore the world around them. Over the past years Heidi has spent months living abroad, volunteering around the world, living out of a van/car/truck, and finding new ways to explore on foot, by bike, or with a backpack. She has learned the ins and outs of self propelled exploration the hard way, so she's here to help us learn from her mistakes and to help us become more informed on how to make your own mistakes, safely.