Camping in the snow can be a magical experience. (Albeit, a cold one.) While camping in the summertime is definitely the easier option, a trip to the backcountry in the winter is certainly a sight worth seeing. There are some risks that come with snow camping, so you’ll want to do your research ahead of time and be prepared.
Here, we’ve rounded up some tips to help make your first cold-weather camping trip a positive one.
Spontaneous camping/backpacking trips may be a regular occurrence for you, but snow camping is a different can of worms entirely.
Heading out for a backcountry trip in sub-zero temperatures without proper preparations can be extremely dangerous. Take the time to plan out your trip – gear, food, and route. Most importantly, inform someone of your whereabouts and when you expect to return.
Check Your Gear
There’s a time and a place for packing light, but snow camping isn’t one of them. Before hitting the trail, you'll want to run a thorough gear check to make sure you have everything you need to stay warm and safe.
In addition to your regular camping/backpacking gear, you’ll want a warm sleeping bag with a waterproof stuff sack, a sleeping bag liner, a sleeping pad (with an R-value of 3.5 or higher), a four-season tent, snow stakes, and a stove suitable for cold weather (liquid fuel/white gas stoves tend to be best).
When it comes to clothing, think layers. You’ll want a moisture-wicking base layer, a warm middle layer, and a wind and moisture barrier for your outer layer.
Bring an extra base layer to throw on in case it’s especially cold. You’ll also want a hat, a gator, two pairs of wool socks, two pairs of gloves/mittens, sunglasses, waterproof boots, and snow shoes/poles if you plan on hiking in heavy snow. Pack extra layers if you tend to run cold – it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Be Selective When It Comes to Campsites
Where you choose to set up camp for the night can make or break your trip. When it comes to choosing a site, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Look for potential risks such as damaged trees/limbs and avalanche zones. Select a spot that’s sheltered from the wind and that offers the earliest exposure to the morning sun (this will help you warm up much quicker). If your only option is an exposed campsite, dig a 1-2 foot hole beneath your tent to reduce wind flow. You’ll also want to note distinctive landmarks to help you find your site at night or in a snowstorm.
Once you’ve found the perfect spot, pack down the snow where you plan to pitch your tent. If it’s windy, consider building a snow wall around your tent for added protection. Another option for a warm night’s sleep is building an igloo or snow cave – both are great options but can be dangerous should they collapse. Do your research or build alongside an experienced snow camper to ensure you stay safe.
When camping in the snow, you’ll want to consume more food and water than you would normally. Cold winter air is dehydrating – even though you may not feel thirsty it’s important to continuously sip water throughout the day. If fresh water sources are available, bring a filter and use that water for drinking and cooking. If liquid water isn’t readily available, you’ll have to melt snow. Gather clean, white snow and add it to your pot with a little water. As the snow melts, add more until the pot is full.
Food is your fuel, so it’s important to bring plenty of snacks on cold weather trips. When planning your meals, keep it simple.
You’ll want calorie-rich meals that are quick and simple, such as freeze-dried meals. The less prep and dishes required means the less time you’ll spend shivering in the cold. For lunch, you’ll want quick meals and easy snacks – sandwiches, salami, trail mix, and protein bars are all good options.
You’ll also want to pack some warm beverages, such as tea and coffee, to warm up with in the mornings and evenings.
Prepare for the Worst
Camping in cold weather comes with inherent risks. Carry a cell phone or satellite phone so you can reach out for help should an accident occur. If you’re hiking in an area where avalanches are a possibility, you should carry an avalanche transceiver, probe, and snow shovel and know how to properly use all three.
Should someone in your party experience hypothermia, you need to be ready to treat it. Move the person out of the cold, remove wet clothing, put them in a sleeping bag, and give them warm, non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages. If you can’t get the shivering under control, get into the sleeping bag with the affected person for added body heat.
If you believe you are suffering from frostbite, seek out a warm shelter as quick as possible. Submerge the affected area in warm water (not hot) or place a warm washcloth on the affected area. Resist the urge to rub your skin as doing so may result in long-term damage.
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