Let’s Talk Winter Camping

posted in: ADVICE & TIPS, GEAR | 0

Winter camping sounds scary, cold and down right hard. However with the proper packing list, the right gear and a sense for adventure, winter camping can easily turn into a really rewarding experience.

Outter Limits Staff Nov 2019 Winter Camping at Southend in PA National Park

Why Go Winter Camping?

The idea of spending a night out in below zero temperatures is not for the faint of heart. However for the ones brave enough to explore a winter wonderland will experience many great benefits. Winter camping provides a quiet that can only be experienced in the winter, as the snow around you absorbs any excess sound, there is no bugs or crowds and you have your selection of the best campsites. Winter camping offers a unique experience one will not seek during the warmer months of the year. 

Winter Hiking in PA National Park

Preparing to the Spend the Night Outside 

Sleeping Systems

When preparing to sleep outside in the winter it is important to know how your sleep system works together. When talking about sleep systems we are referring to sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

When sleeping outside the R value of your mat will play a crucial part in ensuring you have a warm nights sleep. We transfer heat from our bodies to the colder temperatures of the ground by convection. The air inside the mat circulates and continuously draws the warm air and cold air to mix. Each mat has an R-value rating; which is a lab-measured value which determines the resistance to heat-loss through the sleeping pad. The higher the R- value the better the mat does at resisting the loss of heat. Mats can increase the R-value by adding insulation or other barriers inside the mat to reduce the amount of heat loss through convection. To add extra warmth during winter camping, consider adding a closed cell foam mat underneath. This will block heat loss through conduction, the transfer of heat from physical touch. When winter camping a mat with a R-value of 4 or higher is recommend, however if you combine two mats together you can add the values together.

When selecting a sleeping bag for your winter adventures be mindful of the temperatures you are expected to see. Many sleeping bags will have an EN rated temperature system. This will consist usually of three different categories: comfort, limit and extreme. In general, the comfort temperature rating is generally for individuals who sleep colder at night, this is an indication of the temperature this individual may perceive as comfortable. The limit temperature rating is associated with individuals who sleep warmer in the night, this is a temperature in which these individuals may feel comfortable at during the night. The extreme, in our opinion is a pointless temperature rating to include on bags, this temperature usually represents a degree in which an individual may not be able to sleep at night due to being so cold and risk of hyperthermia is prevalent. As always, it is super important to take these temperature ratings with a grain of salt. There are many factors involved in how each individual perceives cold including, how you feel, what you ate, what you are wearing plus more. It is recommended you select a sleeping bag at least 5*C lower than the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter. Important to note that EN ratings are tested on 1.5 inch closed cell foam mats that have a R- value of 2. In addition to having a warm sleeping bag, one may consider adding a second sleeping bag, blanket or sleeping bag liner to their system.

How to Sleep Warm

In addition to your sleeping system these are a few added tips and tricks to ensure you have a quality nights sleep to prepare you for the adventures ahead.

  1. Use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Though this seems weird to encourage you to get out of your warm cocoon of sleeping bags and blankets to leave to use the bathroom, trust us you will be much warmer if you do. By holding the muscles of our bladder that prevent us from going to the bathroom, we will begin to use energy our body requires to stay warm. The more energy your muscles need to stay contracted, the more energy we will loose. By getting up and relieving our bladders our energy can continue to be used towards keeping us warm. If you are brave, some people will bring an extra naglene or wide mouth bottle clearly marked to use inside their tents as a pee bottle. Don’t rely on colour as often our tents are dark and we wouldn’t want to mistake our water bottle for our pee bottle. We suggest using tape or other markers that can be identified by touch over sight.
  2. Create your own hot water bottle. Before bed add hot water into a tightly sealed water bottle and put it into your sleeping bag. This will increase the temperature inside your sleeping bag and help warm you up quicker. If you do this multiple times before bed the inside of your bag will be toasty warm when you enter.
  3. Make sure you go to bed dry. Have a separate change of clothes that will be strictly used for night. This includes socks and toques.
  4. Keep your face out of your sleeping bag. If your sleeping bag has a hood, cinch it closely around your face but do not block your mouth or nose. When we breathe we release moisture into the air, if we have our faces inside our bag we will create a damp environment inside our sleeping system.
  5. Try to avoid using a sleeping bag that is too big. If you find you have lots of excess space inside your bag consider adding extra clothes, or blankets to fill the dead air.
  6. Add a reflective blanket underneath your sleeping system. This is a relatively inexpensive way to block the cold from seeping into your tent. Important we do not want to put the reflective blanket inside our bag, as they do not breathe well and will create condensation inside our bag.

Preparing Your Camp Spot

Check before you go, know the rules for your designated camp area. Some places have restrictions on where and how you can set up camp.

Once you have read and understood the requirements for your said location, its time to set up camp. Before settling on a spot, determine where you plan to put a fire if one is allowed, where you will put your tent and where you will cook. Things to consider when selecting these spots are wind directions, exposure to snow fall and strength of trees. You want to make sure you are not putting your tent out in the open where wind willing be howling through, however you need to be careful that you don’t place it under a tree that is over weighted with loose snow that could come crashing down at any given moment. Taking the time to pick the proper spots will help ensure your adventure remains a positive experience.

After you have carefully selected your spots. You will want to flatten out areas in which you will be using. For your tent spot you will want to remove the majority of the snow underneath you to ensure you have a flat, even surface to lay your head down at night. Begin to clear an area only slightly bigger than your tent’s foot print. The snow walls created will provided added shelter from any harsh winds you may experience. Once the spot is set up, set up your tent (if this is the chosen sleep shelter). Using pegs to stake out the tent may prove to be difficult, you may want to consider bringing alternative methods to stake out your tent. It will also be important to guy line your tent out. This will ensure the tent fly remains tight and condensation does not build up inside the tent, it will also add strength to the tent in case of howling winds or heavy snow fall.

Having waterproof matches should be in everyone’s winter camping kit.
Camp Jobs are a Group Effort- Collecting water on a Frozen Kingsmere Lake

If your selected area allows fires, always use the fire pits that are provided. However, if you are in a location where there is no designated pits, you can create a spot by removing the snow. Once the snow is removed, place a layer of wood down on the ground, allowing for space between each log. Once the base is prepared, collect dead fall (trees that have already fallen and are dead) no bigger than the width of your wrist. Once you have collected enough to sustain your fire, build your fire using your favourite technique. To reduce the impact on the environment limit the size of the fire. Once you are finished with your fire, ensure it is fully put out by spreading the ashes out slightly and covering with water. Do not leave fires unattended.

In the process of selecting your camp spot, selecting how you will obtain water will be an important task. Since most water will be frozen, it requires a few more steps to gather. Before heading out it will be important to discuss with your group how you plan to gather water. If you plan to gather from a lake or stream, please ensure the ice is safe to walk on. If you plan to boil down snow to create water it will be important to ensure you have enough fuel to do so. Important to note, if you plan to boil down snow, start with a little water already in your pot so you don’t end up burning the base of the pot. Alternatively some people may chose to bring enough water from home to minimize having the gather water.

How to Dress for Winter Camping

One of the most challenging parts of winter activities is how to dress. The goal when we are outside especially in the winter is to stay dry and warm. This done by constantly adjusting our layers to prevent us from overheating and sweating and not having enough layers and being cold. It’s tricky, but it’s one of the fun challenges that we face winter camping.

For your clothing system, it is key that everything works together. There is no point in packing a layer in which it only works by itself. When you begin to pack start at either the top or the bottom so you don’t miss anything.

Socks– try to avoid cotton at all possible cost. Cotton holds moisture and does not dry quickly, having wet feet in winter could be detrimental. This rule applies to all clothing in the backcountry.

Baselayer (Top/Bottom)- Packing different thicknesses of base layers allow you to control your temperature better. It is important to pack a separate set for night time to ensure they are fully dry when bed time comes around. The best materials are either merino wool or a synthetic.

Mid-layer- When considering mid layers, you can choose from fleece, synthetic or down. It will be important to evaluate which characteristics are important to you. Fleece offers an instant warmth and cozy however doesn’t protect against wind well and doesn’t pack the smallest. Synthetic will handle moisture the best, it will maintain up to 80% of its warmth when fully saturated. Down will pack the smallest and offer the best temperature regulation, however will loose its insulating properties if it becomes wet.

Outer layer- This will depend on what type of weather you are expecting. If you are going in a relatively dry area without much moisture in the snow. You may want to consider a soft-shell. The breathability will be superior to that of a hard shell however you will sacrifice full water protection. If the temperatures are relatively mild and snow may be melting the added protection from a fully water proof layer may be superior. The addition of an extra insulation piece will also be important for winter camping. This jacket will be used when you are not moving around and creating lots of body heat.

Then final thing you will want to make sure you packed as accessories like toques, mitts, and a neck warmers. Always advise to pack an extra set in case one gets wet.

What to Pack for Food

1 Night for two Adults

When packing food it is always important you pack enough, but not too much. This becomes increasingly important if you are doing a backcountry trip where you need to be self reliant on carrying everything in. When picking food for winter camping it is important to pick foods that have high calorie intake, are not affected by freezing temperatures and provide a certain level of comfort. When selecting food don’t pick items that you don’t personally like but think would make for a good trail snack. For example- I am not a huge trail mix fan, though every blog I have read recommends that a good trail mix makes the perfect back country snack. I have brought it with me numerous times, thinking that I will eat it, but I never do. So now I pick snacks that I will eat. Remember you will need to increase your calorie intake to ensure you have enough energy to stay warm throughout the night. It is also a good idea to eat right before bed, so the calories are still there to make it through the entire night. I also always pack a luxury treat, after a hard day out in the backcountry, a nice rewarding treat with supper is always welcomed.

Always Check Weather Conditions and Hazards

Know before you go. This is the golden rule for any outdoor activity: check the conditions. Besides knowing the extreme temperatures you may be up against, stay on top of approaching weather systems and weather trends for the season and region, and research recent changes in terrain, trail closures, or similar hazards. Always establish a trip plan and inform appropriate parties of your whereabouts and anticipated return.

Safety Winter Camping

It is super important to be prepared in case of an emergency. Bringing a first aid, emergency blanket and a plan of action in case of emergency will be essential in survival. Unlike many accidents that occur during the summer, winter adds the added factor of temperature. You need to make sure you are properly educated on what to do to prevent added risk from extended exposure. Having the tools with you is only half the battle, you need to have the knowledge on how to use your first aid kit. We always recommend taking a first aid course before heading out to the back country. This is could be the difference of survival.

Advice from Staff

  • Always Check your gear before you leave – is everything in good working order, no rips, holes missing parts
  • If your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough, add a second bag or extra blankets
  • The hot water bottle tip works- try it out!
  • Make sure your layers work together, be realistic with what you need – careful not to over pack (but at the same time, careful not to under pack)
  • Plan your trip out- does hut booties or extra footwear make sense for your trip, or will you be carrying unnessacary weight

Packing List- Personal

Sleeping bag
Compression bag
Sleeping pad
Camp mug
Plate/ or bowl
Spoon, fork or spork
Personal snacks
Dry sleeping long underwear
Mid layer (fleece, lightweight puffy, wool)
Waterproof jacket
Waterproof pants
Gloves/ mitts
Liner gloves/mitts
Ski goggles (if super cold outside)
Warm socks (1 dry pair for night and 1 per day)
Warm, Waterproof Boots (if not insulated bring an extra pair of socks)
Hut Booties
Personal Hygiene Items
Chair or Seat Cushion
Camera, Binoculars
Trekking Poles
Garbage Bag to put around main bags to keep them dry

Packing List- Group

Hot Drinks
Stove/ Fuel
Water Filter
Pot Set
Cooking Utensils
Biodegradable Soap
Dish Clothes
Food Dry-sacks
First Aid Kit
Hand Sanitizer
Hand Warmers
Toilet Paper
Fire Starter
Lighter/ Matches