You've thought about it. You've pondered it. You may have been crazy enough to even try it. I am of course talking about winter camping. The term itself feels like an oxymoron. How does one go camping in sub zero temperatures in a world full of frozen water? Well, it is simple really. You just have to be prepared and carry a good attitude. If you do decide to spend a night or two in the cold, you will discover the richness of going winter camping in Saskatchewan.
I describe winter camping as a logistical challenge. You need extra gear and food, you need to keep your water from freezing, you need to stay dry, you need to make a fire, you need a place to sleep, you need to keep your boots from freezing and the list goes on and on.
Winter camping can be some of the most rewarding activities you do outside and will give you a different appreciation of the season. So to help you out, I am putting together a multiple part series on what you need to know before you head out.
In Part 1, I discuss the 7 problems you need to solve when winter camping. Once you have an understanding of these problems it will help you wrap your head around things like gear, location and other what skills you need to brush up on.
What you need to plan for:
This the where most people don't know where to start. What do you plan for ,and what do you bring and not bring? Winter camping requires much more gear than summer camping. You have to bring things that will allow you to survive. In the summer, you can often get away without certain pieces of gear, but in the winter it can be the difference between staying out and coming home or even worse problems. Plus, you need to think about how your gear will work in subzero temperatures. Things don't work as well when it mercury drops which can cause cascading problems.
I have boiled these problems down into 7 categories that you need to overcome. Each one in their own right could have another 1,500 words written about them, but I will try and keep it simple and to the point.
I've Got 7 Problems but Cold Feet Aren't One
Where are you going to sleep and most importantly how are you going to stay warm? It is easy to stay warm when you hiking into camp and setting it up. You are moving and creating heat. However, once you lay down for the night that is really where the cold can set in.
There are two different types of tents out there. They are either qualified as a 3-season tent or a 4-season (winter) tent. There are many differences between the two in how they are built and designed. 4-season tents are often quite expensive and might not be feasible with your budget, however you can still adapt a 3-season tent to work in colder temperatures but you will need to think outside the box a bit.
First problem, when you sleep, you breath - when you breath you create condensation. When enough condensation builds it can create a mini blizzard inside your tent as it builds against the walls of your tent. This can lead to your sleeping bag getting wet as it rains down. One easy and cheap way to fix this problem is creating a frost bib.
The other problem you will face is the cold of the ground conducting heat from your back. In order to stay warm you need to create a layer of air between your sleeping bag and the ground. I have an Exped sleeping pad that has kept me warm every night so far. I also double down and put down my summer Thermarest to get an extra layer of warmth.
Before laying down your tent, I recommend clearing out the snow underneath you. This is mostly due to comfort. I find that if I don't level out the ground, inevitably there is a lump of snow that pushes into my back.
Another issue you might face is snow or wind. If it snows enough or is windy enough it might be too much weight for your poles and you will wake up with a collapsed tent. To overcome this, choose where you put up your tent carefully. Choose a sheltered area that doesn't look like drifts form. Drifts are a sign that it is windy in that location. Look up at any trees above you and see if you can spot any widow makers. Don't set up under a dead or dying tree. If enough snow falls those branches won't be able to handle the weight and you can imagine what happens next.
Roasting hot dogs
You are going to burn a lot of calories when you are winter camping and therefore need to plan to eat more than you normally would in the summer. You also need to keep in mind that all your food will eventually freeze, so you need to bring the right ingredients.
I don't always rely on being able to make a fire to cook food. It might be too wet to get one started and there is nothing worse than eating a cold meal. I carry an MSR Pocket Rocket with 4 season fuel to make my meals. While having a hot dog over an open flame would be ideal, it just might not happen.
Food that is easy to bring and make while winter camping is things like granola bars, trailmix, dehydrated meals such as Mountain House, jerkey, or oatmeal. It's not about eating healthy while winter camping its about loading up on calories.
Try not to bring anything that can freeze solid and take a lot of effort and energy to heat up again. All these suggested options can be easily cooked or consumed with minimal effort.
Water freezes in the winter. A pretty obvious statement, but a real challenge. While eating snow seems like a good idea, it will actually dehydrate you so it isn't a good way to beat your thirst.
So how do you keep water from turning into ice when it is below freezing outside? Well, there are a few options.
1) You can keep your water inside your jacket where your body heat will keep it from freezing. This can be uncomfortable so I wouldn't put more than a litre inside your jacket. Make sure the container you use is 100% sealed!
2) Melt snow with your stove. This is another reason I carry my pocket rocket. You can quickly and easily melt enough snow to make drink when you need it.
3) Carry a thermos full of water. This is another great option but will increase your weight so there is a tradeoff. Keep in mind, even over enough time your Thermos can freeze.
4) Sleep with your water in your sleeping bag. Before you go to bed, melt the water you need for the next day and put it in something you know won't leak. Then place it at the foot of your sleeping bag. Your body heat will keep it from freezing over night.
5) Bury your water bottle in snow upside down. This can work in more mild temperatures but it isn't fool proof. Essentially, the air in the snow will act as an insulator and keep your water from dropping below zero. Kind of like a mini igloo. Make sure to mark where you buried it with a stick.
6) Use a bladder and hand warmers in an insulated bag. This can help delay the freezing process enough throughout the day to keep your water liquid. However, don't count on this working in extreme temperatures.
4) Staying Dry
It is hot!
You will be amazed at how quickly you can work up a sweat even in very cold temperatures. Staying dry is one of the most important things you can do while winter camping. Once you get wet or damp it can be nearly impossible to dry out again. So to stay dry you need to think about how you can manage your heat. The best way to do this is layers.
Don't grab the thickest and heaviest parka you have and toss that on. You'll be regretting it immediately. To stay dry you need to think about how you are going to manage both sweat and snow. Here is my layering system:
Wool long johns
Ski pants with vents
Wool socks (always two extra pairs in my pack in a ziploc bag)
A light running shirt (something that dries out easily)
A heavier wool sweater
Down jacket with hood and vents
The way this is built is for me to be able to shed and add layers as I need them. I also want the ability to vent air when I need to so when I bought my jacket and ski pants I made sure they had vents.
When winter camping it is important to remember to not over exert yourself. It's not about getting their fast, its about getting there dry. If you find you are working up a sweat, take a break and open up your jacket. Control the heat as much as possible.
A good tip is to start your hike a little cold. Often in the first 500 meters of any hike people are already ditching clothes once they start moving and heating up!
DO NOT WEAR COTTON - COTTON WHEN WET SUCKS HEAT FROM YOU!
Drying out logs for the fire.
Building a fire in the winter can either be just as easy on a warm summer day or it can be just hard as starting one in the pouring rain. It really depends on how much snow is on the ground, your access to wood and how much kindling you can find. Here a few tips.
You can find a good supply of kindling by breaking off low lying and dead branches off of pines and spruce trees. Look for trees that are covered in tree beard or witch's beard. It's the green stuff you see dangling from branches. It is some of mother natures best firestarter. Look for birch tree bark as well. It is easy to spot. Make sure you collect as much kindling as possible, you will need to use it to sustain your fire until it gets enough heat to thaw out larger logs.
To thaw out larger logs arrange them in a circle around your fire so they are "pre-heated" before you place them in. They often will have a bit of snow and ice on them. This will smoke out your fire if you don't try and dry them first.
I also suggest bringing man-made fire starters like cotton balls soaked in wax or even just newspaper to help the process.
Keep your lighter in a pocket that will get body heat. Your lighter fluid has a tendency to not work as well when it gets cold.
Pulking my way along.
Winter camping requires a lot of gear. This means a lot of weight. Trudging through the show with a 70 pound bag doesn't sound fun or feasible. That is why you will need to develop either a toboggan or pulk system to carry your gear.
It is much easier in the winter to drag your gear over the snow than it is to try and lug it on your back. My winter gear weighs about 65 pounds with water.
To make a pulk system is quite easy. You need a sled, mine is a JetSled that I made a harness system with. I wrap everything up in a tarp so that way it keeps every dry and contained within the sled. You don't want to get to camp to only realize you left your tent on the trail four kilometers back!
I will be posting more information on my pulk in a future post so stay tuned!
7) Frozen Gear
This bag is full of treasures
Your gear won't work as well in the cold. Cold zaps the life out of batteries, freezes boots into ice cubes and makes gas less powerful. You need to manage your gear to keep it usable. To combat frozen gear you need heat and out in the wilderness there are only two places you can get heat from. A fire and your body.
A fire can help you dry out some gear, but you run the risk of burning it if you aren't careful. It only takes seconds to burn holes in a sock so you need to be extremely careful when using fire to dry out or thaw gear. Don't just walk away from it and expect everything is going alright. My girlfriend lost a pair of socks on the trail doing this on one back country trip. If you destroy your gear you have now created more problems for yourself. More problems can compile into catastrophic ones.
Your body is nature's heater and can be used to keep warm gear. When I winter camp you will find my pockets full of all sorts of things I want to keep warm. Such as a spare set of batteries, my lighter, and when it comes to cooking I will put my fuel into my pants to warm it up to help with the vapor pressure. It's as comfortable as it sounds.
The other problem you need to solve is when it is bedtime. What do you do with all the gear you won't be sleeping in? First, you want to try and go to bed dry. All your gear should be as dry as possible before climbing into bed. The reasons are simple, if you go to bed wet you'll wake up frozen.
Gear you can't hope to dry completely is your boots. To combat this problem, I will put them in a heavy duty garbage bag and put them in the foot of my sleeping bag. If you have ever had to put on frozen solid boots you will know why I do this. Frozen boots can lead to frozen toes very quickly. I also will bring into my sleeping bag my headlamp, fuel, spare batteries, my extra socks, lighter and mitts. Your body heat will keep them toasty for the morning.
Want to learn more? Read Part 2 and Part 3 for more information.