10 Winter Camping Rules To Live By
My buddy Mike Langlois joined me on a frozen Wisconsin River island above Tomahawk for our first
winter camping trip. Starting out it was 35°F, so for gear we had summer sleeping bags and a canvas pup tent. What
did we know? We were just 12. That night
a norther’ blew in from the Arctic dropping temps
into the minus digits. Had Mike and I geared for –30°, we could have slept all night rather than jogging inside
flimsy sleeping bags trying to keep our blood solid. Luckily, this experience did not turn me off winter
camping. But it did teach me a valuable lesson.
First rule of winter camping: Plan for the coldest possible temperatures in your area. Whether
it starts in October or ends in April, winter can be brutal. The most important thing about winter camping is
planning. In the summer, make a mistake like getting wet and you can survive. But get soaked at 20°, and you’re in
trouble. Through trial, error and study, I’ve found camping at –10°F can be comfortable with the right gear. And what’s not to like
about winter? No bugs and no need for food refrigeration – just the challenge of surviving the elements.
Second rule: Winter camping begins with a good night’s rest. Camping, as opposed to
day-tripping, means sleeping outdoors. Proper gear and proper preparation dictates the difference between jogging
in the bag or snoozing until sun-up. I’ve now got a sleeping bag rated for –30°. The fill is synthetic – if it gets wet it will still provide some warmth, unlike
goosedown. If there’s snow on the ground or in the forecast, that bag goes with me. No snow, and I can get
along fine with my 20° bag. Underneath me, I leave the snow. If there’s no snow, I gather up dry leaves or
grass. Atop this goes a vapor barrier. I use two, one a large 8’x10’ plastic sheet and the other a 5’x7’
plastic/aluminized blanket. These foil blankets, which can be purchased at most sporting goods stores or
through outdoor catalogs, reflect warmth toward you and cold away from you. I generally take two and
sometimes three of these foil blankets with me on every cold weather trip. Folding the foil blanket in half
with one aluminum side down and the other up, I tuck my self-inflating camp mat (commonly known as a
"Thermarest") between the fold.
Third rule: To tent or not to tent? Your decision. Most any kind of tent will generally keep
the winter camper 10 to 20 degrees warmer than going without one. They hold some body heat, prevent wind from
stealing precious warmth and keep snow off bags and gear. A number of manufacturers make four-season tents. They
are pricier than summer tents because they are made out of stronger materials and have special air ventilation
systems to prevent frost build-up. If you plan to buy a winter tent, get the next size larger. So for two people,
get the four-person model. You’ll need the extra space. Winter sleeping bags are bigger and you’re wearing more
clothes. With a sleeping bag to match conditions, however, tents are not necessary in the winter. My coldest trip
of –40° was on a plastic mat with nothing but the stars above. Had it
snowed we would have pulled a piece of nylon over the top of us.
Fourth rule: Liquid intake is critical in winter camping. It’s a white desert out there! Dry
winter air saps internal water reserves – especially while cross-country skiing, fishing, or hiking.
Drinking liquids will help keep you warm. If your urine turns dark or if your body feels cold, you may not be
drinking enough. Unless I am away from base camp, I keep hot water on the fire. Hot tea with a dried orange
drink is my favorite refresher. On expeditions away from camp, I carry water in either a wineskin-type bota
or a plastic bottle. I place these under my jacket in a pocket or on a shoulder strap where body warmth will
keep it from freezing.
Fifth rule: A good night’s rest depends on more than just a sleeping bag. In the sleeping bag
before shut-eye, I eat a candy bar. The fat energy released keeps the body warmer and allows me to sleep better.
Take off all clothes except long johns and socks and put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag or stuff them in a
sack and use for a pillow. Shove your leather boots and water bottle under your sleeping pad to keep them from
freezing. I wear my mukluk or pac-boot liners to bed. Body warmth inside the bag will dry the felt. Two twelve-hour
chemical hand warmers placed in the sleeping bag before going to bed warm it up, and once I get in the bag, I move
one to underneath my back and the other to my feet. I don a wool cap and wool gloves and zip myself in. Winter’s
elements are now outside.
Sixth rule: The hardest thing about winter camping is getting out of bed. Mornings will
generally be the coldest time of the day. Be it 10° or –20°, it’s hard to face the reality of leaving a warm nest. While
still in the bag, I drink from my water bottle, eat another candy bar, stretch in place and start putting on
all my clothes. When my hands get cold, I grab the hand warmers. With a warm coat on, I swing from the bag
and put on my boots. The night before, I readied a pile of wood for the first fire of the morning. I light it
and enjoy my first cup of hot coffee or cocoa while preparing breakfast.
Seventh rule: Prepare nearly all your food at home and make twice as much as you normally eat.
Regardless of how much I eat on winter trips I always lose weight. Plan easy-to-fix foods in disposable
lightweight containers. Aluminum foil makes cooking easy. At home, I’ll wrap ham-and-cheese bagels or bacon in foil
to cook on the coals or over the grill. And for dinner, my favorite meal is bacon, meat, onions, green pepper and
spices wrapped in foil. Ziploc bags also make preparing ahead easy. For breakfast, just add hot water to a
bag of cereal and dry milk. Or for dinner, drop a zipped bag of frozen spaghetti into boiling water until thawed.
Make sure to take along plenty of snacks such as candy bars and trail mix to munch on for quick energy throughout
Eighth rule: Keeping warm during the day depends on your clothing. Technology has provided
today’s winter camper with more and better choices than cotton and wool. Polypropylene, a synthetic fabric, holds
little moisture and actually moves body dampness away from the skin into outer clothes. I start with polypropylene
underwear tops and bottoms. Next comes a wool or polyfleece shirt and pants. Synthetic fleece has many of the same
qualities as wool but must be carefully used around a fire since it melts. Wool and fleece are great insulators but
fail to stop wind from reaching the skin, so the next layer needed is a lightweight wind jacket and pants. I
recommend nylon or a Gore-Tex type material which allows body moisture to escape while preventing snow and rain
from reaching the skin. The last layer may be the most important. That’s the parka or heavy coat. I recommend a
synthetically filled winter coat that goes to the waist or slightly below since a longer coat keeps warmth in the
body core where it is needed most. All these layers trap body heat and moisture. They function best when dry. Allow
body moisture to escape by shedding layers when physical activity demands. One final note about clothing: Raingear
goes on every trip with me regardless of the forecast. Moisture robs heat, a loss one cannot afford in the
Ninth rule: Take care of your extremities with the proper hats, gloves and boots. Seventy
percent of heat loss can come from your head, so a good hat must provide warmth and wick moisture. I believe in
being prepared and take a musher’s hat, wool watch cap, fleece headband and fleece balaclava. By taking three pair
of wool-fingered gloves, I ensure there’s always a dry pair. Chopper mitts with fleece mitten inserts are used for
extreme conditions and collecting firewood. Footwear is as important as headgear. If your feet freeze you’ll have a
rough time getting home. Purchase the warmest and lightest boots available. Buy them big enough for at least two
pair of heavy socks with room enough to wiggle your toes. I take two pair of boots on every winter trip. One is a
lightweight mukluk good for –30°. Should these get wet, I can switch to a pair of more
waterproof pac boots with felt liners. I carry an extra set of liners that can either go into the mukluk or
the pac boot. On several trips I’ve submersed one pair of boots in water and had to switch. Buy the best
quality wool socks on the market. In fact buy four pair and bring them with you. Wear two pair and keep two
in reserve. Wear them to bed, as they’ll dry out on your feet while sleeping.
Tenth rule: Have fun! Lest you think winter camping is all work and no play… What’s there to do for fun on a
winter camping trip? Plenty! Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking the backcountry and ice-fishing to name just
a few. Ever play tennis ball golf? Get a few old golf clubs and some new red tennis balls. On a wind-swept lake,
plot out holes with sticks or rocks. Hit the balls toward the holes. Make your own rules. My son and his gang of
Boy Scouts shoveled off a hockey rink every winter outing we ever went on. Kids without sticks used snow shovels.
They played from sun-up to sundown. We scoutmasters put our ice fishing tip-ups a distance from the field of play
and refereed from the sidelines until a flag popped.
One final word. Getting all this gear to a backwoods camp may seem like a daunting task fit for only the most
rugged expeditionists. You do have to be in good physical shape to face the rigors of winter camping. Unless you’re
going to a drive-in site, you may be hauling this gear several miles. I use a plastic children’s toboggan that’s
about four feet long and a foot wide. I pile the heaviest gear on the bottom, cover it all with a tarp and fasten
it with bungee cords. And of course, always let a friend know where you are going and your expected time of return.
Properly planned for, winter camping can be one of the finest ways to enjoy the beautiful landscape here in
Comfort camping in the cold
Writer and outdoorsman James Bishop prefers the rugged approach to winter camping, sometimes even sleeping under
the stars without a tent. He takes two or three foil blankets along on every trip. For those a little more fond of
their creature comforts, Carl and John’s Paddlin’ in Madison rents tents and wood stoves suitable for winter
camping. Space All Weather Blanket 5’x7’ blanket; 12 oz. radiates 80% of body heat back to you $11.95 at REI
608-833-6680 www.rei.com 8’x10’ Snowtrekker tent suitable for two people 3-day
rental, $50 Carl & John’s Paddlin’ 800-386-1299 www.paddlin.comFour Dog wood stove for heating and cooking 3-day
rental, $35 Carl & John’s Paddlin’ 800-386-1299 www.paddlin.com