Chill Camping

November 7, 2009
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This year turned out to be a boom for camping, especially during the spring and summer. But now that the weather is cooling and fall becomes winter, some folks might think it is the end of camping. In reality, many people continue to camp year-round, finding that winter or snow camping has its own appeal despite the seasonal challenges.

For starters, typically less people camp in winter, which is appealing to many, as those who are outside have a beautiful winter landscape all to themselves. Winter is also a good time to enjoy viewing different wildlife species, and cross through areas that might be inaccessible during other times of the year. In winter, you can access areas by snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or sledding.

The main difference with camping during winter is realizing you will not be as physically comfortable as in warmer seasons. Everything you do around camp may be much slower due to the cold—and remember to take into account the reduced amount of daylight hours. The type of gear you bring along, as well as other preparations before heading out to the campsite, are also important. The more knowledgeable and prepared you are, the better time you’ll have being bundled up next to your fellow campers.

Once you decide you want to winter camp, it’s important to study up on the area in which you’ll be settling, to know the surroundings. Generally in winter, “campers have to be aware of avalanches,” says Kurt Wedberg, a long-time guide in the Sierra Mountains, founder and owner of Sierra Mountaineering International of Bishop, California. “If you’re going to an area that’s nice and flat, then there’s no problem, but if you have slopes above, check with the local management agencies or local guides.” Wedberg advises campers to consider taking an avalanche safety course before heading out.

If you’re camping in the snow, you will want to familiarize yourself with using maps or a GPS unit to help guide you. Ryan Riggs, a long-time winter and snow camper, has seen a lot of people still rely on trails covered with snow to guide them around during wintertime. “If you’re relying on a trail that’s in snow and you wake up to 6 inches of new powder, you’ve lost your guide,” he says.

Another good rule of thumb before heading out is checking the weather status. You could be planning your trip months ahead of time, so checking an almanac for the minimum and maximum weather temperatures can help you better determine the proper gear for the conditions.

Whatever gear you take or activity you do, it is important to remain warm at all times. If you allow yourself to become chilled, you cannot comfortably set up your tent, cook your food or have a good night’s sleep—and that’s no fun. During winter, “you’re dealing with moisture, and usually with temperatures that won’t allow you to dry quickly,” says Riggs.

How you layer during other seasons still applies to winter and snow camping, but the layers might be thicker or different in material. You could also be wearing more layers, especially when you go to sleep. The basic layering system is a close-to-skin base layer, followed by a insulating midlayer, and then an outer shell jacket that is waterproof and windproof. What you add in between these layers depends on how warm and comfortable you feel.

Whether natural or synthetic, technical clothing fibers have come a long way, but many people prefer wool, which has made a great comeback. “It stays warm and keeps you warm,” says Wedberg, whose personal preference is wool.

There is such a thing, however, as incorrect layering, which can magnify the cold you feel. “Too many warm layers can cause too much heat, and you can begin sweating,” Wedberg warns. “Then the consequences of cooling down are more severe than in the summertime. Ventilation is important.” This means being able to cool off certain parts of your body, like unzipping a swea­ter or pulling up your shirt’s sleeves—not taking off a jacket. Even something simple like wearing a V-neck baselayer can help to maintain body temperature and avoid getting too hot.

One material to avoid wearing all together is cotton. It traps moisture and takes longer to dry. “Cotton kills,” says Tim Loftus, a fellow camper and program manager for REI Weekend Getaways Vacations, which offers a number of trips this winter, such as its Sequoia winter camping trip. “If you are camping wearing cotton, you’ll have a much more difficult time staying warm,” he says.

It’s important for everyone in your party to have extra clothing, especially socks and hats. Heat escapes through the head and feet, so if you keep these areas warm you should be fine. Waterproof shoes will help keep socks dry, and shoes with Gore-Tex soles provide better traction on snow. Keeping your feet dry and warm at all times is key.

We all know that water helps us stay hydrated, but interestingly many snow and winter campers tend to lose their thirst during this time, and so may not think to drink enough liquids and not realize they are in danger of dehydration. This is especially true when camping at higher elevations. “In a colder environment, it’s a littler harder to feel the need to drink water,” says Wedberg. “Winter is a drier time, and hydration is very important to staying warm.”

During his outings, Wedberg calculates about 4 liters of water per day for himself, but the amount depends on the size of the person. On average, a person needs 1.5 to 2.5 liters per day. During winter, that changes from 2.5 to 5 liters per day, so be sure to have as much water as possible for each day. A good thing about snow is you can melt it in the event you need more water.

Food also contributes to energy, which in turn helps to heat the body. Have hot meals like chilies and stews, but also eat a hearty snack high in calories in between meals. “The killer with winter is, if your body winds up in a deficit of water or energy, it’s harder to recover,” says Jack Ballard, a long-time camper and contributor to Camping Life. Blood transfers energy, which then turns into heat and is sent to your body’s extremities. Less fluid consumption means the body is less efficient at transferring energy and heat.

A benefit to winter camping is that food won’t spoil. You can take along a variety of foods, because the snow around you can act like a fridge and keep things cold.

Setting up camp is the first thing you should do when arriving at the campsite, as there are fewer hours in the day. Setting up the tent should be first, because the earlier you set up your tent and prepare your sleeping bag, the more time the gear can retain heat from the day. Plus, all that moving around will help you stay warm.

Under mild conditions, a three-season tent could be fine, but it may be too ventilated and not sturdy enough to handle winter’s high winds and snow buildup. A better option is a tent that insulates and features nylon tent walls with minimal mesh, closeable vents, and a full-coverage rainfly. Using a footprint is also good. A tent with a vestibule is nice, because you can cook in that section to stay warm.

After the tent is up, set up your sleeping system, which starts with the sleeping bag. Bags made of Down are good at insulating, but Down has a difficult time drying quickly. Synthetic bags are popular because they hold thermal properties even when wet.

A good sleeping pad is a must, as it acts as a barrier between the cold ground and your body. If the pad is self-inflating, let the pad inflate itself right away, and add puffs of air right before going to bed. Some people prefer using a conventional air mattress, but Riggs advises against that type. “What’s bad is that the air ends up getting cold at night,” he says. “It’s better to have a minimal sleeping pad with enough height so your body doesn’t feel the cold.”

Like a tent, a three-season sleeping bag may not cut it in colder temperatures, but whether purchase a warmer sleeping bag or not, there are different things you can place inside the bag to add and retain warmth.

Some slip a bivy sack inside their Down sleeping bags because these sacks are waterproof and breathable. Others use fleece blankets, an insulated over-bag, or simply double up on sleeping bags. To keep feet warm at night, some campers take an extra step. They heat up water, fill it in a water bottle and place the bottle at their feet, paying close attention to ensure it does not leak. They also may stuff clothes or anything else inside to prevent the feet from getting too cold. Make sure your sleeping bag is the right size for your body to retain warmth, but you can consider a bag with extra length to place items by the feet overnight.

For setting up camp and many other things, a shovel is an important tool. It is especially good for smoothing out a snow base on which you will place the tent. Otherwise, when you go to sleep, your body will melt a deformation into the loose snow. When new snow forms, the deformation will make changing your sleeping position uncomfortable.

Depending on where you camp and the weather conditions, there are different guidelines or regulations regarding firewood. Some campsites no longer allow campfires, while others do not allow people to bring their own wood into the campground for fear of a spread of invasive species.

Once you know the rules of your campground, a good tip is to bring along some dry kindle, if permitted, and to start the fire on dry dirt instead of snow. Or, find wet wood early in the day and a place where it can dry out. A firestarter is a good way to kick-start a campfire.

These fundamental aspects of winter camping are what ultimately keep campers warm and comfortable in the cold and in snow. Winter camping may not be for everyone, and some may try it just once, but for many there’s something different and almost magical about being outdoors during this time of year.

“Snow camping can be one of the most beautiful times,” says Riggs. “If you are prepared for it, it’s awesome.”

From Camping Life’s November/December 2009 issue.

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