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Winter Camping Guide (10 Tips for Safe Cold Weather Camping)

It might be rainy. And it might be windy. Or it might be snowy. But winter is no doubt one of the most gorgeous times of year to go camping. Cold? Sure. Beautiful? Absolutely. From rain-fed streams to snowy forest tundras, the ethereal quality of the winter landscape is more than enough to draw campers out into the harsh elements.

But survival in those elements—even for a day or two—is not something to be taken lightly. There’s a quote from the Richard Adams book, Watership Down: “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.”

If you don’t pack the right essentials for a winter camping trip, you’ll probably be too cold or uncomfortable to really enjoy the scenery. You could even find yourself in a life-or-death struggle against the elements. Follow these tips and tricks when you go winter camping:

1. Get to know the area you’ll be camping in

Before you go camping, you should familiarize yourself with the place you’re going camping at. Get a map of the area. A map will give you the area’s topography, and it might chart roads, trails, and camping sites. You can find digital maps on the Internet, but it’s recommended you bring a printed map with you on your trip in case you lose Internet access. If you’re going camping at a national park, visit the park’s website to learn valuable information about park rules and safety.

Know what your camping site’s weather will be like. Cold weather camping is defined as going camping when the average temperature outside is less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if it won’t be raining or snowing, you might still need to bring gear that’s built for colder weather.

2. Bring waterproof camping gear and a survival kit

Here’s a quick lesson about keeping warm. When you’re in a cold environment, your winter coat doesn’t actually generate heat. Your body generates heat (after all, your body is just a walking sack of chemical reactions). Winter clothing is designed to trap air in between your clothes and your body. The trapped air—called “dead air”—is heated by your body, and it’s the heated air inside your clothes that keeps you warm.

If your gear is too tight, there won’t be any space for dead air to be trapped. If your gear is too loose, the dead air can escape from your clothing. You need gear that fits you well—not too tight and not too loose. Don’t forget to bring headgear! You can lose up to 70% of your body heat through the head.

Wet clothing will quickly drain your body heat and could lead to hypothermia. For that reason, waterproof gear is essential if you’re going snow camping or if you’re camping in rainy weather. Everything from your gear to your tent to your food storage should be resistant against water.

Remember that snow is just a solid state of water, so be sure to bring waterproof gear on snow camping trips. If your sleeping bag is going to be placed directly on the snow, you should place a foam pad underneath to block some of the cold.

A survival kit is also a winter camping essential. You’ll never know what might happen on a camping trip. Your campsite could get hit by a blizzard or storm, or you could get lost. A survival kit is an all-in-one backpack that holds a number of essential items that’ll help you survive while you try and seek a safe shelter or rescue. The best survival kits hold everything from food rations to radios to tools. Ideally, you’ll never have to use a survival kit. But you should always take one on a camping trip given the unpredictable situations that can occur out in nature.

3. Add or remove layers of clothing when you switch activities

If having multiple layers of clothes keeps you warmer, shouldn’t you wear lots of layers for the duration of the camping trip?

Not necessarily. If you’re wearing excessive layers when you’re hiking, you’re bound to start sweating. Sweating too much does two bad things: it gets your clothes wet, and it dehydrates you. When you’re being active, it’s best to reduce your layers. When you’re inactive, it’s best to don more layers.

It’s best to wear layers that can be unzipped. When you’re hiking, you can unzip your jacket and keep heat from building up too much under your clothes. When you’re resting, you can zip back up again to preserve heat.

4. Wear bright clothing for visibility

Bright camping gear is perfect for when you’re camping in the snow or in rainy weather. Snowy landscapes are predominantly white, and so bright colors are more easily visible. If anyone gets lost, you’ll be able to spot them right away. Rainy weather will reduce visibility around your campsite, and so bright gear will also help you spot members of your party.

If possible, you should bring bright camping gear, too. If you wander away from your campsite, it’ll be easier to find the campsite again if, let’s say, the tent is a bright color.

5. Stay active and hydrated

When you’re camping in cold weather, your biggest struggle will be against the cold. Remember that your body generates more heat when you’re being active. When you’re feeling a little cold, try doing light exercises (like jumping jacks) or going on a hike. Isn’t hiking the most fun part about camping, anyway?

But, as mentioned in Tip #4, you should wear the appropriate layers so you won’t sweat too much. You also need to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can ultimately lead to hypothermia.

6. Dig ditches to capture or redirect water, or for shelter

The nice thing about winter camping is that you might have a plentiful supply of natural water. This might not be such a big deal for shorter trips, but it’s important for longer trips or trips where you’re hiking a great distance. If you can get lots of water from the environment, you won’t have to carry so much in your bags. You’ll cut down on your carrying weight and have more overall energy.

If you’re snow camping, you can easily capture water by digging a ditch. Place a trash bag over the ditch and anchor each side with a pile of snow. The snow will melt and wash down into the ditch, where you can collect it. Water obtained from snow does not have to be purified. Do not eat snow: it takes too much energy for the body to transfer solid to liquid. Let it melt or boil it first.

If you’re camping in rainy weather, you can obtain water by collecting rainwater or water from a river, stream, or lake. You’ll have to purify this water.

While ditches are especially helpful in snow camping, they might also come in use when the weather gets very poor:

  • When you’re snow camping, you can dig a ditch in the snow (so long as the snow is deep enough) and use it to shelter yourself from high winds.
  • If you’re camping in an area that’s raining heavily, you can dig a ditch to redirect water away from the campsite so it doesn’t flood.

7. Bring food that’s easy to cook, carry, and metabolize

Food can be either the hardest or easiest aspect of winter camping to deal with. Avoid fresh food, like fruit, vegetables, and eggs. These foods are heavy and they contain water, so they’re more susceptible to freezing. The exception would be cheese, butter, and meats. Be sure to pack:

  • Dry foods
  • Baked goods
  • Freeze dried foods

Remember that water is the easiest thing for you to cook. Try and have meals that can be consumed in a cup: oatmeal, granola with hot milk, hot jello, hot chocolate, etc.

So far as metabolism goes, try and stick to foods that don’t take so much energy to break down. At least half of your diet should consist of:

  • Simple sugars
  • Complex carbs

Do some research on easy camping recipes before you go, and understand the caloric requirements you’ll have based on your winter activities.

8. Equip your vehicle with chains, a tow strap, and survival gear

Snow campers should equip their vehicle with tire chains. You don’t want your car slipping and sliding across icy roads. Tire chains will give your car added traction.

Also stache a tow strap in the trunk of your vehicle. When you’re winter camping, you’ll most likely need a tow strap if your vehicle or another camper’s vehicle gets stuck in deep snow or damp mud. A quality tow strap will be more than enough to haul your vehicle out of bad terrain. When you’re not using a tow strap for towing, you can also use it for various purposes around your campsite.

You should always keep a portable jump starter and USB charger in your vehicle. Your vehicle is a safe haven, capable of giving you a tight shelter and whisking you away from unpleasant weather. Have a portable jump starter on hand to give your vehicle a kick if it needs one. There may be less campers in winter months, and so less available vehicles to jumpstart you if your battery fails. The ideal jump starter could also provide power for your electronic devices, too. You’ll want to call for rescue if you’re in trouble—but you won’t be able to with a dead phone battery.

Finally, you should store extra survival gear in your vehicle. You really can’t have too many of them. Even when you’re not camping, you might unexpectedly find use for your survival gear should you get stranded in an uninhabited area.

9. Avoid camping in areas where there’s flood or avalanche risk

Avoid setting up a campsite in areas where there’s a clear risk of flooding or an avalanche. This is mostly a risk in areas that have been persistently snowing or raining.

Avalanches occur mostly on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Don’t set up a campsite at the bottom of such a slope, especially if the snow appears loose and weakly packed.

Also avoid setting up a campsite directly next to a lake or river if there is lots of rainfall. Camping next to a water source is truly one of the most fun parts of the camping experience. But, during heavy rainfall, you’ll want to give yourself a wide buffer area between your campsite and the water source so that floodwater doesn’t overrun your campsite.

10. Safely dispose of all waste

Finally, let’s talk about the dirty stuff. All campers should strive to practice “leave no trace” camping; that is, leaving your campsite as natural and undisturbed as you found it. Make sure to pick up all your trash. To reduce trash waste, try and bring reusable containers for food. Don’t dump food scraps on the ground. Certain food might not be healthy for some animals, and these animals could get sick if they eat the scraps you’ve left.

As for human waste, bury it at least six inches deep and away from any water sources. If you’re camping in the snow, try and bury human waste underneath the soil, not just underneath the snow pack.

There are certain dangers to winter camping, but don’t let those deter you from the experience. There’s nothing quite like experiencing nature in the midst of the winter season. Remember that 40.5 million Americans went camping at least once in 2016. So long as you bring the right equipment and prepare for each risk, you’ll surely enjoy this activity that millions of folks do every year.

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