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Alpine, Survival / March 1, 2016

Winter Camping/ Survival Basics

Written by: Andrew Slaton

Believe it or not, it is possible to be comfortable while winter camping. The key is being prepared. After all, if you’re attempting to brave the elements at -20F, being prepared is crucial for more than just comfort, it’s necessary for your survival.

The first ingredient to successful winter camping is clothing. A quality base layer is essential. Nowadays, capilene or merino wool are the standards. Both are relatively lightweight and incredibly effective. Next, it’s time to layer up… liberally.  If you get warm, you can always discard layers. But if your core temp dips too low, extraction and artificial heat will be your only means of staving off hypothermia.

There are a few different outer layer options that will depend on where you plan to be outside. Down jackets are becoming lighter and warmer every year, and are a great option. But if the wind will be a major factor, heavy canvas is a good bet. For the extreme cold, you can even use the down jacket underneath a canvas carhart style. Keeping your core warm is of utmost importance. But there are two other key areas of the body that if not properly insulated, will never allow your core to stay warm… your outer extremities, and your head.

If you’re like me at all, male pattern baldness isn’t doing you any favors in this regard. But even our more follically blessed brothers and sisters will need a proper hat to keep the warmth in. You see, cold is not our enemy. It is the loss of heat. And we loose most of our body heat through the top of our head and our outer extremities, i.e. hands and feet. A tightly nit wool hat that covers your ears is the way to go. And since wool can be a bit itchy, I recommend a fleece lining on the inside for comfort. Next, a good pair of well insulated gloves that also keep the wind from stealing your warmth can make all the difference.

Perhaps the most important of these is socks and shoes. You really cannot over prepare when it comes to keeping your feet warm. Heavyweight wool is great for socks, but you will do well also to find a waterproof boot. There is no amount of wool sock that can keep your warmth in if your feet get wet from the snow. Muck style boots are versatile, you can wear them in any season, and perhaps your best bet to keep dry.

There is so much more you can get in to regarding proper clothing, and I would recommend going to a reputable outdoor retailer like REI, find a knowledgeable associate, tell them your plan, and see what new products are out there that will help you achieve your goal of staying warm, comfortable, and alive.

Now, on to the camping bit. Here are a few key pieces of gear that are absolute musts. A four season tent, 0 degree sleeping bag (at least), snow shovel, fire starter, sleeping pad.

A good all weather/ all season tent is going to be the first line of defense from the elements robbing you of your warmth, and a good night’s sleep. I’ve camped several times in the unforgiving winter in the Rockies in 2 or 3 season tents, and it can be quite miserable. A four season is going to have only very small (and covered) mesh windows. They are there simply for ventilation and reduction of condensation within the tent. This is crucial, because again, we are trying to keep the warmth in, not the cold out.

A good down (recommended) or synthetic sleeping bag is the next key component. Several bag makers will make 0, -20, -30, and even -40 F degree bags, so the options are out there, but beware, they get incredibly expensive. Find out what the max low temp will be where you’re going, and then get a bag that suits you. However, also beware the if you have a 0 degree, you will practically start to feel the cold when the outside temp reaches in the teens.

“Ever camped in -20F? Ever slept on 6 feet of snow? Ever try to boil water when it’s frozen? Winter camping is tough, but it’s not impossible. In fact, you can even find some comfort when camping well below freezing. ”

You will undoubtedly need something between your sleeping bag and the ground (snow) if you want any chance whatsoever at keeping in your warmth. And though thermarest type pads have become popular over recent years with backpackers for their extreme portability and lightweight nature, when snow camping, I recommend the traditional old foam. The air in your sleeping pad will cool almost to the outside temp overnight as you sleep, and that is every bit as cold as sleeping right on the snow. Mind you, it is better than sleeping on the snow because you will at least stay dry, but the fact is, foam will not drop as far in temp as well as keep you dry. Win win.

Now, choosing and preparing your tent site sometimes requires a bit of work. If the snow is soft and really deep, this is where your snow shovel will come in handy. It’s best regardless of the nature of the snow pack to choose a sport that is shielded from the wind… there’s almost nothing worse than having the wind whip your tent around so much in the night, that sleep eludes you, even if you are  nice and toasty. Also, staking your tent isn’t always possible if the snow is too soft. So wind is an enemy for several reasons.

If the snow supports your full weight standing, chances are, you can just set the tent right up in a level spot, no digging necessary. However, you may still want to dig down a bit. And if the snow is too soft, digging a proper depressed tent area is a must.

Now the last piece to the puzzle is perhaps the most fun too… making a good fire. Fire is absolutely essential to making your winter camping experience enjoyable. It’s really not much different from making a fire in any other scenario, however, with water all around you in the form of snow, and harsh winds, the elements are not in your favor. Don’t be afraid to use aids. Gun powder, lighter fluid, and diesel fuel are all very effective and helpful, but they are also very dangerous, so be extremely careful. Contrary to common sense, a wonderful fire can be made directly on top of the snow. If you don’t already have firewood with you, often times if you find a nice grove of trees, you can find very dry spots at their base. Pine needles and small branches provide decent tender.

Once you get the fire going, just keep in mind that it will slowly sink over time as the heat melts the snow beneath. But just as usual with a fire, if you tend to it, keep it stoked and fed, it will continue to keep you warm as long as you need it.

Winter camping is certainly more challenging than any other season. It is the most dangerous time of year because of the heavy precip, bitter cold, and gale force winds. But surviving, and even enjoying your experience in this most uniquely peaceful time of year simply takes some careful prep and the right gear.

about the author

Andrew Slaton

Andrew Slaton earned his Bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin. He has been a professional photographer for more than a decade, and in those years, he traveled the world for a variety of clients, and won several international awards. He began his work at a weekly newspaper in the Wind River mountains of northwestern Wyoming, where he began learning outdoor survival.

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