Beginner's Guide to Winter Camping; Part I: Get Outside! You Are Not a Groundhog!

Our Rocky Mountain Editor drops some wisdom and gets you inspired in this beginner's guide.
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Our Rocky Mountain Editor drops some wisdom and gets you inspired in this beginner's guide.



Igloo at 14,200-foot camp, Denali, Alaska pic: howephoto.us

It’s that time of year again, time to think about winter camping. And why was I not posting this in December or early January, you ask?That’s easy! Because the dark winter solstice sucks even for Eskimos, and in most regions there wasn’t enough fluff to give the snow-dusted look that makes winter attractive. Let's face it, darkness and brown forests do not pluck the heartstrings unless you’ve got a really, really bleak psyche. Besides, there were Christmas leftovers to eat.

Now we’re rapidly approaching the cusp of February, when celebrity rodent Puxatawny Phil, like myself, traditionally sticks his nose out of the hole. Shadow or not, I’m not going back down that tunnel. My burrow’s getting skanky and I could use some fresh air. I suspect you could too.

So, here are my recommendations for those readers who've been wondering about winter camping, along with some motivational tips for old hands trying to polish their Inuit/Yupik cred. I’m breaking this into six dispatches to offer more detail and give y’all the tools to actually do this, rather than just offering the usual internet fluff-up. First off…

Planning and shakedown:

[] Make this fun: Choose your trip wisely. Spend some time thinking about where you’d like to go. Use this time for motivation, fantasy, and good planning. You won’t have to get all punch-it-into-the-hinterlands misanthropic, because five-star spots that are a zoo in summer are deserted in winter. Pick a beautiful, sheltered destination that doesn’t involve steep avalanche-prone hillsides, or ice-choked stream crossings, and isn’t far from retreat.

[] Assemble lots of warm gear: You need more, and thicker, clothes for living 24/7 outdoors than you require for a stormy day on the ski lifts or a day at the ice-climbing park. You’ll want the usual sporting layers during the day, but during breaks and at camp, you’ll want the full moon suit. Trust me; Gore-tex and fleece do not cut it for hanging around in single digits. Emphasize insulated clothing like hooded down or synthetic parkas, and puff pants. Borrow or rent the gear if price or uncertainty prevent you from pulling the trigger on your Visa card. Inexpensive snowmobile suits work well over your normal layers, but they’re heavy, and you’ll want a model with a hood that zips on over your boots.

[] Footwear is critical: Your toughest gear challenge in winter is footwear you can hike well in. Insulated and double climbing boots are superb, but very expensive, and plastic boots - while fine for ice climbing and front-pointing - are unnecessarily stiff for most uses.Sorel-style snowmobile boots work well for winter hiking and showshoeing –if they fit well and give you good underfoot support. But be aware that the rubber section on the lower boot can make for condensation and wet socks, so you’ll want spares. The new-school insulated hiking boots by companies like North Face, Keen, and Merrell(among others) can be great too, but many are designed for around-town use, and are too narrow for hiking and camping. Make sure that whatever you use is roomy enough to let you wiggle your toes and maintain circulation even while wearing thick socks. If the snow’s deep enough to wet your ankles, you’ll want gaiters; If not, skip ‘em in the interests of simplicity.

[] Get company: Talk your lazy, worthless, café lizard friends into doing this too. If you have a friend who’s an experienced winter camper, ask to tag along on their next trip. Chances are they’ll be happy for the company (assuming you step up and prepare) and you’ll feel more secure too. If you can’t find anyone to hop on your plan, check into local hiking clubs. And if that doesn’t work, proceed anyway. The wilderness awaits and people can be slugs. Don't be surprised if they ask to join on your second trip.

[] Take a shake-down hike: Go someplace beautiful on a non-committing out and back day trek. Avoid big goals or heavy mileage until you learn how fast you’ll move while breaking trail and dealing with layers. Don’t look at this as a hard-person exercise. Your goal should be to stay as comfortable and inspired as possible. Take the backpack, clothing and stove you’ll use on your camp-out. Don’t forget to bring a headlamp, emergency fire-starting materials, and handy items like spare socks. Fanatic ultralighters may require therapy, but do this right and your pack will be more bulky than heavy.

[] Emphasize clothing and comfort, not toys: If you need snowshoes or skis because the snow’s deeper than a foot or so, then take ‘em. Otherwise no. Don’t pile on the ice axes and climbing gear, heading for big peaks. Relax. Learn to live in winter. Don’t make this a must-be-macho challenge.

[] Practice using good safety skills: As always - especially in winter- make sure a trusted person knows exactly where you’re going, how you’re getting there, when you plan to return, and what you’re taking for resources. Give it to ‘em on paper, or in an e-mail, along with the proper phone numbers to contact. Nail down the details. Don't trust casual verbal agreements.

[] Check the weather forecast for impending storms, day and night temps, wind speed and wind direction. Don’t cross frozen lakes and streams. Don’t climb on risky, slippery sidehills or attempt to summit sketchy peaks. Winter is a gorgeous but unforgiving time. Surprises are usually unwelcome ones, so carelessness is not allowed.

[] Do lunch: On your hike, stop at the turnaround point, stomp out a nice flat area, and cook up a hot lunch. Build a small LNT fire if you need or want to, and scatter it afterwards. Practice these skills like any other. Learn how to regulate your body temperature when you’re stopped for long periods. Work through challenges like priming your stove, melting water, keeping your fingers warm, and loosening your boots to maintain circulation in your toes. Always put on layers before you get cold, not once you’re already chilled. “Stay warm, don’t re-warm.”

[] Certain luxuries are worth it: If you’ve got a closed-cell foam sit pad or foldingCrazy Creek-style camp chair, bring it. Insulated thermos bottles rock too, in spite of their weight . (Zojirushi stainless steels are the ticket. ) A thick hat, and neck gaiter or scarf, are always worth their weight. Don’t forget your sunglasses, because glare off the snow is harsh, and later in spring, painful snowblindness becomes a risk.

[] Give yourself plenty of time for a leisurely return hike, but linger near trailhead until dusk or later. You'll learn valuable lessons like how temperatures drop toward evening, and when darkness falls. Make sure your back-up friend knows you’ll be back late, so they don’t call out the cavalry prematurely.

OK, that’s all for now. Go forth and do. If you’ve got your own tips, suggestions, or questions, you know where to post ‘em. Next installment: Gearing up for Your First Winter Overnight. Until then, hike safe.—Steve Howe