Winter Camping 2.0

Shhhh, big secret! The best winter camping is in spring - whenever that is.
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Shhhh, big secret! The best winter camping is in spring - whenever that is.



Well, on Saturday it was delightful. Warm, windless, and almost 50F. I had spring fever like a nasty flu. All I could think about (except for faithfully submitting my well-researched assignments on time and keeping my editorial masters happy, of course) was being outside on a warm afternoon.

And then by Sunday it had dumped a half-foot of snow and winter was back. I forcibly adjusted my attitude, which got me thinking about winter camping again, and more tips for staying warm and comfy when the weather is neither.

Still, the living's a lot easier than it was in dark, freeze-dried December. And here's a big secret: The best winter camping, the actual winter camping that most winter campers do, is in spring. The temperatures are warmer, the days are longer, and ironically in most locations, the snow is deeper, so you're not just stomping around on frozen ground, which can seem rather cheerless on a leafless, overcast, wind-bitten day.

It can be a tough call to determine when spring actually arrives. For decades the 'official' start has been March 20th or 21st, at the spring equinox. But since warm weather becomes noticeable long before that, and average people don't feel that spring really lasts until June 21st, most meteorologists now informally label March 1st as the beginning of spring.

Personally I prefer the common sense definition: Spring, I'll know it when I see it. And I saw it last Saturday. There were even honeybees suddenly flying around. So to help you take advantage of warmer times and longer days, here's another quick list of hints for enjoying that shoulder-season camping. (For the Beginners Guide to Winter Camping, go here, and scroll 3/4ths down the page.)

I know I can count on readers out there to provide more tidbits. Y'all know where the comment button is.

[] Learn to use micro-climates to stay comfortable. Whenever it's chilly, take your breaks in the sun, and out of the wind. It can easily be 40 to 50 degrees warmer than in a shady, windy location.

[] Pitch camp with an open view to the Southeast, so sunrise will warm you early. Mornings are the toughest part of winter camping.

[] As spring progresses, snowless bare patches open up in sunny spots and beneath large trees. They make dry, comfy, warmer-than-the-snowpack rest breaks and camp sites.

[] In spring, temperatures swing radically between mid-afternoon highs (about 3 p.m.), and overnight lows (just before dawn). Ranges of 80 degrees are not uncommon in mountains or heat-sink valleys. Often this means you can get away with fairly light daytime clothing(always check the weather forecast), but your overnight camping gear should still be ready for teen to subzero temps.

[] Know your personal thermostat and choose your layers with that in mind. For example: I'm a cold sleeper. I know I need a sleeping bag rated 20 degrees colder than the actual temperature.

[] Regulate your body temperature by adjusting your physical effort to generate metabolic heat, and using your insulation layers to harbor or shed that heat. For example, it's often better, particularly in storms where you're wearing shells, to travel at a moderate pace, rather than pounding hard and then spending a half-hour dealing with sweat-soaked layers.

[] Look for open, liquid water to minimize your fuel usage. Melting snow will require three to four times the amount of fuel you'd otherwise need. Budget for lots of hot drinks, since it's easy to get dehydrated in winter conditions.

[] Go heavy on the sunscreen. Spring sun on snow-covered slopes (or water) can fry your face off. Pay attention to obscure areas like your ear lobes, lips, and the underside of your nose. You'll also need good glasses that have enough facial coverage to block out rays reflecting from the side or underneath.

[] Hot water bottles rock. They'll warm the most chilled camper, keep feet toasty in a sleeping bag, or let you sit outside for dinner, taking in the winter night. Use bisphenol-free Lexan or aluminum, with a bombproof, leakproof top. Beware: PET soda bottles shrink and collapse when filled with hot water.

[] In temps below about 20F, you'll need to keep your boots (or inner boots) warm overnight. Cold uninsulated boots suck the heat from your toes, making morning a painful go. It's usually best to stick your boots into two separate stuff bags (so you can shift them around) and shove them into the bottom of your bag.

So, hope that gives you some ideas for next weekend. Hike safe. -- Steve Howe


Photo: Midnight sunset at 17,200 feet, Denali, Alaska. Steve Howe