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THE PULSE - Your source for survival, skills, and more from Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe

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.

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

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 folding Crazy 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


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Mar 28, 2014

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AZ Hiker
Jan 10, 2014

Donít forget your compass! When snow cover causes you to lose sight of the trail and landmarks, stay found by using a compass and reading Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon). This book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking or skiing. Go to: A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather, day or night, but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking and camping. Learn to stay found day or night by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

Star Star
Jan 10, 2014

"Donít cross frozen lakes and streams", that's odd advice. that would make winter camping impossible in minnesota. tempts in the single digits would be a very warm night this winter.

Star Star Star Star Star
Apr 30, 2013

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Dec 03, 2011

A quick but effective way to warm cold fingers is to blow into your gloves. It's as simple as that.

Liz Case
Dec 02, 2011

Yay for Josh Martens' comment -- and I've got another suggestion for city-bound people who wonder about getting out in the cold. Take a look around your community (WALK, for heaven's sake!) and see what properties exist on volunteer help. That might be little community parks, private cemeteries, maybe "historic" sites maintained by non-profits or parks departments. Ask about doing yard maintenance or litter pick-up or whatever else needs doing outdoors, preferably for a little pay. They especially need help after windstorms or heavy rain. This gets you outdoors on a regular basis and lets you test out your clothing, bad-weather gear and boots; take along your stove and etc's for fixing yourself lunch, right there in the open, with whatever food you'd take with you camping. After twice a week of light work and feeding yourself in strong winds and pouring rain, you'll have nearly everything down pat and be able to head out for a weekend in a snap -- the only other things you'll need is the tent, sleeping bag and pad. What you can learn outdoors isn't only in the backcountry -- enjoy it everywhere.

Alex Garcia
Mar 06, 2010

A few suggestions:first is bring a pull sled!They're cheap to make and easy to build!We put the bulky akward items in the sled and the rest in our packs.Now I Know it sounds like overkill but we took some camp chairs.You get surprisingly wet sitting in the snow.The chairs were a nice comfort and kept us nice and dry. Another tip is if you bring pack boots there alot warmer and more comfy then XC boots, and if the temp drops you can take out the liners and sleep with them on.Insulate your dawgs and in the morning you don't have to put freezing boots!

Mar 02, 2010

Avoid Sweat, and NO COTTON! it is easy to over do the layers and make yourself cold by sweating.

Feb 16, 2010

Those foot options are... ok... but if you're really going to be out during the winter in deep snow, the eskimos know where it's at MUKLUKS. steger has the best,my dad got his 20 years ago and still wears them, said his feet have never been cold.about $150, but for 20 yrs they're well worth it.

johny martin
Feb 16, 2010

i take my dog were possible when were overnighting the extra body heat realy helps and the company is nice to he loves it almost more than i do thats how we went in late jan. in montana any way

Jon Martens
Feb 16, 2010

You mean people don't normally camp in the winter? Weird...

Josh Pratt
Feb 10, 2010

My rule of thumb is to stay comfortably cool and not focus on being "warm". Once you start breaking trail and hitting the hills, your going to heat up and sweating is not what you want.

Feb 08, 2010

Hey U could always boil water and place it in a nalgene. then place said nalgene in your pocket, or bag. Its a great heater, and will keep ur water source from freezing. I keep like 16 oz near me to keep it thawed. then I can always fire up the stove to THAW others water out when they let theirs freeze.

Jan 24, 2010

Steve, this is great stuff. My brother and his friends are coming to visit mid February and there's talk of a winter camping trip. Keep the instructions coming!

Brett Wentz
Jan 21, 2010

I strongly discourage chem. heaters for a non-emergency or main warmth system. What will you do if things go wrong. Not having proper clothing or enough could get you hurt. Things get wet, break or fail. I use chemical heaters as a backup.

Alan Schroeder
Jan 21, 2010

Chemical heaters are a great way to keep the body core warm on a winter camp out. The large ones with adhesive work well. I put them in prime spots like one on each side of the lower back in the kidney areas and one in the middle chest. Adhere them to your first layer next to the skin, not directly to the skin. They really do wonders in keeping the main core toasty. They are great in the bag as well. When you lay on those conact points a nice shot of warmth brings real comfort.

Wayne Hobbs
Jan 21, 2010

Be sure and tell them to not allow themselves to overheat when hiking in deep winter. It is important to continually monitor your internal body temperature and add and/or remove layers to keep your body warm but not hot or cold. Especially important when you start or stop. Sometimes it is as simple as taking off hats or gloves or putting those on. I always try to start my hike under dressed and when I stop I tend to over dress as my body seems to heat up fast and seems to cool down fast.


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