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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 VII: Winter Luxury

Final words on the luxury side of winter

My backyard, Capitol Reef in winter. pic:

Alright readers. Here’s my last winter camping post. I’ll keep it short since I suspect you’re all burned out on winter camping tech for the moment. This time, it’s about the luxuries:

--Hot water bottles: It bears repeating: For winter camping, these are the greatest invention EVER! By simply boiling a liter of water, filling a strong, solidly capped bottle, and burying it as close to your body as you can stand, you’ll stay warm sitting around in the harshest conditions. Put one in your jacket for sitting around the evening kitchen. Stick one in the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep your toes warm and save the weight of booties.  Hold one in your hands to re-warm frozen fingers. And if it’s hot tea or chocolate, just wait until it’s cool enough, then drink it.

--Vapor Barrier Liners (called VBLs), are thin sleeping bag liners, or clothing items, made of light but tough waterproof nylon. You usually find VBLs used as liner socks and sleeping bag liners (pulled up to armpit level). Occasionally you see VBL vests or shirts, but they’re much rarer because few people can tolerate humidity and sweat build-up in their torso. The idea behind VBLs is to prevent evaporative cooling that happens when you produce warm sweat that later chills. VBLs also keep your insulated items like boots, jackets and sleeping bags from building up moisture inside their layers that can compromise their effectiveness. In ultra-dry polar environments, VBLs help prevent water loss and dehydration by slowing evaporation off the skin.

VBLs work best for long-term trips in sub-zero temperatures – like climbing Denali or crossing Antarctica, where frost build-up inside the shells of garments, bags and boots can build up over time, making them heavier and colder. On a subtler note, VBLs work better for some people than others. It depends on your humidity tolerance, sweat rates, exertion level, and personal tastes.  I’ve used them as sleeping bag and boot liners on month-long Andean climbing trips, and found them an efficient way to extend the temperature range of my gear for high camp use. But they were also clammy, super stinky, and just not very comfortable for me.  But they might work better for you.

--Sleeping bags as Snuggies. I don’t care how much of a superman you are, sitting around in subfreezing temperatures gets cold fast. The best way to avoid that is to lie around in your bag. It helps to have a Crazy Creek-style camp chair so you can keep your bag dry while also having a back support. Cascade Designs Therma-loungers work well, by folding your normal self-inflating mattress into a strut-reinforced chair.

--Campfire pits: In forested environments, a campfire can change the whole atmosphere of a winter camp – for better or worse. Evenings and mornings will certainly be warmer, but your whole focus changes from enjoying winter, to finding wood and tending the fire. If you choose to have a campfire, keep in mind you’ll have to find solid ground to put it on, and it’s best to use established campsites and firepits, rather than plopping a fire circle down into a drift when you don’t know what sort of terrain and vegetation is underneath. Still, in harsh conditions, a fire pit, dug perhaps 10 feet across and down to the ground, forms an oven-like reflector that can throw winter back into the darkness.

--One last tip: Hot drinks, and lots of ‘em. Chocolate, tea, coffee, eggnog, Irish coffees, whatever. Make sure you’ve got the mixes, and the fuel to burn. They’re like a hot water bottle stored inside your gut, and that sort of efficient heat transfer is always worth the extra weight.

Now go forth and camp, little ducklings. My work here is done. Hike safe.—Steve Howe


Dec 12, 2011

Generally a very well done series of articles. Having taught snow camping as a Scoutmaster in the Pacific Northwest for more than a few years, Steve has covered all of the essentials and done so well. This series will provide you with the guidance to snow camp and ENJOY it! I have only a few additions or quibbles. The recommendation of Weather Underground as a weather forecast source is not something that I as a meteorologist would recommend. The largely computerized forecasts verify poorly in the backcountry, especially in mountainous terrain. Most National Weather Service Forecast offices do a much better job offering specifics for such areas. Television meteorologists, contrary to the assertion made in the article series, do offer specific backcountry/mountain forecasts...especially on their websites. If the forecaster is familiar with the backcountry environment...often the case in the Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Reno and Denver areas...they may be your best source-not your last., as Steve correctly pointed out, provides excellent links to local Avalanche forecast offices, which in turn provide telemetry weather reports used by avalanche forecasters...and perfect information for snow campers. Check them out. Finally, wear a wool cap to will increase your warmth. And consider taking a slow snowshoe trek in the immediate vicinity just before bed. It will build your body warmth, and provide for a warmer start to the night!

May 16, 2010

Buy winter camping gear at

Feb 26, 2010

Thanks Steve! You're writing is spot on.

S. Howe
Feb 20, 2010

Boat: Hard to say whether a VBL would work for you. If you're a heavy sweater (like myself) it's also important to get into dry base layers before crawing into your bag. If you're sweaty when you get in, it takes a lot of calories to dissapate that sweat outward through your insulation layers.

Personally, I find that I need a sleeping bag rated at least 20F colder than the temperatures I'll be sleeping in. Always have. Always will. In whatever season. That works better for me than a VBL, but it's a personal thing. You can either devote 8 ounces to a VBL, or to 8 more ounces of down. The cost will be similar. (You can find lots of good used winter gear, including VBLs, on eBay to keep expenses down. People often sell winter camping gear to regain spending money.

Keep in mind that you'll often be cold for an hour or two after first climbing into a sleeping bag in winter. It takes a while for body heat to seep out through the insulation and warm all that down. Until the 'temperature gradient' warm up, even a thick down bag will actively pull heat from your body.

You could also test out the VBL for your own compatibility by using a large plastic bag for a night (perhaps a mattress shipping bag), to see if that works, before investing in either solution. If you decide to go full VBL, try Integral Designs, who are probably the most experienced at constructing VBLs.

If you're getting cold from underneath, remember that it could be an insufficient sleeping pad. Try using two together and see if that warms you up.

Hope that helps. But don't despair, you'll find a solution. You CAN stay warm overnight in winter. It's just a matter of cutting off the escape of body heat, and that's totally attainable.

Feb 19, 2010

I have a coolmax sleeping bag liner and noticed its nice as far as keeping my 0ยบ down bag dry in light to freezing weather. I keep a lot of my fleece clothes on when sleeping and even keep my other clothes stuffed in my bag but am still cold in a expedition tent during temps in the teens. I sweat during aerobic activity in any weather and sometimes under sheets at home in clammy weather. Should I invest in a vapor barrier liner to put between my coolmax liner and sleeping bag?


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