Beginner's Guide to Winter Camping Part IV: Your First Winter Overnight

It's a big step. Here's how to do it right.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Finally, it’s time to pull the trigger on your first winter camp-out. In the previous three posts, we’ve reviewed general tips, gearing up, and planning. Now it’s time to ‘do.’

For your first winter camp-out, keep things simple. Easy routefinding. No long access. This isn’t the time to prove how badass you are. On the contrary, your goal should be to make it as comfortable and luxurious as possible. Just learn to live in, and enjoy, the winter season. Then, once you’ve dipped your toes in the snow, we’ll review some fine points for your next invernal adventure. So get ready. Winter awaits.

Fresh Info: Check the weather and conditions again before leaving. You need the latest updates. Refer to our last post for weather information resources.

Double check your stuff: Make sure you’ve got your maps, compass, a copy of your itinerary for a trusted friend, Bic lighters, fuel, sunglasses and sunscreen – All the little stuff, as well as the big. If you’re heading for deep snow country, bring along a small piece of plywood or cardboard to set your stove on. Check your stuff, pack your stuff, then double-check it. Trust me here. Don’t scrimp on this last minute review. I once forgot the fuel bottle for a three-day ski mountaineering trip. We made do with campfires, but the smoke-flavored water we melted was almost as nasty as the abuse my two companions rightly heaped upon me.

Bring extras: Pack added clothing, food, and accessories like goggles, snowshoes, a shovel – even a second jacket – in your car. It’s not unusual to be surprised by unexpectedly deep snow or low temperatures, especially if you’re driving from urban lowlands to high elevation mountains. This way, you can adjust as necessary. If you don’t need it, you can leave it in the car.

Pay attention to routefinding: In winter, most all travel is ‘off-trail,’ even when you’re on one. Straightforward paths can disappear beneath a foot of snow or late autumn leaves, so stay aware of your location and surroundings. Don’t count on being able to follow your tracks back out, since wind or snowfall can bury them, while deer, elk, moose and coyote will often follow boot trails to gain a bit of flotation, which introduces confusion. Map, compass and GPS skills are important in any season, but it’s much more important to pay attention and not drift off into la-la land. Regularly update your position on the map. Keep looking around for landmarks you can use. Turn around every five minutes to memorize what the terrain looks like in reverse. If you become uncertain of your location, retrace your steps until you’re sure again. Never attempt to get back on track by short-cutting. That’s the single most common reason hikers get lost.

Exertion: The best way to stay warm is to regulate your exertion, using your body’s exercise metabolism like a thermostat. Use this initial trip to gauge that thermostat and its potential. Avoid getting overheated and sweaty, because once you stop, that sweat will actively chill you. Strip down or slow down to avoid overheating. But if you’re cold, get moving. Keep rest breaks short, so you don’t chill while stopped. Then doff your parka before you set out again. As you approach exposed ridgetops, stop and don layers before you top out, rather than waiting until you’re in howling wind to adjust. If you get tired, don’t stop, just ‘rest on the move,’ by traveling slowly. You’ll stay a lot warmer. 

Choosing Camp: Look for a spot that’s out of the wind and open to the east, so you get sun early in the morning. If possible, avoid ridgetops where winds howl, and stay out of low spots where heavy, cold air pools in the depths of night. The base of cliff faces, and overhanging tree canopies, are definitely warmer than wide open sites, simply because they block off much of the sky, which prevents heat from radiating away into open space. If you can find flat ground without snow cover (especially common in spring, as sun begins to melt the snowpack) then use it to avoid the active chilling you get from snow surfaces. Tree “wells,” those thinly snowed areas underneath large conifers, make good campsites for all the above reasons.

Pitching Camp: When you first arrive at camp, immediately don your hat, parka and puff pants to retain all that body heat you generated while walking. Loosen your boots so your feet stay warm. Be a cheapskate with calories. Save them aggressively. Spend them grudgingly. To repeat the winter camper’s mantra: “Stay warm, don’t re-warm.” Secondly: Find water, or begin melting it. Start your stove up right away, then monitor progress and refill the pot as you pitch camp. Sip down some hot drinks while you’re setting up. Start taking care of yourself immediately. Third: If the snow is deep, stomp out a tent platform using snowshoes or skis. Keep packing this down until it’s as firm and flat as you can possibly get it. Make it longer and wider than you think you’ll need. Then, stay off it for 45 minutes to an hour. Let it freeze up hard before pitching your tent and moving in. Occupy that time by pounding hot drinks or walking around camp. Don’t just stand around getting cold.

Pitching tents: One of the most effective ways to ‘stake’ a tent on snow is to tie cords to the stake loops, then wrap those cords 3 or 4 times around a short stick, and bury the stick ‘deadman’ style, stomping it firmly into the snow. Once the snow freezes again, you have a firm stake-out point. Skis, ski poles, and snowshoes also work as stakes. If you’re short on anchoring materials, fill stuff bags with a little snow, wrap the tent stake loops around them, and bury them in the snowpack. Don’t overdo the burying and stomping, because deadman anchors can set very firmly overnight, and be a struggle to remove. Make your camp bomber right now. Your tent should be rigged, gear stowed, sleeping pads rolled out or inflated, and sleeping bags fluffed up, before you kick back. Winter is not a time to get careless.

Cooking:  Heresy time here: In winter, it’s a common practice to cook in your tent vestibule. Yes, you should be careful. Yes, you need to ventilate the tent well to avoid carbon monoxide problems. It’s usually best to prime white gas stoves outside, then move them in once the initial flare-up quiets. The thought of cooking inside a tent infuriates some people. It’s one of those “everybody knows, first rule of” things. But here at the magazine, we’ve tried to burn down tents by using stoves, and it’s not all that easy. Just use caution and common sense, don’t cook atop a tent floor, never close the tent up tight, and you should be cool. A small piece of thin plywood, an old license plate, or even an old chunk of foam pad, works well to keep your stove from melting down into the snow. 

Camp extras: Another viable option is to build a kitchen. Usually this is a square or circular pit dug into the snow, with a bench dug around it for comfortable sitting. This is a good construction project while your tent platform is firming up. Alternately, determine where your latrine will be. Find a good spot away from water and dig down to ground level, searching for a spot where you can bury waste under detritus, or otherwise put your waste products 6 inches below the surface for more hygienic decomposition. Then, once you’ve chosen, pack out a solid track between there and camp. This will save much frantic floundering later on.

Hot liquids: Brew up plenty of hot drinks throughout the evening, to keep rehydrating while pumping delicious heat into your body core. If you’re coming up with extra liquid, pour the boiling water into a good, solid water bottle, cap it tightly, and bury it underneath your layers, as close to your body as the temperature will allow. Hot water bottles, insulated like this, are a powerful and inexpensive tool for staying warm, or re-warming a chilled individual. They’ll retain heat for at least 6 hours, and can keep even the coldest individual comfy while sitting outside in the dead of winter.

Passing the evening: Now that camp is all buttoned down, and you’re ready for any apocalypse that probably won’t but just might strike, it’s time to kick back and enjoy the otherworldly beauty and ear-splitting quiet that is winter. You have choices here. You can dive into the tent to drink hot toddies and play cards. You can take a nighttime stroll around camp (don’t get lost). I personally recommend lounging outside in your sleeping bag, maybe on a Crazy Creek chair, wrapped around a hot water bottle, taking it all in and perhaps doing some star-watching. (Try a Planisphere, or some of the iPhone/iPod Touch astronomy apps). If you’re in an area with firewood, a thin snowpack, and preferably used fire pits, you can burn some cellulose to stay warm and enjoy a little ‘caveman TV’.

Bedding down: Re-check camp to make sure no critical items are lying out, waiting to be raided by a desperate winter animal or buried by unexpected snowfall. Melt a full pot of water and pile up some snow near your stove so you don’t have to go scrounging for meltables in the morning. Then hop in your bag. If you’ve got boots with removable liners, take the liners in your bag with you. If you’ve got single boots, knock all the snow off them, put them in individual waterproof stuff bags, then cram them in the bottom of your sleeping bag, or between sleeping bags, to prevent them from freezing overnight. Put your pee bottle in a handy spot. Perhaps bring in a hot water bottle for your torso or feet. It’s common to be chilled for the first half hour or so, until your body heat bleeds out through the sleep bag insulation, stops pulling heat from your body, and starts reflecting it back at you.

Morning: Is the toughest time for winter camping. Temps are usually coldest just before dawn, and you’ll emerge from your bag inactive and easily chilled. My personal preference is to lie in my bag and cook up several rounds of mocha and oatmeal before emerging. One friend I know prefers bagels, liberally buttered, fried to a golden brown, and then slathered with cream cheese. Healthier, more ambitious types prefer to get up and go for a walk to warm up.

But that’s the cool thing about winter camping. There’s no one else to tell you what to do, and the world is your slate, to write on as you wish.