Beginner's Guide to Winter Camping, Part V: Winter Luxury

Final words on the luxury side of winter

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Just because you’re camping in the snow doesn’t mean you need to suffer. Up your comfort factor with these 

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.

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.

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