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What You Need to Know About Winter Camping

We discuss the important things you should know when going out winter camping and some ways to prepare for the colder weather

When we hear the word camping, we might think of roasting marshmallows under a starry, the faint buzz of mosquitos from inside your tent, or a warm summer breeze drifting through the tent. We probably would not think about curling up in a sleepy bag at night when it is -20°C outside. The camping season usually ends in the fall, but if you prepare properly, camping can be a year-round activity that endures through the coldest parts of the winter. We will be discussing some of the ways you can prepare for camping in the winter, and important things to keep in mind when out in the cold for a sustained amount of time.

Winter Shelter: Winter camping is split into two categories, cold camping, and hot tent or shelter camping. Cold camping is the use of a tent-like regular camping, but instead of a normal tent, a 4-season tent is used. The differences in a 4-season tent are, they have thicker tent material and thicker flies. In addition, they have a different pole structure, usually in a dome shape, which helps prevent wind resistance. It is aptly named cold camping because there is no external heat source in the tent. To stay warm in a cold camping setup, one must rely solely on a warm sleeping bag and insulation setup.

The other method of winter camping is using a hot structure. Two common hot structures are hot tents and Quinzees. A hot tent is a big, think canvas tent that would usually need to be transported but car or sled. It is called a hot tent as they can usually be outfitted with a wood stove, which can bring temperatures inside the tent as high as above 25°C. However, because of the thickness and size of the tent, it can be very heavy and not very portable. A Quinzee is a snow shelter similar to an igloo that can be slept in. To make a Quinzee, build a pile of snow as tall and wide as you are, it should look like a huge dome when you’re done. Once it’s done, the snow needs to be left to sinter, which essentially means for the snow to compact down. This process takes anywhere from a couple of hours to a day. Once it has sintered, the Quinzee can be dug out. When digging out, make sure to leave at least a foot of thickness on all parts of the wall. Although it is made of cold snow, a Quinzee is a hot structure because the snow acts as insulation, and on a day where it is -20°C outside, it can be as warm as 0°C inside. This makes it a lot easier to stay warm through the night. You can find more detailed Quinzee building guides online.

Sleeping Gear: When sleeping in any winter shelter, it is important to separate your body from the snow and ice on the ground. A good way of doing this is by putting a wool blanket or foam sleeping pad beneath you. The more removed you are from the snow, the warmer you’ll be. Sleeping bags are your main source of insulation, so make sure to have ample insulation. Some people use a moderately warm sleeping bag on the inside and a thicker winter bag on the outside. A fleece liner can help a lot with heat retention as well. Keep in mind that sleeping bag insulation helps keep warmth, but isn’t great at creating warmth especially in cold temperatures. This means make sure you are warm before you get into bed for the night. Only a warm body will stay warm through the night. Base layers, wool socks, a toque, and possibly a scarf are recommended for sleeping in.

Clothing: When discussing clothing for winter camping, layering systems are the name of the game. You can always shed layers if you get too hot, but you are only going to get hotter as your body moves. Keep your clothing as dry as possible. Moist and wet clothing invites cold. With that in mind, it’s a great idea to have sets of day clothing and night clothing and keep them completely separate. You don’t want moisture from the day to carry over to what you’re wearing at night. Wool and fleece are great materials for maintaining warmth and should be included in both day and night clothing. If you have liners in your boots, take them out at night and put them in your sleeping bag so they’re warm the next day.

Building Fires: Starting a fire in the winter can be a very daunting task. It’s always the easiest thing to do even in the summer, so it makes it that much harder in the wet conditions of the winter. The first thing to do is build a base for your fire to sit on that is off the snow. Consider different types of wood and their burning benefits and drawbacks. Softwood like cedar or spruce, burns hot and fast, which is good for cooking. Hardwood like maple or oak, burns slow, which is good for longer, sustained fires. When building fires in the winter, preparation is key. Having good fire starter, bringing a hatchet or axe, and a saw can all make a big difference in building a great fire. It is also a good idea to bring multiple methods of fire starting, like matches, lighters, and flint.

Food: Winter camping takes a lot of energy. Setting up hot tents, making fires, building a Quinzee, many things you do while winter camping will be energy-intensive. As a result, make sure your food consumption matches your activity. In particular, consuming the proper number of calories for the level of energy you’re are exerting. A great benefit of preparing food for winter camping is there is not nearly as much of a worry of food going bad, as it basically is sitting in freezer level temperatures all the time. Foods like soups and stews can be great for winter camping as they are preserved frozen and then can be easily heated up. Adding extra water to your soup and stew can be a great way of staying more hydrated while filling up on food.

General Tips: Here are some pro tips I have learned from fellow outdoor guides and educators. Some of them are crucial and some are just preference, but they can all benefit a winter camping experience at some point. If you are near a lake, bring a chisel to crack into the ice for water. Boiling so is very inefficient, and grabbing it from a lake is the best source of water in the winter. Aqua tabs and other chemical water purification don’t work as well in very cold water, so the best way to purify is by boiling. If you’re bringing electronics out camping with you, remember that batteries die faster in the cold, so put your electronics somewhere warm when they’re not in use. In the winter, your water bottle is inevitably going to freeze. To help mitigate this, try putting a wool sock on your bottle. Water freezes from the top down, so in order to still have drinkable water throughout the day, rest your water bottle upside down so the bottom freezes before the top drinking area. Bring some sort of kneeling or butt pad so you don’t get wet when you are sitting or kneeling down. To help keep yourself warm at night, fill your water bottle with hot water and put it between your legs in your sleeping bag. This will help maintain warmth within your insulated bag. Just make sure the water isn’t too hot to avoid getting burnt! The winter season is not as forgiving as the summer. The same risks you might take in the summer could have much more severe consequences in the winter. Be sure to prepare ahead of time as much as possible, in order to have a great winter camping experience.