Winter Camping

Waking up to the frosted peaks of the Smokey Mountains has always been an enjoyable experience for me. Seeing the mountains capped in snow instead of green foliage is mesmerizing an excites the mind. It’s as if it’s a new world, but built upon the shoulders of the world that you’re used to. After the leaves drop you’ll gain access to new views that were previously shrouded by lush forests. The trails widen, and the crowds disappear.

Winter camping isn’t, however without it’s challenges. There are things to consider before your first winter outing.

Planning for a winter trip:

Firstly, you’ll need to know where you want to go. Choose an area that you are familiar with, as conditions in the winter can cause for difficult navigation. Snow on the trail or fallen leaves can make a trail all but completely disappear  so it’s best to know where you are going in the first place. You’ll need to know what water sources are available, and reliable in the winter. In many areas springs or other water sources may not be available that are available in the spring, which is often fed my snow melting off in the spring. Some areas are closed completely in the winter to hikers and backpackers alike. Check ahead.

The weather of course is a high concern. Check ahead to see what the lowest temperatures are predicted to be, and don’t forget calculate the temperature drop altitude! Take these predictions and knock off ten degrees to play it safe. That’s your worst case scenario, and this is what you should expect.

Always have a group for winter camping if you’re going anywhere with even a mild challenge. A quick overnight with no chance of precipitation or snow on the ground? You can probably get away with two people. Snow coming in? Winter storm? No less than 4 people should venture out in rough conditions.

Gearing up for winter camping:

Winter camping requires specific equipment. There are things you’ll want, and things you’ll need. If you’re not properly prepared, don’t go. Wait until you have what you need, and don’t push the limits of your gear.

  • Warm sleeping bag. Test your bag at home to see that it actually keeps you warm. Off brands tend to be generous with their ratings. Be cautious here. Choose a bag that exceeds the temperatures you expect. 
  • Sleeping pad. An insulated sleeping pad is a necessity if the ground is going to be frozen, or close to it. The ground will suck the heat from your body, and no quality sleeping bag will keep  you warm.  Foam pads, or insulated inflatable pads work great here. A non insulated pad won’t do you any good. Some people carry a closed foam pad, as well as a non insulated pad in the winter.
  • Gloves. Two pair of them. Choose gloves that are water and wind proof, and fit well. You can’t do anything if your hands are numb. Bring along an extra pair in case your primary gloves become wet. Cheap fleece gloves work great. Wool or polyester gloves are good choices for gloves also. Avoid cotton.
  • Extra clothing. You’ll need a change of clothes. If you get wet, or damp from sweat after a tough hike, you’ll need to get out of those. You’ll feel warm for a while, but eventually you’ll be shivering. Especially bring extra socks. Never double up on socks as this will decrease your circulation and can actually lead to frost bite.
  • Layers. You’ll need to change into the proper layers, such as a wind/water proof shell, or puffy jacket when the conditions change. Adapting is key, and necessary to keep you dry and warm. Detailed information can be found hereAn extra warm outer layer is highly recommended. You may be warm while hiking, but your body temperature drops when you stop. Down puffy jackets are a wonderful thing.
  • Extra food and water. Staying warm burns calories. Your body will produce heat to keep you warm, and that uses more food and water. Plan ahead, bring plenty of snacks and an extra days worth of food.
  • Emergency blanket or bivy. If your gear is keeping you warm or it gets wet you will need a backup.
  • Water proof boots and outer layers: I don’t care how warm your socks are, if they’re wet they’re cold. Staying dry is the most important part of staying warm. A good water proof boot and shell will get you a long way.

Physical preparation:

Preparing for winter backpacking is tough. You’ll be carrying more weight due to the extra layers and heavier sleeping bag, so you’ll need to be in shape. Hike and backpack throughout the fall, where temperatures begin to fall. Don’t let the cooler weather scare you off. With the proper gear, you’ll stay warm and comfortable. Begin adding more gear to your pack, need it or not. Doing this slowly will allow your body to adjust slowly. Stay outside when it’s cold. Avoiding activity when the temperatures drop will not allow your body to acclimate to the new conditions. Spend as much time outside as you can.

Other considerations:

  • Slick Conditions. Often, hiking in the winter can lead to slick conditions. Rain freezes into sheets of ice, and snow packs into slides. Make sure your shoes have great traction, and Cleats can add a lot of traction if you know you’ll be hiking in slick rock areas. Yaktrax makes a great pair.
  • Freezing water bladders and bottles. It happens. That water bladder and water bottle can freeze up. Keep them close to your body, and sleep with them in your sleeping bag. Generally speaking, if it’s below freezing the entire trip, a bladder isn’t recommended. Instead pack in aluminum bottles that can be heated or boiled. Always carry a way to melt snow and ice in the winter. It may be all you have.
  • Extra cooking fuel. Winter cooking requires more fuel. As temperatures drop fuel canisters lose their pressure, and become less efficient. On top of this you’ll be raising your water temperatures further to bring them to a boil.
  • Shorter days. Winter brings shorter days. If you’re looking for high millage, you’ll be up early to absorb every droplet of that suns gooey wonderful warmth. This, or you’ll be spending more time in your tent. Bring along light weigh card games or magazines to pass the time.

Above all.

The most important thing is simply to be prepared, and get out there. Don’t push the limits of yourself, or your gear. Being a great backpacker, or in terrific shape doens’t overcome not being prepared. Take it slow, and be cautious until you get your winter legs under you. Go in with the right mind set a winter camping can be a great experience.

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