Winter Hiking & Camping



Advice for the New Winter Hiker and Camper

  • Introduce yourself to winter travel and camping through short overnight trips.
  • Avoid forecasts of extremely cold or stormy weather; moderate winter conditions will be challenging enough.
  • Plan an itinerary that includes escape routes for a quick retreat in case things go wrong, and be prepared to alter your itinerary if the situation demands it.
  • Choose a destination you’ve been to previously, either on a winter day hike or a backpacking trip during warmer months.
  • Remember that traveling little-used trails or off-trail can present greater navigational challenges than hiking popular trails. As you get into truly remote wilderness, where you’re unlikely to encounter any other parties in winter, you place yourself in a situation of absolute self-sufficiency, which demands expert skills.
  • Think hard about the month you choose for your winter-camping trip. Early winter, December and January, have shorter days and are usually much colder than late February and March. In a place with a harsh winter climate, consider making your first multi-day “winter” trip in April or November, which can provide great training for true winter conditions.
  • Find out whether overnight camping is permitted at your chosen destination and whether there are restrictions on camping in winter that may not apply in other seasons.

—Adapted from Winter Camping & Hiking: Managing Cold for Comfort & Safety by Michael Lanza, published by The Mountaineers Books, $17.95.


Tips for Keeping Warm while Hiking and Camping in Winter Temperatures

  • Don’t overdress for your activity level—getting your clothing wet with perspiration will cool you down just as quickly as getting soaked in the rain. Dress in layers for easy temperature adjustment.
  • Organize your food, gear, and extra clothing in your pack so that you can quickly reach anything you want, to minimize the time you spend standing around and cooling down and the time you spend with your outer hand layer removed for dexterity.
  • If you have chronic problems with cold hands and feet, try some of the chemical hand and foot warmer packets available commercially.
  • Big jacket pockets that are well insulated or lined with mesh allow you to warm hands quickly while on the go. Mesh-lined pockets next to your body’s warm core are also the perfect place to pre-warm gloves and mittens you’re not using at the moment or to dry out wet hand and head wear.
  • Carry a thermometer. Checking a thermometer routinely can tip you off to a gradual rise or drop in the temperature before you might notice it yourself. A thermometer is also a more accurate gauge of the ambient temperature than your body, and if you feel yourself growing colder but can confirm that the temperature hasn’t actually dropped, or dropped much, that’s a good signal that you need not only more clothing but some fuel (food and water) to stoke your internal furnace.
  • Insulate your body from the ground. When sitting around in camp, sit on a closed-cell foam pad. When lying in a tent, have two pads underneath you or supplement for a second pad with a backpack.
  • At night, lay out your sleeping bag at least an hour before bedtime to let it loft. Use a bag liner to boost your bag’s rating by ten degrees or more.
  • Protect any food that could freeze by wrapping it in insulation (like fleece) inside your pack; you might even pack it close to your body for extra warmth. Put lightweight, nonbulky items that can get hard in the cold, such as energy bars, in a pocket to let your body heat warm them a short while before you eat them.
  • To keep a water bottle from freezing, stick it inside a bottle insulator (like a beer “cozy” but with a zippered lid) or put the bottle inside your pack. Wrap it in extra clothing, especially a good insulator like fleece, and you’ll delay freezing even longer. Carry bottles upside down so that ice begins forming in the bottom of the bottle rather than at the top, allowing you to still drink from a partly frozen bottle.

—Adapted from Winter Camping & Hiking: Managing Cold for Comfort & Safety by Michael Lanza, published by The Mountaineers Books, $17.95.


Tips for Making a Campsite in the Snow

  • At the outset, unless the snow underfoot is firm enough to support your weight without postholing in, you’ll have to stomp out a snow platform. Wearing your skis or snowshoes, walk back and forth across an area big enough for your tent plus surrounding area where you want to walk in boots or booties—usually, an area about twice the footprint of your tent. During this time, also stomp out a path to your designated “bathroom” (usually a tree or trees nearby) and your food-storage spot if the latter will be separate from your campsite.
  • In dry powder, it can take an hour or more of stomping and waiting for the snow to firm up before it holds your weight without skis or snowshoes. But the snow will eventually firm up and freeze into a solid platform, unless you’re in unbonded “sugar” snow, which resembles its nickname and resists packing into snowballs or a firm platform. If that’s the case, you might want to relocate. Sometimes getting to a spot with a different aspect, snow depth, or exposure to sun and wind will yield better snow.
  • Build a snow wall on the upwind side of your tent as a windbreak or all around your tent if the wind could shift. It has to be close to the tent to be effective. If winds are severe and you cannot find a protected spot, dig out a tent site a couple of feet down in the snow before you begin stomping a platform; this will give you more of a snow wall on all sides.
  • Immediately outside your tent door or vestibule door, cut down 12 to 18 inches into the snow to create a step where you can sit to put on boots or just relax, partly protected by the tent.
  • Mark off in the snow an area for the living room/kitchen that’s big enough for everyone to sit inside. Measuring about a foot in from its edges, dig down a foot or two to create a bench around the pit’s perimeter. Then dig out the pit’s interior floor, about a foot deeper than the bench.
  • Build a snow windbreak on the upwind side of the living room/kitchen pit.
  • Customize other features such as a cooking surface on the bench or rim of the living room/kitchen, including a snow windbreak for your stove, and small “cabinets” dug into the walls of the pit for storing cooking gear and—if there’s no concern about animals—food. You can seal up those cabinets with a block of packed snow, to prevent contents from being buried by new snowfall or freezing.

—Adapted from Winter Camping & Hiking: Managing Cold for Comfort & Safety by Michael Lanza, published by The Mountaineers Books, $17.95.

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