Eight Winter Camping and Backpacking Tips

Recently, I had a conversation with a long time backpacking partner who'd just spent an overnight on Devil's Path in New York's Catskill mountains. We've both been on the trail multiple times, but only in warmer weather. On his recent trip, temperatures stayed between 10ºF and 25ºF, and spending a night or two outside in temperatures like that involves an entirely different level of preparation than similar trips in warmer weather!

But just because it's cold doesn't mean you have to stay inside. Here are some of the tips we chatted about and have used on our trips!

Keep things warm inside your sleeping bag. In addition to using a warm water bottle as a heat source, which was one of my tips in the Pocket Ranger article, keeping your water in liquid form will make cooking in the morning much easier. Put your bottles in your sleeping bag with you. Also, keeping extra clothes in your bag prevents you from having to don ice cold duds in the morning. Bring extra large freezer bags, put your boots in them, and take your boots to bed with you. They'll be a lot easier to put on in the morning.

Use everything at your disposal to insulate you from the ground. Being cold is generally unpleasant, but not being able to warm up again is miserable and potentially dangerous. You lose most of your heat to the ground overnight, so the more between you and the ground, the better. In addition to your sleeping pad, empty your pack and put it under your feet. A camping chair, (think Crazy Creek style), which is awesome for comfort around the fire, can also unfold to make an extra layer of padding and insulation under your sleeping pad.

Bring extra clothing and layer appropriately. I'm normally the person in the group that's always cold and can never seem to pack enough warm things to wear. This year, I'm determined not to let that happen. Even a heavy down jacket packs well and doesn't weigh much, and if you don't need it, it's another layer you can wear or use to insulate yourself overnight. (I'm planning to take my Canada Goose Hybridge Lite Vest on all of my upcoming winter trips!) But in the same vein, don't wear too much; sweating in the cold is a recipe for disaster.

Trails won't look like they do in summer, which is awesome, but you've gotta be prepared! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Know how to warm yourself back up. If you are really cold and simply can't warm up, you may have to get moving before you turn in for bed or settle in to cook a meal. Try to find some constructive activity like scouting the area or gathering firewood  that will get you active and warm you up. If all else fails, a few minutes of jumping jacks before bed can make a world of difference.

Review the basics of frostbite and hypothermia. I've been lucky to do cold weather camping trips with guides, or with friends who are wilderness first aid certified, in the medical profession, or both. But before you leave, be sure everyone in your party knows how to recognize frostbite and hypothermia, at a minimum. And at least one of you should know how to - and how not to - treat them.

Tread carefully, getting wet is a recipe for disaster in cold weather.

Don't underestimate the weather. You may have been camping in warmer weather, even on the same trail or same campground, and been fine. Going to a familiar place for the first time in the winter can be radically different. Steep climbs on backpacking trails can become completely covered in ice and nearly impassable. Being stuck in a place for a couple of days in the summer may be unfortunate, but in the winter, it can be fatal. Be prepared. This includes packing a pair of crampons or Yaktrax should you think you'll encounter ice on the trails.

Think hard about how any of the typical gear you use will behave in extreme cold. Some batteries won't work as well, others won't work at all, until they are warmed up again. Pump water filters will freeze as soon as you stop pumping, and if you have a ceramic filter, the filter can crack when it freezes. Iodine tablets take several times longer to purify water when it's very cold. Use coffee filters or a clean bandana to filter water before using iodine or boiling (or any non-filter purification method) so you don't end up with "crunchy" water that you drew directly from a source.

Things like camera batteries should be kept in your pocket, as they won't work if they freeze.

Bring multiple fire-starting options. Butane lighters don't work if they're cold, so bring matches or a Zippo or keep the Butane lighter warm in your pocket. Make sure you are able to light your stove in the temperature you expect to encounter - it may be easy when it's warm, but some stoves are tricky in the cold.

I'm planning a winter camping trip soon and will definitely make use of all of these tips! Do you have any tips we missed? Leave a comment and let me know!

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