Winter Camping 101: Here Are 7 Tips to Get You Started

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Every winter between Christmas and the new year, my sisters and I go camping. (You know, typical family trip.)

We buy food from the local grocery store, argue about which tent to bring, and spend a night begrudgingly looking over maps. Despite little fanfare, it’s a tradition I love as much as either holiday it’s sandwiched between.

The caveat is that we grew up in northern Minnesota, where frostbite can happen in less than fives minutes. The most popular winter activities in our hometown are ice fishing, hockey, and snowmobiling (loosely in that order). Wearing layers is a skill you learn at birth. With snow on the ground for over half the year, you are forced to enjoy winter, or move somewhere else.

And one of our recent holiday trips was no different. We donned our trusty long underwear, took our favorite cross country skis out of storage, and stuffed sugary snacks into every pocket we could find. Our goal was to ski across the Boundary Waters, from Ely to Grand Marais, along a string of frozen lakes called the Border Chain. The only traces of other humans we saw were a pair of snowshoe tracks, a dog sled team, and two gentlemen heading out on an ice fishing trip.

When our mom dropped us off at the trailhead the car thermometer read -20 degrees Fahrenheit. She gave us each a hug, reminded us that we were objectively crazy, and returned to the heated seats of the Subaru. For the next two days my sisters and I skied across the wilderness, using the skills we’ve developed over many years to stay dry, happy, and safe.

For newcomers to the joys of winter camping, here are the key things to consider before you take off.

Check the Conditions Before You Go

This includes but is not limited to weather, wind, and avalanche risk, if you’re in an alpine environment. We knew what we were getting into and packed accordingly, bringing an extra warm layer, insulated water bottles, hand warmers, and a warmer tent.

Sure, these things added a bit of weight, but they also reduced the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Despite subzero temps, we stayed safe because we planned ahead.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Snack, A Lot

Like any camping trip you’ll burn a lot of calories while on the go. Carrying a heavy pack takes a lot of energy, even for the most fit adventurers. On top of that you’ll burn calories just to stay warm… Lots of them, actually.

Accordingly, our goal was to consume 4,000 calories each day and even that put us at a deficit. The best way to eat this much is to stop every hour, snack, drink water, and then continue. The trick is to keep these snacks accessible. We often skip lunch altogether and instead opt to equally spread our calories across the full day. This also helps us avoid getting cold during one longer stop.

Photo: Lukas Hodon/Shutterstock

Don’t Skimp on Gear

There are many marketing ploys in the outdoor industry for gear you flat-out don’t need. In my opinion, most of what you see in a retail store is better left on the shelf than weighing down your pack.

That said, this isn’t the time to cut corners, nor is it the time to buy the cheap stuff. Having a reliable sleeping bag and pad is critical. Ditto for a good stove and tent. I’d also recommend a satellite messaging device, in case things go wrong.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Water Is Crucial

Staying hydrated helps you pump blood around your body, which in turn keeps you warm. Water also helps with mental acuity and coordination.

We all know water is good for us—and during winter it becomes even more important because it’s hard to find. We filled up our bottles anytime we found open water, saving us some fuel weight (melting snow takes a lot of fuel). We also slept with our water bottles in our bags, so they didn’t freeze at night.

On the flip side, if you need to pee, don’t hold it. Your body wastes a lot of energy keeping that area warm.

Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Try Your Best to Avoid Sweating

The fastest way to get cold is sweat evaporating. To avoid this unpleasant (and sometimes dangerous) cooling process, work diligently to micromanage your layers.

During our trip if we got even a little hot we unzip our jackets, or take off our beanie. If we got warmer and started to sweat we would stop and take off a layer. This sounds like a hassle, but in the long run is safer and more fun for everyone.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Good Insulation Makes All the Difference

This obviously applies to clothing and sleeping bags, but there are many other applications too. An insulated water bottle can keep a cup of coffee or tea warm all day. A pot of water buried a foot into the snow won’t freeze all night, so it’s easier to boil in the morning.

A stove that’s raised off the snow with a thermal layer (make sure it’s non-flammable) will heat your food faster—and waste considerably less fuel. And, of course, make sure you keep your phone and camera batteries close to your body, insulated from the cold.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Pack Smart

If you’re going to need a pair of gloves, snack, or map during the day, make sure you leave it on the top of your pack. This goes for all backpacking or camping trips, but is especially important in winter, when fingers freeze fast and you’ll want to keep breaks as short as possible.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

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