How to Backcountry Camp in the Winter
The gear and knowledge you need to stay comfortable overnight in the snow
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Backcountry camping in the winter is as rewarding as it is intimidating. You need to be considerably disciplined about maintaining your heat and managing moisture. You also have to pack more and heavier gear than you do in the summer. But you’re likely to find a great campsite all to yourself. There’s also something undeniably magical about watching the way the moon and stars interact with snow on a clear night. I spoke with Marco Johnson, a senior faculty member at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) who has worked there for 34 years, and he gave me his tips on how to thrive while winter camping.
Be Avalanche Savvy
“If you’re choosing to go into areas where there will be avalanche terrain, you need to have knowledge of snow science and avalanche basics,” Johnson says. He recommends that anyone winter camping in a place that is not flat should sign up for and take avalanche courses. On top of taking a course, you should have—and know how to use—a beacon, a shovel, and a probe.
Johnson says he would approach winter camping differently in the Rockies, where he lives, versus where I live, in southern Oregon. Different weather patterns call for different gear or, more specifically, different types of insulation. “We get very cold, and thus drier, conditions than you get in the Pacific Northwest, so when I am going out in the winter here, I might take more down. Where you live, the temperatures are a little warmer, which makes it wetter and more humid, so I would bring synthetic,” Johnson says.
Use Your Body as a Dryer
While heat and moisture management are important considerations every season, they can be particularly difficult to control during the winter. One method Johnson practices when the weather is cold is drying clothing using his own body heat. “One of the first things I’ll do once I get camp up is decide if I need to change out of certain layers,” he says. “Take off the sweaty socks that you were wearing while moving during the day, and put those under a couple layers on your shoulders. Put on a pair of dry socks that are dedicated to being the socks you use in camp.” After tending to his socks, Johnson focuses on drying the rest of his base layers. “If they aren’t bad, I will keep them on while doing camp tasks to keep myself warm and start to dry them,” Johnson says. It’s important to keep moving while drying gear on your body because your heat makes it happen.
Johnson will continue to dry clothing even as he sleeps. “If I have things that are damp—not wet, but damp—I will put them in bed at night. Even though it seems kind of icky to lie down with a pair of damp socks or gloves, it is awfully nice to have both be dry when you get up in the morning,” he says.
“An umbrella strategy during the winter is that we can’t be lazy,” Johnson says. “It’s easy during the summertime, when it is 65 to 75 degrees out, to be a little lazy when you get to camp and not change immediately because you’re not going to cool down so fast, but in the wintertime you can’t [slack].”
Be Bold, Start Slightly Cold
A classic beginner mistake is to load up on layers at the start of your day, then sweat through them as you get moving, whether you’re on skis or snowshoes. Johnson suggests starting off a little chilly (not cold) when doing winter activities so you’ll stay warm but not overheat. The time to wear your puffy layers is when you’re stopping for a snack or making dinner.
Bring More Food (and Fat)
Extra calories are critical to winter camping. “Our dryer in the backcountry is our body, and the quarters that we put into that dryer are food and liquid,” Johnson says. Pack a ton of extra food. “Even if the distance you plan to ski or hike or snowshoe is similar to what you’d do in summer, you have to keep yourself warm, and you’re using more energy. Having a higher amount of calories is key. My wife used to joke that the key to winter camping is chocolate.”
Winter camping is not the time to take on a low-calorie diet. In fact, it’s beneficial to think of ways you can sneak in as many extra fat calories as you can. “You get four calories per gram in proteins and carbohydrates. Same for rice and summer sausage,” Johnson says. “Fat gives you nine calories for the gram. We make hot cocoa and put a big dollop of peanut butter in there—then you have a liquid Reese’s peanut-butter cup.”
“Just because it is winter does not mean you have to be cold. If you are cold, you need to change that,” Johnson says. Whether you have to put another layer on or do some jumping jacks, it’s important to address your discomfort. “People think that cold feet or cold hands are normal,” he continues. “Winter camping should not just be about surviving but thriving. Do something about it.”
Choose a Safe Campsite
The same etiquette for picking a camp in the summertime applies to winter. “You need to make sure you aren’t near water, you aren’t near a trail, you aren’t really exposed to wind, and that there aren’t nearby trees that might fall over during a windstorm,” Johnson says. Evergreen trees are great for wind shelter, but be careful of snow on the branches falling on your tent. Setting up far away from avalanche terrain (see the first tip) should also be a consideration.
Make Your Own Sleep Platform
“When I come into camp, I spend a little time stomping out a level platform for my tent,” Johnson says. “Harden an area that is 20 to 30 percent larger than your shelter. Put in some good effort, then let it sit a little while to harden.”
Build a Luxe Kitchen
Snow allows you to create the “best kitchen you can imagine,” Johnson says. “You can create a shelf to put stoves and benches for people to sit in.” Bring some type of board to put your stove on, because its heat can melt the snow beneath it. A thin piece of plywood big enough to support your stove and a fuel bottle will be enough for a great countertop, Johnson says.
Don’t Buy a New Tent
“A good tent for summer or fall is often a really good tent in the winter as well,” Johnson says. But be wary of very lightweight tents that have bodies made mainly of mosquito netting: they let in a lot of cold and sometimes fine dustings of snow. The key is having a solid rain fly to keep the snow out. Your bag, pad, and personal gear should do the insulating. The tent’s main job is to keep the snow off.
Go Big with Padding
Johnson suggests going with a plush full-length pad for insulation when winter camping. “Blow-up mattresses excel in wintertime, because they have good insulating value and they are comfy and cozy,” Johnson says. He even suggests bringing another half pad, too. “I put it under whatever blow-up pad I have, so I double the insulating value. I can also sit on it when I’m eating dinner or stand on it if I’m cooking so my feet don’t lose heat that way.” You can make one of these by cutting a closed-cell foam pad in half—split the price and the pad itself with a partner to make it a reasonable expense.
Bring a Good Sleeping Bag
“Get a good bag. It’s worth investing in because you want to be warm,” Johnson says. “Everybody is different. Temperature ratings might not mean anything to you as an individual, who might be a warmer or colder sleeper.”
Your diligence in keeping that bag dry is arguably more important than the temperature rating or how well its insulation handles moisture: regardless of whether or not it’s down or synthetic, if you let it get wet, you’ll have a brutally cold night.
“Also keep in mind that you brought clothing along, and you should use it,” Johnson says. “It’s OK to wear gloves and a hat to bed.”
Keep Your Water Situation Simple
Johnson recommends collecting running water if you can. “It is so much less time and so much less fuel,” he says, explaining that “if you are turning your snow into drinking water, you are going to need anywhere from a third to twice as much fuel as you’d normally carry.”
If Johnson does need to melt snow, he does it before he goes to bed. “Make sure your water bottles and cook pot are full,” Johnson says.
Pro tip: Snow is an excellent insulator, so use it to keep your cooking water from freezing overnight. Dig out an area that’s large enough to contain your vessels, then cover the opening with snow, and it will insulate it from freezing, even if it’s well below zero.