Winter camping is something I never thought I would do. I love camping, and I especially love hiking into the back-country and being completely removed from civilization. But the thought of being outside in the cold for more than a few hours has always set my teeth on edge.
My boyfriend, however, loves the beauty and quiet of winter camping, and I guess it was only a matter of time before he convinced me to give it a try. In fact, he managed to convince seven of our friends to give it a try as well. On Saturday of the February long weekend we all trucked out to a patch of a public land use zone in Nordegg that we had visited in the summer, and I learned how satisfying spending a night outside in the snow can be.
The biggest concern with winter camping is, obviously, how to stay warm over the course of a few days and nights. This definitely makes it more challenging than summer camping, and it requires a bit more forethought. Having the right gear can mean the difference between a fun trip and a miserable, or even dangerous, one. While I’m certainly not an expert, here are a few things that helped make my adventure a (mostly) comfortable one:
1. Outer layers: You want your outer layers — coat, snow pants, boots, gloves — to be as close to waterproof as possible since you’ll be spending a lot of time in the snow. When we went the temperatures were pretty nice (between -1 and -10), but that meant it was easier to get wet. While my hands and upper body stayed nice and toasty, I became quite uncomfortable when my feet got damp and my snow pants soaked through.
2. Inner layers: Wear a few layers under your coat and snow pants and be conscious of working hard and sweating. If you warm up too much, unzip your coat or remove a layer. Have dry shirts, pants and a few pairs of socks to change into. I wore an underlayer and socks made of merino wool and they felt amazingly soft and warm. I also loved having a pair of down booties to wear in my sleeping bag. They helped keep me warmer and made going to the bathroom in the middle of the night much less painful.
3. Shelter: In the cold it’s important to bring or create the smallest shelter you can. The more space you have around you, the harder it is to warm it up. While one member of our group opted to bring a one-person tent, the rest of us wanted the full experience and we built lean-tos. This was a lot of fun, however it’s something I wouldn’t attempt without an experienced winter camper to offer guidance. Building a fire is also of monumental importance. You’ll stay warm looking for wood and setting up camp but once the sun sets the fire will keep you happy.
4. Sleeping: The most important piece of gear is probably your sleeping bag. It needs to be a mummy bag that can cinch up around your face, leaving only your nose and mouth free for breathing, and it needs to be winter rated (ours were rated to -20). Resist the urge to scrunch down inside your bag; as you breathe you will create condensation and anything that gets wet will be cold. For the same reason, make sure to change into all dry clothes before getting into your bag. Another invaluable tool were small heat packs that you rip open and shake for a few seconds to create heat. I had these in my mittens, my socks, and my booties. They were essential for getting my icy feet to warm up when I went to sleep.
A lot of our gear was purchased at MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op), though Atmosphere also has a really good selection. We learned that MEC rents all kinds of gear for very reasonable prices. The best part is that if you rent, say, a sleeping bag and then decide that you want to buy one, they’ll take the rental cost off the price of your purchase.
Though the best resource is someone with experience, you can find more extensive information to get you started here and here.
I’m really glad I gave winter camping a try. Though there were moments when I missed my warm bed, I left feeling strong and invigorated, and I earned some serious bragging rights.