Although winter camping presents some challenges, many experienced backpackers appreciate the advantages the season offers. The average Joe dislikes the cold, so there are far fewer campers in the winter -- meaning you can enjoy your solitude. Similarly, bugs, such as mosquitoes, chiggers and ticks, go dormant in the cold, taking summer's biggest pests out of the equation. Finally, the clean, crisp winter air invigorates you, instead of tiring you out with morale-leaching heat and humidity.
Pack a small, four-season tent that includes an insulating, solid-fabric enclosure to withstand strong winter winds and snow. Consider a double-wall design for improved insulation, but balance your needs against the added weight. Use a small tent because it's low on empty air space, which means your body heat can noticeably increase the inside temperature. Include a ground cloth to block moisture from entering the tent.
Bring a sleeping bag rated for at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit lower than you'll experience at night; if you get too warm, you can always vent the bag. Add a bag liner, which can bring the bag's temperature rating 8 to 15 degrees lower, if your existing bag has an insufficient rating.
Include a closed-cell foam ground pad that's at least 1 inch thick. Consider adding an air-filled pad for two layers of insulation if you anticipate extreme conditions. Ground pads are rated with an R-value between 1 and 8, with higher numbers providing better insulation.
Pack several layers of clothes, an insulating mug, water treatment tablets and ingredients for warm drinks and soups. Don't rely on water filters, because the filtering elements can freeze and become ineffective.
At the Campsite
Put on three layers of clothing. Wear synthetic long underwear as the base layer to wick away heat-stealing moisture. Add an insulating middle layer made from fleece or down, and cover that with a windproof and rainproof outer shell. Top it all off with a wool hat, thick socks, insulated boots and lined gloves to reduce heat loss and avoid frostbite on extremities.
Choose a clear, dry location with ample wind cover for your tent. Position the tent with open sky toward the east, if possible, so you'll also have the advantage of the morning's rising sun to warm it up. Stay away from snow-encumbered tree limbs, leaning trunks and avalanche-prone areas.
Place the tent's ground cloth and secure the tent on top; use extra supports in windy areas. Pack snow on the tent for added insulation in extreme conditions, similar in concept to an igloo.
Place the closed-cell foam ground pad inside the tent with the optional air pad over it; center your sleeping bag on the pads. Store boiled water in a heatproof, sealed container in the tent; the heat from the water will help raise the inside temperature until you're ready for bed, and you can later move the heated containers to your bag for added warmth.
Put your morning clothes -- and any slightly damp clothes -- in the bottom of the bag to warm up, so you don't immediately lose heat the next morning when you dress. Don't put wet clothes in with you, because the excess moisture will cause heat loss.
Keep a wool hat on during the night or cinch a mummy bag around your head. Don't breathe into the bag, because the moisture in your breath will conduct away heat; wear a breathable cloth over your mouth to capture moisture instead.
- Drink plenty of liquids -- preferably warm -- when camping in cold weather; your body uses as much fluid for cold-weather thermo-regulation as it does in hot weather, but the water loss is less noticeable.
- As with all camping trips, it's best to go with at least one buddy.
- Always check weather forecasts before camping and assess the danger of avalanches, especially on slopes greater than 20 degrees.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia, which include shivering, fatigue and slurred speech.If you see these signs, change into dry, warm clothes; lie in a warmed sleeping bag, and drink warm liquids.
- Look for signs of frostbite, such as numbness, sensitivity, burning sensations and discoloration. Slowly warm frostbit areas against warm skin or in 99- to 104-degree F water. Avoid rapid reheating or rubbing the area to avoid tissue damage.
- Exercise caution and discretion; if you see signs of frostbite or extreme hypothermia, evacuate to a medical facility immediately.
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