Winter camping is a great way to get outside during the cold months, provided you plan ahead in detail. Here are some tips on how to get started.
There was a time when winter camping was a way of life for many people. In the early years of Canada’s settlement by Europeans, the voyageurs spent months, sometimes years, traversing vast distances of wilderness to buy animal pelts from distant Native trading posts. They learned much about winter camping from the Native tribes, who had been doing it for millennia and had perfected the art of living outdoors in the middle of winter.
Fortunately you don’t have to be a voyageur nowadays to enjoy the beauty and solitude of winter camping. Technology has evolved over the centuries, making it much easier to spend time outside in all seasons. Assuming you already have experience with summer camping, here are a few tips for getting started on winter camping, though this list is far from exhaustive:
1. Start by extending your camping season. If you have only ever camped in the summer, consider camping in April or November, when the weather is quite cool and, depending on where you live, there may be snow on the ground.
2. Don’t go too far from home. For your first time, choose a location that's fairly close to your house. That allows you to bail if it doesn’t go well or if you need to pick up additional supplies. You could also go ‘car camping’ in winter, which means you’d drive to a location rather than trek to it.
3. Prepare meals as fully as possible. When it’s freezing cold outside, it’s much easier to reheat premade food than it is to actually prepare the food over a tiny camp stove.
4. Consult friends or local experts. Ask around your community for a serious camper who can give you tips on where to go. You could even ask to go along to learn the ropes from someone with experience. Borrow gear instead of buying it for the first few times in order to know what you like to use.
5. Respect the weather forecast. It can be disappointing to have to change your plans, but winter camping can be utterly miserable in bad weather. If you live in the mountains, pay attention to avalanche warnings. Be flexible, which will ultimately keep you safer.
6. Dress smartly. Wear layers, starting with underwear, followed by the insulating layer(s), and finished with a shell. Avoid cotton, as it is poor insulator when wet and takes a long time to dry. Wool and synthetics are a better option for winter camping.
7. Use a sled to haul your gear. The snow can be used to your advantage! It is much easier to pull than to carry all the extra gear required by winter camping. Once you get the strap positioned properly across your chest, it’s surprisingly easy to move a lot of weight.
8. Don’t go alone. You should always camp with someone else when the weather is cold, in case of emergencies. Always leave behind a detailed trip plan and do not deviate from that plan.
9. Choose a sheltered camping spot. Pack down snow before setup so that your body doesn’t melt a deformation into the snow. Or lay down a bed of balsam boughs, as Native people did for so many centuries, to carpet the ground below the tent.
10. Make sure you take the 10 survival essentials. This list comes from REI:
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools (knife)
Nutrition (extra food)
Hydration (extra water)
And, of course, ALWAYS remember to Leave No Trace!