How do we survive winter camping? Tips and tricks for the first timer

Winter camping is an adventure that sounds quite shocking for the majority, but it is not as difficult (or cold) as one might think. So, we thought we could put into few lines the basic tips and tricks we use not to freeze and make it a pleasant experience instead of a nightmare.

If you already went winter camping then most likely you’ve learned the basics by now. Maybe even the hard way, by making your own mistakes, like we did. We are by far not pros and we still make mistakes, but hopefully our mistakes will help others learn.

Most of all we want to encourage – go and try it out! It is only scary when you think about it, not when you do it!

Clothes

First things first. If you don’t want to freeze your ass off, you have to dress well. And that basically means many layers. Of course, everybody knows that! But keep in mind one tiny detail – each layer has to be a bit looser than the previous one.

I didn’t think about it when buying my first winter jacket and ended up with the one that can only accommodate two layers comfortably. It is important not to feel tight when doing winter hiking, not only because of the freedom of movement but also because of thermic conditions. So when you buy a fleece or a jacket or any other piece that is not a first layer – think well how many layers you might want to wear below it and try it in the shop!!

Now, the layers. Our clear preference for the first layer is merino wool. It keeps your body warm and dry. And by all means – avoid cotton as it keeps all the moist inside it. There is a huge variety of what you can wear in between the first and the last layers. We usually go for synthetic materials (most often fleece) as they have good thermic qualities, weight less than wool and are easy to take care of.

Keep in mind that you will want an extra layer for the passive hours when you are not moving much. I usually wear 3 layers for hiking (merino + fleece + jacket) and four in the evening (merino + fleece + fleece + jacket).

Always have a dry set of clothes for the night and keep it well protected from the humidity during the day. In winter I usually sleep with at least two layers, which means two sets, but it depends a lot on how sensible you are to the cold.

The accessories are important. Do not underestimate gloves, gaiters, hats or buffs.

Cooking


Whatever your preferences for the cooking process are – always have a plan B!!

Having a hot meal and drink is essential to keep you warm. We usually use a gas stove when hiking as it is faster and gives you more flexibility on when and where to cook your hot meal. Nevertheless, in winter conditions you have to have a good gas stove that preheats the gas and a proper windshield.

In our trip to the Baltic countries we were stuck with a cheap campingaz stove which was not enough to boil the water in -5°C. Our plan B was natural fire and we even needed a plan C – dry wood, as the one we found in mother nature was so soaked that it was only producing smoke making it impossible to enjoy the fire or cook.

Sleeping

Proper sleeping bags and sleeping mats are crucial here.

Never use a simple inflatable sleeping mat as it will not have any thermic protection. A sleeping mat should serve you as a protective layer from the cold. And only then as a softener of the ground.

As for the sleeping bags – dawn does the magic. They are awfully expensive, but weight and occupy double less than synthetic sleeping bags while having better thermic qualities. We both have a Marmot Sawtooth sleeping bag (with an option to join them into one) which has a comfort temperature of around -3ºC and extreme of -27ºC.

Having a dawn sleeping bag allowed me to cheat a bit too. As I am super sensitive to the cold, I grabbed additionally my light summer sleeping bag and used them both. They still weighted less than my old synthetic one. And even though Pedro was teasing me for using two sleeping bags, I can still brag about going winter camping. Something that not so many people can brag about…

As for the tent, it doesn’t need to be super resistant to water as, luckily, water comes in a more solid form during this time of the year. But depending on where you are camping it must be more or less resistant to wind. Also, keep in mind that sticking the poles in the ground will be more difficult than in summer! If your tent has a “skirt” to close the bottom from the cold air or to use it for fixating purposes – then it’s a perfect tent for the winter! Oh, and check if you have closed all the entrances properly, so you wouldn’t have to wonder why you were feeling that cold wind on your head all the night.

What else could you do?

  • Use warmers for hands and feet (we used Aptonia warmers from Decathlon which were not very hot but good enough)
  • Keep yourself warm before going to sleep (if you are already cold when entering the sleeping bag, it will be difficult to get rid of the cold)
  • Run or walk some before going to sleep to get your body warmer. Yet, don’t exaggerate so you wouldn’t start sweating!
  • Pee right before going to sleep and don’t exceed drinking liquids in the evening. A full bladder will give you chills at night.
  • Use a hat and a buff when sleeping – your head and neck are the least protected places whilst in the sleeping bag.
  • Never sleep with a jacket on. It will keep your body humid. And humid means cold. If you are cold – spread your jacket and put it on the top of your sleeping bag as an extra layer.

Winter camping is as simple as this! The most important thing – don’t be afraid to try it! It is an unforgettable experience that helps to expand your limits.

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