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Winter Hiking & Camping Tips

Flickr/ Brook Peterson

If you plan on hitting the trail this winter then you’re going to have to change your strategies a bit from summer.

Winter hiking and camping may seem like a poor time to get outside. However, between reduced traffic on the trails and increased serenity in the back country, it can be one of the best times of year to get outside.

Winter hiking means less bugs to deal with and a severely reduced footprint. Here are some tips that can make what may seem like a difficult outdoors experience into some of the best hiking and camping you may ever have.

Before you go

It is important to always plan out your hike or trail to the campsite ahead of time, but especially so in winter. This includes checking the weather. Unlike summer where you may get a nice surprise in the form of a rain shower on your way down and out, the winter storms with snow and strong winds are more dangerous to get caught in.

You should also consider getting a detailed trail map and marking way points, or doing so via satellite device. With a snow covering, the trail can easily disappear from under your feet and leave you stranded with nothing but the white for miles. Remember, it is going to take longer to cover the same distance in winter as it would in summer.

A good practice to get into, but especially crucial this time of year, is informing somebody that you are going on your trip and giving them your timeline. If you get lost, it is good to have someone who can contact emergency services when you don’t return when planned.

Photo via Mitch Barrie; Lance hiking in the winter snow
Flickr/Mitch Barrie

Gearing up

Start with a warm under layer (the layer closest to the skin) and avoid cotton as it does not breath and takes much longer to dry than light wool or synthetics which help pull moisture from the body and send it up and out.

For your second layer or middle layer wear a fleece or goose-down jacket. This should be your insulating layer, so adjust depending on how cold it’s going to be.

The outer layer depends again on the weather. This is where you toss on your windproof/waterproof coat. If you start sweating and your gear can’t get rid of it, you’ll end up with cold and wet cloth right against your skin, drastically reducing your body temperature so make sure it is the right weight for the weather.

Mountaineering or snow boots are necessary if you are going to be in the snow. Gaiters are a great investment to make if you plan on hitting deeper snow and crampons are a good option for trails that may have significant ice coverage.

Bring a good supply of general winter gear as well. Hats, gloves, goggles/sunglasses, etc. are all going to come into play. Also bring extra socks. I can’t stress extra socks enough. They will very likely get wet. Double up on socks while you’re hiking, but be careful to adjust your boots if they are too tight or they will cut off circulation to your feet and do more damage than help.

For your sleeping set-up, make sure your bag is temperature rated for the weather you plan on being in and bring a sleeping pad for extra insulation against the ground. Another good option is an extra tarp or drop cloth to put a little space between the ground and your tent. This will provide additional insulation as well as help prevent moisture seeping in from below.

A snow shovel is a must-bring item for winter camping as well.

Snow shoes, ski/trekking poles, and a snow sled are all items that very well may be a good idea, but you should only bring them if they are actually going to be useful. Again, plan ahead and know what you’re getting into.

Insulate your water bottles with socks or pack them upside down, this way they won’t freeze or if they do the top of the water (bottom of the bottle) will be frozen allowing you access to the remaining water. For treatment options, physical filters will most likely not work in winter conditions and chemical treatment will take much longer. Melting snow or boiling available water will probably be your best bet for drinkable water.

Photo via Thomas Depenbusch; Winter snow in Kyrgyzstan, Alpinism Ala Archa National Park
Flickr/Thomas Depenbusch

On the hike

Stay aware of your body. If any of your clothing feels too tight, loosen it. As mentioned with your boots, over tight clothing items can restrict blood flow causing poor circulation and loss of heat.

Continuously eat; hiking for extended periods of time can take a lot of energy, even more so in winter. Bring extra food for camp, but also bring and have extra food readily available on your hike. Drink extra water. Dry and cold conditions are as bad for dehydration as high sun/heat conditions.

Mountain camping in the winter
Flickr/Laurel Fan

Setting up camp

Consider the typical things for your campsite as you would for summer, such as, is there water available and are there nearby campers? Also consider whether the sun will shine on your spot in the morning (providing extra heat), whether there is cover from the wind, the likelihood of branches falling from the weight of snow, and if it easy to find in the dark/inclement weather?

The tent you bring should be dependent on the conditions you face. A mountaineering or four-season tent will be comfortable year-round. Bring the smallest tent possible as this will be much easier to heat naturally via body temperature. Less space means less energy required to heat it.

Try building a snow-wall around your tent or digging into the snow a foot or two to protect from the wind. This will help support your tent through the night and help maintain a little extra heat. Also, pack the snow underneath the body of your tent. It will make sleeping on the snow more comfortable because you won’t melt it down as easy.

Photo via Rachel Kramer; Sun setting under a winter snow
Flickr/Rachel Kramer

For the actual cooking area, a windshield is a good item to bring. If you have deeper snow at camp, digging down two or three feet will offer some protection against the wind. For the food itself, dehydrated items that only require water save on space and weight. I’m also a big fan of canned soups. While heavier than most camp foods, they just require heat and the emptied can can be used as a cup, bowl, or small pack out trash bin for any wrappers/plastic/paper you may end up with.

Cold Weather Safety Concerns

The winter can be a marvelous time to get outdoors, but it’s not free from potential hazards. Hypothermia and frostbite enter the picture. If you’re planning your trip at a higher elevation, altitude sickness can also quickly come into play. Stop at the first sign of any of these symptoms and seriously consider heading back.

For an in depth look at how to deal with dehydration, check this out: What I learned: Treating dehydration when you’re miles from camp

Depending on the area, avalanches can also be a concern. With the proper planning you should be aware ahead of time, just make sure to do your research and load up on any extra items such as avalanche transceivers or personal locator beacons (and learn how to use them before heading out and needing to).

Often dismissed as the months to stay inside, don’t go without the great outdoors this winter. Use these tips to get out of the house this winter and onto a trail.

More links

How to deer hunt in fresh snow

How to hunt waterfowl in cold weather

Columbia jackets to keep you warm for the rest of winter

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Winter Hiking & Camping Tips