5 Things Polar Explorer Eric Larsen Thinks you should know about cold weather camping
Here's the deal: I don't like being cold. As someone who has literally built my whole life around traveling and camping in the world's most extreme environments, you would think this would be a huge problem. The reality is quite different, however. While I may not like the actual 'feeling' of being cold, I love being outside in the cold; and more importantly, being warm and comfortable no matter how low the temperature drops.
Winter is an incredible time to be outside and knowing a few basic pointers can often mean the difference between fun with friends and frostbite. Cold weather camping should be an enjoyable experience, so keep it that way by following these simple, yet critical winter camping tips.
Stay warm, seriously…
Any discussion of winter camping should begin with an overview of layering. The concept of layering involves adding or taking off different layers of clothing as you heat up and cool off. The goal of any winter activity, surprisingly, is to not get too hot or sweat. Once you sweat, the warm insulating layer of air next to your body is replaced by heat sucking water (sweat). Therefore, I always wear a light moisture wicking base layer next to my skin to pull sweat away from my body. Next, I’ll add an insulating layer which can be another base layer or fleece. On top of that, I’ll add some type of windproof (and breathable) shell. Depending on my level of activity or the temperature I may add or subtract layers as necessary. Ice fishing in northern Minnesota? Six or Seven layers. Winter backpacking? Only two or three total.
Take care of your feet
For starters, it’s a good idea to have some type of winter rated boot. It’s important to keep the boot dry from the inside (sweat) or the outside snow and slush. After that, I like to use a liner sock and then a thicker sock. Be sure that your boots don’t feel tight as it will cut off warmth-enhancing blood flow. You also lose a lot of heat through the soles of your feet and contact (conduction) with the ground. I always suggest using a good insole, and if you're hanging out in the snow for extended periods of time, stand on an insulated pad as well.
Tents: Let’s talk about them…
You’d be surprised at how much comfort (and warmth) the two thin little layers of nylon can provide while winter camping. If possible, use a four season tent which generally has less ‘mesh’ on the inner tent and therefore holds heat better. When choosing a tent spot use snowshoes, skis or your boots to tramp down an adequately-sized footprint on which to set up your tent. Exchange your summer stakes for larger snow stakes, pickets or things like poles or skis which you can use to make a ‘dead man’. I usually bring a small brush to clean off boots and clothes so no extra snow gets inside the tent (and melts). In base camp situations, I like to dig out the vestibule which can make getting in and out as well as storing gear and cooking much easier.
Sleeping in the cold
Just like layering clothes on your body, you can do the same thing while sleeping. I generally use a cold-weather rated sleeping bag with a larger bag over it for additional insulation. Of course, you also need to insulate yourself from the snow and therefore need a winter-rated sleeping pad. I tend to use two pads in winter making sure one is a closed cell foam pad. Make sure you are wearing dry layers while sleeping and if you want an extra dose of extended heat, add fill up a water bottle with hot water and place it inside the bag at your feet. Lastly, for really cold nights, ensure that your sleeping bag is properly cinched around your face and head.
What to eat in the cold
The nice thing about camping in the winter is that you don’t have to worry about any of your food spoiling or going rotten. Still, food that freezes solid can be difficult to eat. Therefore, I try to choose foods that I can either eat easily when they are frozen or require little prep time. I try to portion foods and remove excess packaging ahead of time and pack each day’s meals together. In winter, I generally eat more calories than summer but always make sure I have a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
Soup is essential for winter camping
It may not sound like a big deal, but soup has saved my you-know-what on more than one occasion. Every day on my expeditions we make a soup in the morning in one of the Stanley vacuum food jars. At lunch, the soup is still hot (no matter how cold it gets) and we get an extra boost of energy and warmth. Philosophically, the soup provides a good halfway point throughout the day and we always look forward to ‘soup break’.
Hydration is key even when it’s cold
While most people focus on hydration in the summertime, it often gets overlooked in cold conditions. I travel on a schedule stopping every hour for a drink. Using any of the Stanley vacuum bottles to ensure your drinks stay warm and drinkable is paramount when you are winter camping.