Camping is a popular recreational activity anytime of the year, but it is camping during the winter that requires the most preparation and special equipment. Extra precautions and education about the risks involved are critical to the fun and success of your camping trip.
Winter camping is a challenging adventure. A camper must have a healthy respect for Mother Nature and plan accordingly. When my dad and brothers go ice camping, they spend days beforehand planning for every situation and working out the smallest details. And their preparation pays off because they always have exciting things to tell us when they get back. Before hearing their stories, I never knew you could sleep safely in a hole in the snow, or stay warm even when you are soaking wet.
The main concerns for winter camping are staying warm and dry, and remaining hydrated. The best way to avoid frostbite or hypothermia is to conserve your own body heat. There are three ways to lose critical warmth. Keeping them in mind as you camp or hike through freezing temperatures will make you aware of what you can be doing to keep your body warm.
- Radiation. The emission of body heat, especially from the skin areas exposed to the elements. A good set of gloves, hat, and scarf can help best in keeping bare skin to a minimum.
- Conduction. The absorption of cold by the body when sitting or laying on cold ground, or handling cold objects such as metal cooking utensils and metal canteens. This is why a decent sleeping pad is required for cold weather camping. The same goes for wearing gloves. A camp stool is a must on a winter camping trip. Try not to sit on the ground.
- Convection. The loss of body heat due to wind blowing across unprotected body parts. This situation can also be reduced by keeping bare skin covered with hats, scarves, and gloves. It is important to keep exposure to a minimum, ESPECIALLY in a windy situation. Convection heat loss can reduce body heat the fastest. Wet clothing will accelerate this process, making staying dry even more important.
Here are some other tips that will make your winter camping trip successful and free of accidents or emergencies that can prove to be life-threatening:
- Tent placement. Whenever possible, place your tent in a location that will catch the sunrise in the morning. This will aid in melting off any ice and evaporating any frost or dew that may have formed during the night. This will also warm your tent as you awaken in the morning. Cold air sinks. Try to place your campsite on slightly higher ground than the rest of your surroundings. Try to choose a protected site if it is snowing or the wind is blowing.
- Water consumption in cold weather. Dehydration can seriously impair the body's ability to produce heat. Drink fluids as often as possible during the day and keep a water bottle or canteen with you at night.
- Cooking in cold weather. Cooking in cold weather will take about twice as long as normal. Always use a lid on any pots that you are cooking in. This will help to hold in the heat and decrease the overall heating time. Make sure you start hot cleaning water before you start cooking. The pots and utensils must still be cleaned. Try to keep your menu to good one-pot meals. Things like stews, chili, and hot beans stick to your ribs, lessen the cleaning time, and provide good sources of energy and fuel for your internal furnace. A good high-calorie snack before bedtime will also keep you warm all night. Stay away from an overabundance of sugar. Cheese is a good high-calorie bedtime snack.
- Sleeping tip. Do not sleep with your mouth and nose in your sleeping bag. The moisture of your breath will condense in the bag, and cause it to become wet and ineffective as an insulator.
- Buddy system. Buddies can help each other pack for a trek, look after one another in the woods, and watch for symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia, and exhaustion.
- Checklist. Make a checklist of everything you need before you start to pack. Then check each item off as you pack it. This way you will not forget anything.
Taking this last idea to heart, we have included a checklist of some basic items that should be on every camping trip:
- Backpack with straps to hold skis/snowshoes
- Sleeping bag. A bag with a zero degree rating or less is best
- Sleeping pad. Never sleep directly on the cold ground (see above definition of conduction)
- Map and compass (every team member should have one)
- Headlamp and extra batteries
- Candles and matches
- Shovel (or use a grain scoop or other substitute)
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Garbage Bags, 3 or 4 (to make emergency sleeping bags or shelters)
- Boots, socks (wool is best)
- Long underwear (polypropylene or other materials that wick moisture away are best)
- Ribbons to tie to small gear so it can be found when dropped in the snow
Winter camping is a very rewarding sport because it requires so much effort. It is also one of the most dangerous activities you can engage in, if you are not prepared. With the proper preparation, it can be a fun activity for your family that teaches the value of hard work, how to work together as a team, and basic survival skills.