I would like to try winter camping. What are some common mistakes first-timers make when trying to camp in the cold?

I would be camping in temperatures between 0 - 32 Fahrenheit (-17 - 0 degrees Celsius). The climate would tend to be dry and cold, temperatures consistently below freezing, unlikely to encounter anything but snow as precipitation.

I have a 4-season tent and a 0-degree F synth bag that is old so it's more like a 32-degree (0 degrees C) bag.

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    I feel this is a really good question as, in my limited experience, winter camping is full of gotchas that you only realize when it's too late. – JollyJoker Oct 16 at 12:24
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    I read this in the side bar as "What are some common mistakes to avoid when trying winter campaigning for the first time?" and my first reaction was "Don't invade Russia". – R. Schmitz Oct 16 at 13:23
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    Are you talking Winter Camping in Canada or Winter Camping in Scotland? One is very cold, icy and snowy. One is slightly warmer (-5c) but with less snow and a lot more rain, sleet and wind. Many extreme weather military manuals argue that this thawed cold is far worse because you WILL get wet. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold-weather_warfare , in particular the Temperature subheading in Weather Conditions. – Smeato Oct 16 at 15:06
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    @JollyJoker It might be considered too broad, though. – WBT Oct 16 at 15:08
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    Not a direct answer but first try car camping in the snow and cold so if something goes wrong you have an out. – paparazzo Oct 16 at 21:45

15 Answers 15

up vote 52 down vote accepted

Common mistakes, some of which I've made:

  • Unfamiliarity with equipment - this isn't specific to winter camping of course, but if you've used all the gear before in milder conditions, then there's obviously less that's new to you. So if you're using a different tent to summer, make sure you've spent a night in it before the winter, so that you know where all the internal pockets are by feel, for example. Or use it in winter, but close to home/transport, so that you have an escape when you realise you're missing something vital.

  • Equipment freezing - if you usually leave your boots in the tent porch, you might want to bring a carrier-bag to keep them warm in the tent (inside your sleeping bag in extremis!) without smearing mud everywhere. Similarly, you probably want to keep your water-bottle (and any other freezable liquids) in your inner tent.

  • Cooking fuel - you'll need up to twice as much fuel as summer - even more if you need to melt snow or ice to obtain drinking/cooking water. Make sure you take plenty; it's pretty miserable in winter without hot food.

    If you're using gas, avoid butane (which completely liquefies at around -0.5°C, depending on altitude) - butane/propane mix is a better choice (down to around -15°C/+5°F or so). You might need to keep your fuel inside your tent, or even your sleeping bag - but only if you're confident it won't leak; going hungry is preferable to being poisoned!

    Whatever fuel you use, make sure you know how it behaves at the temperatures you might encounter, and insulate it appropriately.

  • Food - as for cooking, you'll need more body-fuel to maintain your warmth and to carry the heavier load than summer. If you've done a lot of winter day-trips, you'll be used to taking a bit extra in your pockets, but might not realise how much more you're eating when off the hill. On a backpacking trip, you can't afford to get into energy debt.

  • Snow - depending on your tent design, snow may settle on it, and cause the outer to touch the inner; in very heavy, wet, snow, it could even collapse your tent. In such conditions, you might need to get up every few hours to clear it. Snow can also reduce ventilation under the flysheet, leading to problems with condensation, and (at least theoretically) with CO₂ build-up.

  • Ground conditions - frozen ground can be hard to get pegs into, or deep snow might require broad pegs ("sand pegs") if you can't clear it to ground level. Make sure you know what kind of ground to expect, or take a selection of pegs for different conditions. Use a sleeping mat; in cold conditions, I've even used an ordinary closed-cell mat underneath the tray groundsheet and an inflatable pad inside the tent.

  • Daylight - depending on your latitude, days may be much shorter than they are in summer, so you'll have less time to reach your destination, or will have to make camp by torchlight. Make sure you have plenty of batteries or fuel for your light - and remember that batteries are less effective at low temperatures. I carry a set of AAA lithium cells¹ as spares for my head-torch - they cost two to four times as much as alkaline cells, but they work better in the cold, weigh less², and last longer (shelf life and in use). When the cheap alkalines are done, I have a backup I know I can trust.

¹ Lithium-iron primary cells - not to be confused with lithim-ion rechargeables
² A rare treat: winter gear that's lighter than summer gear - relish it!

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    I think it would be a good addition to this answer that one should enlighten oneself about the freezing temperatures of all the things one entrains. E.g., Diesel fuel freezes ("gels") only below ca. -20°C, which in Germany is reached only very rarely, in turn making Diesel safe to store outside except in the most extreme winters. Of course, ground temperature should not be underestimated, so even if air temp is -15°C, storing Diesel on non-insulated ground could be unsafe. – phresnel Oct 17 at 6:37
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    @phresnel, I've added a sentence to summarise that; your comment is still useful to expand on it. – Toby Speight Oct 17 at 8:43
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    I have a small addition to the point about batteries. I haven't tried it with (litium) AAA batteries, but I know it works with my camera's lithium batteries: if they fail at low temperatures as if they're out of juice, they really aren't. Don't throw them out, just put your spare batteries in your device and put the batteries that failed near your body, so they warm up. Swap them around again when your spares fail. They ones that warmed up some should work again for a while (until they really are out of juice). Source: I like taking photos outside in winter. – Cyonis Oct 17 at 11:29
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    Even a winter mix of Isobutane/propane will NOT work at -15°C or lower. I've tried it, down to -25°C. Even warming the canister for a few hours at body temperature only works for about a minute as the drop in pressure decreases the temperature of the canister so fast it's crazy. Then it sputters and doesn't burn efficiently at all. I hate using white gas but in cold temperatures, it's the only practical option. – Gabriel C. Oct 17 at 14:08
  • @phresnel There used to be a difference between summer Diesel and winter Diesel, at least in NW Europe. Which numbers are you citing? – Mast Oct 19 at 22:22

Some common mistakes, definitely nothing close to exhaustive, so feel free to edit (I'll make it a community wiki if appropriate). If the point is about what you should do, the mistake is not doing it ;)

  • Underestimating the sleeping pad, You need a well insulated pad. There are various designs, but while R-Value isn't an absolute measure, it still is a good starting pointer: What is a good R value for a four-season sleeping pad?
    With a too thin pad you will be miserably cold on the bottom (well all over with time) no matter how good your sleeping bag is.

  • Forgetting to bring a second set of (under)clothing. Bring a second set of your baselayer clothing and store them completely watertight.

  • Not having sufficient variety of gloves for different purposes or not using them accordingly. Working gloves (mostly for digging the shelter) will get drenched eventually. Very warm gloves when you are "not doing anything", i.e. you don't need to touch snow (well, not more than occasionally) and you don't sweat. They are your backup gloves and should never ever get wet. Then I usually bring even a third pair that is used in between: I am not building stuff, but maybe cooking, walking, ... - they might get a bit wet, but not like when working.

  • Not using layering for clothing. I mean you should always do this outdoors, but in the cold it's just a necessity. You will need to adjust your clothing often due to activity level and/or temp/wind changes. You can't get cold but you also can't sweat, because you will get cold - so adjust early and often.

  • Forgetting to check their cooking gear at such conditions. Gas might not work or very badly at such low temps. I even had issues once lighting the gasoline when preheating the stove at ~-20degC. There's solutions, that's not really the point I want to make here, the point is, you don't want to find out whether it works when you are hours away from a warm place in the dark.

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    Some of these are phrased as shouldn't do's and some as should do's. The gloves one seems to be the odd one out here. Maybe you could change the phrasing to bring it in line. – JAD Oct 16 at 13:52
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    @JAD I've submitted a suggested edit: first sentence always negative in bold, rest of each paragraph is what you should do. Also changed them all to present progressive for consistency. – Acccumulation Oct 16 at 20:37
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    In regards to gloves, the “working pair” can be covered with plastic bags when doing “wet work” like digging in snow. The bags are lightweight and dry easily. This can reduce weight and no need for a third pair. If it wasn’t mentioned, a second pair of inner and outer socks is a MUST. All socks should be stored inside your sleeping bag. If wet, place in an unsealed plastic bag and store between you bag and your pad as you sleep. They should be dry in the morning. – M.Mat Oct 17 at 2:24
  • “Forgetting to bring a second set of (under)clothing.” This is a luxury you might not have if you have to carry all your stuff. Synthetic fibers should insulate quite well even when wet (e.g. from sweat). A wet down sleeping bag on the other hand can be a death sentence, so make sure to keep it dry (though OP mentions a synth bag which should be less sensitive). – Michael Oct 19 at 6:40
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    @Michael - Dry clothes around camp is an essential, Not a luxury. – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:02

To add to the already-good other contributions:
Wearing cotton clothing is a common mistake. When cotton gets wet (from sweat or external sources), it doesn't quickly get dry, and that cold moisture close to your body conducts heat away. To underscore another answer's point even more, layering is also important; use non-cotton layers wherever possible. Have at least one layer that's a good windbreak.

Being reluctant to change clothes is a common issue: First time winter campers might not want to do this because they may be already cold and think it'll be colder exposing their skin to that cold air for the short time needed to change, but the extra warmth from fresh dry clothes is impressive. You can also try changing inside a sleeping bag to mitigate the effect.

I've also found that people tend to overlook the warmth value of silk long underwear. It's not super cheap, but it's warm, compact, and lightweight, and the extra happiness you can get from being warm makes winter camping a lot nicer.

Failure to account for battery performance degradation at lower temperatures is a common error that leaves people without enough spare batteries for headlights etc. (which you use more as there are more hours of darkness).

Failure to stake out the tent for ventilation is a common error. It seems counterintuitive, but make sure you use those ropes that hold a gap between the rainfly and tent body to allow for ventilation (and to some degree, a layer of air insulation). You will produce water vapor in your breath at night and if that's allowed to build up you'll feel cold and clammy in the morning.

Not having enough traction underfoot is another common error. You can buy YakTrax, ice spikes (which are similar to crampons but many fewer spikes and less sharp), or crampons. Good ankle support can help avoid rolled ankles.

Dehydration is a common issue because the air is drier and you need to drink more to stay hydrated, especially when doing active outdoor physical activities. Even basic camping (setting up the tent, fire-building, cooking, etc.) uses more physical exertion than you might do at home. Drink plenty of liquids, and include some salts/electrolytes in the mix.

Overlooking sun protection is another common issue. In the winter you have not only the sun from directly above, but reflecting from the snow. Have good eye protection and consider still using sunscreen.

Cooking in the tent can kill you with CO (or fire). Don't do it.

Do consider putting a bottle of hot water in the sleeping bag with you at night. If you don't have hot water, at least liquid water. Then it's more likely to stay liquid until the morning. Don't fill water bottles completely if they might freeze; leave about a third of the bottle empty for expansion that doesn't bust the bottle. If you have options, choose insulated-wall bottles instead of single-wall plastic.

If you went unprepared and are freezing in wet clothes, and think you might be suffering from hypothermia, avoid going to sleep and if you reach that later stage when you feel much warmer, don't take off your clothes as a result.

In general, I think a common mistake is underestimating how much fun and how much of a positive learning/growth experience winter camping can be. Do it enough times and it also provides psychological immunity to long power/heat outages from winter storms at home.

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    Merino wool is the most excellent choice I have found for cold conditions bar none. – M.Mat Oct 17 at 2:36
  • “Cooking in the tent can kill you with CO. Don't do it.” With proper ventilation this shouldn’t be an issue. I think the main reason why it can be a bad idea is that water vapor will settle and freeze on the tent wall immediately. – Michael Oct 19 at 6:55
  • @Michael - The risk of not enough ventilation is extreme -- many have died from CO poisoning. – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:04
  • Have a look at the Vents on Hilleberg tunnel tents to see the needed size of the ventilation. They also go direct to the ground snow to avoid spindrift coming up underneath the flysheet. Also a small tea light, on a metal tray (e.g. Trangia lid) both 'heats' and illuminates a tent while awake. – Philip Oakley Oct 20 at 14:23
  • @Michael, Martin, Philip: These comments are really better placed on the linked-to question and/or answers (and/or as answers there). – WBT Oct 21 at 19:37

Winter outdoor recreation can be a place where the margin of error is a lot smaller than in warm-weather/typical camping season. Winter stuff also just takes a lot more overall energy to do anything, meaning that energy management (and learning how to do things when you are cold and tired) is key. With that in mind, two mistakes I have not yet seen mentioned in other answers and I think are important to avoid:

Mistake #1: Failing to leave specific details about your trip plan with one or more "in case of emergency" (ICE) contacts. For many people, it's more fun and less effort to just run out the door, but making a trip plan and leaving with ICE contacts can make it much easier to get help if something goes wrong on your trip. To avoid mistake #1, you should collect the following information in a document of some sort:

  • Names and contact information for people going on the trip. By contact information I mean details for any means of communication they will bring with them (cell phone number, email, radio callsign, etc.). If you are going solo (which I do not recommend for beginner winter trips, unless you are sleeping out in your backyard), this will be just your contact information, but is still important to document.
  • Names and contact information for official resources relevant to your trip. For example, if you are camping at a state park, what is the phone number and hours for the office there?
  • Directions about where you will be over the course of your trip and how exactly you plan to get there. These should be specific enough that your ICE contact (who may not be as familiar with the area as yo), can still effectively communicate your likely location to search-and-rescue officials in case you become injured and call for help (or become overdue and they have to trace your planned steps to come find you). Providing the actual document can also help such officials plan a search.
  • Notes about when you will be where, and when anyone in the outside world should consider you "overdue" and come looking for you to make sure you're not in deep trouble. For example, I specify where I intend to sleep (and make every effort to follow this plan when picking my campsites) and when intend to leave/move to a new area. Specifying who should come looking for you (neighbor, family member, friend who knows the camping area, search and rescue people, etc.) and how to contact them (for example, through a State Park office phone number) will make things easier for your ICE contact(s).
  • Notes about what type of gear and skills you and your trip companions have. For gear, will you have or not have a first aid kit? Extra cellphone and flashlight batteries? A car packed to the brim with sleeping bags and pads? Food just for the day versus food for a week? etc. For skills, note whether anyone has first aid training, previous winter camping experience, general camping experience, etc.

Then, once you have collected the above information, give it to at least one person (if not multiple people) who cares about your well being and has the capacity to be semi-alert to communication from you throughout the trip (in case you deviate from the plans and can communicate when and how the changes happened) and has the capacity to be fully alert and able to communicate with you and/or a search crew around your stated overdue/cut-off times.

The above recommendation is not meant to be scary or otherwise discourage you from going winter camping. I love winter outdoor activities, including winter camping, and think that if you are interested in it now, there is a very good chance you will enjoy it, too. The above recommendation (to avoid the listed mistake) is intended to do two things: (A) force you to think through all of these details ahead of time, so that you can plan a trip that is sensible and safety-conscious before you even step out your door, and (B) increase the chances that someone can come help you out of a jam if you do manage to make a mistake in spite of all of the advice given here. (B) increases the likelihood that you'll be able to go winter camping again.

Mistake #2: Pushing yourself to do/learn too much all at once on a single winter camping trip. Making this mistake decreases the chances you'll have fun and want to go again (the least worst case scenario) and increases the chances something will go dangerously wrong (the worst case scenario). To avoid this mistake, you should realize that it is perfectly acceptable (and highly recommended) to engage in training and testing opportunities related to winter camping, before you head off for a backpacking campsite with the overnight low forecast to be 15*F.

There are a lot of skills to learn for being comfortable outdoors in the cold. You can practice them in smaller, safer ways than trying to learn them all at once on a winter camping. This way, when you do try to use them all at once on the camping trip, you'll have to think about each individual skill less, because you can rely on the practice you got with them previously.

Moving parts and how to practice them before winter camping:

  • Do you know how to layer properly when you are moving and when you are standing around? On a cold day, if you walk briskly around a park (or a neighborhood, or the block around your workplace), then stop and sit for a little while this is a great way to test out your understanding of how to layer clothing and how to adjust it for different types of activity levels. In winter camping there are times when you will be active (setting up camp, hiking around) and passive (sitting for meals, sleeping) and you can practice the basics for how to switch your clothing between these activities without going actually camping. (When I lived close enough to work to walk, in the winter my daily commute was how I tested out a wide range of layering methods for myself.)
  • Can you make food and heat water in the cold with your cooking and water storage gear? Verify your local laws, but most parks are ok places to take your winter cooking gear and use it on picnic tables, etc. So pick a day (or a lunch hour) on a chilly day to test out your gear, take notes, and repeat the practice several times. (You can do this on a warm day, too, if you're using completely different gear than you have experience with.)
  • Is your sleeping gear warm enough? Do you have a yard you can sleep in? Do you have a friend with a yard? Do you have a campground that you can car camp at? These are all places to practice sleeping out overnight that give you a much larger margin of error for testing your gear and your skills. You can learn: whether your sleeping pad (or pads) is warm enough, is your tent comfortable to spend 9 hours in, where can you put your headlamp so you can find it in the dark, how annoying is it to get out of your sleeping gear and go to the bathroom? And you can do it in a place where, if the answer is "not warm enough" you can just walk back into your house, take a hot shower and go to bed safely and try again another time. If you test out your gear for the first (or even the second) time when you're a 3 mile + hike away from the car at a location that's a 3 hour drive from home and at least 40 minutes from the nearest camping gear store, well, you're making things a lot harder on yourself if you discover any errors.
  • Are any people interested in coming with you likely to enjoy themselves? If you've got a friend who's intrigued, doing test runs can also help you get a sense for each other's experience and limits, and develop good habits to keep an eye on each other. For example, I have a friend who really dislikes the cold, but enjoyed outdoor recreation and time spent with me and our other camping friends enough to try cold weather camping on several occasions. Knowing what my friend was like on short walks in the cold meant on camping trips I could distinguish between friendly griping about the "ridiculous" temperatures that signaled minor discomfort and the passive aggressive sniping that showed up once towards the end of a winter backpacking trip when my friend had actually started slipping towards being in trouble internal temperature and available energy-wise.
  • How do you (personally) mentally and physically respond to being cold and tired? Much like the previous point, except focused specifically on you. I get excessively (embarrassingly) cranky when my feet are cold and wet, even if the rest of me is perfectly warm and dry. This is somewhat dangerous if I'm paying more attention to my uncomfortable feet than to things like where I'm going, what time it is (how much daylight is left) and whether I've been eating and hydrating properly. After learning this about myself, I figured out the gear and habits that will prevent me getting to that point through dayhikes in local parks, so I didn't have to cope with that issue on camping trips where I couldn't just scrounge up an extra pair of dry socks and grocery bags.
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    The Emergency Info as you have detailed here, is absolutely ESSENTIAL for any excursion into the wilderness or remote location, ANYTIME of year. An emergency comm device like the the Garmin InReach or another sat device is important for winter conditions where things can go South unexpectedly. – M.Mat Oct 17 at 2:34

Don't underestimate condensation.

Other answers have mentioned sleeping mats. The problem is that if you're camped on cold ground, you've got a cold groundsheet, and that's going to get condensation on it. Even if you've got a sleeping mat, that's not much help if your clothes get wet while you're moving around in the tent. Or when your sleeping bag inevitably falls slightly off the m mat.

My suggestion for sleeping mats is always a Z-Lite or similar underneath, and something on top for comfort. With a tent floor which could be damp, I suggest getting 3 Z-Lites for a 2-man tent and line the floor with them. They weigh next to nothing, and their structure means any condensation isn't trapped underneath as it is with regular flat mats.

Also on condensation, the outside of your sleeping bag is going to get damp anyway, as your evaporating sweat hits the colder outer layers of the bag. You need to be serious about airing your sleeping bag wherever possible, otherwise the damp is going to work its way through and you're in for progressively less comfortable nights.

  • “They weigh next to nothing” 3x0.41kg = 1.2kg you are carrying around just to avoid condensation on the floor. How much total weight are you carrying? – Michael Oct 20 at 5:07
  • @Michael If theres two of you, then that's only one extra per person. Well worth it IMO. Also depends if you're walking or car-camping - for the latter, weight isn't a big deal.:) – Graham Oct 20 at 8:29
  • A 300g emergency bivvy bag/sleeping bag cover avoids condensation falling on your bag. – Rob Jeffries Oct 22 at 13:56
  • @RobJeffries Not condensation falling on your bag - it's about your bag falling in the condensation puddle. Covers tend not to work so well for full immersion. And for condensation coming from your body, a cover only makes this worse. – Graham Oct 22 at 16:47
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    @Graham A breathable bivvy stops your sleeping bag getting wet. An extra mat does not because ice falls on your bag and melts. The Rab "Survival Zone" is ideal. You can lie on wet ground with it. That is what it's designed for. There is perhaps a case when it is so cold that ice will not fall off the inner and/or melt when it hits your bag - but then I can't see why their should be a "puddle" if it's that cold. The bivvy bag also subtracts a couple of degrees from your bag temperature rating. My experience is in extremely damp winter conditions (Scotland) when condensation is at its worst – Rob Jeffries Oct 22 at 18:36

I have camped for a month in March/April in Alaska. The biggest problem that we had was managing moisture of clothing, and bedding. Things slowly get more moist, largely from breathing and you eventually have trouble keeping warm. Having a way to dry things out at some point would really help. Otherwise being very careful with ventilation will help.

Haven't seen this one yet:

It may be tempting, but don't pitch your tent under a snow-covered tree, unless you're prepared for that snow to fall on you. Speaking from (youthful) experience here.

There have been various wonderful points about the proper use of equipment (tents, pads, gloves), and other hints. One thing I didn't see is the advice to anticipate the cold. What I mean by that is being able to anticipate temperature changes before they happen. In general, staying warm is easier than warming up (much like staying hydrated). I just takes some awareness to be able to do so, because the temperature outside (and your body temp) can change quite quickly.

For example, I was camping with some friends of mine, and noticed that the sun would go down in about 15-30 minutes. I decided to put on some of the layers I had packed, including my heavy coat. About half an hour later, everyone else had cold hands and was beginning to put their clothing on. Mine was already warmed up and my overall body temperature was perfectly fine. The end result was that I was able to take my gloves off and work on some fine details without an issue, while others were struggling to put on heavier gloves.

In that case it was the sun going down that caused the temperature change, but there are many different things - such as changing wind, sun, or other weather conditions - that can quickly change the temperature. Paying attention will allow you to anticipate or react quickly to those conditions, making your experience all the better.

Underestimating how hard it is to walk in the snow

I have done quite a lot of summer hiking and decided to go in winter on a track I knew well.

The track was layered with about a meter of snow. It was not a dangerous one, topographically speaking (no risk to fall off a cliff or something) but we clearly underestimated how tired we would be walking in the snow.

We ended up stopping mid-track and get back. It was less risky than to hope to reach our target and it was the right decision: we knew what to expect (who knows how the snow would be further on), had a clear track in front of us.

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    Yes, having snowshoes can be very helpful in the snow. – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:29
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    Suggest replace "topologically" with "topographically" – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:30
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    @MartinF: I replaced the word (too much math I guess). As for the walking part, it was not the lack of equipment which was a problem (we had everything we needed) but the mere effort of making a trench in a meter+ of snow. – WoJ Oct 22 at 8:54

All of my overnight camping involves backpacking with minimal gear and hiking several miles into the campsite, so I'll answer the question from that perspective.

  • The primary thing is to stay dry. I'd rather endure 10F dry than 40F wet.
  • Bring spare gloves, socks, insulated hat, and undergarments, because they will get wet just from perspiration. At night, dry your things by the fire.
  • Wear proper insulated socks. My preference is wool.
  • Wear water resistant boots with good treads that don't slip in the snow.
  • Keep a water proof outer layer like a poncho. The one I carry can unsnap into a square shape and has grommets on the corners, so it can easily double as a tarp if needed when combined with cord.
  • Dress in layers. Even in freezing temperatures, I get warm and sweat when I'm actively hiking or working, so I may shed all the way down to sweat pants, tee-shirt, and long sleeve shirt. Of course, as soon as I stop for a break, I get cold fast, so I always have my full outfit handy.
  • When choosing a camp site, consider that higher elevations will be more windy. Also determine from which direction the wind is blowing, before you setup camp. Not only does wind cause chill factor, but it impedes your efforts when trying to start a fire.
  • Don't worry too much about the temperature rating of the sleeping bag. If you get cold during the night, then one option is to stuff clothes or a trash bag full of dry leaves into the sleeping bag with you. That poncho I mentioned earlier can also be draped over the sleeping bag as well.
  • There is no point in backpacking a bulky sleeping pad when you're surrounded by plenty of insulating material in the woods. A couple of leaf filled trash bags also work as an insulating sleeping pad.
  • For an overnight trip, don't forget to pack at least two liters of water regardless of the temperature. You still need to keep hydrated even when it's cold.
  • What I've described above is a minimalist approach. If you're the lead planner for a group hiking/camping trip, then carefully consider each individuals's experience level, health, and comfort needs.
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    Funny, I would rate a warm sleeping back as the single most important item. (But admittedly I have never improvised with leaves etc. which probably makes sense if the goal is to hike as lightly as possible). In my experience sleeping bags are rarely warm enough; the official temperature ratings are ridiculous and can only be meant as survival thresholds, with full clothes on. My advice would be to get the warmest sleping bag you can get your hands on which you are willing to carry. Their weight is, of course, a function of their price. – Peter A. Schneider Oct 19 at 14:54

If you have the luxury, take a bunch of stuff you're not sure you'll need. A winter hat can be great for sleeping, especially if that bag is not a mummy. An extra fleece blanket is very nice, or even just a big dry towell if nothing else is available. A warm sweater that's not getting wet during the day is nice, and some extra layer between you and the ground. It's mostly the night I would worry about. You probably know roughly what to expect from the day, and you can always find ways to warm up. But barely sleeping because you keep waking up cold is just really uncomfortable. So try to overestimate what you'll need, stay on the safe side.

Anything else is probably pretty dependent on what you're thinking of trying. Do you have any details about the trip in your head?

  • The question is what are common mistakes. Do you mean that take a bunch of stuff you're not sure you'll need is a mistake that people commonly make? I'm not sure what you're saying! – gerrit Oct 16 at 9:54
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    I just took it as "what should I think about going winter camping the first time?" I would say staying warm at night is the most important thing that's easy to underestimate. – Monster Oct 16 at 11:24

Do not underestimate the cold. Ever. I suggest you go with a group, preferably people who are experienced. You should also try camping in autumn so you can begin to understand what winter will be like (hint it will be much colder).

If you are going by yourself, try going in progressively colder conditions so you can learn and hopefully mitigate any unforeseen problems. Make sure you know the way out, no matter what time of day or night. Make sure there is a way out anytime you need. There is no shame in leaving early - your personal well being (and those with you) is the top priority.

Consider going camping with a scouting group. There is generally a wealth of experience and knowledge with, not only the adults, but the scouts as well. As a scout I've camped in a tent in -40C without any problems. During times like that more than half the scouts at the site (competition camp, so many groups camping at the same time over the entire site) left through the night because they determined their gear was not appropriate for the temperature as it was not supposed to hit -40C (without windchill).

GEAR

  • A sleeping bag that is rated appropriately for winter, and then some. A mummy bag that is rated for -40C works well (unless your winters only hit -5C)
  • Others have mentioned insulation pads for under your sleeping bag. You won't need anything ridiculous. The snow itself is insulating along with a good sleeping bag you will be alright. Thicker pads will of course insulate better. If you are going in by car, take a thick one, if you are hiking everything in, take a thinner one. What you don't want is an air mattress.
  • An appropriate tent for winter (others have already mentioned the pegs). When picking a spot, if you know it will not be warm enough to melt... you can always build wind banks with the snow (dig your tent down a little).
  • A couple extra sets of dry socks / underwear [never go to sleep wet or damp, always dry off]
  • Like others have said, know your camping fuel and your stove. You don't want your fuel freezing in the pipe lines or in the canister. I've found Naptha ("white fuel") tends to work well.
  • Chocolate, granola, nuts and other high calorie foods (high sugar content is good for the quick fix you may need). Moving around in a snow filled environment takes a lot more energy (and moving around if you don't have somewhere warm to sit is important to keeping warm)
  • Plenty of liquids: Even though it is the winter, you will expel a large amount of liquid (breathing, urinating, sweating...). Warm liquids are best (since it serves to keep you warm at the same time as hydrate!)
  • Appropriate clothing (outerwear and inner). Learn about how to dress to keep dry (rolling around in the snow melts it, gets your outer shell wet and.. if the water reaches inside your winter jacket you will want that jacket off, and a change of dry clothes on). Learn how to make gaps of air between your clothing. Wearing clothing in layers without the air will not keep you warm (those air pockets are in a way insulation)
  • I know mittens aren't cool, but bring them anyways. Your fingers grouped together will keep your hands warmer than gloves. Bring extra, as they have a tendency to get wet. Your body will protect it's core by cutting circulation to your hands, feet etc first (so hands and feet feeling cold for longer than a few minutes is something to be concerned about, as your body is beginning to conserve heat)
  • Wearing a touque that covers your ears is important. Your ears will likely get frostbitten first (though that 80% of your body heat is lost through your head myth is just a myth)
  • Boots: bring ones with liners that you can change (and bring extra liners). Dry socks with damp/wet boots will just result in more damp/wet socks.. and extend to cold feet (bad in the winter)

Other: important

Hypothermia is extremely dangerous. Read up on it. Understand what it is, how to recognize it and how to deal with it. It isn't one of those things that isn't there, then suddenly is... it can creap up on you. If you are feeling a little cold, try walking in the snow for a few minutes - it is not easy and you'll warm up fast. Just remember, sweat is also your enemy. Once you cool down after doing physical activity that sweat along with the cold temperatures outside will drop your temperature too much, and you again risk Hypothermia (dry clothes is important if you are sweaty.. change as needed)

Frostbite is also a danger. It generally takes a little time to happen as well (extreme temperatures can result in frostburn quickly to exposed skin as well).

Depending on your country you may have two temperature sets. In Canada you will have your regular temperature and your temperature with windchill. Heed both of them.

  • Welcome to TGO, Andrew. Maybe you should replace "I know gloves aren't cool, but bring them anyways." with "I know mittens aren't cool, but bring them anyways." – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:24
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    +1 "bring ones with liners that you can change (and bring extra liners)". I've never had boots with liners but wish i did! – Martin F Oct 19 at 21:26
  • @MartinF Thanks for catching that! I edited it. – Andrew Oct 22 at 5:11

Something I learned ... while layering is absolutely necessary in general, wearing all of your layers into bed isolates portions of the body and keeps your body's heat from being available to warm itself. Get your night-time heat from your sleeping kit first and wear less than full clothing: only what's necessary (socks, hat, shirt/sweater/something around shoulders, etc.). The comments about ground insulation are also a big deal.

The most cruitial mistake you could do with winter camping is God forbid lose a toe or get a frost bite on toe or fingers. Take into account that when you will not be moving, you would need much more warmer clothes. I would say Fingers and toes are most vulnerable in cold conditions.

For this reason, I would suggest to go with at least -10 extra rated equipment for conditions that you expect. I myself have invested in -40F rated sleeping bag and -40F rated mittens because I know if something bad happens, I can bunk in my bag and get recharged. It actually helped once.

My first winter camping turnout almost dangerous as we encountered 70+ miles cold winds. We couldn't make it to our destination site and put up camp in a make shift spot. Winds were still blowing but I was glad I had -40 bag and slept great!

If your boots are likely to be wet (i.e. in anything but the very coldest of powder conditions) you need to have them in your sleeping bag with you (in a dry-bag) to avoid the agony of trying to get them thawed out in the morning.

In my experience, wet boots will freeze solid overnight, even inside the inner, once the outside temperature gets below about -8 Celsius.

Similar care needs to be taken over water bladders and bottles. Never fill them more than 75% and if it's really cold you'll need to keep a bottle in the bag with you for the morning (or be thawing snow and wasting fuel).

My winter sleeping bag is only rated to about -8 Celsius but I also sleep in a half-weight down jacket, thermal tights, balaclava and extra pair of socks. I would have this spare clothing in any case, so why not wear it and save on the weight of the sleeping bag which is only used for sleeping in? It also makes, cooking outside, getting up in the night to answer calls of nature, or enjoying a bit of stargazing, tolerable. I also take a pair of plastic sandals on all camping trips because I don't want to be getting my big boots on and off to nip out of the tent (plus used for river crossings).

If the temperature is not too far below freezing then you will have condensation problems with forming ice falling off the inner onto your sleeping bag and/or condensation on the ground sheet. I use a lightweight, breathable bivvy/sleeping bag cover if that is the case. If it's very cold this should not be a problem and ice can simply be brushed off the bag before packing away.

protected by imsodin Oct 19 at 19:26

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