"That sounds like ZERO fun."
These are just a couple of the questions you might field when you tell your friends you’re planning a winter camping adventure.
It’s no secret that winter camping can be challenging. But there’s an aura around the experience that draws us back again and again. Perhaps you’ve seen some images on Instagram with sparkling snow falling over a cozy, warmly lit tent; maybe you went to a REI workshop, tested a four-season tent and felt inspired; maybe you love skiing and have looked at that distant peak for years wondering, how do I get there without a helicopter, until you realized that with enough time your own two feet could deliver you to the winter promised land.
I’m not here to answer why; and I’m certainly not going to make any guarantees about fun. I know I love it, some hate it — it’s all in your attitude. What I can do is outline and address the challenges you’ll face and provide you with some strategies to tackle those situations that, I hope, will make your winter camping experience more enjoyable and safe.
Challenge #1 Moisture Management
It's a constant struggle. Unfortunately there’s no way to make moisture problems disappear in the mountains, certainly not during the winter. But it can be managed with a few tricks:
Layer Your Outerwear
- As you move through the mountains (or even on flat terrain), you’re going to generate heat. While you may start in a lofty down puffy, it’s very likely that within five or ten minutes, you’ll want to shed everything down to a base layer and thin gloves. Please do this. If you allow your other layers (especially down) to absorb sweat, they won’t do their job when you take a break and want to bundle up again.
- If you do notice layers starting to get damp before you take them off, don’t stuff them into your pack where the condensation will marinate. Tie them around your waist, somewhere on the outside where the breeze and sun can dry them. Sure they’ll feel cold to the touch — it’s winter! — but cold is better than damp in this situation.
Ventilate Your Tent
- Allow for ventilation! A lot of people think winter camping means they ought to batten down the hatches as soon as they get inside. This will turn your tent into a sauna. A very, very cold, wet sauna. Even when it’s snowing or temperatures have dropped below zero, I’ll leave a couple vents open. Zipping up the vestibule while leaving your tent door partially unzipped will increase airflow significantly while still sheltering you from the wind and the elements.
Many four-season tents, like NEMO's Tenshi 2P, come with a condensation curtain. It may seem cumbersome or awkward at first, but setting it up before you fall asleep is going to save the vast majority of your tent from accumulating moisture while you sleep. There’s no way to totally eliminate condensation, but this will make a huge difference and help contain it.
Leverage Your Available Heat Source
- There’s one great heat source you never go anywhere without — your ... self! Particularly, I’m talking about the foot of your sleeping bag. It’s the greatest heater / dryer combo in the backcountry. It’s so effective that frequent winter campers and mountaineers sometimes even buy extra long sleeping bags so they can throw their socks, fleece, ski boot liners, gloves — the whole kit — down there and let your 98.6 degree furnace wick out the moisture and warm it up for the next day. Just don’t put anything really wet down there. Damp, not dripping.
Challenge #2: The Exception to Challenge #1 — Drinking Lots of Water
You’re not going to feel thirsty early on. It’s cold and the minute you stop moving you’re going to get colder by the second (see Challenge #1). However, it is imperative that you hydrate. Mountain air is, typically by nature, dry.
The number of days I’ve woken up with everything damp from condensation but felt parched and had the skin crack on the corner of my fingers is more than I can count. Luckily for you, you’re surrounded by water. Unfortunately for you, you’re going to have to work for it.
Melting snow into water over a stove is a tedious but necessary evil. You’ll need it to drink, to cook, and to clean... in that order. My advice: do it whenever you feel like you’ve got free time — fill another bottle, another half bottle, every bit counts. That way when you’re actually thirsty or hungry or want to go to bed, you’re not sitting around the stove for an extra 10 minutes taking care of something that could’ve been done earlier.
Two Tips to Expedite the Process:
- Add a little water to the pot you’re melting snow in. Snow is a great insulator and packed into a pot it takes a long time to melt; including water at the start will dramatically speed up the process.
- Remember that great furnace you’ve got at the foot of your sleeping bag? Right before bed fill up another bottle with a mix of snow and water. Make sure it’s sealed tight and stuff it down there — you’ll have all water by morning.
Challenge 3: The Sun Is a Double-Edged Sword
On one hand, a sunny day in the mountains will dry off your clothes, climbing skins, and tent better than any of the tricks I’ve mentioned above. You’ll feel warm and lively and ready to tackle the day ahead. There’s no substitute for hanging your damp articles from a line or draped over your tent for an hour or two while letting the warm rays heat up your hands and face.
However, don’t be too stoked to get your tan on. By all means, enjoy the sun and the warmth, but be aware of your exposure — treat sun reflecting off snow the same way you would a day at the beach. Use sunscreen (most mountaineers prefer something with zinc oxide) and protect your eyes — snow blindness is a frequent issue for the unprepared that can be prevented as easily as adding duct tape “blinders” to the sides of your normal hiking sunglasses.
But the Rewards, They Will Move You
Winter camping isn’t as easy as throwing up a tent under the stars on a warm summer night. You’ll encounter an intensified version of many of the same situations you'd encounter in camping any other season, as well as a series of challenges that are unique to winter camping and mountaineering.
However, after battling the cold and the elements, you’ll find that amid the challenges there are unique rewards — the calm stillness of freshly fallen snow, the solitude in places that are crowded in the summer, the warmth and comfort of a temporary shelter. These are the moments we seek, the moments where we connect with ourselves and our friends that we rely on.
For me, I come back feeling a renewed sense of gratitude each time I winter camp. The feeling of that first hot shower upon returning, shivering a little as you look out at the snow fall beyond your windows, an upwelling of thankfulness for all the little comforts we take for granted — and that alone will always keep me going back into the cold every year.
Matt Tufts is a Vermonter exploring the West from his truck with a true passion for being outdoors, living simply and sharing good stories.