Winter Camping Tips
Winter camping had been on my list of things to do for a while, but I hadn’t mustered up the will to bear the cold night. Between the extra gear that is involved, unknown rules, and the cold, it had remained a dream. During my last visit to Mt. Rainier to snowshoe around Paradise, I talked with a Park Ranger who laid out the rules for winter camping and talked me into camping for the night. So, here a few tips from my first winter camping trip.
Know the rules
Summer and winter camping rules are different, winter is way more lenient! At Rainier, winter camping is in effect when there is a 2-foot base layer of snow, and 5 ft in the Paradise area. Since established campsites aren’t accessible in the snow, you can set up camp where you please! The basic rules still apply: 100 feet from water and 300 ft from the “trail” or plowed roads. Hard-sided containers are required for camping in the Paradise area, which are available for loan if you ask a ranger.
Does a bear poop in the woods? You better believe it, but not in the winter. And neither can you… At least not in a cathole. Since you can’t actually dig a hole, you’ve gotta pack it out. Get yourself some blue bags before hitting the trail. If you forgot yours, the ranger station should be able to hook you up. Keep it clean out there.
Know the conditions
Check the area you’re going to be in to see if it’s prone to avalanches, if it is, you better know what you’re doing. I don’t have avalanche training yet so I don’t mess with that.
Check the temperature, and factor in the wind chill. Now pack enough layers to keep you warm when not moving. Also, be smart about the material you bring. I brought a flannel that kept me warm until a tree dumped snow on me, freezing the shirt solid… Then it was just dead weight.
Carry enough layers to stay warm when you aren’t moving. You’ll likely be wearing few layers while hiking, which will help prevent you from sweating, but once you’re stopped a while it gets cold quick. A spare pair of socks is also a good idea in case the ones you’re wearing get wet, or just for added warmth.
You’ll also want to make sure you have warm winter boots. My first season snowshoeing I used my 3 season Salomon hiking boots, which work fine as long as you keep moving. The issue is when you stop. This year I picked up a pair of Keen Durand Polar boots with 400g of insulation. They’ve been great boots so far, keeping my toes warm when stopped, but not so warm that my feet sweat while snowshoeing. They’re a big step up from using 3 season boots.
I use a North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag, which is rated for 20 degrees. It’s a nice bag, but if you get cold easily or are in colder temps, you’ll want some extra warmth. I also use a Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite sleeping bag liner rated for up to an additional 15 degrees. A liner is nice to have to add a little more warmth, but also for keeping your bag clean. They definitely help extend the life of a bag.
A general good practice is to let people know where you will be and for how long. Before going out I told family where I was going snowshoeing but didn’t tell them I was going to be camping for the night. Thankfully I have a Garmin Inreach satellite communicator so I was able to send out a text message let them know I was camping and wouldn’t make it out when I originally planned.
Before setting up camp, be sure to pack down the area you plan to put your tent on. Trampling around in your snowshoes’ works really well for this. If you don’t do this you run the risk of stepping or kneeling with too much pressure on an area and puncturing the base of your tent. In a less severe case, you can create divots that then freeze solid, making for a lumpy night sleep.
A sleeping pad is a must for winter camping. Not only will it lead to a more comfortable nights sleep, but it’ll also help keep you warm by adding some insulation between you and the freezing ground. I used an REI Cirrus inflatable air pad, which is very comfortable but not great for winter camping. Air doesn’t offer much for insulating, so a closed cell foam pad would work much better in the winter.
Bring a camp stove. Eating granola bars and trail mix is well and good, but after you’ve finished hiking and are hanging out at camp it gets COLD. A hot meal does wonders to warm you up from the inside. Also, you can make hot chocolate and coffee!
Pro Tip: Before going to bed for the night, boil a pot of water and fill up your water bottle with the piping hot water. Now take that in your sleeping bag and spoon it all night..that’ll do wonders for staying warm. I can’t stress enough how nice this is.
Now that I’ve got one night of winter camping under my belt I’m really looking forward to getting out on longer trips and learning how to make it even more enjoyable! I hope this inspires some of you to get out experience winter camping and if you have any tips please leave a comment! See ya in the snow.
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