In some parts of the United States, like my home state of Colorado, winter spans a pretty good chunk of the year. While there’s no shortage of winter specific activities, there are some among us who still like to spend a night or two under the stars, tucked nicely in our tents. For most people, winter camping is intimidating, so all the camping gear gets packed away until the first signs of spring. That doesn’t need to be the case though, because there is a lot to love about cold-weather camping. You’ll enjoy fewer crowds, zero mosquitos, and a nice change of scenery. You won’t enjoy any of it without careful preparation. The following tips and advice are based on my years of experience in the backcountry, and will help you enjoy camping year-round, even when snow blankets the ground.
1. Knowledge Is Power
Check the forecast. If you’re looking to go camping in a blizzard, that’s one thing, but to be surprised the next morning by a fresh 2 feet of powder could be deadly. Research your target destination. On your first trip out, stay close and on familiar land so you can text your gear before running into the tundra. In many areas, winter snow will shut down a lot of the trails. Others will be totally impassable for most vehicles. Have some contingency plans in place, because nothing causes things to go sideways, sometimes literally, like some snow and ice in your way.
2. Set Realistic Expectations
Winter camping isn’t without its limitations. You simply won’t be able do everything in the cold and snow that you could during a summer camping trip. Make it comfortable and enjoyable for you, your family, and your pets so you’ll all want to embark on more winter adventures in the future. Plan some games and activities that can be done when bundled up, or even inside the truck. People like to poke fun at Ashley and me for this, but we often bring an iPad with a downloaded movie. We’ll prop it on the dashboard and watch it like we’re at a drive-in. If it’s really cold, we’ll idle the truck for a while and blast the heat for a quick respite. Honestly, it’s great.
3. Turn Up The Heat
Surprise, surprise. The winter gets cold, especially at night. Wearing layers is a great way to dial in your personal comfort level while changing activities. You’ll quickly get cold while standing around, but even a short hike will likely have you shedding layers. Get a sleeping bag that’s rated for the temps you’ll be experiencing during the coldest parts of night. It’s never a bad idea to keep an extra blanket or two in the truck to throw over the sleeping bags for even more insulation. If you don’t mind your buddies making fun of you for it, the ultimate winter warmth is a heated blanket. You’ll need a power source to run it, but getting into a cold sleeping bag sucks. If heated blankets aren’t your thing, there’s a trick that backpackers have been using for years. Fill a nalgene bottle with boiling water and toss it into the foot of your sleeping bag. Same concept but the heated blanket is better executed. A big bonus in a lot of places is that there are rarely fire bans in the winter, so you can keep a fire going day and night.
4. Keep It Simple
Preparing a 5-course meal with numb fingers is no fun. Pick foods that are easy to prepare and quick to your stomachs. We love having soups, ramen, etc because they’ll help warm your hands and body. Hot chocolate and other warming, delicious foods and drinks are always best when it’s cold, so knock yourself out. Just keep it simple enough that it doesn’t become too much of a chore when it comes time to clean the next morning.
5. Go Prepared
Pack the ten essentials, plenty of extra food and extra layers, and If you can spring it, go the extra mile and get some backup comms like a long range radio or Garmin inReach so you can update others on your location. Let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Even the most experienced drivers and offroaders have gotten themselves into a pickle when encountering snow and ice. If you’re heading out alone, make sure you have recovery gear, and the knowledge required to use it, before departing. Appropriate tires, a well maintained vehicle with topped off fluids, and recovery gear will give you peace of mind when heading off the plowed path. If you’ve followed the above tips, you’ll have a way to stay warm, some nice food to eat, and entertainment in the event that you do slide off the road need help. More often than not, slowing down and taking your time will save you the trouble.
I could probably write a book on this topic. These are the cliffs notes. Follow these five tips to ensure that your winter adventure is safe and enjoyable, and get out there. Good luck, stay safe, and have fun!