Understanding the activity’s unique challenges, and taking the time to plan and prepare, make the experience enjoyable and safe.
You are standing amid snow-covered mountains in the early morning, the sun creeping over jagged, ice-blue peaks. Your breath visible, you wrap your gloved hands around a mug of piping hot tea. All around you is silence — many birds have left for the season, other creatures are hibernating. It’s a peace you achieved by deciding to sleep out in the cold winter elements in all of their beautiful, painful glory.
Welcome to the wonderful world of winter camping. Making the intentional choice to sleep outdoors in the winter months provides nature enthusiasts the chance to extend their camping season or explore the wilderness with a lot less company — benefits, they say, that are well worth the additional preparation and camping gear the activity requires. And just like warm-weather camping, there is a huge range of winter-camping experiences that people from novices to extreme athletes can try — from testing the waters with backyard or car camping to luxury guided tours to extended backcountry adventures requiring skis or snowshoes.
“The wilderness in the winter is really unlike anything else,” said Noah Howell, a backcountry adventure skier based in Salt Lake City who loves camping in Alaska. “It’s magical.”
‘My favorite way to camp’
While millions of people have discovered or rediscovered a love of camping during the pandemic, especially in the balmy summer months, the willingness to take in the outdoors at subzero temperatures can be a head-scratcher for some.
“Winter camping probably best fits in the category of ‘fun when it’s done,’” said Mr. Howell. “It often provides that feeling of relief from having survived something challenging.”
The first step is getting over that initial mental hurdle.
“It’s definitely nerve wracking to go to spend a night on the cold, frozen ground,” said Cody Townsend, a professional skier who lives in Tahoe City, Calif. “But these days, honestly, it’s my favorite way to camp.”
Mr. Townsend isn’t alone in his enthusiasm.
“There are no bugs, no mud and mostly, no people,” said Mark Eis, a live events consultant in New Paltz, N.Y., and a volunteer instructor with the ADK Winter Mountaineering School, a nonprofit that teaches in-person winter camping, hiking and introductory mountaineering courses. In addition to exploring the Adirondacks, he enjoys trips to Baxter State Park in Maine. “The mountains are just unspeakably beautiful in the winter. Even when it’s not as much fun, when it feels like work, I just have to pick my head up and look around.”
Access is another major selling point for winter campers.
“You can sleep with your tent facing Half Dome,” said Sanjay Reddy, a wastewater engineer in Dublin, Calif., who loves camping in Yosemite National Park and other spots in the Sierra Nevada and is the chair of the Sierra Club’s snow-camping program. “In the summer, they won’t even let you camp there! Not to mention there’s tons of people.”
Mr. Howell had a similarly transformative experience on a solo winter camping trip in Yellowstone National Park.
“To lay alone in the wilderness in a sleeping bag with wolves howling nearby will show you many new sides of yourself,” he said. “Besides, I was gifted some of the most beautiful scenes on the planet.”
Winter camping also allows for a whole new kind of camping creativity.
“When you’re camping in the snow you can dig; you can make your own flat ground,” said Mr. Townsend. “And you can build things! I’ve made camps with cubby holes to store my stuff, refrigerators, luxurious winter bathrooms that are completely out of the wind. There’s something very childlike about it — you’re building your own fort.”
Understanding the unique challenges that come with winter camping, and taking the time to plan and prepare, is vital to making the experience enjoyable and safe. Things can get dangerous much more quickly when it’s cold.
“Your planning skills have to be much more honed in the winter than in the summer,” said Mr. Reddy. “In the summer, you can just walk onto a marked trailhead, in shorts. You can find water. You can sleep without a tent, and probably be OK.”
In addition to cold temperatures, there can be unexpected snow storms, less daylight and less visibility. It’s often significantly harder to navigate in the snow — trails, markers and even landmarks may be covered up. Depending on the terrain, there may be a risk of avalanches.
Making safety a priority is important in any outdoor adventure, but is perhaps all the more pressing in the snow. Mr. Reddy recounted forgetting his camping stove on a summer backpacking trip. While not ideal — he subsisted on cold backpacker’s meals — it was far from a life or death crisis. In the winter, it would have been a different story.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tricks to stay warm, from lightweight hand warmers in your sleeping bag to a Nalgene bottle filled with boiling water wrapped in socks inside a jacket.
“If people know they have the opportunity to get warm, they’ll enjoy the cold a lot more,” said Joe Meyer, who with his wife, Mollie Foster, runs Traverse Alaska, a Denali Park, Alaska-based outdoor adventure company. “It goes from, ‘I’m miserable,’ to ‘I’m going to stay outside and enjoy the Northern Lights a bit longer, even though it’s 20 below zero.’”
To get started
No matter your level of camping expertise, signing up for winter-specific classes or instruction is a wise first step. Courses offered through the ADK Winter Mountaineering School, the Sierra Club and other wilderness organizations often combine classroom time, learning about compass and map navigation, what to pack and safety skills, with trips of varying lengths on the ground to test out what you’ve learned in the elements. (Avalanche safety courses are highly recommended should you want to level up your winter camping game.)
You can ease into the elements, too.
“Try camping in your own backyard to start,” said Alysa Arnold, a stay-at-home mother and entrepreneur who splits her time between Concord, Mass., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and is the assistant director of the ADK Winter Mountaineering School. “I’ll do that with my kids, and if it doesn’t work, we can just go back inside.”
Guided trips like those led by Mr. Meyer and Ms. Foster in Alaska, are excellent resources for those who want to explore farther afield and don’t want to go it alone. Additional trips can be found just about anywhere you’re interested in winter camping, including Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Canada, Svalbard and more.
Many organizations, including the Winter Mountaineering School and the Sierra Club offer resources online, not only for best practices, but also suggestions for the appropriate gear, including clothing and cookstoves.
“People think the cold is your enemy, but it’s not. The wet is your enemy,” said Mr. Eis, referring to a common pitfall of layering too much when snowshoeing, hiking or skiing, which leads to sweating. Wearing moisture-wicking, quick-drying materials, including synthetics, wool and fleece, is key, as is avoiding cotton.
A sleeping bag appropriate for cold weather is a must, as is a lightweight camp stove, fuel (the Sierra Club recommends white gas for winter camping) and camping cookware to melt snow for water and make hot food and drinks. A backup firestarter, like a lighter or waterproof matches, is also a requirement. Depending on your trip, snowshoes, skis, axes or crampons might be needed. Retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports, Sports Basement and R.E.I. rent hiking and camping equipment, from apparel to tents.
Other gear recommended by experts: down booties, two sleeping pads to insulate from the cold snow, and a hat (or two). And Mr. Howell highly encourages a clearly labeled pee bottle to keep in your tent at night to avoid the dreaded middle-of-the-night bathroom trip (ladies can experiment with options like the aptly named Shewee).
Easily accessible snacks are necessary — you can expect to burn more calories in the cold — and choose bars or other food that are easy to eat and won’t freeze.
Learning to conquer the elements in more extreme conditions better prepares you for summer camping, too — particularly when it involves surprise inclement weather.
“My summer skills have gotten better because of my winter skills,” said Mr. Reddy. “Maybe you’ll go on a trip early in the summer season and you come across snow. Guess what? Now, you know how to deal with it.”
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