It wasn’t what I expected when I agreed to gear-test some equipment for an outdoor magazine. The tent arrived in November — past the date I would consider camping weather. Snow was on the ground and temperatures were dropping to below freezing at night. I have never even really considered winter camping, or even (as in this case) late fall in Wyoming camping. It seemed like a lot of work and logistics. It gets dark early and is cold. The prospect of winter camping didn’t seem to have the perks of summer camping; exploring and lounging outside.
While I never ended up planning anything extreme this winter — I car-camped with a trunk of firewood, in part because of the timing, but let’s be honest; also because of the lack of desire — it got me thinking about those who really winter camp. How they do it and why? So I went to the experts and talked to Mandy Pohja, a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) field instructor and research project manager.
So who actually goes winter camping? It turns out, not many, Pohja said. It’s often used to access backcountry skiing in areas that take at least a full day to reach.
There aren’t many people who go winter camping for the sake of winter camping. “You have to be pretty committed to the cause,” Pohja said.
Not only is there more gear and planning involved, there are new risk factors to manage. Not to mention it’s cold.
Still, for many students, especially those who take NOLS winter courses, it’s a new way to challenge their skills and learn to take care of themselves while experiencing the backcountry. While many people backpack, few winter camp.
“You have to really know what you are doing to go out in negative 20 degree temperatures and not be able to go inside,” Pohja said.
Think you are ready to winter camp? Pohja offers some tips and advice, although nothing replaces official training and experience.
What to wear: Managing clothing is a constant task during the winter in the backcountry. As soon as you start to get hot, take clothes off — you don’t want to sweat. And as soon as you start to feel cold, put them back on. If your socks are wet, don’t put them in your backpack where they’ll freeze; actively dry them by placing them on your body. Don’t wear any cotton. Synthetic layers dry more quickly. Be careful of down; while it’s warm and light, as soon as it gets wet its useless (it’s usually OK in Wyoming).
What to eat: As much as you can. Usually winter camping means winter travel, which can burn thousands of calories. A recent study, not yet published by NOLS, showed students on winter courses could burn up to 11,000 calories in 24 hours skiing and camping in the backcountry. NOLS encourages students to put butter in their hot chocolate or wrap food in bacon to consume extra calories. The beauty of winter camping is that you can take anything because it stays frozen, Pohja said. Frozen and fried appetizers you might avoid in day-to-day life make great fuel. “When you’ve had a long hard day, a fried cheese stick is delicious,” Pohja said. Calories also help you stay warm. Students are encouraged to sleep with a Snickers bar and if they wake up cold, eat it, do a few sit ups and then they should be able to fall back asleep.
What to bring: A lot. You need more equipment in the winter, from clothing to food to avalanche gear. Anything you don’t need for the day you should pack in a sled. Wear items you’ll need to access in a backpack. Make sure there is a metal or PVC pipe between you and the sled so it doesn’t run into you or pass you on the downhill.
How to set up camp: In the winter you can make almost any spot flat by shoveling the snow. Dig down into the snow about two or three feet and make a platform. Cover the top with a tent fly. The snow insulates from the frozen ground and the wind. Use two sleeping pads. The added extra layers below you make a difference in how much cold comes up from the ground.
How to keep things from freezing: Stick it on your body. Items like contact solution or your asthma inhaler have to stay on you or with you in your sleeping bag or else they’ll freeze. Unfreezing necessary items wastes time, energy and fuel.
How to hydrate: You still need to drink several liters of water a day. Drink hot liquids, like tea, cider, hot chocolate or even just hot water. Getting water though, is a huge chore while winter camping. If near running water, you can use it; it’s more efficient than melting snow. But breaking ice to get to water brings in a whole new set of risks. “Making water,” as melting snow for water is called, is a big task. A stove can’t just sit on snow, it will melt it. Build up a pile of snow and carve out a counter and then put wooden boards on the shelf the stove can sit on. You can build a wind block around it too. Despite adding time, it does allow you to build a cooking area accessible when standing upright. To melt snow, you must start with at least a half inch or more of water and then add snow into the pot slowly.
How to travel: If you don’t have experience assessing snowpack, travel in flat areas and camp in meadows. Be aware of your surroundings and ensure that you aren’t in potential avalanche paths. If you are going skiing have your avalanche gear and know how to use it.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at email@example.com.
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