Mother Earth Monday – 5 Tips for Comfortable Winter Camping

So often I focus on long distance hiking or advanced ideas when I am talking about backpacking and camping. Today I am going to offer some quick tips for beginners. Given the deluge of snow recently and major dips in temperature, let’s focus on winter camping. Most of the old timers are going to know these tricks, but if you are just starting out these may be a godsend.

Beginners, don’t let the cold weather keep you indoors. There are unique experiences to be had year round out under the stars. So, without further ado, let’s begin.

1. Cotton Kills

This is an old truth among camping folks. Cotton Kills. As useful a material as it is, it has one very big problem. Cotton is a material that spreads moisture evenly across itself. Anyone who’s tried to wipe their glasses off after sweating can attest to how difficult it is to find a dry spot on a cotton tee shirt. This is a great quality on a hot day since it means the moisture is spread out and evaporation cooling is more complete.

That is of course the last thing you want when it is already cold. Focus on using synthetics or wool. Synthetics don’t hold on to much moisture. Some synthetics and all wool will wick away moisture from the body, keeping you dry and making sure that the cooling that does happen, isn’t happening against your skin.

2. Clothing Layers

This applies year round, but especially in the cold weather. You need to be able to adjust quickly to high activity or low activity. If you are always very bulky in the way you dress, high activity moments will lead to a lot of sweating and thus cooling. At minimum, you need a base, a middle and a shell layer. The base layer is probably thermal underwear or something similar. The middle layer will be a thicker jacket and pants, but may include several more items like tee shirts, camp sweaters or any number of items layered on to add bulk. It is important to remember here that air pockets from bulky clothing are what insulate you from the cold. Tightly packed layers will be less effective than loose layers. Lastly the shell layer is to prevent wind and rain from pulling heat away from your core. Try for a shell layer that does breath, but doesn’t allow sharp winds in. Likely something with sides that can be opened or other venting features is best.

3. Ditch the Hot Cocoa

Blasphemy I know, but while there is nothing quite so warming as hot cocoa on a cold day, most people forget the big downside. When you are camping, you probably have a limited number of dishes to work with. If you are backpacking, that number is likely to include only one cup. Cleaning cocoa from the cup means a bit of elbow grease and cold wet hands. Avoid wet hands and instead pick up packets of instant cider. The psychological effect of warm cider is the same as warm cocoa, but with the advantage of being able to toss a tiny bit of water in the cup afterward to clean it. A few swishes will rinse the cup clean and you won’t have to freeze your fingers to manage it.

4. Sleeping Pads Aren’t Optional

Everyone knows to bring a sleeping bag, but a lot of new campers don’t realize the importance of a sleeping pad. They do indeed pad you so the ground feels softer, but the more important use is as insulation. The ground has a fairly constant temperature and has a great deal more mass than you do. The sleeping bag under you will compress and offer only a fraction of the normal insulation value. This means the workhorse below you is that pad. The thicker the pad, the more it protects your body heat from being drawn into the ground and leaving you shivering all night.

5. Don’t Hold it in

And of course, keeping with the sleep theme from the previous tip, don’t go holding it in. If you have to pee, I don’t care how cold you are. Get up and go pee. The longer you hold it, the more of your body heat is being pulled on behalf of a waste product. Beyond not being able to sleep when your bladder is hurting, you also have a heat sink making you feel colder. The longer you lay there, the colder the outside air will feel, making it even harder to get out to do it.

I am guilty of this one even after years of knowing better. I always seem to want to hang on till dawn as if it makes a difference. When I finally break down and brave the cold, invariably things improve. I am instantly more comfortable of course, but then the sleeping bag feels warmer and I am able to warm up completely again very quickly. Back to sleep you go and wonder why on earth you were holding it in the first place.

What are your thoughts?