TWO WEEKEND’S AGO I camped at 11,200 feet high in the Colorado wilderness. To say the February night was cold would be an understatement. Sure, it wasn’t Himalayan or polar cold, but the minus five Fahrenheit (minus twenty Celsius) I recorded INSIDE my tent wasn’t tropical either!
For me, it teetered right on the edge of ‘uncomfortable’, a precipice it would have been dangerously easy to plummet over. But despite this I slept really well.
I shared photos of the camp in various locations online, and a number of people wanted to know: “How the hell did you stay warm?” They asked: “What gear did you use?” And: “What tricks are there for staying warm when it’s that damn cold?” Some of the people asking wanted to do it themselves, but weren’t sure how.
Rather than answering everyone individually it seems easier to write a quick blog to explain. Although my intention with this blog in general is to share experiences, not gear or ‘how to’ tips, I figured I’d make an exception this once. I hope it’s of use.
Firstly, let’s make one thing absolutely clear: none of my tips should be relied on! They work for me, but there’s no guarantee they’ll work for you. If you make the dubious decision to head into high mountains in midwinter and camp in extreme cold you only have yourself to blame if frostbite follows. If you haven’t winter camped before, I’d suggest doing it close to home first. Wait for a biting cold night and spend it sleeping out in your backyard. See if your gear and systems work there. Better to set the neighbors talking than fail to stay warm in the wild.
Secondly, camping in the cold is (almost) easy if you have money! There is some amazing gear out there that would scoff at the idea that minus five Fahrenheit is cold. ‘Minus five? Pfft: I laugh at minus five!’ Trouble is, this top-of-the-range gear comes with such a hefty price tag it might as well not exist – at least to me. Sure, if you have thousands of dollars spare to throw at equipment please go ahead. But it’s unlikely you need any tips from me!
Most of my gear is two decades old. It’s not the lightest gear, it’s not the warmest gear, and it’s certainly not the shiniest gear. But it still works, just about. And because I look after it it’ll hopefully go on ‘just about’ working as long as I need it to. That said, if anyone feels like donating a minus forty rated sleeping bag, a thick down jacket and down trousers, (and anything from a long list I could give you), please DO drop me a line!
But anyway… how do I do it?
1. Dress in layers, AND DON’T GET WET.
You’ve probably heard the ‘dress in layers’ advice many times before. Yawn! But that’s because it is key advice! I wear thermal undies against the skin that wick sweat away, and other easily adjustable layers on top to shuffle on and off as needed. But more importantly, I go to extreme lengths to avoid sweating, to avoid becoming wet in any way. If I have to travel at an embarrassingly slow speed in winter to avoid sweating I’ll do it. Bear in mind that nothing cools quicker than evaporating water. If you arrive at your chosen spot for camp already wet you’re doomed to a miserable night. Especially if you don’t have an extra set of dry clothes to change into…
2. HAVE A DRY CHANGE OF CLOTHES.
Winter camping isn’t the same as summer camping. In summer, you can go light and get away with the barest minimum of gear, including only one set of clothes. They can dry on you. But in winter, for me personally, that’s a very bad idea. A dry change of clothes, even if they are not needed, is essential. Chances are, they’ll be needed.
3. PITCH CAMP QUICKLY.
Don’t faff around enjoying the view or cooking dinner – get camp set up while you are still warm from travel. As you’ve likely heard: it’s easier to stay warm than get warm. Choose a sheltered location out of the wind that’s safe from any risk of avalanche, stamp down a solid tent platform in the snow, go for a twenty-minute walk-about to stay warm while it sets, and then throw up the tent with well-practiced mastery. Being speedy, efficient, and organized makes all the difference in the world.
4. CHOOSE THE RIGHT GLOVES
In the past, I often struggled with gloves. The biggest problem for me was that gloves warm enough to keep fingers working in the coldest temperatures were too thick to wear when I needed to manipulate straps or buckles. To get a tent up or down, or pack away a sleeping bag, or work my camera, I’d have to take off my gloves, and that never led to a comfortable place! But finally the problem’s been solved with one of the few items of new gear I’ve bought in recent years, these (pictured) Meteor Mitts from OR (Outdoor Research). They come with a removable water-resistant outer shell, and a thick fleece inner glove. (I know the shell is water resistant: I’ve used them to build igloos, with hands often directly touching snow for long periods of time. Where other gloves have soaked up water, these have remained dry.) The thing I love about these inner mitts is how they open to leave fingers free. Doing this, most of the hand can stay warm even while delicate fiddly tasks are worked on. I wish I had gloves like these 30 years ago!
5. LET’S GIVE A BIG HAND FOR HAND WARMERS
I used to think that the one item of gear above all others that old time explorers and mountaineers would have loved to possess was modern zip-loc or dry bags. An ability to keep gear and food dry and organized – how useful would that have been! But since the advent of hand warmers, I’ve changed my mind. These little packets of warmth can keep hands working when they are stuffed into gloves, can warm boots before you put them back on in the morning, and if a few of them join you inside your sleeping bag the coldest nights will no longer seem quite so parky. Imagine how different the race to the South Pole might have been if Amundsen and Scott had possessed hand warmers!
6. INSULATE YOURSELF FROM THE GROUND.
Obviously, the more layers you place between yourself and the snow the warmer you’ll be. I typically I have the tent, a rug, a heat-reflective foam pad (extremely important), and a regular air pad keeping me off icy ground. If you can carry even more insulating layers than this, do it. No winter camper ever said: “Oh, I wish I had fewer sleeping pads…”
7. ADD LAYERS TO YOUR SLEEPING BAG.
A sleeping bag by itself might not be enough, even if it has a far better temperature rating than my 20-year old down bag (originally rated for 10 Fahrenheit, minus twelve Celsius – but far off that now). An extra liner inside a sleeping bag – perhaps made from silk – plus a breathable bivvy bag on the outside, can greatly improve the quality of your night’s kip and build extra layers of warmth around you. Down bags are best, but down looses its super powers when it gets wet. This is why a waterproof liner is important. In a tent, moisture from your breath will likely freeze onto the walls around you, and then fall back upon your sleeping bag if (or when) you brush against the sides. Keeping the sleeping bag dry is a key step to enjoying a comfortable night.
8. HOT WATER BOTTLES RADIATE JOY.
To stop their water bottles (and boots) from freezing overnight many winter campers bring them into their sleeping bags overnight. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed having such lumpy bed companions (or wanted to risk a water bottle leaking), and so I do it differently. Before sleep, I boil up enough water for my two water bottles. These hot bottles then get stuffed into socks or mittens, and then thrust into my boots (which I knock snow off and bring into the tent overnight). During the cold, dark hours the thick boots keep the water warm, and the water keeps the boots (and mitts) warm. If ever I get up to take moonlit ‘glowing tent’ photos I have an extra source of warmth to place my hands against when I return to the tent. Mini radiators. Works for me!
9. NEVER COOK INSIDE A TENT!
That’s what all the tent manufacturers say, the stove makers agree with, and all the experts confirm. It is critically important safety advice to follow. After all, who wants to set fire to a tent and create a life-or-death survival situation? Who wants to die from carbon monoxide poisoning without even knowing it? So, listen to the experts. Above all, don’t do what I do… which is cook inside my tent, and sometimes even run the stove just for warmth.
I do it because the stove I use, a Trangia (which runs on a liquid fuel: denatured alcohol in the U.S., methylated spirits in the U.K.) is easy to use, doesn’t flare up, isn’t easily knocked over, and doesn’t throw off excessive heat. Perhaps I can get away with this because after 35 years of using a Trangia I have a good feel for EXACTLY how it behaves. Perhaps I can do it because I am unusually careful. Perhaps because I’ve figured out how to get tent ventilation just right. Or perhaps I can only do it because I’ve been lucky and don’t yet know that disaster lies just around the corner. But whatever. It’s part of what I do in winter to stay warm. But – be clear – I don’t advise anyone else run a stove inside their tents. Not with a Trangia, and especially not with any other kind of stove. Do it, and you’ll die a horrible death! You have been warned.
10. STAY ORGANIZED AND COMPLETE TASKS SWIFTLY, ESPECIALLY WHEN STRIKING CAMP
Mornings always used to be the worst part of winter camping for me. Partly because in winter everything took me three times as long. In days gone by, my fingers and toes would often have been numb by the time the tent was down, packed away, and I was off and walking. But these days I’ve got my systems sorted. It’s not just the warm boots, mitts, hot water bottles, dry sleeping bag, and hand warmers that help, but it’s also a practiced efficiency when it comes to packing away most of my gear while I’m still inside the tent, and then the speed with which I can get the tent down and packed away. I also take care at every stage of the process to keep those evil straps and fiddly bits free of snow and ice. Trying to thaw apart frozen straps or break apart great lumps of frozen snow is best avoided!
One final trick to consider: don’t try to force a frosted tent into its original sack. After removing as much ice as I can (so that it’s ice-free for the next night), I often crunch the tent up and strap it to the outside of my backpack. That way it can dry during the day. Sometimes, if conditions allow, I even pitch it in a sunny spot during a break so it can dry further. One of the greatest challenges with winter camping isn’t defeating the cold – it’s staying ahead of the dampness. Everything you can do to stay ahead of the evil creeping wet is worth doing. You’ll be warmer because of it.
Many people reading this will also have good tips – tips that are likely far better than mine. And for sure there’s gear that would help, as mentioned earlier. Possibly, I’ve missed out other tricks of my own that I do from experience without even being aware of them. So… just consider this a starting point.
If you DO go and camp in extreme cold, and if you DO make it out alive, please let me know how it goes!