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Twenty Cold Weather Tips

Editor’s note:  Marty Simon, owner of the Wilderness Learning Center in New York sent us a list of good tips for dealing with cold weather.  Even though most of us are close to spring weather, a lot of these tips are still applicable during througout the entire year–particularly at higher altitudes where the temperature is lower.  Always plan ahead for weather changes.

Winter camping is a great way to experience the outdoors but you must be careful and know what you are doing.  The key to cold weather camping is to stay dry, warm and hydrated.  Follow these tips to have a great, safe and fun winter camping trip.

  • Clothing is one of the main ways of staying warm and dry. You need to layer your clothes, and make certain they are not too tight.  Loose clothing will insulate better and will keep you much warmer.  Begin with long, thermal polyester or polypropylene underwear.  If you do not have this, wool is your next best choice.  Never wear cotton clothing when camping in the winter cold. It is not a good insulator, and if it gets wet it will remove body heat and will chill you very quickly.  Remember the 3 W’s of layering – Wicking first layer, Warm insulating middle layer(s) and Wind/Waterproof outer layer.  The Wicking layer should consist of a polypester or polypropylene material for your long underwear and also sock liners.  The Warm layer(s) should be fleece or wool. The Wind/Waterproof layer should be a Gore-Tex shell or at least 60/40 nylon.  Wool, polyester and polypropylene clothing will wick the moisture away from your body.   Do not wear jeans, which are cotton and will become easily wet and cold.  Old wool military uniforms can be found at surplus stores, and are good for winter camping.  Again, layer with loose fitting clothing. In an emergency, paper, leaves or any natural insulation can be placed under clothing as an insulator.  A good windbreaker can be worn over the layers.  A rain jacket makes a good windbreaker.
  • A good winter coat is important.  Be sure it is designed for extreme cold, and is large enough to wear over your layers without being tight and restrictive.   A coat with a hood will help to keep your body warm.
  • Gloves are necessary for most chores, but will not keep your hands as warm as mittens. You should always have both with you.
  • Socks are a very important part of your gear.  Start with thin wicking socks, and finish with wool socks over them.  Boots should be waterproof and breathable.  Do not wear running shoes, and do not wear tight  fitting boots either.  Your feet need room to move, especially your toes.  Big rubber over- boots are good to wear over shoes, with the socks underneath.  Bring your pants over your boots and either wear gators or duct tape them to the boots to prevent snow getting inside.  If you are camping in snow, be sure to clean off your boots before entering your tent.
  • Headwear is very important.  In extreme cold, you can choose a ski mask or face mask for extra warmth.  Remember that 75% of your body heat can be lost through your head or any other exposed skin areas.  Keep a warm hat on at all times.
  • A scarf will keep cold air off of your neck.  Any skin that is unprotected will make your body lose heat very rapidly.  Keep every part of your body covered.
  • Never kneel down or sit on the ground.  In winter a good portable camp stool is well worth having.  A small piece of closed cell foam can be carried with you to kneel on to prevent your knees from getting cold and wet from the ground.
  • In winter, it is necessary to change your clothes frequently–especially your socks.  Damp clothes will rob you of precious body heat.
  • Always change into dry sleep clothes before you go to bed. Never wear the clothes to bed that you have walked around in all day.  They have moisture in them and will chill you in your sleeping bag.  A person can perspire several pints of water a day, and this can be trapped in the clothes you’ve worn all day.
  • Always have a tarp or footprint under your tent.  Do not extend it past your tent because if it rains, this will trap water under your tent.  Try to face your tent to the East so you will get the warming morning sun.
  • Drink plenty of warm water:  Plan on at least 2 quarts per day, if not more.  If you even begin to think about being thirsty, then you are on your way to becoming dehydrated, which can quickly lead to hypothermia.  Never eat snow!   Snow will cool down your body core temperature quickly.  Try not to drink water about 1 hour before bedtime.  Getting up in the middle of the night is a pain in the butt, and will cool you down.  Consider keeping a pee bottle in your tent and be sure is has a tight sealing cap.
  • Be sure to eat plenty of starches and fats.  Avoid caffeine and high sugar snacks such as chocolate or candy bars.  Taking a high calorie trail bar to bed with you is an excellent idea.  If you wake up and are chilled, eat the trail bar as it will help warm you up.  Some people can burn up to 8000 calories during strenuous winter activities.
  • A camp stove is a more efficient method of cooking, but a camp fire will keep you warm while cooking in cold weather.  Also, with a campfire, you don’t have to carry fuel canisters.
  • Campfires can be built off the snow to avoid having them sink into the snow or wet ground.   Again, if you are relying on your fire for heat, you are not dressed properly.  But, during the evenings, the campfire will help keep you toasty warm while just sitting around.
  • A good sleeping bag can be made of goose down or synthetic materials and should be rated for cold weather camping.  Remember, down must be kept dry as it loses most of  it’s insulating properties when wet.  Always buy a sleeping bag that is rated for a lower temperature than you are expecting to sleep in.  A mummy bag is usually warmer than a rectangular bag because you have less room to heat, but some people find them too restrictive. You can get mummy sleeping bags from most military surplus dealers that are a good quality for the money.  When you are back home, hang your sleeping bag in the closet.  If you store your sleeping bag in a stuff sack it will compress the filling and cause it to lose its loft over time.
  • Buy an insulated sleeping pad  that will keep you off of the ground and keep you warm.  If your sleeping bag does not have head protection, wear your hat at night.  Never breathe inside of the bag.  This will create moisture and chill you during the night.  You may line your bag with a wool or fleece blanket for further insulation from the cold.  Before you go to bed, a hand warmer can be placed inside the bottom of your sleeping bag.  You can also place a container of warm water inside your bag.  Always try to urinate before going to sleep, as your body will use heat to keep the urine warm instead of using that heat to keep you warm.  Also, eat your evening meal shortly before going to bed as your body’s process of digestion creates heat which will also help to keep you warm.
  • You can build a wall of snow next to your tent to form a wind break.
  • Air out your tent and sleeping bag each day to remove the moisture it accumulated during the night.
  • If your flashlight batteries appear to be dead, warm them by the fire. Do NOT place them near enough to the fire to cause an explosion. It’s a good idea to keep your flashlight (when not in use) under your coat, because batteries are affected by cold temperatures.
  • Always test your winter camping gear at home or some other safe place.  Do not wait until you are in the middle of the forest to find out that your gear will not keep you warm. The life you save may be your own.


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