On the way to my first winter camping trip, I thought I’d freeze in my sleep. I had done some overnight stays in the woods during late-fall hunts, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like sleeping in single-digit temperatures. But with a new zero-degree sleeping bag and some good base layers, I decided to give it a try. By the morning, the boots next to my sleeping bag were frozen solid, but I was still alive and there was something special about waking up in the woods when it’s covered in snow. Whether you’re hunting a remote late-season spot or just want to spend the night in the woods, here are a few tips to make winter camping less daunting.
1. Remember, You Can Always Walk Out
If you get too cold, you don’t have to stay. When I’m trying out new gear or camping in an unfamiliar place, I remind myself of this. You’re not stranded in a survival situation, and this is supposed to be fun, right? Bring a headlamp and extra batteries, and don’t be afraid to walk out in the dark. As long as you’re moving, you’ll stay warm.
2. Sleep With Your Electronics and Your Water Bottle
The cold kills batteries overnight, so if you’re relying on things like flashlights, a GPS, or your phone, you need to keep them warm. Keep anything that runs on batteries or any spare batteries in your sleeping bag and they’ll keep a charge longer. I’ve used this method to keep an iPhone powered up on airplane mode for days. Your drinking water can also freeze solid overnight and render your water bottle useless, so it’s a good idea to tuck that into your bag as well. Just make sure the cap is on tight.
3. Try a Lean-To and a Fire
You’ve probably seen a classic lean-to setup in survival manuals, and it works well. If it isn’t pouring rain or snowing heavily, I actually prefer a lean-to to a backpacking tent. I use a 10-foot x 10-foot tarp and prop it up with trekking poles, stakes, and parachute cord. If you decide to build one, put the pointed backside of the shelter into the prevailing wind to protect yourself from the elements, and build a fire in front of the opening. Just be careful not to place it so close to the fire that flying embers put holes in your gear. Throughout the night, you’ll need to feed the fire so gather plenty of wood before going to bed and keep it within arm’s reach.
4. Condensation is a Killer
If you’re sleeping in a backpacking tent, watch out for condensation. The heat coming off your body can cause moisture to form on the inside of your tent. This can happen in bivy bags, too making your gear and sleeping bag wet. (It’s another reason why I like to camp in a lean-to.) If this happens, crack a window to let your tent breathe. Also, consider bringing a synthetic or synthetic-blend sleeping bag for winter camping. When down gets wet, it loses all of its insulation value.
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5. Practice Fire Redundancy
You need at least 3 ways to make a fire and I usually bring more. I pack waterproof storm matches, a ferrocerium rod and dryer lint for tinder, a magnifying glass, and a couple of lighters wrapped in duct tape. I also toss in a few homemade fire starters made from egg crates, wax, and sawdust, or a couple of candles. These come in handy when wood is wet and needs a long-burning firestarter to get it going. Finally, you should count on your knife as part of your fire kit. A sharp, strong fixed-blade bushcraft knife is essential for shaving tinder, making feather sticks, or batoning wood. In my opinion, it’s really the only kind of knife you should pack along in the winter.
A Few Things About Axes and Saws for Winter Camping
How you’re getting to your camp, how much firewood you’ll need when you’ll get there, and how long you’ll stay will all dictate your need for an axe. Axes are heavy, and for a lot less weight, you can process firewood with a sturdy bushcraft knife and baton. Also, misusing an axe can be dangerous and in some cases deadly.
The right axe will come in handy, though, especially in camps with hot tents and big campfires. They’re helpful for driving tent stakes into frozen ground and save energy when it comes time to gather firewood. Brush up on ways to use an axe safely, and try to pick one that suits your camp. For advice on a general-purpose axe you can pack in on foot, I trust the late survival instructor Mors Kochanski.
Kochanski suggested a 2- to 2½-pound head with an overall length measuring from your armpit to about the palm of your hand. It’s big enough to fell a dead-standing tree and the handle length gets the axe head away from your body while you’re swinging. Cut low on the tree at a downward 45-degree angle and you’ll have a better chance of coming home with all your fingers and toes.
While the use of axe is situational, saws are a different story. It’s hard to think of a reason to not bring a small saw when camping in the winter. There are many lightweight, razor-sharp saws on the market that will reduce deadfalls to a pile of fuel in no time. What’s even better is that they do this without putting your limbs at risk.
Saws can even be used in the dark, whereas axes should only be used during the day. If you choose wood to cut that’s the right size (about wrist-thick), you should have no problem splitting it with your knife and the technique mentioned above. In most cases, when camping in the winter, a saw and a good knife are all you need to get by.