Camping Canada Campgrounds - Winter camping tips

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Winter camping photoWinter camping!   Exploring the wilderness in winter can be a wonderful experience provided you take the necessary precautionary measures. In order to help you prepare for a winter camping experience, we provide the following tips and information. Please note that the information in this article is for educational purpose only and is not a substitute for adequate training and experience. "Camping-Canada.Com" assumes no liability for any individual's use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced bellow.

Choosing the right tent

Unless you're planning to sleep under the stars, you need shelter and the most popular shelter for winter camping is the tent. There is a range of tents available on the market today. The key factors in choosing a tent are;

Strength: the tent must be able to withstand both wind and snow. In general it is recommended that you use a tent specifically rated to be a 4-season tent. Four season tents typically have stronger poles to hold snow loads.
The tent must have a roof line that allows snow to fall off. Otherwise the tent will load up and the weight will cause it to collapse. All four season tents are designed this way.
You need lots of internal space in your tent to accommodate all the gear you are carrying (leaving your gear outdoors is not recommended).
You need a tent with a rainfly. Having a breathable inner tent wall with a waterproof fly outside helps reduce condensation in the tent. Typically a tent will be 10-20 degrees warmer than the outside air once your body is inside heating it up.
Free standing tents (dome type) are recommended because they shed snow fairly well and they provide efficient interior space. Make sure that the manufacturer recommends the tent for winter use. Many dome tents are designed for three season use only and the stitching and the poles are not designed to take the weight of snow.

Tent Tips

Always make sure that you bring extra poles with you and pole splints / tape in case a pole breaks.
A ground sheet (tarp) can help protect your tent floor as the ground underneath usually turns to ice from your weight and body heat and sharp ice can tear the floor.
Always stake you tent down if you are going to be in windy areas or leaving your tent during excursions.
Bring a small broom to brush off all the snow on your clothes and boots before getting into the tent at night. This helps reduce condensation and water buildup in the tent keeping you and your belongings dry.

Choosing the right sleeping bag

Sleeping bags for winter camping should be rated to temperatures below what you will likely experience if you want to be comfortable. If the nighttime temperature can drop to -15o Fahrenheit, then your bag should be rated to -30o Fahrenheit.
There are a variety of different fills for sleeping bags: down, Primaloft, Microloft, Qualofill, Polarguard, etc. The bag itself should be a mummy style bag with a hood. It should also have a draft tube along the zipper and a draft collar at the neck. In sleeping bags, you want the bag to snugly conform to your body. If the bag is too big, you will have large spaces for convection currents and you will be cold. In a bag that has too much space, you may need to wear clothing layers to help fill up the space. You can opt for the expedition bag which is rated to -30o Fahrenheit or you can use a three season bag rate rated to 0o Fahrenheit and augment it with a vapor barrier liner (adds 5-10 degrees) and/or an overbag (a summer weight bag that fits over your mummy bag - adds 15 - 20 degrees make sure it is big enough to fit over the mummy without compressing it.

Choosing a winter campsite & setting up camp

When choosing a winter campsite, pay particular attention to the following;

Avoid ridge tops and open areas where wind can blow down tents or create drifts.
Avoid low lying areas where the coldest air will settle.
Ensure your tent is set up on level ground.
Ensure your tent is not set up under dead branches hanging in trees.
Ensure your site is in an area that does not pose any risk from avalanches.
Set up your tent facing south as this will ensure longer days and more direct sunlight.
Set up your tent near a water source (stream or lake) so you won't have to melt snow for your water needs. Do not eat snow as it takes an incredible amount of energy to transfer water from one state to another (solid to liquid). You are burning up too many calories to do this which can quickly lead to hypothermia.

When you first get to the site, leave your snowshoes or skis on and begin to tramp down areas for tent and your kitchen. Set up your tent with the door at 90 degrees to the prevailing winds. Stake the tent out. On a cold night you can build snow walls on the windward side of the tent. Mound the sides of the tent with snow (have someone inside pushing out on the tent to keep it from collapsing. When the snow sets up you will have a hybrid tent-snow shelter that will have better insulation than the tent alone. Dig out a pit in front of your tent for a porch. This makes taking your boots off much easier. Put your foam pad in the tent and un-roll your sleeping bag. If the snow is deep, you may want to dig out a pit for your fire / kitchen. Dig down about 2-3 feet and pile the excavated snow around the perimeter. Pack the snow at the perimeter of the hole with your shovel. This will give you a 4-5 foot deep area, protected from the wind.


Here's a few tips for bedtime.

Get warm before you get into your sleeping bag by doing mild stretching and exercises.
Get any clothing/gear you will need out of your pack as well as some water and tomorrow's lunch.
Strip off your layers of clothing to what will be appropriate in your sleeping bag. The more layers you wear the better insulated and the warmer you will be. However note that too much clothing can compress dead air space in the bag and reduce its effectiveness.
Remove any wet/damp layers and replace them with dry ones, particularly socks.
Place damp items in the sleeping bag with you near your trunk. This will help them dry overnight.
Place your boots in your sleeping bag stuff sack (turned inside out) and place the stuff sack between your legs. This will keep your boots from freezing during the night and the stuff sack keeps your legs from getting wet.
Put water bottles and food with you in the bag.
A hat and booties are recommended to help keep you warm. You can also wear a scarf around your neck.
Try to sleep with your face out of the bag. This reduces moisture build-up inside the bag (which could be catastrophic for a down bag).

Clothing material

Our body basically acts as a furnace, producing heat through chemical reactions and activity. As physical activity increases so does heat production and conversely as activity decreases so does heat production. The key to keeping warm is to add insulation to the body and the best way to achieve this is by having a number of layers of clothing. Each layer provides a certain amount of dead air space. This allows you to add or shed layers to increase or decrease your accumulated dead air space as the temperature changes and/or as your activity level changes. As mentioned, your body is the heat source, the clothing layers only serve to trap the heat and slow down your heat loss to the cold environment. If you have too much clothing on, you will overheat and start to sweat. You need to find the proper heat balance between the number and types of layers and your activity level. If you sweat and get soaked, you will lose heat much more quickly through evaporation of the water. Also you are loosing an incredible amount of water through sweating since the air is so dry. Too much water loss leads to dehydration which significantly increases the risk of hypothermia. So you want to control your layers so as to be warm at the activity level you are in but not sweating profusely.

As a general rule, the efficiency of clothing is proportional to the diameter of the body part it covers. Thus a given thickness of insulation added to your trunk will be more thermally efficient than the same thickness added to your arm or leg. It will also help maintain that body core temperature. This is why vests work well to maintain body heat. There is an optimal thickness of insulation for each body part. Beyond that the added bulk tends to be more of a hindrance in movement than the added insulation is worth.

Some of the different types of materials for winter clothing and insulation are discussed below.

Wool - Wool can absorb a fair amount of moisture without imparting a damp feeling because the water "disappears" into the fiber spaces. Even with water in the fabric wool still retains dead air space and will still insulate you. The disadvantage to wool is that it can absorb so much water (maximum absorption can be as much as 1/3 third the garment weight) making wet wool clothing very heavy. Wool releases moisture slowly, with minimum chilling effect. An advantage to wool is that it is relatively inexpensive (if purchased at surplus stores). However, it can be itchy against the skin and some people are allergic to it.

Pile or Fleece fabrics - is a synthetic material often made of a plastic (polyester, polyolefin, polypropylene, etc.). This material has a similar insulative capacity as wool. Its advantages are that it holds less water (than wool) and dries more quickly. The disadvantage of pile is that it has very poor wind resistance and hence a wind shell on top is almost always required.

Polarguard, Hollofil, Quallofil and others - these are synthetic fibers which are primarily used in sleeping bags and heavy outer garments like parkas. The fibers are fairly efficient at providing dead air space (though not nearly as efficient as down). Their advantages are that they do not absorb water and dry fairly quickly. Polarguard is made in large sheets. Hollofil is a fiber similar to Polarguard but hollow. This increases the dead air space and makes the fiber more thermally efficient. Quallofil took Hollofil one step further by creating four "holes" running through the fiber.

"Superthin" fibers (Primaloft, Microloft, Thinsulate and others) - Under laboratory conditions a given thickness of Thinsulate is almost twice as warm as the same thickness of down, however, the Thinsulate is 40% heavier. Thinsulate is made in sheets and therefore tends to be used primarily for outer layers, parkas and pants. New materials such as Primaloft and Microloft are superthin fibers that are close to the weight of down for an equivalent fiber volume. They are now being used in parkas and sleeping bags as an alternative to down. They stuff down to a small size and have similar warmth to weight ratios as down without the worries about getting wet.

Down - feathers are a very efficient insulator. They provide excellent dead air space for very little weight. The major problem with down in the winter is that down absorbs water. Once the feathers get wet they tend to clump, and lose dead air space. Using down items in the winter takes special care to prevent them from getting wet. For example, a vapor barrier sleeping bag liner in a down bag will help the bag stay dry. Down is useful in sleeping bags since it tends to conform to the shape of the occupant and prevents convection areas. Some people are allergic to down. The effectiveness of a down bag is directly related to the quality of the feathers used. Since down is made of individual feathers, sleeping bags are garments must have baffles sewn in to prevent the down from shifting in the bag which would create cold spots.

What to wear

Head - because the head has a very high surface to volume ratio and the head is heavily vascularized, you can lose a great deal of heat (up to 70%) from the head. Therefore, hats are essential in winter camping. A balaclava is particularly effective and versatile. A facemask may be required if there are high wind conditions due to the susceptibility of the face to frostbite.

Hands - mittens are warmer that gloves because the fingers tend to keep each other warm, rather than being isolated as in gloves. It is useful to have an inner mitten with an outer shell to give you layering capabilities. However, gloves are always essential as well in winter because of the need for dexterity in various operations.

Feet - finding the right footgear depends a great deal on the activity you are involved in as well as temperature and environment. If you are skiing (cross-country), you need a boot that has some ankle support due to the extra weight of a backpack. You may also need a ski "overboot" to give you additional insulation over the ski boots. If you are snowshoeing or hiking, you need insulated boots or mountain bootsm (regular backpacking boots do not provide the necessary dead air space for proper insulation). Insulated boots such as Sorels are rubber or leather and rubber boots that use a layer of wool felt to provide dead air space. Such boots are rated to -20 degrees and even to -40 degrees. They can be easily used with ski bindings, crampons, and snowshoes. Mountain boots have plastic shell and use inner boots made with wool felt or a closed cell foam insulation. They can be very warm and easily used with ski bindings, crampons, and snowshoes. Depending on the inner boot, you may need insulated overboots to add enough insulation to keep your feet warm.

Socks - one of the best systems for keeping your feet warm is using multiple layers. Start with a thin polypropylene liner sock next to the skin to wick moisture away followed by 1 - 2 pairs of wool or wool/nylon blend socks. Make sure the outer socks are big enough that they can fit comfortably over the inner layers. If they are too tight, they will constrict circulation and increase the chances of frostbite. Keeping your feet dry is essential to keeping your feet warm you may need to change your socks during the day

The outer layer - it is essential to have an outer layer that is windproof and at least water resistant. In some cases it may be best to have the garment waterproof. It also needs to be able to be ventilated. There is a big trade off between water-proofness and ability to ventilate. A completely waterproof item will keep the water that is moving through your other layers trapped, adding to weight and causing some heat loss. However, in wet snow conditions, if the garment is not waterproof it can get wet and freeze. Gore-tex and other similar fabrics provide one solution. These fabrics have a thin polymer coating which has pores that are large enough to allow water vapor to pass through but too small to allow water droplets through. However although Gore-tex does breathe, it doesn't breath as well as straight cotton/nylon blends. If you opt for a straight wind garment, 65/35 blends of cotton and nylon work well. The other approach is to have a waterproof garment with sufficient ventilation openings to allow water vapor to escape. This provides the ability to work in wet snow without worrying about getting the garment soaked.

Click here to view our "Winter Camping Checklist"

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