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
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.
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.
need lots of internal space in your tent to
accommodate all the gear you are carrying
(leaving your gear outdoors is not recommended).
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
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.
make sure that you bring extra poles with
you and pole splints / tape in case a pole
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.
stake you tent down if you are going to be
in windy areas or leaving your tent during
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.
a winter campsite & setting up camp
choosing a winter campsite, pay particular attention
to the following;
ridge tops and open areas where wind can blow
down tents or create drifts.
low lying areas where the coldest air will
your tent is set up on level ground.
your tent is not set up under dead branches
hanging in trees.
your site is in an area that does not pose
any risk from avalanches.
up your tent facing south as this will ensure
longer days and more direct sunlight.
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.
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.
warm before you get into your sleeping bag
by doing mild stretching and exercises.
any clothing/gear you will need out of your
pack as well as some water and tomorrow's
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.
any wet/damp layers and replace them with
dry ones, particularly socks.
damp items in the sleeping bag with you near
your trunk. This will help them dry overnight.
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.
water bottles and food with you in the bag.
hat and booties are recommended to help keep
you warm. You can also wear a scarf around
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.