Winter Backcountry Camping Guide (Part 1)
Trip Planning & Safety
Winter in Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Hiking and camping popularity has skyrocketed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s great that more people are spending time outside, some of the areas where you previously found tranquility are far busier than usual. If you want to beat the crowds and avoid the bugs, then winter backcountry camping is just for you! This is for the folks who live in areas where the winters get cold, and where people flock to trails and campsites during the spring months. It’s mid-March, there isn’t a ton of winter left, start planning now so you can get out and experience it while you still can!
Camping in cold weather is truly something special, it’s pure winter peacefulness. To make sure that you’re ready for your next winter campout, you must count on your fair-weather camping skills, and adapt to the new challenges snowy landscapes and cold temperatures will bring. Winter camping is indeed an entirely different animal than fair-weather camping, but you’re still going to need to apply the skills you’ve gained camping during the summer months.
This will be the first of a three-part series based on backcountry camping during the wintertime. Part 1 will cover proper preparation and safety measures, regardless of the conditions. Part 2, coming next Thursday, will focus on the gear you’ll need, while Part 3 (coming the following week) will help you select the proper food and hydration methods for your excursion. In addition to this Guide series, earlier this winter we posted an article on the Pathloom Blog featuring some of our team’s favorite tips and tricks for camping and hiking in cold weather, you can check that out here.
Lassen Volcanic National Park - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Know Before You Go
Spending a night in a tent surrounded by snow may not seem like the ultimate winter getaway, but if you play your cards right it won’t be nearly as cold and miserable as it may sound. Above all else, you must recognize that this environment has the potential to be extremely dangerous. It takes careful trip planning in order to hike and camp safely in this setting. Therefore, it is crucial to spend a good amount of time researching locations and conditions to figure out when, where and how you will accomplish this trip.
Know the weather forecast and think about the region you’ll be in. Different weather patterns and climates call for different gear and preparation, so you’ll need to study up in advance to be fully prepared for your trip. With that said, high winds can become a serious issue and can lead to icy conditions - so make sure to study the wind forecast as well!
If you’re not very experienced with backcountry camping in the wintertime, take it slow. It’s crucial to be fully prepared, so start with shorter trails in areas that aren’t very desolate before working your way up. Be sure to plan multiple escape routes in advance, in case of an emergency.
As with any outdoor activity, tell people where you are going. Share a plan with friends and family, and provide them with precautionary measures for what to do in case they do not hear from you. Sort out what to do in a worst case scenario - i.e. how long they should go without hearing from you before they should call for help.
If you’re able to, talk to a ranger. Ask them about the current conditions in the area, and if there’s anything to look out for before planning any trip into the backcountry. If the snow is deep, they may suggest hiking in the morning to avoid post-holing.
Food, water and gear are critical considerations for winter camping, and could mean the difference between life or death. Parts two and three of this Winter Backcountry Camping Guide will dive deeper into these topics, so keep an eye out in the coming weeks!
Crater Lake, OR - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Now that you’ve planned your trip carefully, it’s time to learn some techniques to protect yourself, to make your experience the best it can be. You’ll find that most of your fair-weather camping skills will transfer over nicely. However, much of winter camping is about having the right gear (which we’ll get into during part two of the series). That being said, keeping these tips in mind will give you an extra leg-up, no matter what gear you’re working with.
Be familiar with your route. You and every member of your group should be knowledgeable of the trails and local area. If you are using electronics for navigation, it would be a good idea to bring a backup paper map - just in case.
Camp near open water if possible, so you don’t have to spend all your time melting snow. If you’ll need to melt snow, plan on using three times as much fuel as you would use for normal summer camping.
The biggest difference between winter camping and regular camping is that you’ll possibly be setting up your tent on snow. Don’t be afraid of this - snow works great as a stable foundation. It’s important to examine potential campsites thoroughly before setting up camp for the night.
Wind protection is your friend. Try to find a hill or a patch of trees to set up your tent. This will make your night much warmer and more enjoyable. Find the right balance - keep your tent close enough to block the wind, but be sure to have enough distance from the trees to avoid snow-covered branches falling onto your tent.
Try not to camp on vegetation, it can disturb or possibly even kill many plant species. Try your best to find a nice patch of snow or bare ground to set up camp.
Beware of hazards like avalanches and unstable trees. Make sure your tent is set up far away from any slopes that might slide.
Turn around frequently to survey your route. Make sure you’ll be able to recognize it easily on the way out, should snow or wind obscure your tracks. This is a good idea in all seasons, but especially so in winter conditions.
Too much empty floor space inside your tent will make it hard to warm up the interior space. Bring your backpack and other gear inside (avoid sharp items that could rip your tent, like crampons and axes), and place everything around you on the floor of your tent to act as insulation against the cold ground.
It is completely fine to turn around if you feel like you’re getting lost or struggling with the cold. Don’t try to be a hero, there will be plenty more opportunities to camp again!
Grand Teton National Park, WY - Photo Credit: Chris Blake
Dealing With Injuries and Illnesses in the Cold
In case you haven’t realized already, cold-weather camping far away from civilization can bring many risks. It’s important to regularly check on yourself and others in your group, so your peaceful trip doesn’t turn into a nightmare.
Hypothermia and frostbite are serious concerns when backcountry camping in the winter. To manage this, you must know the symptoms and actively check up on yourself and your partners on a regular basis.
Do not try to work through pain. Chances are you are probably far away from any help, so if you feel your fingers and toes getting cold, stop what you are doing immediately and try your best to warm them up. Frostbite and hypothermia set in faster than you may think.
Start warm and stay warm. Dressing with appropriate layers will ensure a comfortable body temperature. Make sure your layers are in order before going out, because trying to get warm is much more difficult than just staying warm!
Again, it is completely fine to turn around if you feel like you’re getting lost or struggling with the cold. Don’t try to be a hero!
That wraps up the initial entry of our Winter Backcountry Camping Guide - some basic tips on how to prepare for your next camping trip. Enjoy this opportunity to be out in nature, and let the brisk air and stark landscape help you feel alive. Tune in next Thursday for the next part of this series, where we highlight the different types of gear you will need to have a safe trip out in the backcountry.
Check out these other articles by Pathloom which you may enjoy:
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