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How Dangerous Is Cold Weather Camping?


December 3, 2020
Categories: Safety, Travel Tips, Weather

In the summer, popular camping areas are teeming with people and mosquitos. In the winter, those same locations are peaceful havens, where all you hear is the sound of snow crunching underneath your feet.

“The allure of cold weather camping is like the allure of the outdoors in general, but the cold is more likely to keep the crowds away and ensure the solitude many people look for in nature,” said Dr. Linda Keyes, a mountaineer, snow activity enthusiast and president of the Wilderness Medical Society. “If there is snow, the landscape is transformed into a pristine, otherworldly scene you can't find in the summer. There's nothing like the quiet calm of a gentle snow.”

Winter camping also provides immediate access to winter sports. Backcountry skiers and snowshoers can set up a base camp and enjoy their favorite activities within minutes.

“One of the biggest reasons to camp in the cold is to access backcountry skiing. I love the sound of skis swishing across an untracked meadow or cutting first tracks on an untouched slope,” Keyes said. “In addition, many mountaineering objectives are considered more of an accomplishment when done in the winter.”

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Sometimes the only place to camp is on a glacier. “We want winter camping to be close to the good skiing, and sometimes it is necessary to be at the base of some climbs,” said Jorge Kozulj, UIAGM-IFMGA mountain guide with Andescross in Argentina and a Global Rescue Safe Travel partner. He’s trekked across the Patagonian ice cap, the largest non-polar ice on earth, and camped there, too.

If you’ve watched the History Channel reality series “Alone,” you’ve watched people trying to survive in the wintry wilderness. Of course, these campers are contestants trying to win half a million dollars, but the message of the show is clear: winter camping is not for the faint of heart. You must be prepared for every possible scenario.

Here are some cold weather camping tips from Global Rescue experts and Safe Travel Partners.

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How Cold Is Too Cold?

Every individual’s cold tolerance is different. New Englanders start wearing additional layers as the temperature starts to drop in late fall, but typically don’t put on a heavy-duty down jacket until after the first real snow. Southerners, by contrast, may not even own a winter parka — fleece or denim are as heavy as it gets — and only see snow on ski trips.

If you are winter camping, it’s not about the season, the region or style.

“It’s all about staying warm,” said Harding Bush, associate manager of operations at Global Rescue. “Negative consequences for mistakes are dire in the winter. Everything is darker, colder and less accessible.”

What is considered cold weather camping? Answers range from 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to 4 degrees Celsius) being too cold to 30 to 40 degrees being too cold for those who are inexperienced or have amateur gear. Kozulj suggests cold weather camping is any camping below 0 Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

“This relates to your personal definition of cold. I don’t think there is an official definition of what temperature is too cold for camping,” Keyes said.

One thing to keep in mind is “the temperature decreases as altitude increases, so the higher you are, the colder it will be,” Keyes said.

[Related Reading: Flipping Frostbite]

Safety Tips from the Experts

Keyes believes anyone who is prepared can camp in cold weather.

“Good gear is key,” Keyes said. “There is an old adage, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’”

Even if you’re going outside to walk to the dog or take a trip down the slopes, you’ll want to wear layers. “And lots of them — wool and synthetics, never cotton,” Keyes said.

One: Do Your Research

Any travel, including a winter camping trip, will need pre-trip planning. You’ll want to check weather conditions first — not just current temperatures but trends for the region and any approaching weather systems.

“Knowing when to go is essential,” Keyes said. “Avoid traveling and camping during winter storms or extreme cold.”

Make sure winter camping is allowed where you intend to go.

“There may be permitting required or different check in procedures,” Bush said. “Research getting there as well: what are the road conditions to the trail head, where will you park, is the road maintained during the winter — or could you end up snowed in after a storm?”

Bush also suggests researching the emergency procedures and resources in the area. The closest ranger station is a great source of information about changes in terrain, trail closures or other hazards.

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Two: Practice With a Trial Run

Less experienced winter campers might choose to go with a guide on a first trip to learn how to set up camp, build a shelter and keep the fire going. If a guide isn’t available, stay close to home for your first foray.

“Plan a shorter winter camping trip if you’re are less experienced,” Bush said. “Camp closer to an accessible trail head — and closer to a warm car, plowed road and home — if things get too overwhelming.”

Three: Fuel Your Body

A winter camping diet is high calories and high fat.

“Take on sufficient calories,” said Dan Stretch, operations manager at Global Rescue. “Your body will be burning through more than normal in the cold maintaining body temp.”

Bush recommends drinking plenty of water.

“Cold weather seems to make us not feel like putting something cold inside ourselves,” he said. “If you are thirsty, it’s way too late.”

Four: Have the Right Winter Camping Gear

Blogs, websites, articles and entire magazines are dedicated to camping gear. Start by investing in a good quality, layered clothing system with a breathable base layer, mid layer, insulated layer and hard-shell outer layer.

Sleeping outside in colder temperatures also requires a layering system inside the tent.

“Invest in a high quality, warm down sleeping bag,” Keyes said.

“You will need a lot of good down gear and depending on where you go, you will need different sizes,” Kozulj said.

“Carry an insulated sleeping pad,” Stretch said. “Sleeping on the cold ground or an air mattress will suck the heat out of you overnight.”

Kozulj always brings a good Nalgene (a plastic originally made for laboratory use) bottle to use for drinking water during the day and inside a sleeping bag with hot water for warmth at night. Bush also recommends bringing several “good, quality leak proof water bottles.”

Find out more tips for cold weather gear here.

Five: Test Your Cold Weather Camping Gear

Having top-of-the-line equipment won’t matter if you don’t know how to use it.

“Get familiar with your equipment on shorter trips and develop efficient routines for the usual camping tasks,” Bush said.

One example: “If you purchase a liquid fuel stove for winter camping, ensure you are familiar with it before you head out on a trip,” Bush said. “If fuel stoves are started without being primed (pre-heated) they will flare. Many tents have burned down this way.”

Stretch suggests testing your kit somewhere cold, but safe to retreat if necessary, before testing it on a remote expedition.

“There is nothing worse than realizing your sleeping bag bought in a shop in Kathmandu is crap and you have to make do for the next month,” he said.

Six: Know How to Stay Warm

This includes finding a sunny campsite, building a shelter, insulating your shelter and building a fire in all weather conditions. As Bush notes, “it’s easier to stay warm than get warm.” Know how to control your thermal comfort level, avoid overheating and how to avoid heat loss after activity.

“Have quick access to the next level of warmth. If you are hiking in a fleece top, immediately put on another layer to retain the heat you built up during the hike,” Bush said. “I always have my down insulating jacket in the top pocket of my back pack, along with a warm wool hat.”

Wilderness Medical Society recommends not using your stove inside the tent for heat.

“Families have perished from carbon monoxide trying this method to stay warm,” Keyes said. “Only use your stove outside or in the vestibule with the door open."

Seven: Be Able to Communicate

The batteries in your satellite phone or cell phone aren’t designed for freezing cold temperatures. Pack extra batteries and use insulated pouches designed for communications devices.

“Batteries will drain faster in cold weather. If possible, keep a set for your important devices, such as a satellite phone, in your pocket during the day and sleeping bag at night,” Stretch said. “The last thing you want is to lose your comms and not be able to call for help.”

Eight: Get Global Rescue

Most winter camping trips will be successful. In the event of a worst-case scenario, you’ll want a Global Rescue travel protection services membership among your essential wintere camping gear. Whether you're seeking outdoor advice or immediate medical or security assistance, Global Rescue operations centers are staffed 24/7/365 to assist our members.


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