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The air is crisp and clear. The sky is a deep blue with few clouds. There are no insects buzzing around your head or trying to crawl up your leg. The leaves are gone and the sun shines everywhere. You can see for dozens of yards through the forest. What a perfect time to go camping, except it is freezing! How will you be able to sleep when it gets even colder tonight?
Why Go Camping in Winter?
First let’s define camping. I’m not talking about driving your RV to a concrete pad somewhere with electric, sewer and warm showers. The camping I’m talking about is done with a thin nylon tent, or nothing at all but what nature provides, and it can be done safely and comfortably in winter. In fact in many ways it is more pleasant than summer camping.
No mosquitos and ticks to annoy you and jeopardize your health. No snakes, spiders, or other creepy crawlies to wake you in the middle of the night skittering across your chest. No lying on top of your soaked sleeping bag praying for just a puff of a breeze. There are other challenges; water freezes, the temperature can drop into the teens or even lower overnight, and even in the day the wind can feel like a knife. There are ways to deal with this all and that is where we go next.
Dress in layers. The reason is that layers can be added or removed based on your activity and the temperature. The absolute worst thing that can happen in the cold is to get wet. The most likely cause of that is being too warm and sweating into your clothes. While on the subject of clothes, newer isn’t always better. Wool is the best under, and over wear you can have.
It is nearly as good an insulator wet as it is dry. Cotton is the worst. Once it is wet it can only make you colder. Some of the new stuff like polypropylene is pretty good as an insulator and is moisture neutral, but isn’t really very fire-friendly.
Stay hydrated. The colder air gets, the less moisture it can hold. When you breathe in, you warm and humidify that air (that’s why you can see your breath going out when you exhale). With each breath you lose water. That water first comes out of your tissues, which are replenished by your blood. Your blood is what carries everything throughout your body, including heat. As your blood volume drops so does your ability to stay warm.
One more hint, while on that subject. Resist the desire to breathe into your sleeping bag to keep your nose warm. During a typical night you will exhale a quart of water into the bag, seriously diminishing its ability to keep you warm. You should air it out each day for the same reason; even your skin releases moisture.
Eat. Leave the diet mentality at home. Your body needs calories, protein, and fat to metabolize and create heat. That metabolic process also requires water, so again, drink up.
A Tent or Other Shelter
If you take a tent you can use a commercially available stove or catalytic heater to warm the inside, but in my experience it is not as effective as some more primitive styles of shelter. One very effective shelter is to make a lean-to and line the inside with a reflective blanket (the kind that will fit in your shirt pocket and costs about $2). With a fire in front it becomes a reflecting oven, and you are inside feeling toasty.
Another option is called a smoke blanket. Scrape out a depression as long and wider than you are and build a fire in it, full length. After you have cooked all the dampness out of the ground split the fire into 2 long fires with the depression between them.
The depression will keep you from rolling into the fire in your sleep and with a fire on each side of you your night should be quite comfortable. Other variations of this include lining your trench with rocks which will radiate heat from the fire that was on them up into your bag all night. I have even seen a frame built above a radiation bed like a heated cot.
Your greatest heat loss is not from above into the air, but from the ground below sucking away your warmth. If you are to be comfortable, insulating yourself from the earth is essential. Foam pads and inflatable mattresses are good options, but dry leaves or grass, cattail stalks or reeds, or even a bed of hemlock boughs are all quite effective, and it’s hard to beat a bough bed for comfort.
Sleeping bags come with different ratings for how warm they will keep you. Pay attention to these and you should be fine, but even if you find you didn’t choose as well as you had hoped all is not lost. Any of the above shelter hints will add to your bag’s effectiveness and will keep you well even if you find yourself with nothing at all.
In addition a stone the size of your head, heated in the fire and then wrapped in newspaper will keep you warm all night. Just wrap it up (not too hot or your newspaper will ignite) and put it in the bottom of your bag. Your toes will be happy all night long.
Water freezes in temperature below 32 degrees F (O degrees C). That fact can be annoying when trying to camp in the winter, but it doesn’t have to ruin your day. Solar showers work. The typical solar shower is a 5 gallon plastic bag, clear on one side and black on the other with a hose and shower nozzle on the bottom.
When set in the sun for a few hours it will give you comfortably warm liquid water for washing. Any metal pot set next to the fire will keep your drinking water ice free and even plastic containers will work with a little attentive care. If you choose to use snow for drinking water, don’t heat it too fast. Believe it or not, it will scorch and taste bad.
Recognize that without a fire your chances of comfort and perhaps even survival in the cold fall off dramatically. Fire can be created from a dizzying assortment of things from matches and lighters to a lens of ice formed in your hands, to two sticks rubbed together. None work if you can’t lay up a good fire for that spark to work on. Of all the things and skills on this page this is the only one that can make up for your shortcomings in the others. If you are not good at this, get good before you go into the wilds in the winter.
Winter is a great time to be out camping. Chances are you will have the place to yourself and that alone can make it worth the trip. Nature lets down her guard. I have had some fascinating encounters with animals just because they didn’t expect a human to be there. Enjoy.