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Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team

Winter Camping

By Hati Whiteley
16, Jan, 2018

Our comprehensive guide to safe and comfy camping in winter conditions

© Alpkit

We’d love to tell you that camping in the winter is as easy as camping at summer. That it’s all about those sunny crisp mornings, long starry nights, and messing around with snowballs.

Sunny crisp mornings and long starry nights are pretty great and all, but let’s be realistic… Winter delivers colder, wetter, and more extreme conditions than summer. This means that winter camping trips are often less jaunty and spontaneous and more, well, planned.

Whether you’re sleeping under the stars for the sake of sleeping under the stars or for the proximity to the mountains, winter camping is a uniquely enjoyable and rewarding experience. However, good practice and thoughtful preparation are necessary for an enjoyable and safe winter trip. For now, grab a hot chocolate, sit back, and enjoy our comprehensive guide to winter camp craft.

But first…

Remember: staying warm is key

It may seem obvious, but your priority when heading out over winter staying warm and dry; staying warm and dry in the first place is easier than getting warm and dry in winter conditions. This spotlight should point you in the right direction for safe, warm, and dry winter camping.

A man huddled in a red Filo down jacket in a red mountain tent surrounded by snow

 

Fueling up

No, we don’t mean your stove! Well, maybe we do a little bit… No matter what mod cons you take out camping with you, you are the most important element of your winter camping setup.

A cold, hungry, and miserable camper will only become colder, hungrier and more miserable. The moment you forget to look after number one, you’ll go home, take your kit back to the shop and rant about comfort ratings, rant at your companions about comfort ratings… No-one wants that! So let’s put all the expensive stuff aside and consider what goes into your stomach: food and drink:

A man camping in the snow is cooking a meal with a remote canister stove in the porch of his tent

How to stay hydrated and well-fed
  • Eat a hot, calorie rich meal just before getting into your sleeping bag. This will ensure that you’re warm, that you warm up the bag faster, and that you don’t waste energy shivering.

  • Even if a hot meal isn’t available, staying fed and hydrated is essential. A hot drink (even just hot water) and a snack high in simple sugars will do the trick. Think chocolate bars, energy bars, trail mix, nuts, honey and peanut butter (basically, all the good stuff).

  • Don’t cook inside your tent, this will increase condensation which freezes overnight and melts again in the morning – nightmare!

Looking for some cooking inspiration? We got snowed in back in 2010, so Nick raided the fridge (and the wine rack apparently) and made one of our favourite videos in the archives. Read the full Winter Chef spotlight for more on what to cook when camping out at winter.

 

Choosing your pitch

Whatever the weather there’s an art to choosing a pitch, but when the ground is covered in snow, 3-season rules no longer apply! Accrued experience across the AK team has equipped us with some handy tips which are vital for both comfort and safety when camping out at winter:

A red mountain tent is pitched above the treeline in Iceland

Where to pitch your tent at winter
  • Avoid snow-covered branches; snow-laden trees may look idyllic and wintry, but they can snap and fall in the night. Do not pitch your tent below them.

  • Avoid avalanche zones; Andy Kirk-Patrick has produced a pretty comprehensive guide to avoiding avalanche zones, which you can find here

  • Avoid valley floors; hot air rises and leaves cold air to pool in valleys.

  • Point your tent door downhill where possible to stop cold air from rushing into your tent when you open the door (remember: hot air rises).

  • Running water: melting snow for water is time consuming and uses a lot of fuel. Camp near a natural water source.

  • Map the morning sun; spots that get the morning sun will warm up faster, helping to dry out moisture in your sleeping bag where possible.

  • Ensure that your pitch doesn’t have voids underneath as the snow could collapse at night.

 

Pitching your tent

A good tent goes a long way, but good pitching goes even further. Pitched badly, even the most mountainous mountain tent with all sorts of fancy bits is no better than a pile of poles and canvas, and nothing ruins a good night’s sleep like a badly pitched tent. By observing a few good habits, you’ll end up with a snow fortress worthy of Llywelyn the Great himself:

Pitching a tent as darkness falls on a glacier in chamonix

How to pitch your tent in the snow
  • Choose your pitch (read the section above for a few pointers).

  • Prepare your pitch: either compress or flatten snow under your tent by walking over it in boots or snow shoes, or dig a shallow hole to pitch your tent in. We like the second method best, as you can pile snow around the edges to break the wind.

  • Your average tent pegs aren’t much help in snowy or frozen ground. A snow stake might work, but a proven method is to loop the guyropes around a stick, rock, pole, piece of gear, or snow-filled stuff sack, and bury it in the ground, compressing the snow over the top so that it freezes into place.

 

Warming the Bag

Who hasn't swaggered into a shop and fondled lofty, cocoon-like sleeping bags sporting impressive swing tag that claims nocturnal comfort down to -40˚C. It’s proven by official lab tests don’t you know? Sigh.

If these lab results alone could keep you warm, the Cairngorms would be overcrowded with happy campers throughout the winter. When you’re browsing the fancy winter sleeping bags, always bear in mind that you warm your sleeping bag, your sleeping bag does not warm you.

Wha’!? So how do you warm the bag? Your sleeping bag insulates you by trapping your body heat in its lofty bits. You provide the heat in the first place, so you need to be warm when you get into it in the first place. Eating a hot meal and doing some star jumps right before bed should help you out. Make sure that you’re also wearing dry clothes when you get into your sleeping bag, taking as little moisture in there with you.

Two people sleeping in a mountain tent in 4 season sleeping bags

Which winter sleeping bag should I buy?

Aside from that number on the label, you’ll need to consider myriad other factors before you buy a bag. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • ‘Do I sleep warm or cold?’

  • ‘Do I wriggle about in my sleep?’

  • ‘Am I used to the conditions that I’ll be using the bag in?’

  • ‘How humid will it be?’

  • ‘How cold is the ground?’

  • ‘How many of us will be in the tent?’

Giving careful thought to the answers to these questions help to determine which sleeping bag you need.

We’ve dug out another of our favourite videos from the archives. For more detail, check out our support stickie: You Warm the Bag.

 

S.L.E.E.Ping Better

We’ve already mentioned that there is more to camping out at winter than buying the fanciest 4-season, goose down sleeping bag going.

To keep things simple, we’ve coined an acronym for remembering our checklist for staying warm and on those long winter nights: SLEEP

two people setting up their sleep system in a mountain tent

How to stay warm when camping out at winter
  • S = Surface: what are you going to sleep on?

  • L = Layers: what will you wear inside your sleeping bag?

  • E = Eat and drink: have you got enough fuel to keep warm?

  • E = Extremities: are you feet and hands going to stay warm?

  • P = Protection: how are you going to stay dry?

Want to know more? Head over to our SLEEP guide.

 

Managing Condensation

It’s no use talking winter camping without mentioning condensation.

Condensation in your tent is bad enough during those summer months, but come winter it can freeze in your tent and sleeping bag, making you miserable and possibly putting you in danger. So how do you deal with condensation?

When you breath in your tent, you produce water vapour which condenses on the inner. Exhaling is unavoidable, so there is no grand solution for moisture and condensation in your tent, however you can reduce and manage it.

A man is airing his sleeping bag on top of a khaki mountain tent in the snow

How to reduce and manage condensation
  • Don’t cook inside your tent; the more moisture in your tent, the more condensation.

  • Don’t get snow in your tent (for the same reason as above).

  • Change into dry layers when you get into your sleeping bag, and pack sweaty or damp clothes away.

  • Air your sleeping bag; when you perspire in the night your sleeping bag absorbs moisture. Air it when possible by laying it over a tent in the morning or opening it up in your tent to prevent moisture build up.

  • Vent your tent; get some airflow through your tent to keep it well ventilated. Mountain tents (ie. the Kangri and Zhota) have multiple door configurations which allow you to let the air in without opening the door all the way. Pitching at 90˚ to prevailing winds will stop you from getting blown about inside too.

  • Keep the rain fly as far from the tent inner as possible to allow more airflow between the layers.

In this video, Col gives us a few tips on keeping tents well ventilated (among other tips) in this video from back in the day:

How are you feeling? Ready for an wintry adventure?

Visit our winter base camp for even more guides, tips, and inspiration and get ready for your winter escapades!

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