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What you need to know about winter camping

Tips and tricks for camping in the cold weather and under the stars

Mention the idea of winter camping and most people will spontaneously break out in goose bumps. Fair enough - go unprepared and camping in snow and ice will be cold and miserable. But do it right and a night out in winter can not only be comfortable, but amazing. Crowd-free camping in empty wilderness. Skies full of stars, and maybe the Northern Lights. Sunrise glistening off untracked snow. The difference between pain and pleasure? Well, that comes down to gear and knowledge. You could spend many unpleasant nights figuring it out for yourself or learn from our well-earned experience.

Experience is crucial when it comes to winter camping. Do you not head into the backcountry unprepared ever, but this can be especially risky during the winter. Include training in survival skills/first aid in your preparations and take all the necessary precautions. 

Making snow a home 

Sure you could spend hours building a snow shelter, but you'll get soaked, exhausted, and waste valuable daylight hours. Instead bring a legitimate four-season tent, made for supporting snow loads and blocking chilly winds, and set it up in the right place. 

Location, location

If there's lots of snow on the ground you can pitch it just about anywhere, but leave-no-trace rules apply in winter too. Set up camp at least 100-feet from lakes and streams and away from summer and winter trails. Amongst a stand of trees is a good bet. They provide shelter from the wind and trap some heat. Avoid depressions and gullies, which fill with cold air overnight - and lee slopes - where snow will pile up if it snows or gets windy.  

Lay the foundation

With skis or snowshoes off stomp out an area several feet larger than your tent's footprint. Leave it for an hour — go build your kitchen or start dinner — to allow the snow to settle and firm up. Shovel it flat.  

Stake it out

Tent pegs don't work in the snow. Put extra string on all your tent and vestibule tie points and grab a bunch of thin branches. Wrap the string around a stick and then burry it a foot down. The string will slide freely while the stick acts like a deadman, perfect for tying down your tent. Use a slip knot and you won't have to dig the sticks out when it's time to pack up. 

Make it home

Dig out your vestibule area so you can put your boots on sitting down. Don't unpack your sleeping bag until just before you get in or it will fill with cold air. Take a water-tight water bottle filled with hot water to bed to help warm your sleeping bag. And bring a snack. Bears aren't a worry in winter and if you wake up cold a bite to eat will help fuel your furnace for a few more hours of shut-eye. 

Other words of wisdom for winter camping beginners

Change into dry clothes as soon as you're done your day; it's easier to stay warm than get warm.  

Go to bed warm, take a short walk, or ski just before snuggling in for the night. 

Save time in the morning by melting snow the night before. Keep it from freezing by storing it in a snow fridge - dig out a cubby and then seal it with a block of snow. 

Don't hold off going pee at night. Keeping that liquid warm in your body actually makes you cold.  

If it's cold and windy and you don't want to cook outside move to your tent vestibule, just make sure to open your vestibule wide to prevent fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.  

How to "number two" in the cold 

As with setting up camp, leave-no-trace rules apply. Always go to the washroom far from summer water sources and trails to prevent contamination. Peeing is pretty straightforward, just cover the hole when you're done. For number two, saddle up next to a tree, dig a hole in the snow, do your business and then bury it. Trees put out a bit of heat meaning your waste will disappear faster in the spring. If you're base camping think about building a group snow outhouse to contain your impact. And keep in mind snow makes great TP — ball it up like a snowball and wipe. Seriously. 

The gear to bring 

Shovel: Indispensable for everything from leveling tent platforms to digging out snow fridges. Lightweight, two-piece aluminum shovels are best.  

Sleeping bag: Being cold at night sucks. Bring a sleeping bag rated to 5 to 10C warmer than the coldest temp expected. A cheap way to increase the comfort range of a sleeping bag is to bring a bivy sack or sleeping bag liner. Each adds about 5C of warmth.  

Sleeping pad: Go full length with an R-value of 4 or higher. Put your empty pack down as well to add a bit more insulation to your core. 

Warm clothes: Down jackets and pants, fleece tops and bottoms, toasty base layers and a couple of pairs of socks. Bring more than you think you'll need. 

Booties: The greatest winter camping invention: down or synthetic-filled booties. They're heaven after a day in ski boots and super warm to boot.  

Stove: Go white gas — canisters don't work well in cold and snow — and make sure it's working well.  

Of course, winter camping doesn’t have to mean far far away from civilization on your own. For example, there are 31 provincial parks in Ontario that allow a range of winter camping including front country and backcountry options as well as roofed accommodations. 

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