How To: Winter Camping For Real

I know his smile looks like a grimace, but David Shedd and I were actually having fun on this winter camping expedition to New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest. The temperature dropped below zero at night (it was still below zero when this photo was taken) but the woodstove and good sleeping bags kept us warm and comfy--most of the time! (Tim Jones photo)

I know his smile looks like a grimace, but David Shedd and I were actually having fun on this winter camping expedition to New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest. The temperature dropped below zero at night (it was still below zero when this photo was taken) but the woodstove and good sleeping bags kept us warm and comfy--most of the time! (Tim Jones photo)

My buddy David  and I were planning a winter getaway. He only had one night, but we wanted to do more than just camp by the roadside. So we packed our gear, put on our backpacks and hiked into the winter wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, spent the night, and hiked back out the next day.

It turned out to be a pretty typical winter camping expedition: lots of fun, and enough challenge to make it memorable.

Truth be told, however, despite my long experience with winter camping (David is a very experienced 3-season camper but had never done a trip on snow), and despite intensive prior planning, we (OK, I) made a couple of rookie mistakes that made this getaway MUCH more challenging than it should have been. Fortunately, we were never in serious discomfort or any danger, but it was harder than it needed to be.

Our first mistake was getting a late start. We always meet somewhere for a leisurely breakfast, then hike in and set up camp. That doesn’t work as well in the winter when days are short and travel is tougher. Note to self: Get an early start!

Second mistake (all my fault) was choosing a spot we particularly enjoy camping in the spring and fall without really considering the logistics. Great campsite, but it’s almost six miles from the road.

A packed snowmobile trail (easy to walk on) covers much of that distance, so we had only two miles to do on snowshoes. It sounded easy. What I’d forgotten is that winter packs are heavier than summer packs and snowshoes make hiking much harder.

Winter packs are big and heavy--something to consider when you are planning how far to travel on your winter camping adventures.  We walked six miles each way, including two miles on snowshoes-- next time we'll do less . . . (David Shedd photo)

Winter packs are big and heavy--something to consider when you are planning how far to travel on your winter camping adventures. We walked six miles each way, including two miles on snowshoes-- next time we'll do less . . . (David Shedd photo)

Just the two miles of snowshoeing on unbroken trail would have been challenging enough. In fact, after the snowmobile trail hike (almost all uphill with very heavy packs), the snowshoe portion bordered on brutal. In places we had to crawl under or fight our way around fallen trees, and had to climb up very steep stream banks in soft snow. Tough going.

By the time we arrived at the campsite we were both far more tired than we should have been, and had less time than we would have liked to set up camp before dark

If we’d been “cold camping” with just a free-standing tent and sleeping bags, it would have been simpler. You just pack down the snow and pop up the tent, roll out your sleeping pads and bags and fire up your gas stove. Done.

But, frankly, cold camping is, well, cold, especially on a subzero night like this one. I like the comfort of winter camping with my Kifaru tipi and woodstove combination—which is heavier, harder to set up but cozier once it’s done.

By the time the tipi was up, woodstove assembled, firewood gathered, fire started, it was dark, cold, and we were really, really tired. Dinner (hearty sausage stew) tasted wonderful. The sky was perfectly clear, the rising full moon brilliant. We’d planned on watching the lunar eclipse that night but were tucked in our sleeping bags and sound asleep before it started.

The next morning was crackling cold and windy. We fired up the woodstove, made tea, and ate breakfast before we crawled out of the sleeping bags. But by the time we broke camp, packed up and hit the trail out, we were thoroughly chilled again.

Of course a tough trail is great for getting the blood flowing and we were warm again after the first half mile. Though it was mostly downhill, it was still a long, hard walk out. But we made it, and we must have had fun because we’re planning another winter campout in March. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

COMFORT CAMPING

My tipi and woodstove combo (which was used when I got it) was made by Mountainsmith nearly 20 years ago and has since been discontinued. But an improved version of the same design is now marketed by Kifaru

The whole rig: tipi, center pole, folding woodstove, and stovepipe weighs less than 20 lbs. and can sleep four comfortably (or eight in a pinch) with all gear stored inside. You can do all your cooking and water heating on the woodstove, which saves carrying a separate stove and fuel. It’s heavy for two people, but the extra space and being able to sit around the woodstove on a sub-zero night and get dressed in the warm tent in the morning is worth it.

The biggest drawback to the tipi is that it isn’t free-standing. In four feet of snow you have to fashion a support for the tent pole, and you can’t just drive tent stakes into the ground. To get the tipi up, we had to pack down the four feet (!) of snow as much as possible, tie off to convenient trees and cut branches from a downed spruce to fashion extra-long tent pegs. We also had to gather enough firewood for a cold, cold night and morning.

In the warmer and shorter nights, and deeper snow of late March, we might just go with a freestanding dome tent that’s easier to carry and set up.

PERSONAL GEAR PICKS FOR WINTER CAMPING

Every winter camp needs a lightweight, sturdy collapsible shovel. I’ve had the same one, made by Life Link for a couple of decades—works perfectly.

For light on long winter nights, Coleman has a brand new CR 123A LED lantern that’s incredibly bright and lightweight.

If you are going to be feeding a woodstove or a campfire on your winter trip, you need something to cut wood. I’ve tried every saw on the market but the best is still the original 21” Sven-Saw. Also handy for splitting wood and cutting/driving in tent stakes is a lightweight axe. Again, I’ve tried ‘em all; the best by far is the “camp axe” from Gerber.

The closed-cell foam pad between you and the snow is more important to your warmth than your sleeping bag. I often carry two: a Ridge Rest from Therm A Rest and a Hyper MTN from Insul Mat which incorporates a blow-up pad into the insulating mat.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.