Had enough evenings at home yet?
Most winters, the allure of cozy nights reading by the woodstove has evolved to grinding monotony by sometime in February. This year, with pandemic-dashed vacation plans and our usual daily diversions and weekend trips severely curtailed, cabin fever hit early. When the only travel options are close to home, and home is Vermont in winter, perhaps it's time to pull on your warmest wooly long johns and plan a winter camping vacation.
Winter camping is appealing in the same way that exercise is appealing. You see glossy photos of smiling, active people and think: That looks fun the way they’re doing it. And also: I sure would like to be the kind of person who does that difficult and rewarding thing.
Maybe this year, you will do the difficult and rewarding thing of lugging a lot of gear into the woods and sleeping out in the snow. Good on ya, as my British friend says in encouragement.
Winter camping is not without its charms, certainly. Hot chocolate and a pot of rice and beans are never as sublime as under the cold glitter of stars on a zero-degree night. Changing into a dry shirt and thick socks rarely induce shouts of hallelujah except in a tent in the snow. And the deep silence of snowy woods ushers a quiet in ourselves that feels like a balm, a respite, a small peace.
But winter camping has challenges a-plenty that summer camping does not. You need to carry more clothing, food, and stove fuel to contend with the colder temperatures. Snowshoes or skis are a must for staying on top of the snowpack, since wallowing through snow drifts without flotation saps energy and fun. You’ll need a heavier sleeping bag and a sturdier tent than in the summer, which means a bigger backpack, or maybe a sled. You can’t go light on first aid supplies, because when things go wrong in winter, you could turn into a popsicle waiting for help to arrive. And you’ll want to prepare ahead of time to minimize fine-motor tasks like unwrapping granola bars and changing the batteries in your headlamp so you can keep your fingers toasty inside your mittens.
If you are already familiar with the basics of summer camping and dressing in non-cotton layers to keep yourself warm, winter camping can be an exhilirating alternative to another evening at home, scrolling for something to watch. Here are five tips to make your trip go a little more smoothly, inspire safe adventuring and help you find the sometimes-subtle joys of winter camping.
1. Make your first winter camping foray in your backyard, a closed public campground (these are generally still open to use even when they are gated for the season), or a destination just a short distance up the trail. There’s a lot to figure out, from managing your snowshoe bindings with a heavy pack on, to melting snow without burning it. (Hint: add water to the snowpack in your pot, and keep the flame low at first.) Give yourself an out in case your equipment doesn’t work the way you hope, your pack is too heavy to carry far, or your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough. You’ll still appreciate the amazing night sky and your morning coffee will still bring a song to your lips even if you aren’t in the depths of the wilderness.
2. Enjoy your fats. Slow-burning, energy-dense foods help keep you warm in your sleeping bag overnight. Stir a chunk of butter into your hot cocoa and another in your oatmeal, have pre-cut chunks of cheese and pepperoni in a bag in your coat pocket, and indulge in breakfast bagels fried in oil and topped with cheese and eggs. (Pro tip: Cut your bagels and everything else at home before you pack up, not in the woods when they’re frozen solid and you are hungry.)
3. Keep regularly-needed items easy to find in your pockets, not your pack. The name of the game is energy conservation, so reduce the number of times you heave your pack off and on by keeping your snacks, headlamp, and map easy to grab in your coat pockets. Get rid of packaging from your snacks and spare batteries before you hit the trail so they are easier to use without taking off your gloves. Simplify any tasks you can, especially food prep, so you can spend your time enjoying the experience rather than fumbling with your basic needs.
4. Dry out damp clothes with body heat, but not against your skin. Wet socks and sweaty base layers come with the territory in winter. Change into dry layers as soon as you get to your destination, and drape damp clothing over your shoulders, on top of your base layer but under your puffy jacket. They’ll dry slowly there, without chilling you. Adding chemical heaters under your puffy, or a hot-water bottle (tightly capped) in your sleeping bag will help with the drying effort and your level of happiness.
5. Plan for many hours in your sleeping bag. Short daylight hours and cold temps mean that you’ll be snuggling into your bag early in the evening. Whether you pass the time catching up on sleep, in the pages of a captivating read, or playing cards and telling tall tales with your tentmate, remember that this is vacation time, and don’t neglect your fun diversions.
Talk to Onion River Outdoors staff for more winter camping tips, our favorite backcountry recipes, and page-turners that are worth their weight in your backpack. We love to talk about this stuff!