To some, the idea of spending a night outdoors in the cold, dark heart of winter is a miserable notion.
But with the right gear and proper technique, the seldom-seen winter wilderness offers a pristine world of snowy marvels and crystalline, star-filled nights. To truly enjoy the winter camping experience, it is essential to be well-versed in the art of staying warm and knowledgeable in the methods of staying safe. Camping in sub-freezing temperatures raises the stakes, but with the right skills, it can be a comfortable and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Winter camping in Colorado should not be taken lightly. Subzero temps, heavy snowfall and biting winds all conspire to freeze out unprepared campers. In truth, a great deal of winter camping is simply staying warm and dry. Master those two dynamics and you’ve got 90 percent of winter camping down.
Vital to overnight comfort is a warm sleeping set-up. A four-season tent with a strong frame will offer shelter from wind and snow (experienced campers may elect to dig a snow cave, but this should be practiced in daylight before committing to an overnight stay in a cave). A two-pad sleeping system with a base foam layer topped with an inflatable mattress will keep the chill from seeping in from the ground. Most important for safety is a cold-weather sleeping bag. Colorado’s high country can drop well below zero on a regular basis, so if you’re camping in the middle winter months, a bag rated for minus 20 degrees or better is imperative. If you are camping in late March to May (still winter conditions), you may be able to get away with a zero-degree bag, but in general, the warmer rating the better.
A snow shovel must be packed in to dig out a solid tent platform and for avalanche safety.
And after a sleeping bag, the choice of stove can make or break your winter camping experience. Canister stoves that use pressurized butane or iso-butane will be less efficient — or freeze completely — in cold weather conditions. If you are stuck using a twist-on canister-style stove, look for a propane-butane blend fuel. Better still, use a stove that runs on white gas. It will burn hot in all conditions. Ration your fuel to account for all your drinking water (remember ice melts more efficiently than air-filled snow). A good tip is to fill Nalgene-type bottles with hot water and tuck them into your sleeping bag before dozing off (bottles in your bag not only keep you cozy but also guarantee non-frozen drinking water in the morning).
A smart layering system will keep the aspiring winter camper warm and dry. Base layers should wick away sweat and dry quickly. Even in cold conditions, hauling a heavy pack through powder can work up quite a bit of perspiration. Layer with fleece, followed by heavier down jackets/ vests topped by a waterproof Gore-tex-style shell. Keep your head warm with a wool cap, balaclava and a soft fleece neck gaiter (an often overlooked piece of gear). Warm gloves should be worn over glove liners. Long underwear, covered by fleece pants and waterproof shell pants, keep your lower body warm. Winter socks, insulated boots and gaiters all keep your feet from freezing up, while down booties keep your toes toasty in camp.
Unless you’re camping above treeline, it’s wise to build a fire pit and fire. Bringing a firestarter and/or packing in some wood (often on a sled) is a good idea, especially if you are new to winter camping. Be sure to bring lots of high-calorie foods, since staying warm takes a lot of energy.
Finally, make sure you bring maps and know how to read them. A non-electronic compass is important. GPS units are nice, but cold drains batteries extra-fast, so don’t rely solely on electronics. Snowshoes or skis will help you travel more efficiently in snow, especially with a back pack weighted down with the extra heft of winter camping gear.
Where to start
If you’ve never camped in winter before, it’s a very good idea to try out your gear in the safety of a backyard or just outside of a vehicle. As you get more comfortable with local/car camping, start with small distance outings of a mile or so into the wilderness. Here you can truly test your systems. Once you’ve had a few nights out and have a good feel for winter camping, open up your world with multi-day treks or adventures deeper into the wilderness. A strong knowledge of avalanche and snow conditions goes hand in hand with winter camping safety. Joining more experienced winter campers or organized groups such as the Colorado Mountain Club can help you learn in a safe environment.
In the Boulder area, several national forests are great places to start your winter camping adventures. Brainard Lake, Moffat Tunnel and St. Mary’s Glacier all offer great locations that are close to roads — and your vehicle — should something go awry.
Several websites offer sound winter advice, such as www.backpacking.net/wintertips.html. There are plenty of great books available as well. Two recommended titles: NOLS Winter Camping by Buck Tilton and AMC Guide to Winter Camping by Stephen Gorman. The Colorado Mountain Club and Colorado Mountain School offer classes that can further boost your confidence in knowledge.
Winter camping should be taken very seriously. Knowledge, experience and patience are required to avoid suffering at the behest of the unrelenting cold. That being said, winter camping opens up an incredible new world that is unlike any other wilderness experience. Done correctly, winter expeditions can be comfortable and enjoyable. There is nothing quite like the soft, barely perceptible sound of new falling snow at the edge of an alpine lake, or the bright, crisp morning sun reflecting off rolling expanses of untracked powder. This article is just a basic overview; for more information consult the resources listed above to maximize your preparation and knowledge.