10 Tips for Camping in the Cold
18 June 2013
Photo by Hubert Koepfer
A large part of our training for Denali was learning how to camp in extremely cold temperatures. Going through this process, I have completely re-defined what I consider to be "cold." The first time I ever camped in relative cold was 10,000 feet up on the flanks of Split Mountain in California. The evening forecast was for temperatures hovering around 2 degrees Fahrenheit, but in retrospect I think it was actually quite a bit colder. I was completely underprepared.
I remember getting into camp just as the sun was setting. We immediately started shoveling snow and building a campsite. I was working hard and didn't realize how terribly cold it was starting to get. There was also a slight breeze, and it didn't occur to us to build walls to protect us from it. Within an hour I was shivering uncontrollably. A warm dinner helped a little. We decided to fill water bottles with hot water, which we could take into our sleeping bags to help keep us warm. However, after melting only about a liter and a half of snow, both of our stoves completely blew out. As it turns out, canister stoves don't function well (read: at all!) at sub-freezing temps.
I couldn't shake the cold. Fortunately, my friend Hubert had brought an extra puffy (not quite sure why). I crawled into my sleeping bag with every layer I had, and he wrapped the puffy around me. I probably had a foot of loft all together! I managed to fall asleep, and eventually my body recovered. But the episode was traumatizing, and I dreaded camping in the cold for a long time after that.
Through much trial and much error, I have now worked out a system with which I can be comfortable and functional at -20 degrees. Here are my 10 best tips to help you do the same.
1) The trick to being warm is to never get cold
You might be thinking ... "Duh?!" Ok, this seems fairly obvious, but it's a mistake that's incredibly easy to make. As soon as you get to camp, before you do anything else, put on your layers. Put on your puffy. If you have down pants, put those on too! (They are awesome, by the way!) Remember, down is meant to insulate, not generate heat. That means, it will keep warm things warm and cool things cool. When you get to camp, your body is warm. It's been working hard and generating lots of heat. So why let all of that heat escape? If you wait until you're cold before you put on your layers, then it's already too late.
2) Easy cooking
The last thing you want to do once the sun has gone down and you're getting cold is prepare a complicated, gourmet meal. You don't want to chop vegetables and make sauces and do too many things that require exposing your fingers to the cold.
Our dinners on Denali all followed the same format: we would start by melting snow and bringing a pot of water to boil. If we were dehydrated (often the case), we would start by drinking a few cups of water as the snow was melting. We would then make a bowl of instant soup. These are really easy to find in the bulk section of your local grocery store, or you can make them at home with a dehydrator! As we would share the soup, I would use the leftover hot water to start rehydrating a meal. This can either be a freeze-dried meal, a couscous based meal, or a meal you have dehydrated at home. To rehydrate, I place the food in a large mug, add hot water, and then cover and place in a cozy to keep warm. The meals generally take around 10 minutes to rehydrate, which is just enough time for us to finish the soup and digest for a few minutes.
The great thing about this system is that there is very little prep-work and very little cleanup involved. This is invaluable when it's -20 outside; trust me! Oh, and be sure to use a liquid-fuel stove.
Note: if you're interested in dehydrating your own food, The Backpacking Chef is a fantastic resource.
3) Down booties are your friends!
Many would consider these a luxury item, but for me they're essential. I have pretty warm boots, but as soon as I stop activity and am sitting around camp, my feet start to get numb. So now when I get to camp and layer up, I swap into these babies. They keep my feet toasty warm and give them a break from my boots. They're also great to sleep in when it's really frigid, completely eliminating cold spots on your feet!
4) Keep your fingers warm
One of the greatest challenges for me in the cold is keeping my hands warm. I have pretty bad circulation, and my hands suffer a lot in the cold. As a result, I often end up bringing three, four, or even five different pairs of gloves for a variety of purposes. These include: a set of thin liner gloves, thick liner gloves, softshell gloves, heavyweight gloves, and heavyweight mittens. I often wear the thin liner gloves underneath my heavyweight gloves or mittens while around camp, so that if I ever need to take off the bulkier outer layer to perform a task, I never expose raw skin to the biting cold. I use the thick liner gloves while I'm cooking, eating, pitching the tent, or when it's just too cold to perform tasks with the thin ones. And of course, the heavyweight gloves and mittens I wear when it's extremely cold and I don't need to use my hands much. I mainly use the softshell gloves for hiking when it's too warm to wear heavier gloves. I always make sure not to let my hands sweat in my gloves, otherwise they turn to blocks of ice overnight.
5) Your sleep insulation system should have a combined R-value of at least 5
I grew up hiking and backpacking mainly in the Southern California desert. We were dirtbags, and it never even occurred to me to use anything other than my $20 foam pad. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that a single foam pad isn't really enough to insulate your sleeping body from the snow. There's lots of information online about this if you're curious, so let me just summarize: you want your sleeping pad(s) to have a combined R-value of at least 5.
What does that mean, you ask? The R-value is a measure of the insulating power of a material. My foam pad has an R-value of around 2.5 (no surprise I was cold). To get to 5, many people, myself included, combine two pads: a foam pad and an inflatable pad. Although it kind of sucks to carry two pads with you, at least you have a better chance of a restful, comfortable night!
6) Eat a lot and stay hydrated
I'm not a biologist or nutritionist, but I do know that when your body is hydrated and well-fed, it's going to have an easier time staying warm. I've had long days where we've made camp way too late and didn't make or drink enough water, and sometimes didn't even have the energy to make dinner. If you can help it, I don't recommend it. Backpacking in the cold is hard work, and if you start skipping on the bare essentials your body won't be able to fully recover. Why make your body work even harder? Give it the proper energy so it can do its job.
7) The old hot water bottle trick
If you're really chilled to the bone (it happens to the best of us), then the old hot water bottle trick can be a life saver. All you do is fill a sturdy water bottle, such as a Nalgene, with boiling hot water right before bed, and then bring it with you into the sleeping bag. This will radiate heat and usually generate enough heat to keep you toasty for quite a while. If you really want the warmth to last, you can put the bottle in a neoprene cozy. You won't get quite as much direct heat, but it will be warm almost until morning.
8) Don't be shy, use a pee bottle
In the past, Luca and I often intentionally limited how much we drank before bed so that we wouldn't have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. This is a pretty bad idea for obvious reasons, and we would often end up dehydrated. No fun. Although it might seem a little gross, consider taking a (well-marked!) pee bottle into the tent. A collapsible Nalgene bottle works well for this purpose. If you're a gal, a pee funnel such as the Freshette is invaluable. Just make sure to practice at home first. There's no good excuse for not drinking enough.
9) Take the time to set up your shelter properly
The great thing about camping in the snow is that you can create some pretty awesome shelters. If you expect it to be windy, you can build a wall around your tent (a snow saw is useful for this). A great trick is to dig a ditch where your vestibule is. This makes it easier to get in and out of the tent, to put your shoes on, and it also gives you extra storage space for your packs and gear. If you have time and energy, building a basic kitchen with a seating and cooking area. This is especially worthwhile if you are planning to stay for more than one night.
Luca rehydrates in the kitchen at 11,000ft on Denali.
One of the really frustrating things about camping in the cold is the condensation that inevitably builds up in your tent. You'd be surprised how much moisture is in your breath and how much frost you'll find inside your tent in the morning. You can minimize condensation by making sure that your tent is properly ventilated. Sometimes this means sleeping with the door completely open. On really cold nights I find that the frost can't even escape the mesh door, so I always leave at least the top half of it open.
10) Don't take shortcuts
Don't skip dinner. Don't skip melting snow and rehydrating. Both food and water will help your body stay warm and happy. Take the time to build a proper campsite and to pitch your tent correctly. Don't get lazy and postpone layering up. Don't expose your bare hands to the cold.
Yes, camping in the cold can be a lot of work, but it can also be fun and incredibly rewarding! Make sure you give yourself at least 1-2 hours (ideally before sunset) to setup camp and take care of chores. You'll be happy you did!