The following article was published on Backcountry Planet
Staying warm while winter camping can depend a lot on your age, metabolism, experience, wind, air temperature, fatigue, altitude, ground temp, tent, and sleeping system. However, there are a number of tips you can utilize to make sure that you retain heat and stay as warm as possible while sleeping out in the elements during the winter months.
- When using a sleeping bag, it’s important NOT to have your head tucked down inside the bag, because if your breath goes into the sleeping bag, it will condense the air and you will get cold. It’s much better to put on a balaclava and put up with a cold nose (rather than your whole body getting cold).
- NEVER sleep directly on snow.
- If you don’t have a tent or tarp, put down lots of Spruce bows to insulate your body from snow. The snow will conduct heat away from your body 20 times faster than spruce bow branches.
- It’s much easier to stay warm, than get warm. If you arrive in camp with wet or sweat soaked clothes on, make sure you remove any wet layers, and put on dry clothes as soon as possible. To stay warm, put on a puffy jacket, puffy pants, dry socks along with booties.
- Do not go to bed with damp or wet clothes on. Make sure you always change into a pair of dry socks and dry shirt before bed. Also slip into merino wool long underwear and/ or a fleece top for extra warmth.
- Avoid sweating in your sleeping bag, if you start sweating unzip your bag and / or reduce layers.
- Use a sleeping bag that has a comfort rating 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter. For instance, if over night lows are going to be around 0F degrees, you want a sleeping bag to be rated to at least handle -15F degree weather.To deal with cold winter temps, here are a few really warm winter sleeping bags to choose from that are rated to handle temperatures as low as -20F (-28C):
- Allow your sleeping bag to puff up before getting into it, so the down lofts up to keep you warm.
- Use a closed-cell foam pad, along with an inflatable air pad that has a combined R-Value of 5 or greater for the best in comfort, warmth and protection from cold ground. We recommend and use the Therm-a-Rest Neo-Air Xtherm Sleeping Pad. By using the foam pad on the bottom, you have added insulation and insurance in case your inflatable air pad gets punctured or develops a slow leak. (Also a closed-cell foam pad can also double as a pad to sit on around camp, instead of sitting directly on cold snow or ground)
- Make sure you wear a warm hat, balaclava, long sleeve shirt, long johns, dry socks, etc for maximum heat retention while sleeping. You can also wear gloves (fleece) to bed, as gloves can do wonders.
- If you’ve cooled down while hanging around camp, make sure you warm your body up before getting in your sleeping bag. Try walking up and down the trail for 5-10 minutes to warm back up or try doing 50-100 squats, push-ups, jumping jacks or shovel snow (but not enough to sweat) and then get in your sleeping bag.
- Do situps in your sleeping bag to generate body heat (without having to get out).
- Eat foods with fats or carbohydrates, which are great sources of fuel while winter camping to help you stay warm.
- Keep yourself well hydrated with juices, hot tea, hot chocolate, water, etc.
- Eat before going to bed, some good carbs or chocolate snack can kick start the metabolism and really help the body stay warm. Don’t wait for your metabolism to shut down.
- Drink hot tea or hot chocolate right before bed.
- Make sure you pee before settling into your sleeping bag, so you won’t have to get up during the night. Otherwise, keep an empty large 2L capacity wide mouth bottle with you in your bag, that’s easily identified by touch in the dark (pick a different shaped pee bottle; Nalgene Wide-Mouth Cantene for men, women can use a Freshette), so you can pee without having to get out of your bag or tent.
- Before going to bed, you can put one (or two) chemical hand/foot warmer packets in your sleeping bag to pre-warm your sleeping bag.
- If it’s really cold, before going to bed heat up water so that it’s nearly boiling and fill one (or two) Nalgene bottles with the hot water. Make sure you cap the bottles tightly, and then place them in your sleeping bag. (Don’t worry, the Nalgene bottles can take the hot water.) To prevent the hot bottles from burning you in the sleeping bag, you can put the bottles in a stuff sack or insulated Neoprene bottle sleeve. NOTE: using a hot water bottle can also be good way to keep batteries warm and liquids like saline solution, eye drops, lotion, nasal spray, contact lenses, etc. from freezing.
- Use hot water bottles to remove moisture from boot liners and wet gloves or mittens, so that you don’t freeze off your hands or feet the next day you put on your gear. In Kit DesLauriers book Higher Love: Skiing the Seven Summits, Kit writes about her technique of drying out liners or mittens while at high camp on Vinson Massif in Antartica in extremely cold conditions (-40f). Here’s Kit’s drying technique when two people are involved:
- One person uses the stove to fill two of their half-liter (16oz.) water bottles to near-boiling water. Then hands the hot water bottles to the second person in the tent who would have spread out their boot liners and mittens on top of their sleeping bags.
- Put the hot-water bottle into a ski boot liner (or mitten) just long enough so that the material to be dried gains enough heat from the water bottle so when the bottle is pulled out, some of the moisture turns to vapor.
- She says it’s an advanced skill, that takes dozen of movements of the hot water bottle between the wet fabrics in order to get the most moisture as possible from evaporating while at the same time keeping the least amount of heat possible from being lost from the bottle.
- Put your boots and/ or boot liners in a large stuff sack and place them at the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep them from freezing solid overnight and to help dry them out if they were still damp. Make sure you have brushed off all snow from the boots.
- Place any other items that you don’t want to freeze in between the closed-cell foam pad and the inflatable pad (such as: skins, extra gloves, ski pants, etc.)
- Use a bivvy sack for an extra layer of protection from the wind, rain, snow and cold temps. A bivvy sack is a good light weight alternative to bringing a tent. It can also be used in lean-to’s or in snow caves.
- Use a Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL) inside your sleeping bag to keep moisture from transferring to your down sleeping bag. Moisture will lead to your bag losing loft and it’s warming properties on multi-day winter camping expeditions. Vapor Barrier Liner can also extend the temperature comfort range of your bag by 10° to 15°.
- Vent your tent to keep moisture from building up and forming frost on the inside of your tent. Larger venting is usually better, than smaller venting holes. But always keep snow from entering inside the tent.
- Brush off any snow from clothing or boots so you can avoid bringing snow into your tent, shelter, or sleeping bag. Carefully, sweep out any snow that does get in the tent, so that it doesn’t melt inside your tent and form tent condesation (frost), which can then make your gear wet and winter camping conditions unsafe. Leave any gear that doesn’t need to dry out, in the front tent porch (outside the main tent).
- Avoid breathing on the outside of your bag on really cold nights, use a wool sock, wool mitten or a fleece bib to keep frost from your breath off your sleeping bag as you sleep. This will collect some of the moisture that would typically get on your sleeping bag. In the morning shake out the piece of wool or fleece bib to get rid of moisture and dry it out during the day.
- If any frost forms on the inside of the tent walls, make sure you get it removed as quickly as possible using whisk broom or scraping it off with a notecard-sized piece of cardboard. You don’t want moisture to creep into any of your winter survival gear or clothing. A frost liner can be hung inside of a tent, which allows moisture to pass through the liner and provides another layer of insulation between you and the icy frost.
- Avoid camping on ridges, mountain tops or at the very bottom of a hill. Keep in mind that cold air settles and hot air rises, so ideally you want your campsite or shelter to be located somewhere between the ridge line and bottom of a hill.
- Position your tent or shelter door/opening in a southeastern direction. That way you’ll be able to take advantage of the sun’s morning rays.
Remember, a sleeping bag is a PASSIVE heating device. A sleeping bag does not produce heat, it just traps the heat that your body makes. So make sure you zip up your sleeping bag completely to retain the maximum amount of heat while your sleeping.
One other thing to keep in mind in regards to winter camping in sleeping bags is that while adding lots of clothing layers may help to keep your core warmer, doing so can cause your extremities to get colder inside the sleeping bag. In a winter camping situation it’s much better to have a warm winter sleeping bag, so you only need to wear one or two layers of clothing in the bag while you sleep (optimally just one layer of long underwear). By doing so, it will allow your body to warm up the interior of the sleeping bag faster and much more efficiently. In turn, this will help to keep your hands, feet, arms and legs much warmer, thus allowing you sleep a lot more comfortably.
Author: Doug Kennard – I’m a passionate backcountry skier, alpine ski racer, ex-BMX’r, mountain biker, hiker and all around mountain enthusiast. When the snow gets deep you’ll find me in the backcountry… skiing!