Staying Warm in the Backcountry

By Drew Chaudet, @drewcvanisland

When the words ‘winter camping’ come out, a lot of people’s reactions are generally the same: “Are you crazy? It’s winter! It’s super cold out there!” It can be cold, but there’s many ways to winter camp and do it comfortably. Here are 3 my favourite ways to camp outside in the cold winter nights and have the time of your life.

Winter Glamping

This is the coziest option to winter camping: ski or snowshoe to a backcountry cabin. This is definitely the way to go if you’ve never been and want to try out winter camping for the first time. Usually your pack is a lot lighter on this type of trip because cabins often have a wood stove, sink, cutlery, pots, and pans (be sure to do your research and don’t take any chances if you aren’t sure). Winter camping cabin style is the easiest way to stay warm, dry, and comfortable.

Vehicle Basecamp

Some areas provide the option to drive in and set up your vehicle as basecamp. This is especially a great option for those who want to hit the ski hill but avoid expensive accommodations; some ski resorts even let you set up camp in the parking lot.

I built a raised platform in the box of my truck to store my survival gear, plus extra comforts, like fire wood, axe, chains, shovels, fuel, etc. Once at my destination, I set my tent up in the box on top of the platform, tying the fly to the wheel wells and bumper so new snow slides off the tent to the ground below. With the tent on the raised platform, strong wind isn’t the greatest, but you can usually park to avoid it in most cases.

With car camping, you can also bring all the foamies, blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags from home and build yourself quite the nest in your tent. Amazingly, this is actually one the best sleeps I’ve ever had. Plus, you have so many layers of blankets, that you can sleep totally free in the buff.

While you sleep, your gear can hang inside the cab of your vehicle to dry off for tomorrow’s adventure.

Full Send

Then there’s the full on winter camping experience, right there in the snow. You can either use a tent and build a snow pit or wall structure to shelter your tent from the wind; or you can full on build a snow cave which will actually keep you a lot warmer than you might think, but are a lot of work to build. I most often use a tent, set it in a snow pit, and build a snow wall around it. So far I’ve been pretty fortunate on how successful my winter backcountry trips have been with the tent—I haven’t had any nights where I’ve frozen, even when the temperature has dropped to -30C.

A lot of my success has to do with having proper gear and wearing the right layers of clothing. Most importantly when winter camping, you need to change into dry clothing as soon as you’re done hiking and shovelling snow for camp, gathering fire wood, or whatever else you’ve done that’s made you sweat. Having a dry change of clothing will stop you from having sweat freeze to your body. If this happens, and you don’t have dry clothing to change into, you’re gonna be in for a chilly night and will have a really hard time staying warm. I bring a small towel to wipe down the back of my neck and down my back where I tend to hold the most moisture. If you have super long hair like me, and it’s snowing or super cold and gets all frosty, your hair’s gonna get wet. You’re gonna wanna dry that off best as possible, normally using clothing from hiking to dry it off. I tie it up and then throw it under a toque or a hat keep it off the back of my neck.

Whatever type of winter camping you are doing, when venturing into the backcountry and looking for a place to set up camp, the first thing you should consider is staying away from any avalanche terrain that could slide, and overhead hazards that could release. Wind protection in your camp is also very important; try to find a spot where the wind is blocked by a natural feature. A treed area close to the skiing objective works well.

Before setting up your tent, dig a pit larger than the fly is when it’s staked out, and include room to get in and out. Make sure it’s deep enough that most or all of it is protected from the wind. Take advantage of camping in the snow: dig a small hole at the entrance of your tent to make putting boots on and off before getting in or out the tent much easier and less awkward, and to help to reduce the amount of snow getting in the tent.

Now for the more complicated aspect of camping the gear and what to bring and wear.

Layer Up

When it comes to layering, people tend to develop their own methods. Some people run hotter, some run cooler. The following is just what I’ve found works well for me in my experience. To make sure you are bringing the right clothing for your trip, you really need a good idea what the weather is going to do and what the temperature range will be on duration of your trip. For example, if I know it’s going to be snowy and just below freezing, I’ll bring a few extra articles of clothing than normal in case I get wet. Be sure to do your research and try to identify all the hazards you may be presented with weather-wise before you go. One of the most important things is to make sure you’re dry and in dry, warm clothing before you go to bed. I really can’t stress this more.

My go-to get up for the trek into camp is a ninja suit (onesie), Gore-Tex® snow pants, Patagonia Nano Air Hoody, with a light wind breaker over top. It’s important to choose clothing that you can take off in layers. I’ve found myself skinning in a t-shirt in December before. Weather is a wild thing! Be prepared for the worst.

I tend to pack heavy, with lots of extra layers for overnight. To stay warm when sleeping, I put 3 layers between the snow and myself. First, I use my foam sleeping mat and put it on the snow under my tent where I’m going to sleep. Then I have a Nemo Tensor Alpine air mattress inside the tent, and my Mountain Hardwear Lamina -9 sleeping bag as the third layer.

Being a bit of a coffee snob, there’s always one luxury item I bring with me and that’s an AeroPress. I find it’s one of the easier ways to make good coffee in the backcountry. It requires minimal weight and doesn’t take up much space.

I really enjoy winter camping. It’s so peaceful. Fresh blankets of snow on the mountains and the frozen lakes make travel easy and quite enjoyable. Skinning, I find, is just so peaceful and a great way to travel. When you get to the end destination, you’ll almost never see another person. It’s just you, out alone in the wilderness taking in the remote quietness. So get out there enjoy the outdoors all year round—and above all stay safe and stay warm!