Hiya campers, and Bushcrafters! Spending holidays with family, comfortable watching sports, (not this year), warm at home, and fat on good meals leave you thinking; how nice it sounds to take a little nature in before the spring breaks, and your whole trip is filled with chirping and buzzing, and anything but nights of cold winter silence. You hunters know exactly what I mean. If this’ll be your first winter in the brush, then take notes, and read them over till your talking in your sleep about winter survival. Here’s your Winter camping checklist for the greenhorns.
First times tend to get messy unless you stay close to where you are comfortable. Whether it’s near home, or a retreat, or even a friend’s farm. Pick a scenic area, with lots of resources. We’re talking about plenty of dead wood for fire if need be, near a lake, or stream if possible (unless you wanna spend all day melting snow for hydration) if you’re going to be hunting, try to steer clear of gaming trails. Most importantly, if this is your first time, don’t try to be a tv personality! You’re not SAS or a highly experienced northern Canadian survivalist. Stay close to the sound of tires on pavement, trains, church bells, or anything that’s familiar, and human. This way, if things get questionable, you can safely throw in the towel. No harm, no foul. Better to be experienced with some fails, than a pride-filled skeleton. Lastly, for prep, make sure to check the forecast! A common thing to forget about is the weather until you’re in it. Sure 30°f feels pretty cold, but 30° in the wet snow-filled winds, where you’re all but blind, and sunset is closing in… 30° becomes -10° in the snap of a finger, and without our next topic, that could be a potential disaster.
Layers. To be specific, you want one snug layer, coated with 2 good loose layers. I call it the corrugated outfit. Think of how cardboard is structured. That will keep you toasty, but not dry. For this reason, make sure the top layers are easily removed, and that you have waterproof boots. Waders are optimal, but snow boots for skiing, or snowboarding work just as well, they’re just slightly awkward to walk in. Avoid the urge to wear 9 pairs of socks. They restrict blood flow, and have no corrugation! A bunch of tight layers may as well be bare skin. This brings me to something most people never think of as winter gear; sunblock, and sunglasses! One day under a clear winter sky will have your face feeling like you took sandpaper to it. Cold doesn’t mean UV is canceled out. It reflects from the snowy ground, and will literally blind you if you’re not wary.
Good shelter is fortunately relatively easy to come by in the colder months. I only recommend a tent if that forecast you intelligently checked didn’t call for heavy snow or winds. It’s no wives tale when people say you’ll fly away with the tent. Toss up a ping pong ball, and blow in its direction. That’s you during heavy winds unless you anchor the tent to multiple trees. If you’re anchoring a tent to trees, then why are you outside, let’s be honest? Safety above all.
If you bring a stove or fuel canister, that’s fine, no shame in being prepared. If you didn’t bring easy fire, then just remember not to build over wetness. Find a dry area to start a coal bed. Lastly for gear, be sure to bring plenty of light for these long nights. The self-powered flashlights are a winner in my book. Squeeze the lever, and alternating currents give you an immortal light source.
While on the hike
As a general rule, if the snow coverage doesn’t exceed about knee height, (or a foot in depth, whichever comes first) then don’t worry about skis or snowshoes. The point of them is to be on top of the snow, but in a foot, or less, you tend to carry more snow, than you actually become elevated by. Which trust me, can be very daunting, very fast.
Always, no matter the season, or occasion; study your path as you walk it. Look behind you often to verify landmarks or distinctive parts of the scenery. It’s not uncommon to hear of even experienced hikers, and bushcrafters getting turned around by the seemingly “endless” march through the wilderness. Sometimes, even when you know where you’re going, an unexpected blizzard, or wind, or animal, etc can throw off your entire mental compass. It’s important to remember that without a direction to follow, you will become lost. If you have no idea where you are, which direction to walk, or even which way is north, there’s an easy step to take to assure you never cover the same ground twice. Simply choose a tree in the distance (any tree will do) then reach the tree. When you do, mark the tree on the side you came from (gouge it or remove some bark.) Then choose another tree, and repeat. This method assures you that you are heading in a productive forward pace.
If you begin to sweat, then remove layers. Never allow yourself to perspire so much that you dampen your clothing. This will complicate your situation, and could possibly cause hypothermia. Remember though, it is far easier to stay warm than it is to re-warm by raising your core temp. Knowing the weather you face ahead of time can allow you to plan accordingly; though we don’t always have this luxury. One thing you never need to plan for, however, that will vastly improve your temperature control; stay hydrated! That cannot be emphasized enough. Find clean water often, or be prepared to melt fresh snow. Always keep access to safe water.
Similarly, you have to replenish the carbs you lose from walking consistently. Water comes ahead of food on the importance scale, but food still ranks #3. Stay fed, but not overfed. Believe it, or not; it takes more energy to convert food into energy than it does to make small deposits of energy every so often. Also, rationing is a great way to improve your odds of this trip being successful. (Assuming you’re not in this situation on purpose) The only thing that trumps both water, and food?… Rest. Your mental well being is the single most useful tool at your disposal. One restless night can be the cause of panic or even surrender to the elements. Always rest when you can, but do not sit in place for more than 6-12 hours (again, assuming you’re not here on purpose)
While at camp
I realize I had digressed there a little in favor of survivalist tips, which are always helpful to know. Nevertheless, this is winter camping being detailed; not a single-engine plane crash in deep Canadian wilderness (Hopefully not, anyway) So let’s get back to the main course here.
When you make it to your chosen location, immediately dress in your warm clothes from the hike. This will help to preserve the heat you’ve been generating. Also, assuming you’re using a tent, you’ll want to pack down tightly the area you plan to pitch on. Make the snow as solid as you can with your boots, a shovel, skis, whatever you have at your disposal. Make it larger than the bottom surface area of your tent. For every foot of length your tent occupies, pat down an extra foot, and a half.
Though, some locations are treacherous with carnivorous animals, especially during the cold season; if you find yourself in an area that’s generally regarded as safe, then it may be a good idea to set up your sleeping area where you can cook, and prepare drinks from within your sleeping bag, or even your tent if you can suffice good ventilation. Still, even in areas listed as safe, I always bury food scraps, and whatever excrement (dookie) a good walk from the campsite. Most animals have stronger noses than you could ever imagine, and some of them will stop at nothing to source those smells, and ingest the culprit. Even white bread can attract bears, so it pays to be cautious.
If you’re not here for hunting, or any sporting reasons other than recreation, then you are in for a lot of downtime. It can help to bring something to read, or a journal to write in. Heck, even a good carving knife and some local timber could shave off a good amount of time. If you came with nothing at all, then you are in for the best treat of all! Silent reflection in the mirror of mother nature herself. Meditation is also highly recommended. However, don’t allow yourself to be lazy! If you get cold, go walk, or do some calisthenic workouts to raise your core temp.
Be ready for the mornings. Waking up isn’t most people’s favorite activity. It becomes even more enjoyable when you wake chilled to the bone, with a dripping nose, and an early sunrise. Fall asleep prepared for that awakening.
Welp. That’s about the extent of my rambling for now, but I assure you this is only a fraction of the knowledge you can attain. Some of you may have a few things to add. If that’s the case, then please yell out your best winter camping tips in the comments section. I appreciate you reading as much as you’ll appreciate my “check the forecast” tip. Happy bushcrafting ya’ll!