Story Highlights:

  • Winter camping and backpacking basics, including cold-weather camping safety, dress and equipment, weather concerns, and winter camping tips.

So, you’ve decided to go backpack camping in the winter. Congratulations! Embarking on an overnight trek during the colder months elevates you to a whole new level of outdoor enthusiast, because there aren’t too many who do it.

In fact, if you like a little solitude, then this is the adventure for you. It becomes very still in the forest on an “off-season” night. The chirping of crickets and cicadas are long gone, and the quiet that takes their place is eerily powerful. Not to mention the complete lack of spiders, ticks and other bitey bugs of which I am not a fan.

Chances are you’ll see far fewer people than you do while backpacking the rest of the year, but instead more wildlife — deer, elk, fox, otters and more. After a friend and I walked straight into a beaver on the trail one time, he said to me, “It’s like they don’t expect us to be here.” I think he was right.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the main reason winter backpacking isn’t as popular as its warm-weather counterpart is because many people don’t even consider the possibility. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you make the most of the winter trails and their truly unique and peaceful ambiance.

Mission Possible
First things first: Be realistic about your goals. Unless you’re an accomplished mountaineer, this probably is not the time to push yourself beyond your limits. Even a route you’ve enjoyed many times in the summer will likely be more strenuous in the winter when you have more weight to carry and less daylight to work with. Reduce your mileage and expect to spend more time prepping your camp each evening.

Check the weather forecast to see if the conditions are favorable before you head out. Many trails have a register or logbook at the trailhead or ranger station; always be on the safe side and take a minute to fill it out. Let others know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, and discuss an action plan should you not turn up when you’re supposed to.

Pack Smart
Sooner or later as you organize the gear for your winter excursion, you’re going to come to the realization that “this is a lot of stuff.” And it is a lot of stuff. Compared to the shorts and T-shirts of summer, cold weather necessitates layers of clothing, thick sleeping pads, large sleeping bags and so on.

Stow the heaviest gear towards the bottom of your pack and in the middle, where it will rest against your lower back. Having a good center of gravity will help steady your balance and mitigate all that extra weight. Try on your pack, fully rigged, at home and readjust to make it as comfortable as possible.

One thing that is going to take up a lot of space is your sleeping bag, and if you don’t already have a winter-rated model, you might be in for a surprise — a good one can cost as much as $1,000.

One way to get around this monetary inconvenience is to use two “normal” sleeping bags, one inside of the other. Used together, the “twofer” will give you the rating of a much more expensive bag; however, strapping two sleeping bags to your pack efficiently is up to you to figure out. Again, be sure to try on the jerry-rigged pack before you set out. In the wilderness is a bad time to discover that your setup is inadequate.

As mentioned above, winter nights are long, so be sure to take lots of extra batteries for those headlamp and flashlights.

Dress Code
Dress in layers that can easily be peeled off. As you exert yourself, you’ll find that you’ll probably want to shed garments as your body temperature rises.

Start with a base layer made of a synthetic material like polyester, which is good at wicking moisture away from the skin. The key is to avoid sweat becoming trapped in the first layer of clothes, as this will draw heat out of your body, leaving you chilled. After a base layer, add as many insulating layers as you find comfortable. Finish off your outfit with a wind- and water-resistant shell — and don’t forget a hat and gloves to cover your head and hands.

Boots should be waterproof and insulated to keep your feet and toes cozy and warm. A good rule of thumb is to bring two pairs of socks per day, made of either wool or a synthetic fabric.

Backpacking in the winter nearly ensures you’ll see fewer people, but you may not have the woods entirely to yourself. Be mindful that deer hunting is primarily a fall/winter activity. Keep some orange on you during your hike to announce your presence, and check what hunting seasons are going on when planning your trip.

Making Camp
Daylight at the peak of winter in Missouri is a scant nine and a half hours, leaving you with over 14 hours of darkness to while away. Try to locate and arrive at a suitable campsite early enough to get set up and collect firewood for the long night ahead.

When choosing a site, pick one as sheltered from the wind as possible. One of the first things you’ll want to do is create a wind screen using a tarp, tying it horizontally between two trees. Don’t use your favorite tarp, though, as the wind can blow embers back and damage it.

A “must” on my winter packing list is a hurricane lantern. Named for their ability to withstand sudden drafts, these dependable illuminators are small and fuel efficient, a great tool for long nights. I’ll often let the flame on my lantern burn low outside my tent all night, pouring the remaining fuel back into my carrying container for use the next evening.

Late at night after the fire is dying down isn’t the time to find out you’re not going to be warm enough. Aside from the aforementioned winter sleeping bag, it’s essential to have adequate insulation and padding under you. The ground can leach an enormous amount of heat from your body. I try to bring two sleeping pads, or thick yoga mats. I also like to keep a small tea candle burning in my tent in a safe container; this helps cut back on condensation, and the light is good to read with.

Fireside Gourmet
There comes a time every afternoon on the trail when you really start to look forward to dinner. Luckily, camping in cold weather dramatically changes the kinds of provisions you can bring with you. Things like milk, eggs and meat that spoil quickly in the heat of summer are now viable. Store them away from your back but out of direct sunlight, where they won’t be warmed. To be on the safe side, you can put a small ice pack next to them.

You’ve got your ingredients, but how are you going to cook them? If you brought a camping stove, then you’re all set. I highly recommend this dependable piece of gear in colder temperatures; otherwise, you’ll have to hope there’s enough deadfall for a decent cooking fire.

If you don’t have a camping stove or want a backup, consider making a penny stove (see sidebar). Penny stoves are effective, lightweight and many people swear by them, including the Swedish Army. I’ve been using mine without issue for a couple of winters now.

Cold-Weather Concerns
Using wet clothes or sleeping equipment, or ample exposure to cold conditions, can steal the body of its heat and lead to hypothermia. This dangerous condition often begins gradually with slurred speech, loss of coordination, shivering and lethargy. Someone with hypothermia may not be aware of their condition, so if you suspect another person of having falling prey, move them out of the cold and proceed to warm them gently by helping them put on dry clothing and covering them with blankets or warm sleeping bags. Provide warm food and beverages. Seek medical attention if your efforts don’t succeed in raising their body temperature.

Frostbite is another concern. It happens when heat is lost faster than the blood can circulate and can result in the freezing of skin or body parts. Early warning signs include red or sore skin, known as frostnip. While reversible, frostnip is a clear indicator that one should begin warming themselves. If the skin becomes hard or further discolored, it’s a sign that frostbite has set in and medical care should be sought out as soon as possible.

No matter the time of year, there are always dangers in the woods, but with proper preparation, layering and good caloric intake, you have nothing to worry about except having a good time on your upcoming winter backpacking trip.

Evan Henningsen is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.