The Outsider: The love/hate relationship with winter camping

Canadians really do love their camping.

Every weekend of the summer, campgrounds nationwide are jam packed with tents, SUVs and bags of marshmallows (or booze-ladened coolers depending on the crowd) in an effort to temporarily unplug from civilization. Spending the night under the stars can do wonders for the soul.

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But winter camping? Lying wrapped in down while your breath slowly saturates everything inside your tent has most campers retreating to the civilized comfort of the home thermostat. Roughing it in the winter backcountry is more of a means to an end for the purpose of completing a multi-day ski traverse or attempting a remote objective. If you’re out in really cold temperatures, you’ll be lucky to sleep a few hours a night as it is.

But there are a few things that can make your winter camping experience slightly more comfortable; hand bits of gear or camp-building strategies that can add up and make all the difference to your sanity during your expedition.

Choose your site wisely

While waking up to the view from an alpine col may seem like a great idea when making camp, remember that the wind will pick up over night. Choosing a spot further down the glacier will give you better chance of not being blown into the next valley.

If hidden crevasses are a concern, make sure to do a quick probe of the area then stamp out your tent site with your skis still on to make it as flat as possible.

If the party has multiple tents, stack them side-by-side so you can anchor them to each other and conserve tent stakes and make sure the side of the tent is facing the direction of the wind. This will help keep out cold drafts and brace against gusts. It also worth digging a small pit in the space under your tent’s vestibule. This makes getting frozen ski boots on the next morning less painful and allows more storage outside of the tent.

Keep gear dry as possible

Camping in the alpine means no firewood, so you’ll have to make use of the next best heat source —your own body. A wet glove or a pair of socks can be slowly dried out through the course of a day if carried on the inside of your layers. At night, be prepared to share your sleeping bag with boot liners, sweat-soaked clothing, any electronics and if in the extreme cold, even your climbing skins. Waking up to a puddle in the tent is an all-too-familiar scenario, but is easily solved by a handful of dry snow, which will soak up that annoying water like a sponge.

Staying organized

One of the handiest winter camping tools is a set of stuff sacks. This helps keep your clean clothes separate and stems the explosion of gear inside the tent. They can also double as a pillow.

Having a half-cut piece of foam mat is also handy for the long periods you can expect to be sitting on a snow bench waiting for food to cook or water to boil. On longer expeditions a kitchen tent is worth bringing along to keep the cooking area warm and sheltered from the elements.

Whether your heading around the Spearhead Traverse for the first time or making an attempt on Mt. Logan, it’s the little things that can add up to make or break your winter camping experience. Be prepared and you may even learn to like it.

Vince Shuley learned his winter camping lessons on a 28-day glacier crossing  expedition in 2014. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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