Camping in winter: Getting used to the cold

13. December 2018
A tent is covered in snow.

If you plan on camping in winter, take our tips to heart to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

When you’re in snow and ice, your skin and muscles are basically the last line of defence against the cold – and quite frankly, the most important. Why? Well, if you’re completely frozen to the marrow, even the cleverest techniques and coolest hacks can do little to remedy the situation. This is why it is particularly important to plan your winter adventure according to both your individual abilities and fitness level. Careful planning is even more important in winter than it is in summer.

Because your body and mind are just as important for camping in winter as your clothing and gear, we’re going to go about this from the inside out. First, we’ll discuss how to get your body and mind adapted to the cold and how important it is to familiarise yourself with the cold itself. This knowledge will give you the resources you need to come up with your own techniques and strategies as opposed to learning a thousand tricks by heart. Then, we’ll provide you with some valuable tips on sleeping and cooking before moving onto the gear you use to shield yourself from the cold, i.e., your clothing, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and tent.

Cold-exposure training: Body and mind

Let’s start off with something you probably didn’t know: How you perceive cold and your sensitivity to it are not predetermined by genes, but can actually be influenced and trained, much like your muscles. This is far from being a new discovery, but it is surprising how many outdoor enthusiasts are unaware of this fact. Interestingly enough, most of the articles I have found on this subject hardly addressed this at all, treating it only as a side note or ignoring it altogether.

Training your body

A person stands in the freezing cold lake.

You can train your body to be less sensitive to the cold. It helps to go outside in the winter or take contrast baths.

Controlled encounters with the cold are pretty hip at the minute because they are considered to be good for your health and even give your immune system a boost. But, how, you ask? Well, you can train yourself to be less affected by the cold by regularly going outside in winter, taking progressively colder showers more often, taking contrast baths and not wearing thick scarves and polar jackets all winter long.

One of the most influential individuals in the whole cold-exposure training scene was a slightly eccentric Dutchman named Wim Hof. More akin to a walking thermostat than a man, Hof feels just as comfortable diving in the Arctic Ocean as he does running a marathon in the desert. Because he supposedly controls his vegetative nervous system and does other things that are medically impossible, he has long been considered to be a unique genetic case or simply dismissed as charlatan. But, after being scientifically examined, he began giving workshops on his method now known as the “Wim Hof Method”. These workshops have proven so effective that after about a week of one, the participants end up going hiking to the summit of a mountain on the Polish-Czech border in t-shirts and shorts.

As amazing as that is, we’re not trying to promote any gurus or seminars. After all, there is quite a bit of free information out there you can use to train your body. This is simply the first generally accessible method that I know of that ordinary people can use to train themselves to become significantly less sensitive to cold.

Training your mind: Acceptance and acclimatization

Another important part of cold-exposure training is changing your attitude to the cold: Because most of us only see its hostile aspects, we usually forget the intensively invigorating element (which you can experience after a cold shower, for example). Think about how tiring the air in an overheated office is… exhausting!

It may come as a surprise, but thinking “warm thoughts” can be more effective than you think. In fact, the Tibetan Tummo meditation technique (which the Wim Hof method is based on) works with the visualisations of flames to contribute to the generation of actual body heat, and experienced practitioners of this technique can generate so much heat that they melt through the ice floes they sit on. Now that’s amazing! Even though this is something we probably won’t be able achieve by the time we head out on our next winter camping trip, it does show what a dramatic effect our minds can have on our physical sensations and the world around us!

Damn, it’s still so cold!

If a positive attitude and good cold-exposure training fail to keep you warm, it’s important to get on your feet and get your blood pumping: You can do this by running around with heavy rocks, doing squats, jumping jacks or whatever else comes to mind. And do it for as long as it takes to warm you up without working up a sweat. After that, you will have really earned your warm sleeping bag!

Of course, this will only work if your body still has some energy left. If you’re so exhausted that you can hardly get up, it’s high time you started questioning your planning and thinking about throwing in the towel (which is hopefully still possible)…

Mini digression: What is cold?

A person is covered in snow and has an ice block in his or her hands.

A better understanding of the cold can not only help you in emergencies but also help you to see past your fears.

A better understanding of cold is not only helpful in developing remedies, but may even help to overcome unnecessary fears. Heat and cold can be regarded as states of motion: molecules are in rapid motion when it’s hot, and they are slower or don’t move at all when it’s cold. The colder it gets, the less moves until at some point everything becomes stiff. Since movement takes up space, a cubic metre of warm air contains fewer air molecules than a cubic metre of cold air. In cold air, the molecules are closer together, which is why cold air is “heavier” and sinks to the ground. The warm air rises and cools down.

However, if you manage to “envelop” a layer of warm air and cover up the object you’d like to keep warm (e.g. your own body) as much as possible, the cold air will no longer be able to displace the warm air. This is basically how all thermal insulation works: Winter clothing, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and shelters are all designed to trap warm air in some sort of shell. Down jackets, synthetic sleeping bags or double-glazed windows all trap a relatively warm layer of air that repels the cold air from the outside.

Combatting the cold: Cook, eat, drink, digest and let it out!

Someone is cooking in the freezing cold.

Cooking in your tent – a piece of cake!

Our bladders get full, our stomachs rumble and we have to listen – that’s just the way it is. Yep, the rhythms and limitations of the body also play a major role in winter adventures. If you don’t want your bowel movements to control you and would rather retain that sense of freedom and adventure you were out for in the first place, we recommend following these tips and rules about your food and drink intake. Actually, it’s just one rule, which is unfortunately not the easiest to follow: Try to schedule your intake of food and fluids in such a way that you don’t have to get out of your sleeping bag in the middle of the night.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t eat or drink anything for as long as possible before going to sleep? No, not at all! A lack of fluids and food at night is bad for sleep and recovery. You need the energy in your stomach to keep warm while you sleep. The body demonstrates this quite clearly by making it very difficult for us to sleep when we’re hungry or thirsty. You can eat one to two hours before going to sleeping, but try not to drink too much during this time. I don’t know if this is worth mentioning, but yes, it’s true: the hotter and higher-energy the drinks and soups are, the better. It’s even better to have an insulated bottle to keep your drink warm for the next day.

Ginger, chilli and other hot spices are a good way to keep warm as well, but you shouldn’t overdo it before going to bed because the stimulating effect they have on blood flow can end up making it difficult to fall asleep.

Drinking/melting snow

In cold weather, you may feel less thirsty, but you still need a lot of fluids. The air is often very dry, and your extremities can only be supplied with blood if you have enough liquids. If there’s snow, there is no need to worry about staying hydrated, as long as you have enough fuel for your stove.

Depending on how dry the snow is, it can take a little longer to melt. If you use ice, you should chop it up into the smallest possible bits. When you do this for the first time, it can be hard to figure out the amount you need for hydration and cooking, which is why you’ll often have warm water left over. But don’t waste it! Pour it in your insulated bottle for later use.

Cooking

Two people sit on a trench in the snow.

Perfect for cooking – A trench in the snow is a great place to sit.

If there is no shelter from the wind outside, you’ll have to cook in your vestibule. Ideally, you will have already dug a hole in the snow beforehand, which creates a place to sit and serves as a trench for cold air to sink into. To prevent it snowing into the trench, make sure that it doesn’t jut out past the end of the tent.

When cooking in your vestibule, attention is paramount. A lapse in concentration for a single second could be disastrous. The stove must be as stable as possible and as far away as possible from anything flammable. It is also incredibly important to have enough ventilation – otherwise, you could get carbon monoxide poisoning.

Thefirst sign of a lack of oxygen is a flickering and “puffing” flame. As the amount of oxygen decreases, you start to feel drowsy and can even die! This is especially risky when you are travelling alone, so be careful!

Fuel

In very low temperatures, gas and alcohol stoves have clear advantages over the otherwise favourable gas cartridges. Their compressed propane/butane mixtures do not evaporate properly in extremely cold conditions. Of course, you can try to keep the cartridges warm in your clothes or sleeping bag, but since this is kind of pain, it’s better to use gasoline or multi-fuel stoves in winter.

Cold exposure training: Clothing

A person wears several layers of clothing in order to stay warm.

Wear layers to stay warm without sweating.

Don’t bundle up too heavily out there. It may sound counterintuitive at first, but when you consider how physically demanding a winter adventure can be, you will work up a sweat pretty quickly, even when it’s freezing cold. And this results in moisture getting into your clothing and onto your skin, which will not only make you feel clammy the second you take your first break, but can also make your body cool down faster for the rest of the trip. Thus, a thickly insulated jacket is usually only used during breaks and at camp.

In general, it is best to stick to layering. Put on and take off your clothes in layers, preferably before you start to freeze or sweat. The great thing about layering is the fact that a small layer of air forms between each layer of clothing, which provides insulation. More layers will only bring more heat if they’re not pressing up against each other. Layering systems don’t just work for your body but for your head, hands and feet as well. When it’s extremely cold, you can keep your tootsies warm with down booties. For your head, you can combine a knit cap with a Buff underneath or – if you’d rather go for a more intimidating look – a balaclava.

Important: Even the best protection from the cold is useless without the proper protection from water. Hopefully, our brief description of the impact of sweat in a layering system has made it clear just how quickly the protection against the cold can be undermined by water. That said, when you’re out in the snow, you should always have enough protective layers at hand – be it your rucksack, sleeping mat, bivvy bag or space blanket. The latter is a lightweight, stable and inexpensive helper in many situations (as an underlay, extra blanket, for bundling up, etc.).

Adapting to the cold – Your sleeping bag

A person in a sleeping bag.

Your sleeping bag plays a crucial role in protecting you from the cold. Not only does it have to be “thick”, but it should also fit the shape of your body.

A winter sleeping bag should have a snug-fitting contour hood as well as a draught collar that can be tightened. Only this can really prevent cold air getting in through the neck and chest area.

Not only should your sleeping bag be thick, but it should also fit the shape of your body and hug it relatively tightly, but not too tightly. You should still have some wiggle room so that you can roll over and don’t negatively impact the insulation. If there’s any pressure applied to a sleeping bag that is already too tight, you’ll end up crushing the fill, which will result in cold being able to penetrate and cold spots forming. Too much empty space in your sleeping bag will rob your body of precious warmth.

Ideally, the sleeping bag should have just enough space for you to wear a few more layers of clothing. However, keep in mind that these only provide additional warmth if they don’t press against the fill or your own skin, because as I said before, heat is mainly retained by trapping air. The big advantage of sleeping with several layers of clothing: you won’t be half-naked and shivering when you get up in the morning.

Liners and VBLs

Instead of wearing additional clothing, a liner is often recommended as a way to add warmth and simultaneously protect the sleeping bag from moisture and dirt. Unfortunately, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to lie in a sack inside another sack, which can bunch up and shift whilst you sleep.

A special kind of liner is the vapour barrier liner (VBL). A VBL is made of a non-breathable fabric and is recommended for use with down sleeping bags in very cold regions. Because the body produces a salty discharge, even when it’s really cold out, which can permanently damage sensitive down fibres, the VBL is designed to absorb water vapour and sweat to protect the bag, keeping it fully functional. But, as a result, you will literally be stewing in your own juices. Your sweat will not be wicked away to the outside.

Hot water bottlesor heated rocks

A mobile mini-heater in your sleeping bag can be a blessing. You can use either a bottle filled with hot water or a rock placed somewhere near the camp fire. Of course, you should make sure that the bottles or rocks are cool enough to touch and nowhere near hot enough to damage the fabric of your sleeping bag.

Sleeping mats

If you’ve understood how a sleeping bag works, you’ll know why a thick sleeping mat is indispensable in winter. Without one, the heat trapped in your clothing and sleeping bag would immediately escape through direct contact with the ground. However, a mat’s insulation performance not only depends on how thick it is but also has a lot to do with its construction. The latter determines how much air can be trapped in the mat.

In the past, this required thick foam, but now even wafer-thin chamber walls can achieve an astonishing insulating effect. This is where the R-value comes in, which is a measure of resistance to heat flow through material. The R-value is a whole number between 1 and 6. The larger the number, the better the mat insulates you from the cold ground. A mat with an R-value of 4 or above insulates against ground temperatures of about -10°C and is generally considered suitable for winter use.

However, these can be extremely pricy. A less expensive alternative is to combine two inexpensive sleeping mats or add extra layers to a mat by using stuff sacks, clothing or rescue blankets. However, these solutions are only temporary and neither comfortable nor particularly effective. And, you’ll usually need the stuff again at some point, anyway.

Adapting to the cold – Your tent

A tent covered in snow.

A winter tent must be sturdier and thicker than a light summer tent.

A winter tent must be sturdier and thicker than a light summer tent. The poles must be able to withstand the load of wet snow. We recommend using a double set of poles or a replacement pole set plus a few matching tube sections in case a pole snaps.

Your tent should have a lot of space in both the vestibule and inner tent to accommodate all the clothing and gear you’ll have with you. Another important thing to consider is airflow. It is just as important as it is in summer. After all, you don’t want a build up of moisture in the tent, do you?

But do make sure that the vents are relatively high up and can be closed in the event of prolonged snowfall. Lastly, saving money in the wrong places can end up being disastrous on winter trips in the mountains. Reliable and high-quality tents are the only way to go.

Location

When it comes to camping in winter, it is particularly important not to go for beauty alone – make sure you’re safe. That said, be sure that no snow masses or branches can fall on your tent. You should also avoid avalanche-prone areas, such as snow-covered slopes or snowdrifts. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should be out in the open. Setting up camp in a wind-protected area is always a good idea, which is why you should choose a spot behind a rock or a fallen tree over one on an open field. If possible, the entrance should be facing away from the wind.

Tent setup

A tent, which is located between rocks.

The location of your winter tent should be safe first and foremost.

Before heading out, be sure to practise pitching your tent so that you can get it done safely, even in harsh conditions. If the snow is not deep, it is best to dig a shallow platform with your avalanche shovel so that you can pitch the tent as you would in other seasons as well. Plus, bare ground is better than snow or ice-covered ground in terms of temperature. If you don’t want to dig, you can also create a level platform by stomping the snow (with skis, snowshoes or boots) and letting it sit for about an hour. Then, you can pitch your tent using pegs for snow or sand. You may have to compact the snow around the pegs again before securing the tent with your guy lines. Alternatively or additionally, you can also use skis, poles, rocks, or any object that can be buried in the snow.

Now that your tent is at least somewhat protected by the snow, it already has some wind protection. But, make sure it’s not in there too deep, especially in powder snow, because otherwise the entrances and vestibules could be blocked by snow. For situations like this, it’s always good to have an avalanche shovel at the ready.

If you’re expecting a storm and there’s a lot of snow, you could think about building a snow wall as a wind break using your avalanche shovel. This wall, which should be about 1 metre away from the tent, also prevents snow entering the space between the fly and inner tent. If you’re worried about wind blowing in from the bottom of the tent, you can reinforce the lower edge of the tent with a small wall as well.

After that, dig the cooking trench at the entrance mentioned in the section on cooking. It serves as a cold hole that keeps the sleeping area warmer, prevents snow penetrating into the tent and offers comfortable seating.

Clear instructions on how to set up Hilleberg tents in deep snow is available here.

Heating your tent

There are several heaters out there that can be used in your tent, provided you do so with caution. Some stoves even have special add-ons that also function as heaters. This is more suitable for campers staying in one spot or on longer expeditions with a base camp.

For everyone else, portable heaters are probably too heavy and difficult to use. Besides, hardly any standard tent meets the requirements for these heaters, and the list of risks associated with their use isn’t the shortest either (burns, falling gas containers, defective burners or hoses). All in all, it is better to opt for the more “traditional” methods mentioned here.

Summary

If you slowly train your body to get accustomed to the cold, you will have more fun and freeze less on your next winter trip! So what are you waiting for? Let’s start mastering the cold!

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