How to Prepare for Wild Camping in the Winter
For most people, wild camping is a 3-season activity. The busiest time of year for outdoor adventures is during the summer. Some hikers opt for the fringe months of September-October and April-May, but few attempt the cold winter months. This is a shame as wild camping in the winter can be a truly rewarding experience.
Clearly, there are more challenges with wild camping in the winter. There are fewer hours of light each day, the weather is colder, and the conditions are more testing. Often, there is higher rainfall in winter with spells of frost and snow in certain locations. This is understandably daunting to the beginner hiker. However, if you prepare your trip carefully and go out with confidence, you can have some spectacular nights of wild camping in the winter.
Your hiking equipment and camping gear are of greater importance during the winter than in the summer. Adverse conditions force you to rely on your gear to a greater extent. In the summer, you can get away with hiking in shorts and a t-shirt or camping in a sub-standard sleeping bag. If you tried this in the winter, it could be a serious health hazard.
Your clothing needs to be on point for winter wild camping. Durable hiking trousers, a fleece, and a down jacket should be worn. If it is particularly cold, thermal base layers are a good idea. Next, ensure you have a warm hat and gloves. You should then wear a set of double-layered socks or a thick pair of woolly socks with waterproof hiking boots.
To be fully prepared for wild camping in the winter, you might need to carry some specialist equipment. Crampons provide grip when walking on frozen ground. Gaiters prevent snow from getting in your shoes. An ice axe allows you to secure a hold in snow, ice, or rock for added stability. You may also need an emergency blanket as a last resort if a camper in your group gets too cold.
When wild camping in the winter, you must have a 4-season sleeping bag. A 3-season sleeping bag with a camping quilt could also work. A good quality camping mat that maintains insulation is essential. You lose a great deal of body heat through the ground so you may need a Styrofoam rolling mat on the floor with a blow-up mattress on top for extra insulation.
Choosing your campsite is an important factor of wild camping in the winter. There are certain areas which are colder in a winter landscape. Waterside pitches will be a few degrees colder than areas inland. Hollows and shadowed spots get more frost. Exposed ridges are more prone to the effects of fog, snow, and high winds.
Forested areas often make for ideal winter campsites. Trees protect from the worst of the elements while also retaining heat better than open moorland. Try to pitch your tent with the entry flap facing away from the prevailing wind to reduce draughts. Lastly, if you camp with a clear view of the eastern horizon, your tent will receive the first warm rays of sun in the morning.
Staying Warm at Night
Staying warm when you’re hiking isn’t so much the problem. Often, with your blood pumping, you can emit a significant amount of heat. It’s when you slow down and start setting up camp that you will gradually begin to feel the cold. Your clothes, damp from the weather and perspiration, will make you catch a chill.
To stay warm when wild camping in the winter, change out of your hiking clothes and into a dry base layer. That might mean new socks and a t-shirt or some thermal underlayers. With cosy clothes on, you will immediately feel warmer.
Carrying some hand or foot warmers is also a good tip. The extremities are the hardest areas to keep warm and thermal warmers do a fantastic job of keeping your fingers and toes toasty. If you boil water for your dinner, try pouring some into a sealed container or even a hot water bottle to stow in your sleeping bag as you sleep.
Food & Drinks
Utilising hot food and drinks is a key to staying warm when wild camping in the winter. After setting up camp, start boiling some water on your stove. Get a hot drink in your hands to thaw your fingers and heat up your body. Hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and even isotonic drinks make for a great stomach warmer.
Don’t skimp on your other meals. It may be tempting to just eat dried meat, crackers, and granola bars rather than getting cold trying to cook on the stove, but this is a common error. A steaming bowl of noodles or a filling pot of oatmeal is an excellent way to refuel and raise your body temperature in cold weather.
Campfires are a contentious topic for wild camping in the winter. They are an excellent way of staying warm and are ideal for campsite cooking. In the US and Canada, they are common social areas to sit around and chat while defrosting your cold limbs. However, in many National Parks around the UK, campfires are banned. They are especially bad for wild campers hoping to stay out of sight. That said, if you do find yourself in a suitable camp spot where fires are permitted, get stuck in!
Wild camping in the winter certainly comes with its challenges, but if you follow these tips, you’ll reap the rewards. The trails will be empty. The landscape will be especially stunning if layered with frost and snow. There are opportunities for stargazing during winter when the skies are clear. Not to mention that you can go on wild camping trips all year round rather than being limited to 4-6 months of the year. One day, with adequate preparation, you may even prefer wild camping in the winter to those overcrowded summer months!