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12 Essential Winter Camping and Backpacking Hacks

Winter camping and backpacking have a much steeper learning curve than three season hiking and camping because you have to carry a lot more gear and learn so many new skills. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years that have improved the safety and comfort of my winter trips.

1. Dig a Pit under your Tent’s Front Vestibule

Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent
Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent

Dig a pit about 3 feet deep under the front vestibule of your winter tent so you can sit down in the front door when you take off or put on your winter boots. This also increases the amount of gear you can store under the vestibule fly.

2. Bring at Least Two Stoves in Case one Fails

Bring a foam pad to sit on when you melt snow and cook.
Bring a foam pad to sit on when you melt snow and cook.

Stoves can fail in winter. White Gas stoves can get gunked up and stop functioning if they’re not cleaned properly or use dirty fuel. Canister stoves can also fail when it gets too cold for their fuel to vaporize. You best bet is to bring multiple stoves when you go winter camping or backpacking in a group, preferably ones that share the same kind of fuel, so you have some redundancy in case a stove fails.

3. Wear Oven Bags Over Your Feet to Keep Your Socks Dry

Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for very cold winter hiking
Reynolds Oven Bags make excellent vapor barrier socks for cold winter hiking

If you wear gaiters for winter hiking, your socks will get wet from foot and leg sweat. This is a problem when winter camping because wet socks will freeze at night unless you sleep with them in your sleeping bag. However, you can keep your socks dry if you wear oven roasting bags under your socks. Your feet will sweat less and stay warmer and your socks will stay dry because the oven bags contain all that sweat close to your skin.

4. Use Plastic Grocery Bags as Snow Anchors Instead of Tent Stakes

Plastic Grocery Bags
Plastic Grocery Bags

Use plastic grocery bags as snow anchors for your tent instead of carrying tent stakes. Fill them with snow and bury them so just their handles are showing above the surface of the snow. You can immediately guy out your tent with them without having to wait for them to harden up. The plastic bags are easy to remove in the morning and reuse. They’re also super lightweight.

5. Wrap Fuel Bottles with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite

Wrap Your White Gas Fuel Bottle with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite
Wrap Your White Gas Fuel Bottle with Duct Tape to Prevent Frostbite

In cold weather, the temperature of white gas, or liquid fuel as it is also known, can dip below freezing but still remain in liquid form. If it touches your skin, it will evaporate immediately, causing frostnip or a more severe frostbite. In fact, simply touching an uninsulated fuel bottle with the bare skin of your hand in sub-zero temperatures can cause a cold injury. You can prevent this by wrapping the bottle with duct tape to insulate it.

6. Eat Boil-In-Bag Frozen Food instead of Dehydrated Camping Meals

Jack Daniels Pulled Pork
Jack Daniels Pulled Pork

The nice thing about cold weather is that you can carry prepared frozen meals and eat them instead of cooking a crappy Mountain House meal which takes forever to rehydrate. Boil-in-a-bag stew-like meals work best, like this Pulled Pork meal from Jack Daniels, available in most supermarkets.

7. Sleep with your Boots or Boot Liners in your Sleeping Bag at Night

If your boots or boot liners at damp, they'll freeze overnight in winter unless you keep them warm.
If your boots or boot liners are damp, they’ll freeze overnight in winter unless you keep them warm.

If your winter boots or bootlines have become damp during the day, you need to sleep with them in your sleeping bag to keep them from freezing at night. If your boots do freeze, you may not be able to use them again until they are thawed out.

8. Carry your Water Bottles in Insulated Pockets

Carry your water bottles in insulated bottle pockets to keep them from freezing.
Carry your water bottles in insulated bottle pockets to keep them from freezing.

When hiking in winter, it’s best to use wide mouth bottles that you can pour boiling water into each morning. These should be stored upside down so the tops don’t freeze shut. Store the water bottles in insulated water bottle pockets on the outside of your pack or inside your pack, surrounded by insulating garments.

9. Wear Nitrile Exam Gloves as Glove Liners

Wear nitrile or latex glove liners under fleece gloves or mittens to keep them dry.
Wear nitrile or latex glove liners under fleece gloves or mittens to prevent sweating into them/

If your hands sweat when you hike and you have to carry extra gloves or mittens, you can cut down on the number of gloves you need to pack by wearing nitrile or latex gloves as glove liners. They prevent hand sweat from being absorbed by your gloves and will keep your hands warmer too. It’s the same principle as wearning oven roasting bags over your feet to keep your socks dry.

10. Carry Snacks in a Front Pocket so they’re Easy to Eat Eithout Stopping.

Carry snacks in a front pocket so they're easy to eat on the go without stopping.
Carry snacks in a front pocket so they’re easy to eat on the go without stopping.

Clip a pocket or a small 16 ounce Nalgene bottle to the front of your backpack so you can snack without having to stop and get food out of your backpack. Winter backpacking takes an enormous amount of energy and you need to eat frequently to stay energized and warm.

11. Use Lithium Batteries instead of Alkaline Batteries in Winter

Lithium Batteries
Lithium Batteries

Alkaline batteries perform very poorly below freezing and in cold weather because they are made with a water-based electrolyte solution. Lithum batteries on the other hand are much more powerful than alkaline batteries and function very well in cold weather, making them ideal for headlamps and other must-have electronics.

12. Dig a Kitchen Area to Sit in While Melting Snow or Cooking

Dug Out Winter Kitchen Area
Dug Out Winter Kitchen Area

One of the great pleasures of winter camping and backpacking is sitting around at night, all bundled up, while you melt snow and eat together. This is best done in a kitchen area, that you dig out with an avalanche shovel. Who needs camping furntiture? All you need is an insulated foam pad to sit on and keep your butt from getting cold.

What are your favorite wnter camping and backpacking hacks?

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5 comments

  1. Anyone have any experience with the catalytic warmers? They run on lighter fuel (naptha), though some people say that white gas/Coleman fuel can be substituted. Apparently, the original (Peacock) brand is Asian; Zippo also makes a version. Many hours of burn time depending on how the air supply is controlled. They’re about the size of a pack of cigarettes. I also see battery-powered hand warmers.

    Seems like these might be good for dropping into damp boots to dry them out overnight, taking the edge off chilled hands, etc.

  2. Do the Reynolds bag let air escape but not water?

  3. Put a toe warmer in the concave part of the canister to keep it warm and increase efficiency. Works like a charm.

  4. I might add that every outer layer should have a full or deep zipper for ventilating down to a thin inner layer (my preference is fishnet). The ability to shed excess heat and minimize sweating is crucial in the winter.

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