Adirondack Winter Camping 101

Getting into the backcountry in the dead of winter is a bigger challenge in the winter than it is in the other seasons of the year, but in my opinion, it also comes with a bigger pay off. Knowing you’re out experiencing places firsthand that most people wouldn’t dare visit excites me. Putting in the work to explore the world outside of what many could call “the norm” creates a connection with nature most only read about. It also shows you how strong you truly are when the going gets tough…and that’s a good thing.

Now I understand that winter sports and activities aren’t for everyone (at first glance at least), but I believe everyone can do them and enjoy them with the right gear, layers, and levels of warmth. I don’t care how much a person hates the snow and cold, if they were properly dressed in the right clothing and they were warm and dropped onto the summit of a mountain in January, they would be looking around like a kid in a candy store. Awestruck by nature and what they’re witnessing around them before their very eyes.

So with that, I believe that outdoors fun does not need to be put on “hold” during the winter, instead it simply creates a new, different version of fun. Whether you’re enjoying the wintery outdoors in snowshoes, on skis, or in a tent the adventure does not have to stop if you don’t want it to…and I also encourage others to challenge themselves to experience the outdoors in the winter if they never have.

Continuing with my all-things Winter Hiking 101 series on The 46 of 46 podcast I wanted to hit another subject that to some seems odd, but to others, seems intriguing, Winter Camping. Now if you just rolled your eyes and thought to yourself “gross! Why would I ever camp in the woods in the snow?” don’t be too quick to judge because I think if you give it a chance it would be a real adventure you’d talk about for a long time. On the other hand, if upon hearing Winter Camping your eyes lit up and you turned up the volume of the podcast, great, you’re in good company.

So today I’m going to break down some basic concepts and necessary gear to give you a fighting chance for an enjoyable, safe, and fun winter camping adventure. First things first, having the right gear is literally a life-or-death scenario, so don’t skimp, have what you need to have. Invest the money. Second, don’t make your first winter camping adventure somewhere deep in the mountains. In fact, I recommend trying it out in your front yard for a night or two before going into the woods. If you don’t have a yard, just try it somewhere that allows you to get into your car if you really need to. This way you can learn a ton about your gear, what you need to improve, and what worked well with the ability to go inside or get into your car if you need to.

Today I’ll start with the same old, yet oh so important subject of, layering. It’s important when you’re winter hiking, skiing, hunting, ice fishing, or whatever outdoors activity you find yourself doing in the dead of winter. Camping is no different and arguably more important to dial in correctly since you aren’t typically moving around and generating that body heat.

As I mentioned in episode 1 of my 3-part Winter Hiking 101 series a few weeks ago here on the podcast, I like merino wool base layers. Wool provides a nice warmth. However synthetic also work just fine as well, they each have pros and cons, as wool might dry a little slower, but doesn’t smell as bad as synthetic, but they both work. Just avoid cotton because cotton once wet is useless and once wet and still on your body will make matters worse because it will never dry. A lot of people may be hiking in to climb some mountains and camp along the way so if that is the case I recommend having a top and bottom baselayer solely for sleeping. So, you’ll have your hiking layers, and your sleeping layers. It’s important to keep these base layers sacred and just for sleeping (unless you find yourself in a real survival predicament of course, then do what you need to do). But in general, having your day layers and night layers is a good workflow.

When you’re hiking, you’ll wear base layers, and maybe a synthetic t-shirt, and perhaps even a mid-layer long sleeve fleece, which in my opinion is the best combo for some warmth and breathability when on the move climbing mountains or running through the woods working up a sweat…but of course our goal is to not sweat with the proper layering right? Layers on layers off to avoid sweating as much as we can. That never changes.

So as we’re at our campsite preparing for a night in the elements we have our sleeping base layers, and now also our sleep socks. Again, I recommend having a heavy pair of socks dedicated for sleeping only. Then the pair of socks you’ll wear during the day you will want to keep with you inside your sleeping bag against your body all night long to dry your day socks with your body heat. Trust me there, it works and it’s necessary.

Next while at your campsite you will want to have the same layers as when hiking, the mid layers, top layer shell, either hardshell or softshell jacket, and of course, the puffy jacket. These principles don’t change. Base layers to keep you warm and get moisture off your skin, mid layers for insulation, puffy jacket included here, and top layer shells to keep the wind and elements off you and your clothes.

When it comes to top layers at the campsite and in your packs a good rule of thumb is hard-shell top layers protect better in wet conditions and high wind, but they lack much breathability, whereas softshell jackets work better in dry conditions when you’re out there moving or hiking. They breathe much better. So, depending on if you’re camping in the middle of a backpacking trip or the middle of an ice fishing trip, you’ll typically have different needs depending on why you’re out there. Just a good general rule.

But there’s nothing like finishing a long day in the woods and changing out of your clothes (yes it will be cold for a minute, but you’re tough and you can handle it) then putting on your sleep clothes and that puffy jacket.

When it comes to puffy jackets these should keep you the warmest. I’ve slept in my puffy many times while winter camping inside my bag, and ive had nights where I didn’t sleep in it and instead slept in other layers, then I’d put the jacket on when I get out of my sleeping bag. Remember puffy jackets don’t work well when wet so do what you can to avoid that.  There’s down jackets, there’s synthetic, they all work and all have pros and cons. They pack down inside your backpacks nicely and provide excellent warmth when you’re at the campsite or not moving. Synthetic tend to dry faster so if you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip and you may be in serious or wet elements it can be good choice for that reason. You just want to keep it dry and keep it sacred and don’t forget you can get it wet from the inside (if you’re creating moisture and sweating) and from the outside (rain and snow) so remember that and do what you can to avoid the moisture. If you’re doing something that could involve sweating, take the jacket off.

As always, when it comes to winter outdoors fun, you want to avoid sweating, because sweating leads to wet clothes which can quickly lead to hypothermia, which can quickly kill you if not treated immediately….oh yea, this is a good time to remind all of you listening that the mountains don’t care about you. So be prepared because this is serious business and I want you come back home alive and well.

Going along with the puffy jacket this is a good time to mention I also feel multiple pairs of gloves are crucial, and having a pair that is “extra warm” is important. When you’re at camp, not moving, it’s hard to do anything with freezing cold hands. So, in the same manner as the puffy keeps your body warm at camp, camp gloves should do the same for your hands.

Moving on now I’m going to talk about your bed…aka sleeping bags and pads.

Starting with sleeping bags. Many people have an opinion on what is better regarding down or synthetic sleeping bags, and as a person who would not be described as a “gear head” and defers to others I respect, I’ll just tell you about the choices and you can go from there. Down insulaton is lighter, arguably lasts longer, and compresses smaller, but is more expensive. Whereas synthetic bags dry faster, work better when wet, and cost less. Typically when camping in any season, winter included, you will always deal with moisture due to the elements and condensation in your tent. So whichever bag you opt for do your duty to keep it as dry as possible while using and while traveling. A lot of people utilize waterproof stuff sacks for this reason. The last thing you want at the end of a long day in the woods, in the cold, is to realize your sleeping bag is wet. That spells both misery and potential serious disaster. Sleeping bags should also be sacred along with your sleep baselayers and socks.

Now sleeping bags are not one size fits all, they’re rated for various temperatures. I’m sure that goes without saying but I’ll say it anyways. As another general rule of thumb, you want a sleeping bag rated for at least the coldest temperature you expect to experience. At least. There are also sleeping bag liners you can buy to boost the warmth of the bag by a good 15 degrees, so that’s an option too. However, it’s also another item to carry. So, keep that in mind.

Before I move on from sleeping bags I want to also talk about how to sleep in the bag. Your instinct in the winter may be to put the bag over your face for warmth…but resist this urge. By doing so you’ll increase the condensation in your bag from your breathing and thus you’ll have a wet sleeping bag in the winter. That’s a bad thing. Instead wear a balaclava to sleep so your face is warm or a hat on your face. Again you just need to keep that bag dry.

Moving onto sleeping pads. These are so important. Getting your body off the cold ground is crucial to staying warm and is your best resistance to heat loss throughout the night. If you find yourself trapped in the woods for an unexpected overnight, gather a ton of spruce and pine limbs to try building a bed to get you off the cold ground. But anyways, sleep pads are typically inflatable or foam and have different R values. The R-value refers to a pads thermal resistance and allows you to compare it to other pads you may purchase. For winter camping you want at least a 3.5 R Value. Depending how far you’re going to camp, and weight considerations in your pack, you may even bring multiple pads and then, as simple math goes, you increase the R-values because you do indeed add the two tother. In my experience multiple pads makes a world of difference. Being as far away from the cold ground as possible is the goal.

Ok next, lets talk tents.

First off, if you’re in the Adirondacks there’s an abundance of lean-to’s and that is always my go-to personally, simply out out of the ease and convenience of not carrying or setting up a tent. That of course comes with its own cons, such as waking up in the middle of the night covered in snow. That always sucks. But if you’re bringing a tent, let’s talk tents.

You’ll want a four-season tent, as they’re called. These can be completely sealed off from snow and wind allowing you to stay dry inside. These tents also can handle heavy snow on top of them along with heavy winds that so often accompany winter storms. Remember how I said the mountains don’t care about you? You never know when a storm will roll in whether you expected the night to be clear or not. The mountains do not care about you or your plans. So it’s best to be prepared for everything, especially in the winter. Make sure your tent is fastened down well with all guy lines secured. You don’t want your tent to become a sail.

Double-wall tents are warmer, less condensation, and better for longer stints out there, but they’re of course, heavier. Single wall tents tickle the fancy of all those gram weenie backpackers out there who count every ounce. So, those are some options. It’s also important to note that regardless of which tent you use make sure you crack the front zipper open and the open the vents. We need to allow that moist air to escape instead of collecting inside the tent. No one wants to wake up wet in the morning OR the middle of the night, right?

Another fan favorite for winter hiking I see amongst a lot of Adirondack hikers are the hammock tents. They’re a valid option, they get you far off the ground, you can still put sleeping pads inside them for insulation, and they’re just another choice to throw in the mix.

Now we all know what it’s like to have to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Even when we’re home its annoying, when you’re in a sleeping bag in a tent, its more annoying, when youre in a sleeping bag in a tent in the cold winter, it’s downright awful. But don’t hold it. Get out of the sleeping bag, toss on your puffy, get out of the tent, and go take care of your business. It costs your body a lot of energy by holding it and the warmth inside you. You’re better off getting rid of it so your body can be doing other productive things.

So now I’ve covered layers to sleep in, the sleeping bag and pads, the tent, and now I want to go over another item that could be easily forgotten about but shouldn’t be- a camp stove.

Enjoyable to have in the summer, a must have in the winter. Liquid fuel, or white gas stoves, tend to work better than butane canister stoves in the winter because the butane stoves don’t perform as well in the cold. White gas works the same in 0 degrees as it goes in 80 degrees. It’s good to have reliable gear out there in the cold, right? Since you’ll be melting snow sometimes to make water, and cooking your food with it, it’s crucial to be able to rely on your stove. It could be the difference between a great adventure and going home early. Stands for your stoves are also nice to have and worth it because it can be a real pain trying to find a hard surface to use the stove, particularly in the winter.

Having more food and water than you expect or are used to having is also important in the winter as your body is always working harder to keep it functioning, thus burning more calories than you expect. So have more food than usual, not the same, and definitely not less. Eating also helps your body keep working and keep warm. A lot of times in the middle of the night if you’re cold, eating something can help your body warm up a bit…just a bit. Winter camping, or any activity in the mountains in general, is NOT the time to be on a diet to lose weight. Have more food than you need. Always.

Another tip I want to share that was imparted on me from a friend who has been winter camping in the ADK backcountry for decades is to boil water with your stove before bed, put it in a bottle and hold the warm water bottle between your legs inside your sleeping bag. This will quickly increase your body temperature, and that’s a good thing. If your sleeping bag has room you can even consider putting your boots in there to keep them from freezing. Sometimes easier said than done, but at the minimum toss your boot liners in your sleeping bag as well so they are dry and not frozen for the morning,

Now my good friend and podcast favorite Jonathan Zaharek is always out deep in the backcountry camping waiting to get ridiculous sunrise photos and I asked him to share with us his 5-best winter camping tips.

So here are Jonathan Zaharek’s 5-tips for winter camping:

#1 Invest into the right gear. This is life or death. Down is always going to be superior to synthetic. No cotton.

#2 Always have a way to boil water. It is vital for mental health and cognitive ability to keep your body warm outside and inside.

#3 Always have a beacon and make sure people know where you are.

#4 toilet paper (just don’t forget it!)

#5 summit parka or summit mitts. This will keep you warm when you are not moving for several hours. 

Bonus Tip- For your headlamp, always use lithium ion batteries. Not alkaline Well I’m going to wrap things up there. A quick introduction to the world of winter camping and what you need to do it and to enjoy the mornings in the mountains in the winter. It’s a unique outdoors adventure and it’s one you can practice from home before heading into the backcountry for adventure. Don’t sleep on the opportunity for expanding your horizons and trying new things in the outdoors, even ones you never would have expected to try, you may just surprise yourself.

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