Winter camping — without cold feet

Paul Smith
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Finally we are having a real, honest-to-goodness, snowy and cold winter. The mercury at my cabin dropped to -18 C two weekends ago. I went outside for a nature call and just about froze my exposed body parts. I love it.

Enough of this snow turning to rain and wet soggy winter weather; cool, crisp and dry is how I like it. But I hope I don’t cast a meteorological jinx by writing about Jack Frost’s icy shenanigans. God willing, by the time you read this on Saturday I’ll be snowshoeing once again with a pack and rifle across my shoulder.

All you snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoeing dudes, snowboarding gals, winter campers and all around lovers of winter wonderland need to keep your fingers crossed and stay in Ryan Snoddon’s good books. Great job so far, Ryan. Keep up the excellent work. (You have to suck up to the right people to get what you want.)

Did I say something about winter camping back there? Do people really camp in winter? They certainly do, and I’m one of them. Remember what I said a few weeks ago about there being no bad weather, only bad gear? You see, I really meant that. I was dead serious.

Last weekend, Cameron Gosse and I embarked on a mini-adventure that we’ve been planning for a while. We’ve been gathering the right gear together and tuning our legs for winter travel on foot.

I told you a couple of weeks ago about hiking uphill to the cabin and trekking through deep, soggy snow. That was part of the preparation and training for the big event. Our plan was to hike about 10 kilometres in country on snowshoes and set up camp for an overnight stay — in other words, winter camping.

Both Cameron and I have slept outdoors in winter before, but not after a long hike through deep snow. Sweat management is a huge issue and there’s no warm cabin or cozy house to run to if you get chilled to the bone. There’s also precious little chance of pizza delivery. We thought about that sitting around our campfire: only a Donald Trump tip would stand a chance to tickle such a notion to reality. However, it would be cool — ski patrol-style pizza delivered at midnight to remote backwoods campers.

Seriously, though, you are on your own on trips like these; bring a first aid kit and a heaping spoonful of self-reliance.

If you sweat, you die — that’s what Survivorman Les Stroud says, and he’s dead right. If you’ve ever worked up sweat on the trail in winter and then stopped while the cold sets in, you know what I mean. The bone-chilling effect is quick and nasty.

I’ve only ever got as far as the shivering, but that’s only the first in a series of hypothermic symptoms. It’s critical to get warmed up and dry in a big hurry.

Cameron and I did everything possible to ward off dampness next to our skins. That included being fit for the walk and wearing the best breathable and layered clothes that we could find and afford. There would be no instant heat at the campsite. It wasn’t going to be easy lugging 40-pound packs and facing some long uphill stretches. The best plan was a moderate pace with the odd rest to let the system cool down. It took close to three hours, but we made it to our campsite relatively sweat-free. Still, it was cold. It would be even colder when the sun set.

We had to first set the tent before gathering and cutting firewood for cooking and warmth. It took about 20 minutes to get our three-person, four-season tent in sleeping order. Four-season tents are more robust than summer tents and are less susceptible to ripping and tearing due to frost, wind and snow load. They can also be completely sealed during snowstorms to keep you snug and dry inside. The price to pay is that they are much heavier to carry.

I would certainly give winter camping a try in a lesser tent as long as I had a good sleeping bag. Just make sure you don’t get caught in a storm, or your department store shelter could be your demise. It’s not nice sleeping on the ground in a blizzard.

I’d skimp on the tent for fine-weather excursions, but never go winter camping with an inadequate sleeping bag. You will freeze. No matter how much clothes you wear to bed, you will still freeze.


Camping vs. surviving

The only way to stay warm without a decent sleeping bag is to keep the fire going all night, and you can’t light a fire in a backpacking tent. You could sit in a lean-to all night with a roaring fire burning, but that’s not camping. That is called surviving when you are lost and forced into an unscheduled overnight stay in the forest. You cut a lot of wood and go without much sleep.

You can buy a winter sleeping bag from great companies like Marmot, Kelty or Mountain Equipment Co-op, starting at about $200. There are better bags, but much of what you are paying for is less carry weight and compactness — nice but not essential for the non-hardcore occasional user. I’ll write more on the details of this stuff another time.

Once we had our tent and site in order, we cut enough wood for the evening and then cut as much again. Les Stroud says to cut five times as much, but we settled for twice. We weren’t staying up all night. For seating, nothing beats snowshoes laid flat and covered with green boughs. A tree for a backrest is a bonus.

There’s a trick I must share in case you get inspired to give winter camping a go. Be sure to construct a base for your fire out of good-sized green logs about three to four feet in length. If not, your source of heat will burn down through the snow and you will not be warm and toasty around the campfire. I learned this the hard way many, many years ago.

Cameron and I had a great time, considering the temperature dropped to -10 C and I forgot the moose sausages. We had to pass by our cabin on the way, where we always keep some canned rations. Canned moose hit the spot.

The only bit of shivering cold experienced was prior to zipping up the sleeping bag in a cold tent after acclimatizing to a warm fire. Crawling out of my cosy, goose-down cocoon at the crack of dawn was a tad chilling, as well. Otherwise, all went well.

One more tip: never leave home without spare socks. No matter how well you manage exertion and sweat, your feet will be damp after many miles on snowshoes. Damp feet are cold feet in the best of sleeping bags. Put on a dry pair of wool socks before crawling in the bunk. I hate tossing and turning with cold feet.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at

Organizations: Mountain Equipment Co

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • T. McCleery
    February 03, 2013 - 19:36

    Some good advice. Here are a few more tips to try; Pack a simple candle lantern and leave it going in your tent for about 1/2 an hour before bed and while you're changing. It will take the chill and damp out of the tent and make changing easier. Or a small lantern (propane/Naptha). Just make sure it doesn't tip over and melt the floor of the tent.