A Parent's Guide to Winter Camping

A Parent’s Guide To Winter Camping
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Winter camping is one of the most advanced and challenging of outdoor adventures. It will take your son into a magnificent frozen wilderness sparkling with snow and ice. Temperatures are cold, and the usual watering holes, campgrounds, and trails of summer are buried beneath drifts. On still nights a fragile, magical beauty blankets the land beneath the dance of the stars, and when the weather turns bad, howling winds and driving snow make a familiar meadow seem awesome and alien as any arctic landscape. Living under such strange and demanding conditions requires skill, experience, and the proper equipment, "...but if ye are prepared ye shall not fear" (D&C 38:30).

Some common misconceptions

Leather hiking boots will keep your feet warm.
FALSE! The snug fit of most hiking boots can limit the circulation of blood in the feet especially if you're wearing extra layers of socks. Mukluks, booties, and over boots with enough room to hold your foot and plenty of insulation and still allow moisture to escape are much more effective.

Waterproof clothing is ideal for cold-weather camping.
FALSE! To keep you warm, your clothing must allow body moisture to escape. Moisture trapped close to the body wicks away heat through conduction and evaporation. Waterproof clothing is preferable only in wet rainy weather.

Sugary and starchy foods provide sufficient cold-weather a energy.
FALSE! Sugar and starch burn too quickly to keep you warm hour after hour. Foods high in fat, complex carbohydrates, and protein release energy more slowly.

Drinking liquids is not important on winter treks.
FALSE! Cold air is very dry, and it draws moisture out of your body each time you breathe. Winter temperatures may trick you into believing you're not thirsty, even though your body needs plenty of fluids to ward off the dehydration that can upset your metabolism and increase your susceptibility to hypothermia.

The worst enemy of a winter camper is moisture! Wet clothing can steal body heat up to 25 times faster than when dry. You must stay dry to stay warm. There are three main ways that clothing and gear become wet.
  1.  Rain, sleet or water on the ground (puddles, rivers, etc.): Gear can be protected from rain and ground water by sealing extra clothing, sleeping bags, etc. inside plastic bags. A Scout can protect himself from falling rain or melting snow by wearing a waterproof poncho.
  2. Snow-covered clothing or gear becomes warm, melting the snow: Packs taken from the warmth of a van and placed in the snow can quickly become waterlogged.  Again, to prevent the pack contents from getting wet seal items inside waterproof bags. Also, bring a foam mat or cushion to sit on so you don't sit directly on the snow. Not only will the snow extract heat from your rear end, the snow can melt causing your pants to get wet.
  3. Perspiration and sweat: Body perspiration and sweat can soak your clothing just as effectively as a rain shower. You can guard against this by using the layering principle (described below), by not wearing waterproof outer garments (unless it is raining), and by allowing body moisture to escape.

The Layering Principle
The essence of staying warm in the winter is having the proper clothing layers and knowing how to use them effectively. The thermal insulation of clothing is proportional to the thickness of the dead air space enclosed. The clothing is not what is keeping you warm, it is the dead air. The key to providing this dead air space is through having a number of layers of clothing. This allows you to add or shed layers to increase (or decrease) your accumulated dead air space as the temperature changes and/or as your activity level changes.  Why not just have lots of layers on and sweat? Remember, heat loss from a wet surface can be up to 25 times greater than a dry surface. If you sweat and get soaked, you will lose heat much more quickly through evaporation of the water. So, you want to control your layers to be warm at your current activity level without sweating.

Clothing Materials
  1. Wool - as much as 60-80% of wool cloth can be air.  Even with water in the fabric, wool still retains dead air space and will still insulate you. Wool is relatively inexpensive (if purchased at surplus stores). However, it can be itchy against the skin and some people are allergic to it.
  2. Polypropylene and other synthetics - these are plastic fibers which offer dead air space and cannot absorb water. The fibers are hydrophobic meaning they move water vapor away from the body Synthetic fibers are extremely effective when worn directly against the skin to keep the skin from getting wet and to reduce evaporative heat loss. Synthetic fibers (such as Polarguard, Hollofil, Quallofil, and Thinsulate) are often used in sleeping bags, parkas, and mittens. Tightly woven nylon is an excellent outer material, providing good wind resistance while still allowing water vapor to pass through.
  3. Cotton - is not as good an insulator as wool or polypropylene. Cotton fibers are very absorbent and can soak up lots of water. Wet cotton clothing can be much worse than having no clothing at all! For this reason, jeans, T-shirts, and other 100% cotton clothing should be avoided, or at least waterproofed with wax or silicone sprays.
  4. Down - feathers are a very efficient insulator. They provide excellent dead air space with little weight. The major problem with down is that it absorbs water.  The wet feathers tend to clump and lose their dead air space.

Body Clothing
  1. Head - because a person can lose 50-70% of heat from their head, a good hat is essential in winter camping. The adage - if your toes are cold, put on a hat - is true. Wear a warm wool stocking cap over your head and ears. If your parka has a hood, that will help insulate your head and neck as well. You can also wear a scarf or a ski mask if additional insulation is required.
  2. Hands - mittens are warmer than gloves. It is useful to have an inner mitten with an outer shell to give you layering capabilities. Also, "idiot strings" are important to keep you from losing mittens in the snow. However, gloves are also essential in winter for dexterity, like pitching a tent or tying your boots. Since gloves and mittens tend to get wet, waterproof them and bring several pair.
  3. Socks - one of the best systems for keeping feet warm is using multiple layers. Start with a thin polypropylene (or other synthetic) sock next to the skin to wick moisture away, followed by 1-2 pair of wool or wool/synthetic blend socks. If they are too tight, they will constrict circulation and increase the chance of frostbite.
  4. Footwear - Because of their direct contact with the ground and snow, feet can get cold very easily.  There are several types of boots that are suitable for winter camping, including:
    1. Insulated Boots - such as Sorel or "Mickey Mouse" boots. These are rubber or leather and rubber boots that use a layer of wool felt to provide dead air space. These boots are often rated from -20 to -40 degrees.
    2. Pac Boots - plastic shell pac boots (or mountaineering boots) use inner boots made with wool felt or a closed-cell foam insulation. These can be very warm.
    3. Mukluks - one piece moccasins which reach to the knee. They are used with felt liners and wool socks. The Mukluk itself serves as a high gaiter. Mukluks are very comfortable, but they're not waterproof so they are best used in cold, dry settings where water and rain aren't a problem.
    4. Leather Boots - can be somewhat effective when used in conjunction with an insulated overboot. They need to be much larger than normal to accommodate several layers of wool socks.  Additional insulation can be added to boots by wrapping them in foam rubber or carpet pad and covering them in plastic. The foam and plastic can be tied in place using rope or string.
    5. Gaiters - are essential for winter activity. Gaiters are waterproof or water-resistant sleeves that extend from your boot to your knee. They keep snow from getting into your boots and keep your socks and pant legs free from snow. Gaiters can be made using a plastic or nylon material and string.
    6. Insulated Booties - these are booties insulated with a synthetic fill and typically have a foam sole. They are very nice to wear in your sleeping bag at night.
  5. Outer Layer - it is essential to have an outer layer  that is wind proof and water resistant. It also needs to be able to be ventilated. If a garment is waterproof, it cannot breathe (except for very expensive high-tech materials such as Gore-Tex). A coat or jacket with an attached hood is also helpful. One of the best approaches is to wear an outer shell that can breathe and add a loose fitting waterproof layer such as a poncho when there is rain or sleet. Your outer layer can be a ski parka, coat, or jacket as long as it will block the wind. It doesn't need to be extremely warm if you have enough layers underneath it.

An example of layering
Start with thermal underwear that are not too tight. Add a flannel shirt, wool trousers, and a wool turtleneck sweater.  Wear polypropylene socks followed by 1-2 pair of wool or wool/synthetic-blend socks. Add a jacket, wool cap, and heavy boots followed by gaiters. Wear wool mittens or gloves with water repellent shells over them. Add a scarf, parka with a hood, and water-repellent snow pants if needed. Keep layers loose. And remember... don't wear waterproof clothing unless it is raining.

This is just one possible layering scheme. You can substitute available clothing for the different layers, provided that they are appropriate for cold-weather camping (e.g. not waterproof or 100% cotton). If you have ski bibs, for example, you could use them in place of the wool trousers.

Sleeping Bags
Sleeping bags for winter camping should be rated to a temperatures lower than what you will likely experience if you want to be comfortable. There are a variety of different fills for sleeping bags: down, Primaloft, Microloft, Qualofill, Polarguard, etc. (Dry down is warmer than synthetic fibers, but down is a poor insulator when wet and it takes longer to dry than synthetic fibers.) Ideally, the bag should be a mummy bag with a hood. A mummy bag concentrates the insulation around your body without leaving large spaces for convection currents. You can augment your sleeping bag if it isn't as warm as necessary. There are several ways to do this.
  1. Put your bag inside of another sleeping bag. Remember that you are trying to trap as much dead air as possible. It won't help much if the outer bag compresses the dead air out of the inner bag. When you insert the inner bag, put the zipper on the side opposite the outer zipper, if possible. Adding a summer bag over your mummy bag can add 15-20 degrees.
  2. Add a wool blanket inside your sleeping bag (adds 5-10 degrees). Fold the blanket in half and safety pin the edges to form a pocket.
  3. Put your sleeping bag inside of a bivy sack (adds 5-10 degrees). A bivy sack is an outer shell that you slip your sleeping bag into.
  4. Add a vapor barrier liner (adds 5-10 degrees).
  5. Put a foam pad on top of your sleeping bag, securing it with straps or ties.

Foam Sleeping Pads
You need to insulate your sleeping bag from the underlying snow. Closed-cell foam pads or self inflating pads (like Therm-A-Rest) work well. Open-cell foam can be used, but only if it is covered by a plastic sheet to keep it from absorbing water. Your insulation should be at least 2 inch thick (two summer pads work well). Avoid cots and air mattresses. They allow convection currents to develop, which significantly increase your heat loss.

Sleeping Tips
  • Do wear a stocking cap or ski mask to bed.
  • Do fluff up your sleeping bag before getting in to trap as much dead air as possible.
  • Do bring your water bottle with you inside your bag. It will keep it from freezing and it will be available if you need a drink. Caution: Don't let it leak! [Hint: seal it in a zip-lock bag.)
  • Do loosen your boot laces and put your boots between your pad and sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. It is almost impossible to put on frozen boots.
  • Do eat high-protein snacks before bed and during the night, if needed. Foods such as cheese, nuts, and jerky make good nighttime snacks.
  • Do tighten the drawstring around your head and neck to prevent cold air from entering your bag.
  • Do check on your buddy during the night to make sure that he is okay.
  • Don't wear any clothing to bed that is damp or which was worn during the day. Bring dry sweats, a wool cap, and extra wool socks or insulated booties to sleep in.
  • Don't breathe inside your sleeping bag. Your breath will get your sleeping bag wet.

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