There is a lot to love about Idaho — for one, Idaho has over a combined 5,000 square miles of protected wilderness reserves, national forests and parks. The 43rd State is also home to 3,100 miles of rivers running through it, the most of any state in the union. Unique flora and fauna, beautiful scenery, and endless camping opportunities are just a few of the many things that make Idaho great.
Idaho can be enjoyed year-round as well! In the summer you can float down the Salmon and Payette Rivers, hike portions of the incredibly underappreciated Idaho Centennial Trail, or go soak in one of Idaho’s many hot springs. Things don’t slow down in the winter either. Dozens of ski resorts and snowmobiling trails are available throughout the coldest months of the year, and the truly hardy can choose to head to Stanley to brave the harsh winter with a bit of camping.
Deciding to sleep outdoors in the dead of winter may seem like it would be a bit dangerous, because it absolutely is. Some of the possible risks of winter camping include:
- Disorientation due to shifting snows
However, winter camping is an experience that is unforgettable, and if you follow these tips you might find yourself unable to stay away.
What to Wear for Winter Camping
While there are many good resources to gather tips for winter camping, when it comes to the recommended clothing, they simply tell you to keep warm. While this is excellent advice in any winter setting, your clothing choice is much more important than chalking it up to simply “staying warm.”
A good rule of thumb is to always head into a camping trip with a base, middle, and outer layer.
Your base layer will consist of long johns that act as almost a second skin, trapping a thin layer of air around your body and providing vital insulation against the elements.
Even in temperatures that dip down to -15 degrees, a high-quality pair of midweight long johns will work as a base. Look for garments made of wool, as it wicks sweat, dries relatively quickly, and retains warmth even when wet.
For your middle layer, a down, fleece, or synthetic insulated jacket will suit you fine. This layer is to help further retain heat, and even a lighter 600 fill power down jacket would suffice. You’ll be doing a lot of zipping and unzipping of this particular layer, as you don’t want to start sweating into your base layer. A wet base layer, even a wool one, increases your likelihood of hypothermia significantly.
The final, outer layer acts as a shell against the elements. Usually thin, this layer does little to retain heat, instead acting to keep snow from coming in and letting moisture on your inner layers out.
When camping during the winter, it is extremely important that you obtain a waterproof shell that still offers good ventilation to help mitigate risk of hypothermia. This layer may spend a lot of time tied around your waist as you set up camp and explore the area.
Unless it is actively snowing, it’s best to keep this layer off as long as you can to avoid breaking a sweat. Many heavier winter jacket function as a blend between a mid and outer layer, and these will work just fine, though having the option to take layers off is always nice.
Other Clothing for Winter Camping
Accompany these layers with a warm winter hat, mittens, waterproof boots, and sunglasses or goggles with UV protection and yellow lenses. Yellow lenses help to increase the contrast of snow against both itself and the sky and will help you navigate terrain more easily, while the UV protection will help shield your eyes from the sun reflecting off of the snow.
Finally, make sure to put on your middle and outer layers outside of your tent, as you will not overheat and begin sweating as easily in the cold winter air.
Essential Winter Camping Gear
As far as tents go, as long as you aren’t expecting outrageous winds or a serious snow dump, any three-season tent will work fine. If you are planning on camping in those extreme conditions, a four-season is highly recommended.
Consider bringing a tent that is larger than you need, though it may seem counterintuitive as the more empty space there is in a tent, the harder it will be to warm up. To counteract this, bring all of your gear that you can into your tent at night. This will keep your gear dry while also making it easier to stay warm at night.
Bring two different sleeping pads with high insulation ratings. At night, sleeping on both will put more distance between your body and the snow. In the daytime, you can use your other pad as a seat so that you aren’t sitting directly on snow.
Personally, since I bring two I don’t generally care about using top quality pads, and will try to find the cheapest ones with the best possible insulation ratings.
For your sleeping bag, pick something like a mummy bag with a hood. A general rule of thumb is to choose a bag that is rated for 10-15 degrees colder than the coldest temperatures expected on your trip.
Down is again a fantastic option, however if you do choose a sleeping bag with natural down, keep it as dry as possible as down loses its insulation properties when wet. It’s also important that you fluff your down sleeping bag. If it gets compressed, it won’t be able to trap heat.
In the interest of safety, it is always advised that you bring additional, winter-specific survival equipment like
- Personal beacon locator
- Avalanche transceiver
- Trekking poles
Though you may not need these items, including them with your other essential survival gear is a good idea regardless.
Finally, bring your portable snow shovel. Say it one more time, bring your portable snow shovel. Arguably the most useful tool for winter camping, a shovel can be used to dig out those buried in snow, to tamp down and level snow at your campsite, to transport fresh snow to melt into drinking water, and as a makeshift cooking surface in a pinch. Seriously, bring your portable snow shovel!
How to Set Up Camp
Unlike traditional camping throughout the rest of the year, setting up camp means more than finding a pseudo-level spot on the ground and setting up your tent.
1. Choosing a Camping Spot
It is beneficial to consider the surrounding area carefully before setting up camp.
- Are there easily identifiable landmarks to help you find your way back to camp?
- Is there a natural windblock available?
- Are you near a slope that could shift and potentially cause an avalanche?
- Make sure you find a spot where the rising sun will hit your tent, allowing you to warm up faster in the mornings.
- If there is a water source nearby, it will save you precious fuel by eliminating the need to melt snow.
2. Building Camp
This is where that all-important snow shovel comes to the rescue! You can remove and pack down snow to your liking, providing you with a stable and level surface to sleep on.
Another tip is to try to build a small wall around the outside of your tent to minimize the impact of wind.
3. Tips for Keeping Warm
- Keep the tent window or door slightly open: This might seem counterintuitive, but you need some air flow in your tent. Otherwise condensation will build up and things will get wet! Wetness can be deadly in winter camping situations.
- Light a small tea light: You can put a small tea light somewhere safe in your tent. You’d be surprised how much heat a single small candle can produce. It will increase the heat inside your tent.
- Eat before going to bed: This will give you calories to burn for staying warm while sleeping.
- Run around before getting into your sleeping bag: This will get your blood going and increase body temperature before you get into your sleeping bag. The sleeping bag will retain some of that warmth.
- Bring a hot water bottle into your sleeping bag: Just make sure it isn’t leaking or you will end up wet.
Melting Snow for Water
If you plan on melting snow as your main water source, plan on bringing two to three times as much fuel as you would have normally.
Try to find a liquid-fuel backpacking stove, as they are less prone to freezing and burn hot and clean. If canister stoves are all that is available to you, keep the fuel in your sleeping bag with you at night and inside your middle layer during the day before cooking to improve performance.
Food for Winter Camping
Make sure you bring plenty of high-calorie foods with you as well, as you will naturally burn more calories in the cold.
It’s also a good idea to eat hot foods as often as possible since it will not only help warm you up, but can improve mood as well. For one of your meals, pack in a bit of seasoned firewood on a sled and make yourself a classic foil packet dinner! Having a fire for even one night is almost a requirement for camping in Idaho, so long as you pay attention to the laws regarding open fires in the area.
Now that you know what to wear and how to wear it, what special equipment to bring, and some of the special challenges associated with winter camping, you can finally hit the snow! Whether it’s in beautiful Idaho or wherever you call home, camping season doesn’t have to end on Labor Day!
Ross Cowan lives in Boise, Idaho with his fiancée and his dog Mosey. He spends his free time camping at Bear Lake, hiking sections of the Idaho Centennial Trail, white water rafting down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and Hell’s Canyon. You can follow Ross on his Twitter @RossCowanWrites.
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