Now I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not a hater of winter camping. Honestly, quite the contrary! I’m definitely a fan, although in the past this has been seriously challenged (popsicles are not meant to remain in the cold for too long - fellow popsicles will know and understand this very well).
Still, while winter camping can be fun, it’s not a simple rosy walk in the park. There are lovely highs, the kind that make you want to say outside forever and ever no matter the weather, and extreme, extreme lows, those that are cause for a large range of emotions (mainly discomfort…sometimes tears are shed). Now as much as I’d love to chat about the highs, I think this post is better suited to discuss those very lows (and I’m just in the mood to be overly dramatic, so it’s honestly quite perfect).
There are three (probably more) massive downfalls to winter camping that I can think of, all of which are pretty awful in the moment, somewhat nightmarish really.
One - The Dreaded Layer Change
And dreaded, omg.
For those who don’t know (bless your innocent souls), your layering game must be on point when you’re out in the world winter camping. I’ll lay it out for you (ha, ha - love me a bad pun) and help save some pain if you’re truly unaware.
Sweat is your enemy in the winter world. You want to avoid damp, icky clothing as much as possible if possible. This means that when you’re about to hike and travel to your next campsite or check out a cool destination somewhere else on the trail for the day, you have to peel everything off. Your aim is to only wear enough to fight off a chill, but not enough to remain warm when you’re actually moving and grooving on the trail.
Sounds insane? You’re not wrong, but it gets worse.
After returning to your campsite and layering all your warm clothing back on, you have to face the reality that it will eventually all have to come off again and this time round, completely. All of it. Sweaters, long-johns, socks, underwear - the works. For me, this is absolute torture. There’s nothing worse than crawling into a cold, freezing tent facing the reality that you’ll have to bare yourself to the world like a newborn child. The well-seasoned winter camper doesn’t even flinch at the thought of this brutal process, but I’m not well-seasoned, nor immune to pain because believe me, in -25 the cold bites you. It’s your fingers and toes that go first, then your limbs start to feel the chill, an icy caress that’s not welcoming in the slightest. You can’t feel your fingers, so you can’t get things off - hell you can barely get things on, and socks feels like a foreign object. It’s the most unpleasant feeling and when you’re finally bundled up you have to wait, settle into the chill and simply wait it out.
It doesn’t last long though and you can scuttle to the campfire as soon as you manage to jam your feet into a spare set of boots with fresh liners (or down booties if you’re really lucky), but still. What an abysmal feeling. And Isaac doesn’t even flinch! Super human I tell you, super human! Can there honestly be worse?
The answer is yes. Oh yes.
Two - Boots are Made for Walking, not Freezing
And you thought that changing layers was truly the bad part. No, definitely not. The worst part, by a long shot, is having to put on your hiking boots again after allowing them to freeze overnight. Now is this immediate? No of course not, which is why it’s definitely the worst moment by far.
As you wake up, climb out of your tent, enjoy your delicious camp breakfast, the fire, your hot chocolate, and whatever other goodies you’ve selected for tasty times in the morning, there is only one thought brewing in your mind - my boots, oh my damn boots. Now this is because you can’t run from fate, and fate declares that you must put those boots back on before you hike again and deep, deep down you know that this is a moment to be feared.
Frozen boots mean frozen feet and absolute agony. I usually force myself to go for a walk around camp in attempt to encourage blood flow, but the only way to really remedy the pain is to get back in the trail immediately, pull a sled, or do something that requires some legitimate physical effort to warm everything up again. Unfortunately, setting off from camp is a relatively time consuming process in the winter time, so it’s rare that this actually occurs, which means you have to contend with the pain for longer than necessary.
On a winter backpacking trip to QE2 (Queen Elizabeth Wildlands Provincial Park for those who are not familiar) I was victimized by my boots rather brutally (a pair I borrowed from Isaac’s father). Completely made from leather, once frozen it is an absolute nightmare to slap these babies on in the morning. No word of a lie, I actually cried while trying to warm my feet up, walking back and forth up the trail from camp in a futile attempt to get the blood flowing. A leather had not only frozen, but shrunk overnight, basically creating the perfect Canadian torture device. I don’t recommend it.
What I do recommend however, is as soon as you crawl out of your tent a get a fire going, please, please, please let your boots warm up in front of that fire. Your toes will thank me later for this.
Can things really get worse from this point onwards?
Good news - no, not unless you physically start to freeze to death. Still, there’s one more part of winter camping that’s pretty unpleasant.
Three - Feeling Nothing
Not emotionally - believe me, your emotions will be running on an all-time high. You might even be wondering why you decided to expose yourself to a weekend of cold in the first place, or whether or not spending the night in a tent is really worth it in the winter. You will however, be unable to feel your fingers after awhile (not to mention your toes). This may not sound like the end of the world, but if you’re the kind of person that sucks at packing and relies on touch to figure out what’s in your bag, you’re in for a real treat.
In -25 everything basically feels the same, which means that it’s not only impossible to find anything in your bag, but time is required to do so and in the cold, this isn’t a magical combination. Your fingers quickly become rather useless, which not only is incredibly annoying, but frustrating. The pain is one thing, but not being able to easily put on more warm layers, grab a spare pair of mittens, or another valuable piece of gear (part of the tent maybe?) is infuriating. It’s a really good way to get into a bad mood.
What do I recommend?
Don’t be an idiot and pack your bag in a ridiculous way. Think about it and prioritize the gear that you will need the most. Put your headlamp, spare mits, socks, toiletries, and other important things in pockets that are easily accessible and leave the hard to reach places for your sleeping bag, mats, and base-layers (aka, the bottom of the bag). Even better, pack your gear in smaller plastic bags so things don’t get mixed together and lost in the chaos.
Having Second Thoughts?
Now I’m sure I’ve somehow convinced you that winter camping truly abysmal, but please don’t lose hope. If you’ve read my other blog post, How to Make a Popsicle like Winter Camping , you’ll know that not everything about winter camping is difficult, painful, and crazy, although it’s really easy to slip into this mindset (even if you are indeed a popsicle of a person).
Is there a way to avoid the dreaded layer change? No, but you can learn to accept it and cope. I usually spend a lot of time screaming, laughing, and complaining in the tent while I change - takes the edge off, you know?
Can you avoid putting on your hiking boots? I suppose you can, but it’s not worth carrying endless amounts of footwear with you while you’re backpacking on a snowy trail - the extra weight would be tough and just completely unnecessary. You can however, do your best to combat the ice by placing your boots by the fire and warming them up. Most importantly though, mentally prepare for the moment. If you know what you’re up against, it will be easy to deal with (and also you can just avoid camping in extreme temperatures…this helps a hell of a lot).
But what about the frozen fingers? I say practice makes perfect. The more you’re used to being in the cold, the higher tolerance you get for it. Isaac almost only wears fingerless gloves while winter camping, which blows my mind because I hate having cold hands. He prioritizes functionality, which I prioritize warmth (having a super warm pair of mitts to slap on between tasks is a lifesaver).
No matter what I say though, you may not be a fan of winter camping and that’s perfectly okay. Honestly, it’s probably more sane at the end of the day. Staying overnight in a yurt, cabin, or hot tent is pretty specular and you probably don’t have to contend with layers, frozen boots, and numb fingers (it’s smart and I appreciate that).