Winter Camping

I can’t say that I really enjoy winter camping, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried it. If you are a winter camping rookie looking for an overnight adventure in the frosty outdoors – and I’m not talking backcountry cabin – here are a few tips for setting up home in the snow. 

Tent Talk
When it comes to winter camping, packing a tent is the easiest. A good four-season tent will have sturdy poles and a full fly covering the entire main tent body. When anchoring your tent, dig a shallow trench the snow, wrap your rope around a stick and lay it in the hole, covering firmly with snow. This “deadman” will keep your ropes taut (regular pegs will just pull out).

Pros: Fast to set up.
Cons: Not as warm as a well-constructed snow shelter, may not hold up well in strong wind/heavy snows.

Quinzhee Questions
A quinzhee is a mound of snow, hollowed out with a raised sleeping platform. To build one you need to pile snow, about 6-9 ft/2-3 m deep, let it settle for a couple of hours and then excavate. Be sure to push uniform length (12 in/30 cm) sticks into the mound before digging. When you are hollowing out the interior and reach the end of one stick, you know not to go any further. It also keeps the roof at a uniform thickness. 

Keep entrance small and work to a raised back sleeping platform. A lower entrance area acts as a cold sink, with warmer air rising up to the sleeping area. You’ll need to add a hole in the roof for ventilation. 

Carving out a quinzhee.

Pros: Warm, consistent inside temperature no matter what’s happening outside.
Cons: Takes around 3 hours to build properly; cheat on construction and it may collapse. And be warned – building a quinzhee is an energy-consuming, somewhat soggy job.

Igloo Anyone?
You’ll need hard-packed snow that can be cut into blocks with a snow saw. If you know what you’re doing, you can build a small igloo in a couple of hours. The first time I helped build one, it took three of us almost all day – of course, we were doing this as a skill-building exercise outside a warm cabin!

The basics of igloo-building include cutting blocks into manageable size, at least 6 in/15 cm thick, with a snow saw and stacking them in an upwards spiral. It takes practice. Once the building is done, small holes are filled in with snow. Again, the sleeping platform needs to be raised to allow for a cold sink to trap that Arctic air.

Pros: Warmer than a tent and less energy-consuming than a quinzhee to build.
Cons: Requires the most skill and practice to become efficient at building.

No matter which type of shelter you choose for your winter camp, make sure you have a thick insulation layer such as a sleeping pad between yourself and the snow, have a good down or winter-rated sleeping bag, wear completely dry clothes to bed to avoid sweaty chills and wear a toque. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30% of your body heat is lost through your head.

It’s important to note that camping in the winter increases the potential for things to go wrong. Unpredictable, cold weather is not something to mess with if you don’t know what you’re doing. Start by camping close to your home and/or vehicle so that you can bail if necessary. Build up the skills – whether through trial and error, or by taking course, or learning from friends who have done this before. 

I’d love to hear about your winter camping adventures and misadventures! Add your tale in the comments below.

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