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Winter Camping in Missouri?!? You’ve clearly lost your mind!

December 17, 2014

051Wintertime is upon us! It is certainly not the same world out there in the woods that it was during the summer. The leaves have dropped from the trees, the smell of campfire tends to waft through suburban neighborhoods instead of the campground, and we spend more time indoors because, let’s face it…it’s just more comfortable. I work outside, so I am very familiar with the extremes that the Missouri seasons have to offer, especially this time of year. The best way to cope is to either wear enough layers to where it becomes difficult to actually move, or just stay inside altogether. The spring will come and the grass will start to grow again, and we can just go out into the forest then…in three or four months, right? Wrong. Sure it’s cold, but the winter can be a great time to get out into the forest with a tent and a campfire. You just have to have the right gear, approach it with a positive and cautious desire for an adventure, and be aware of the dangers.

1058Just like in the heat of the summer when you have to watch your activity level, give yourself time to cool down, and drink fluids…winter has its own rules concerning personal temperature control.

Unlike summer, the danger isn’t that you might overheat. The problem lies in the sweat that soaks your clothes. Imagine you are backpacking and it’s just around freezing. You’re hiking along, get to your campsite, gather some wood, and then start a fire as the sun goes down. It gets dark and the temperature drops, as well as your activity level…and there you are, trying to stay warm in front of a fire in wet clothes. Or maybe you didn’t notice that you were that wet (or figured it would just dry out naturally) and you go to bed in a less than capable sleeping bag. At some point in the night you are going to be freezing, as the moisture holds the cold, and you will put yourself at risk of hypothermia, a cascade of danger that involves your body not being able to create enough heat internally to stay alive. Sweating in the woods when it is cold is dangerous. Don’t over do it. Set your pace in whatever you might be doing to keep from getting too hot. One of my favorite quotes of all time, from Les “Survivorman” Stroud: “You sweat, you die”.

034Wear clothing in layers. The temperatures you are in will fluctuate depending on the conditions. Thirty five degrees with the sun shining and the air still is actually rather comfortable if you are strolling down a trail. Downright hot if you are carrying any weight. You will likely start to sweat under your coat, so having a layer like an outer jacket or hoodie that you can take off, as well as removing your hat, can be a regular way to make sure you aren’t soaked with sweat by the time you get to wherever it is you’re headed. And imagine the swing in temperature that can happen if the clouds move in and a breeze picks up. Wear the type of outfit that allows for insulation changes so that you can adapt to the situation. More layers of thinner material makes it a lot easier to regulate your temperature than one big jacket. In the wintertime, you will find me sitting around the campfire in a set of thermal underwear, a t-shirt and pants, maybe a long sleeved shirt and a hoodie, and then an outer jacket on top of that. If it’s REALLY cold, I will likely be wearing a set of insulated bib coveralls too. A good pair of wool socks is a great idea, maybe even two pairs, as is a lot of the other clothing technology out there that is not within my budget usually. And don’t forget a warm hat, some gloves…and a scarf. Being able to warm your face and neck can make a world of difference and improve your mood more than you might expect.

066Always have an extra set of dry clothes. The easiest way to warm up quick when your wet socks are letting the cold creep into your toes is to put dry socks on. It takes a moment of cold to change outfits, but it will be well worth it. I have been outside, below freezing, with snow coming down, topless…and it was totally worth that couple seconds of cold to get a dry shirt on.

If you are camping in the cold, a cold weather sleeping bag is the ONLY way to go. You can bring all the blankets in the world and still be shivering compared to the toasty warmth you can get from a good zero degree bag. A thermal pad is a good idea too. The ground has been there all season in the subfreezing temperatures, and it will suck the heat right out of you if you lay down on top of it. A thermal pad will insulate you pretty successfully from the frozen forest floor beneath you. I have gone wintertime camping and slept on an air mattress too, but you have to watch it because the air in it gets just as cold as the air around you. Again…get a good sleeping bag. Also, when you take your clothes off to go to bed, if they aren’t gross and grimy from the day, keep them in your sleeping bag with you. That way when you wake up the morning, you won’t be forced to live the agony that is having to put on frozen pants.

334Dehydration is actually a very real danger in the woods in the wintertime. Having worked outside in the past (how old am I?) 12 winters, I can tell you that you don’t get thirsty when it is cold out. You can exert yourself pretty definitively and feel just fine, because, hey…you’re still cold. That doesn’t mean you don’t need water. Keeping hydrated is essential to your body being able to combat the elements, and your cognitive ability. Make sure that you are drinking fluids, especially if you are on the move, even if you aren’t thirsty.

048When collecting firewood, make sure you have as much as you think you will need for the evening. A good big pile of logs to keep it going for as long as you feel like staying up is usually a good amount. Then double the size of THAT pile. Seriously. Collect how much you think you will need, twice. Firewood tends to burn up faster than we estimate, especially in the cold weather when you will probably want the flames to be bigger and warmer than usual, so make sure you have enough to be able to pile it on. You also need to give yourself options in the case that you wake up in the middle of the night freezing cold. You won’t feel like stumbling around the forest in the dark to search for what you need to build the one thing that will make your misery a little more bearable.

015So, to summarize:

Wear layered clothing.

Have enough clothing to cover completely.

Have a set of dry clothes.

Have a good cold weather sleeping bag.

Remember to hydrate.

Double the amount of firewood you think you need.

2014-03-29 18.00.26There are other things you can do. Other gear you can bring. And there are certainly always tricks that I know I have yet to learn. There is also a lot of clothing and gear technology out there to research and purchase, so do your homework. Camping in the forest in the winter can be one of the coolest experiences, no pun intended. The bugs are nowhere to be found. With the lack of foliage the woods just completely open up. There are measurably less people to share the woods with creating an even stronger sense of being in the wilderness. The campfire is used for more than just ambiance. And the icy sky just seems to be brighter and deeper. Yes, you will be cold and you may shiver, but it can be a very memorable experience. You just have to make sure that you know what you’re getting into and that you have everything you need. Don’t give up going to the forest because it’s cold out!

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4 Comments
  1. Hot hands. I have used them by putting them in my sleeping bag to warm it up for a bit before crawling in – then take them out but keep them “handy” (pun intended!) in case ya wake up chilly & wanna warm up. K & I camped one spring on a night it got crazy unseasonably cold & that trick saved the night for us! I think sleeping in a hoodie & covering the head helps so much too so not too much body heat escapes… I’ve done that trick a lot out west in higher elevations / way colder nights. 🙂 love your blog!
    Michelle – http://mkdesignsphoto.blogspot.com

    • Hot hands are a good one too! I have put them in my gloves and in my socks. I’m a pretty good heater, but it’s the hands and feet that always get cold first. And the weather can change just like you describe, so it is good to always have extra gear, like you did!
      Now you’re all ready to go camping in below freezing weather, right?!? Thanks for checking it out, Michelle!

      -Gabe

  2. Marty permalink

    I agree winter camping is great for all the reasons you pointed out. It has been many moons since I’ve been winter camping or camping at all; my loss. I still hike all year round as often as I can. For those who aren’t ready to brave the cold full tilt I suggest they look into the state parks that offer cabins which are very comfortable. That way you can brave the cold for a hike or whatever adventure comes your way and still retreat to the cabin.

    • You are totally right, Marty. The cabins offered by our Missouri State Parks are a great solution to dealing with the elements while still experiencing nature. I’m sure that there are other campgrounds out there that offer cabin rentals in the off-season as well. Great point!

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