According to the Farmer's Almanac much of the USA will see a harsh 2014-2015 winter. Do we believe them? Hard to say but they did correctly predict last winter was going to be nasty. The infamous "Polar Vortex" is still a bitter memory for millions. Given the potential for harsh weather this is a good opportunity to review some basic winter camping safety. Every season has it's pros and cons. If proper precautions are taken there is no reason why winter camping and travel can't be an enjoyable rewarding experience. They don't call it a winter wonderland for nothing.
1. The preparation.
Before heading out there are steps which should be taken to help mitigate challenges. The most important safety procedure is also the simplest. Telling responsible family and friends your plans. You should use multiple means to inform people such as a written note, email or text included with verbal communications. The word "responsible" shouldn't be taken lightly. If the person you're informing isn't reliable that's a bit like repelling with frayed rope. Responsibility is a two way street. The information you give should be specific. What is your route? Where are you planning on setting up camp? When will you check in if possible? What is your expected return time? Not only are YOU responsible for conveying this information but you're also responsible for following it. Make every attempt humanly possible to stick to the plan or inform people if those plans change. On a side note navigation aids like map and compass plus GPS can be invaluable. Hard to remain on route if lost.
When planning the trip attention should be given to the weather forecast but never be dependent on that information. How often is the forecast wrong? Even if correct the forecast might not apply to localized conditions. If prepared changing weather is often just an inconvenience rather than a miserable time. Again an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.
What's next for preparation? Lets talk about clothing and gear. Before any item can be trusted a person must have some actual experience using it. If planing your first winter outing a test run in the back yard is a good way to shake down your kit. Speaking of kit there are literately thousands of great and not so great winter gear items. I find that focusing on needs first, gear second is more productive. A primary need is protection from exposure risks.
Clothing is your first line of defense against exposure risks. Boots and socks are a good start when considering a clothing system. My preference is for insulated waterproof boots with wool socks. Wool is anti microbial and warm. Wool is more fire resistant than many synthetic sock materials which is helpful when drying socks using the heat from a campfire or stove. No matter what boot and sock combo works best for you they shouldn't be tight fitting. Warm dry socks are unbeatable in winter so pack extra pairs. Speaking of unbeatable things gloves, hat and socks offer a great deal of bang for their bulk.
I prefer my clothing to be layered. Here is an example of clothing I used for a winter outing. Poncho and Gortex pants for an outer layer, thicker fleece jacket, synthetic vest, synthetic pullover, synthetic shirt, synthetic pants, wool socks, synthetic hat and water proof/insulated gloves. Also had insulated boots which are waterproof on the lower foot section breathable/waterproof on the uppers. Plus extra socks made of both synthetic and wool.
Why not wear a thick jacket and be done with it? Believe it or not overheating in cold weather is a major concern. If you sweat up your clothing that water will transfer heat 25 times faster than air. One way to reduce this risk is by removing layers as activity and or temperature increases then replace those layers as needed. Before the trip research what clothing will function best in your environment. For example certain cotton garments might be preferable to a Gortex outer layer within extreme cold but fail miserable in cold rain.
Once you have worked out a clothing system it's time to consider a shelter system. Take a look at these two winter shelter systems. What if anything do they have in common?
Winter hammock shelter system.
Heated tipi shelter system.
The answer is they're both setup to deal with the same issues despite being very different shelter systems. What are these issues? Insulation from the cold and protection from weather. When body weight compresses insulation from a sleeping bag, jacket etc etc it will dramatically affect the level of protection. Closed cell pads, insulated inflatable pads and under quilts are all good ways to keep your back warm depending on the system. The R-value must great enough for the conditions. My advice is to avoid inflatable pads which aren't insulated. A closed cell pad should be included in a winter camper's kit.
The next logical item is the sleeping bag. They commonly come in either down or synthetic. Both have their pros and cons. This is often a subject of great or sometimes not so great online debates. I own both but feel a synthetic bag is probably a better option for most. Down often beats synthetic in rating vs weight comparisons however synthetic insulation is more reliable in cold wet conditions. There are other considerations but for me the ability of a synthetic bag to dry easier and offer some insulation if wet is compelling. That said not everyone has the same needs. A sleeping bag should have a temperature rating good enough to deal with your conditions and then some. It's easier to unzip a bag which is too warm than compensate for a marginal one.
What shelter system would be complete without the shelter. Again there are many options but a winter shelter potentially has to deal with more stress than those rated for 3 seasons. I prefer a tipi, winterized hammock or tarp and bivy tent combo. Maybe a 4-season tent might work for you? Keep in mind occupancy ratings are often determined by the manufacture for sleeping not livability. I always divide by 2 so consider a 4-person shelter actually rated for 2 in real world conditions. Picking a shelter rated for winter weather will reduce the chances of failure when you least want it.
Once your clothing and shelter systems are worked out it's time to fill in the rest of the gaps. Proper hydration during winter is very important. Just because it's cold don't slack on making water potable. In cold weather pump and straw filters can become damaged. I boil water or use Katadyn Micropur tablet. I prefer wide mouthed canteens combined with water reservoir systems such as Camelbak and Platypus. In extremely cold conditions a Thermos maybe required. Some put warm canteens in their sleeping bags to prevent freezing. I find warm water plus insulated covers offers enough protection to keep my canteens from freezing overnight in the shelter.
During winter if packing a stove I prefer those powered by either wood or liquid white gas. It's very possible to use a canister or alcohol stove however these can be more problematic in the cold. Alcohol stoves lack the BTU output to melt snow. Canister stoves can freeze up without the proper preoccupations. Again review your options then pick what's best for your conditions.
Now isn't the time to diet. Pack plenty of high calorie food. Even if burning 6000 calories a day odds are you won't starve to death during a short outing however extra calories will help fight off the cold.
You should pack at least 3 ways to start a fire. Have a metal kettle or mess kit to boil water. There are plenty of good options. Personally I would avoid aluminum. Titanium is my preferred for it's weight savings but stainless steel is a better value all things considered. Bring along your backpacking or 72-hour BOB FAK. Hygiene items such as a tooth brush and TP are also good. All electronics not powered by Lithium primary cells should be warmed using body heat before use. I keep my cell phone under a layer or two when winter hiking. My GPS and headlamps/flashlights can use Energizer L91s. Many of the same summer camping items can be used during winter including sunglasses. Given the shorter days headlamps and flashlights can greatly increase your working time. If dependent on fire a saw and or axe should be included. Maybe a packable snow shovel is required? I always take at least a knife but extra winter items increases the weight and bulk of a pack. Give serious consideration to each item.
Precautions should be taken to reduce the risk of mechanical injury. Depending on conditions Micro spike or snowshoes should be considered. I always bring hiking poles with snow baskets. One fall might be all it takes to become incapacitated. Personally I don't want to be injured waiting to see if my responsible family member or friend is going to send in the troops. Snow shoes will provide both flotation and traction.
Over ice and snow when flotation isn't required Micro spikes plus poles are like having super powers.
2. Tips for a safe outing.
Once your preparations are done it's time for the winter excursion. Here are a few tips which helped me over the years.
A. Don't forget to put your layered clothing system to the test. If conditions allow strap removed layers outside your pack. The garments will be easier to access if needed plus will dry faster than if inside your pack. Just make sure anything strapped to the outside of a pack is secure. If there is any question they could get lost put these items inside your pack. Going slower will also reduce overheating.
B. Winter camping isn't the time to take foolish risks which are often showcased in survival shows. For example what is this?
If you said a river flowing under the ice you would be only 1/2 correct. It's also potential death. It can be difficult to determine the exact location of a river or stream bank in such conditions. Snow and ice undercut by water can be unstable. It wouldn't take much to get swept under the ice. Odds of surviving that is low. If your gut says something isn't right best to error on the side of caution.
C. Drink plenty of water. If possible I prefer getting water from streams, brooks and springs with easily definable banks.
Why? It's best not to play footsie with a 1/2 frozen river or stream.
Melting snow takes time and effort. Adding a little water first before filling the pot with snow will speed things along. This will also avoid the risk of scorching your pot. I recommend boiling then using a bandana to filter out any floaters. As stated it's safest to make your water potable. In some conditions water can freeze really fast so best to take precautions sooner rather than later.
D. Setup camp in a safe area with maximum exposure to the sun.
Look for areas of increased snow melt. Observe of the motion of the sun as the day progresses. I want the maximum sunlight hitting my shelter first thing in the morning. Same general area but look at the difference extra sunlight makes.
Not too far way:
Beyond sunlight elevation and topography can be factors. Cold settles into valleys and ravines. On the flip side being up too high very often isn't ideal either. The ever present widow maker risk is magnified during winter because standing deadwood can be harder to recognize when the surrounding trees have dropped their leaves. Certain tree species will more readily shed branches during an ice storm. There are avalanche risks in some areas. A winter melt can create flood risks which are fully capable of initiating a wide area. Take the time and effort to become more attuned with your environment.
D. Booze, tobacco, drugs and caffeine aren't your friends during winter camping. These will all to varying degrees compromise both your safety and body's thermoregulation. I am no MD so can't comment of the effects of prescription drugs. Ask your doctor if there is a heath concern.
E. If using fire gather more wood than you think is needed.
People seem to be overly optimistic when it comes of firewood. Best to gather at least twice what you think is needed. I prefer to use the least amount of energy processing wood as possible. I will use my edged tools only when needed. For me this reduces the chances of an accident. Also saves time and effort.
That's all for now. Everyone has different needs based both personal and environmental requirements. Once you identify those needs, do the preparation and follow some basic safety requirements winter camping should be a safe outdoor activity. Best of luck and have fun!