By Patricia Cameron, Special to The Denver Post
As a Coloradan who does not ski or snowboard, I often find myself left out while my summer activity buddies head toward the slopes.
I even tried snowboarding once, but when I crashed head over heels down a green at Arapahoe Basin, I realized it was not for me. I needed to find something else to keep me active throughout the colder months. Enter winter and snow camping.
On the surface, it may seem intimidating. Unlike other winter sports, you are committing to a night outside with only your own work and ingenuity to warm you. Sounds quiet, cold, lonely and dark, doesn’t it? That’s the charm!
Winter camping takes a bit more planning than summer camping, but with a few adjustments, you can do it with just as much comfort as an excursion in July.
What to pack:
First, do a quick check of your summer gear. Most of your gear can double for winter camping with a few adjustments. For instance, I am a firm believer in using a three-season tent year-round. The right sleeping bag and layers will compensate for a heavy-duty winter tent and will definitely save you some cash. If this is your first go at it, stick close to your car. This way, you can have a safety net for warmth, and you can haul all the wood and water you will need. For an added benefit, you can hit the panic alarm on your car keys to scare off a big cat.
I go with a 15-degree bag and add layers in the form of a liner or even double sleeping bags. I found a military sleeping bag at a surplus store and put it inside my synthetic and much larger 15-degree Marmot bag. Be careful that you don’t create too snug a fit, and that the inner bag has wiggle room. If you want to throw down some money, a 0-degree bag works . Or, save money by buying a used one. As far as sleeping pads go, it is absolutely crucial you insulate your body from the cold ground or you will end up freezing. I carry a Klymit Insulated Static V four-season air mattress/sleeping pad with an R value of 4.4. (The higher the R-value, the warmer it keeps you.) A regular, non-insulated air mattress will eventually become useless as the air inside becomes cold. A great option for warmth and value is a closed-cell Therm-a-Rest pad.
- Pack (typically 70 L)
- Sleeping bag
- Liner or double bag
- Sleeping pad
- Glove liners
- Pack of hand warmers
- Wool socks
- Thermal pants and shirt
- Extra set of clothing
- Waterproof jacket
- Down jacket (goes under the waterproof jacket)
- Yak tracks
- Trekking poles (great for stability and as a weapon, just saying)
- Waterproof matches
- Small first-aid kit
- Multi-tool with a decent blade
- Lantern for inside the tent
- Extra batteries
- Water bottle
- Pee bottle
- Food and water
- Pocket stove (plus fuel canister)
- A Couple of tea bags
- A pot
- 550 cording
- Dry sacks
- Ziplock bags
- Camp soap
- Biodegradable toilet tissue
Make sure to properly vent your tent. Condensation is a huge problem when winter camping but there are ways to try to avoid it. Many tents have small vents built in. Otherwise, you can leave part of your tent unzipped. Remember, your warmth is coming from you, and you don’t want your tent to hold on to all the heat you will inevitably generate. Otherwise, condensation and moisture will build up on the inside walls. Moisture makes you cold. And if you are snuggled up in a down bag, you’ll have trouble if the down gets wet. I’d even recommend a synthetic bag for precisely these reasons.
Skip gloves and go for mittens. They do a better job of keeping your hands warm. You’ll get used to the limited mobility, and you can always pull them off really quick if you are in dire need of manual dexterity. By now, you’ve already figured it out: The name of the game is staying warm.
You can always bring dehydrated meals, but if you are going to have a fire, why not pack in some pre-made meals you made at home that you can throw on a skillet? Use mason jars to hold cracked eggs for breakfast, or maybe a beef goulash. Pre-make jars filled with meat in yummy sauces, or raw cut vegetables you can sauté in your pan. Hearty, one- or two-jar, one-pan meals are simple and can give you all the extra energy you will need to keep warm. However, same as in summer or warm weather, you are always going to want to keep food out of the tent, and tie your food up away from animals once you are done.
What to do when you arrive:
A super awesome consequence of winter camping is having first pick of the prime camping areas. Most of the spots that typically require reservations become walk-up, and on the colder snowy days, you can have state parks and entire campgrounds to yourself. It’s a welcomed adventure and a rare break from an outdoors scene where solitude is becoming harder to find.
Be mindful of the wildlife in the area you have chosen. Bears are less trouble during the winter, as they are hibernating. But it’s a decent time to see big cats and a variety of other animals. Look around in the snow for tracks and see what you can identify. If you find yourself staring down at big cat tracks, you’ll want to find another site for the night.
We all want to make fires — especially during wintertime. The easiest way to do this is to cart in your own firewood. Make sure the wood is natural to the environment and read the guidelines for the forest, wilderness area or campground before you go.
Keep in mind the downed branches have the potential to be very wet, so if you don’t bring your own wood, a fire starter is absolutely necessary. Pine cones dipped in wax, cotton balls covered in Vaseline or any of the starter varieties offered at Walmart will help you get a blaze going pretty quickly. Stay just as hypervigilant over your fire as you would be in the summer. Keep your fire in a fire circle, don’t let it get too high and completely douse it when you leave. As tempting as it may sound, do NOT leave your fire going while you sleep.
Time for bed:
I like to make a cup of hot tea right before bed. It’s an awesome way to stay warm, and I put it in a sealable Thermos, keeping scents low. In the morning, with the right Thermos, you’ll have an immediately hot drink to warm up with.
The sun goes down super early, so plan for some tent time. Bring cards, a friend or a good book to hang out while you wait to drift off. This is also a great time to fish if you find yourself near a river. Keep your headlamp on, watch your step and see if you can catch tomorrow’s dinner.
Now, this part might sound gross, but thank me later. Have two bottles available: a water bottle and an — ahem — urine bottle. No one wants to gear up and go out in the cold to use the bathroom. Get a wide-mouthed one or a Shewee if you aren’t the most graceful urinator. Just don’t get them confused in the middle of the night.
I always wear wool socks when I cold camp. Tiny hand-warmers are amazing. I put them inside my socks and they keep my feet toasty the entire night. You can also wrap an emergency blanket around your feet with the silver side pointing toward your body. Or, take a warm rock from your earlier fire, wrap it in some clothes and put it inside your tent. Taping your emergency blanket to the inside of your tent with the silver part facing inward will help hold some of that heat in, too.
Sleeping with a beanie or cap on your head is a must. If you plan to use your camping stove’s fuel cannister in the morning, put it in the bottom of your sleeping bag with you so it is ready to go first thing. Do the same with your mittens and socks so you can start off with warm hands and toes in the morning.
When you wake up, get moving! You’ll find yourself warming up in no time. It can be excruciating to wait for morning fires when it is chilly outside. Use your mini backpacking stove to heat up some dehydrated oats quickly to have something warm to nibble on while you wait for a bigger blaze.
Favorite winter spots for beginners:
Here are four spots in Colorado that get plenty of snow in the winter and aren’t too far from a major thoroughfare, making them the perfect spot for beginners:
Eleven Mile State Park
Where: Lake George
There is always fishing, but depending on the weather it may be ice fishing. Has bathrooms and bear containers. Walk-up sites until May. From Denver, take I-25 south, then Colorado 24 west until you reach Lake George. Turn south at the firehouse and signs will guide you in.
Platte River Campground
This is a year-round, drive-up site, no reservation needed. It is right alongside the Platte River, but you can only use artificial lures. It has a bathroom, but it is not full-service until May. Hit I-25 south. Take Colorado 67 south to West Pine Creek Road in Douglas County. Take North Platte River Road to South Colorado 67. Continue heading south on Colorado 67 for about a mile and the campground will be on your left.
Orvis Hot Springs
The clothing-optional hot springs has tent sites available to reserve that include two-day use of the hot springs. Campers have full access to the kitchen. The hot springs are open 24 hours a day. I-70 west will get you to U.S. 50, then take 550 south through Montrose. You’ll see Orvis surrounded by a high brown fence on the right, just before you get to Ouray on Country Road 3.
Round Mountain Campground
Where: Pike National Forest
Located in Pike National Forest. Need a decent all-wheel drive the deeper you get in, but there are plenty of established sites toward the entrance that are nearly empty during the cold weather months. Ten miles from Florissant on U.S. 24 west, and on the right-hand side you will see the sign for the campground.