Camping, like so many activities outdoors during the stress of the pandemic, has new followers. Don't let winter cool the enthusiasm.
Outdoor guides and experts acknowledge the obvious: The idea of winter camping is intimidating at first blush. Icy landscapes and low-lit days don't inspire warm thoughts for getting out. But there are ways to adapt gear and skills for any season. To make winter (or early spring) work.
General camping principles still apply, said Mollie Thompson, who supervises REI's outdoors programs in the Minneapolis metro area, from basic skills courses to moonlit snowshoe tours and fatbiking. Winter camping, too, starts with safety, hydration and nutrition, and proper gear for the conditions.
"It's not scary nor very difficult," said Thompson, who made the leap to winter camping after becoming a guide. "It just takes some adaptations."
Those adaptations are mental, too, said Tom Watson, a guidebook writer and all-around Minnesota outdoorsman. Watson got his first taste of winter camping as a teen in the Boy Scouts. And while gear at the time was crude — tarps for tents, cheap sleeping bags, and not a self-inflating air mattress in sight — doing so helped build skills and, most important, breach mental obstacles. Today, comfort in the cold isn't a stretch.
"This doesn't have to be Shackleton," said Watson, referring to the early 20th century British explorer Ernest, who with his shipmates famously endured an Antarctica expedition gone wrong.
Watson said one of the best ways to transition to winter or cold weather camping is renting a camper cabin, popular and increasingly available at state, regional and county park systems — if you plan ahead. Vermilion-Soudan Mine State Park, northeast of Tower, Minn., for example, just opened eight new spots. People can still get into the elements, warm up or cook by fire, but have the safety valve of getting indoors.
"They're basically like a big wooden tent," said Watson.
Watson has recognized the uptick in newcomers by the topics he's writing about. Some of them are about modifying gear such as, in the case of winter camping, adding a liner to a down or synthetic sleeping bag to add significant warmth, instead of buying a separate $500 down bag. Thompson employs a liner, too. Or filling an extra water bottle with hot water before bed and burying it like a mini furnace inside your sleeping bag near your feet or core for added warmth.
Adapting and starting small — like renting a camper cabin or putting down a tent near home for the first winter camping attempt — are ideas to apply widely.
"Just being outside and knowing what clothing will keep you warm …," Watson said. "Take it in steps, in increments. You be in charge and don't let weather be in charge of you."
Thompson said there is something about the season (shorter days) and setting (colder temperatures, still environment) that focuses attention and can make the winter camping experience singularly special. Whereas warm weather camping might include a long day of hiking or other activity away from the site, winter conditions change the dynamic. Thompson equated it to boating and doing things in a more confined space — "the chores, the needs are close by."
Just setting up camp, chopping wood and building a fire, making a good meal, and embracing a longer, quiet night have their own rewards, she said.
"I have gotten my best nights sleep winter camping," Thompson said. "I swear to it."
Echoing Watson, Thompson said new campers are more prepared than they think. Much of planning starts with perspective.
"It's important to remember we are all built the same, with resilience and self-sufficiency that we don't always tap into," Thompson said, "but to our core we really are meant to be outdoors in every season."
Practical winter camping tips abound. Here are some, including advice from Thompson and Watson: