Has your troop decided that winter camping is on this year’s agenda? Do they want to take on their Every Girl in a Tent challenge in a quinzhee, but the thought of sleeping anywhere near snow has you running the other direction? Not sure how anyone could comfortably stay outside when the mercury dips? Never fear—with the right gear and preparation, winter camping can be a fun, safe, and mosquito-free experience for your troop! Read on for some tips on what to bring and how to stay warm during any winter camping expedition.
Cold and wet is a recipe for hypothermia. It’s especially important for the layers closest to the body to be dry. Avoid getting sweaty in the first place by shedding layers as your body warms up, but if you do sweat, change immediately when you stop an activity. Wear quick drying clothing and avoid all cotton, as it absorbs moisture and does not dry quickly. Regardless of the reason—putting a foot through ice, getting sweaty on a hike, or making a bunch of snow angels—remove wet clothes and get into dry ones ASAP. Never attempt to use a campfire to warm someone up or dry gear.
Boots left outside overnight may be frozen solid by morning because the sweat inside them will freeze. Avoid this by sleeping with boot liners or entire boots in your sleeping bag. If you need to dry a pair of damp gloves or socks, put them in your sleeping bag while you sleep, and your body heat will help to dry them. Waterproof your boots before you go and make sure your rain gear is really rainproof.
Dry out sleeping bags every morning by unzipping them and laying them across a rope or tree branches. As you sleep, your body creates moisture which is trapped in the insulating materials of your sleeping bag, so even if it doesn’t necessarily feel damp, it won’t insulate you as well. This is especially important if sleeping in a quinzhee, which has even more moisture. Do not leave your sleeping bags hanging unattended though, in case of an unexpected storm or curious critter.
Your own body is your most valuable heat source. You want to trap body heat as well as you can by layering clothing to trap warm air and by wearing clothing that has a lot of loft (puffiness), like down or synthetic materials. On both your torso and legs, you’ll want the option of a: base layer, mid-layer, midweight outer layer (midweight jacket/wind-resistant pants), and a heavy outer layer (thick jacket/insulated snow pants). You should have the ability to put four layers of clothing on if needed—and don’t forget to insulate your head and neck! If you’re sitting or sleeping on the ground, make sure to use sleeping pads, camp chairs, and other materials to insulate yourself. Be sure to test your sleep system before you go. It’s better to find out that your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough in a backyard than in the Boundary Waters.
Fuel Your Body
Your body burns an enormous amount of calories just keeping you warm in a winter environment. An adult needs between 3,600–6,000 calories to be adequately fueled for winter camping (that’s double or more your regular intake). Eat foods high in carbohydrates, fat, and protein, and eat often. Stash a high-calorie granola bar in your sleeping bag with you at night and eat it if you wake up cold.
Dehydration can happen quickly while winter camping and can also lead to hypothermia. You may not feel very thirsty when it’s cold out, but your body is losing fluids quickly due to respiration, evaporation, and the low-humidity environment. Always keep at least one full water bottle nearby and encourage girls to remind each other to drink water regularly. You can also bring herbal teas, hot chocolate, or powdered drink mixes to encourage hydration.
Use the Cold Camper Checklist
If you or your girls are cold, run through the Cold Camper Checklist to warm up:
- Are you dry? Did you change your base layer after a hike?
- Are you well-insulated? Do you have any other layers to put on? Are you wearing a hat? Use your sleeping bag as an additional layer if you need to.
- Have you eaten something recently? Have you been drinking water? Bonus points for eating or drinking something warm.
- Are you moving? You might be tempted to huddle in one place, but moving your body will help to generate warmth. Jumping jacks, lunges, and even just walking are some of the best ways to warm up quickly—just stop before you get sweaty.
If none of these strategies warm you or your girls up, fill several water bottles with hot water (boil on a camp stove), seal them well, and tuck them inside a sleeping bag (or a few sleeping bags) until they warm up. Also, remember to be aware of the signs of hypothermia, and watch out for shivering and confused behavior. Be especially concerned if someone is shivering and then stops shivering when they haven’t gotten any warmer.
There is an oft-repeated Norwegian saying that translates to, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!” and it couldn’t ring truer than it does for winter camping. Correct gear is an issue of safety not just comfort, so send a detailed packing list and stress its importance to families and girls. To ensure gear guidelines are followed, it’s best to pack as a group. We’ve created a handy gear list to help you get started. (Keep in mind that extras listed serve as mandatory backup gear.)
Camping season doesn’t have to end when the temperatures drop. A Girl Scout is always prepared, so with a little planning, you and your troop can camp in any weather (Though personally, I think winter is best!).
McKayla Murphy – McKayla is a program resources specialist at Girl Scouts River Valleys. She graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and a minor in dance. McKayla is passionate about racial equity, critical media studies, and art education. She enjoys dancing, trying new food, and seeking adventure (including winter camping and travel). Staples in McKayla’s life include dark chocolate, her hammock, and plenty of reading material.