I feel like this whole blog is me just spilling our secrets. About our favorite places. Our favorite getaways. Our favorite hidden gems. So to keep the theme going, here is one more. Winter camping is the best camping there is. Hands down and no questions asked. If that means the woods get a little more crowded because more folks want to join the party . . . then so be it. I can’t keep this a secret anymore. Those who already know, know. Those who don’t . . . time to get wise to it.
The summer is hot and you stick to everything when you’re trying to sleep. Not to mention you smell awful. In the spring and the fall, the woods are crawling with all kinds of people who only come up once or twice a year. We are glad they are are there and hope they keep coming but it can get crowded fast.
But the winter . . . the winter is where it’s at. Now I know some of you are already rolling your eyes. You are thinking about your numb feet. Icicles hanging from your tent. And how cold it will be when you have to pee in the middle of the night. But stick with us for a minute and we’ll try to convince you that you’re missing out.
In the winter the campgrounds are empty, the roads are quiet, the trails are lonely and you have all of the mountains to yourself. And if you really want to double down on everything, give winter camping on a Monday or Tuesday a try. North Georgia is a literal ghost town outside of locals milling about. You can go wherever you want and be the only one there.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There are definitely some things you have to plan for but with a little bit of preparation you can enjoy some of the best camping of the year and you can do it all by your lonesome.
At the risk of sounding dumb . . . the key is going to be staying warm. Easier said than done you think. But really it’s not that hard and it starts with a few core pieces of gear that will make all the difference between you freezing your butt off and you being toasty warm.
Got a pen and paper (or a printer)? Here it is.
Splurge on a good base layer and get a good sleeping bag. If your budget allows get a fancy pair of gloves and a nice outer jacket. But with a good base layer and sleeping bag, you’re half way there. No need for a fancy toboggan* or ear muffs as any basic one will do. You can get ultra warm socks for $15. But splurge on a base layer and a nice sleeping bag.
We recommend Patagonia Capilene base layers as we’ve worn the same pair for years and with the exception of being more snug now and having a few burn holes from getting too close to the fire, have held up remarkably well for as often as we have worn them. Think of them as fancy, warm underwear that cover your body.
On the sleeping bag, we love checking BackCountry.com reviews as we buy all of our gear after checking in with their reviews. We carry some great award winning Marmot sleeping bags in the store if you want to check them out in person. Don’t freak out at some of their prices on some of the gear they recommend. Keep in mind that most of their reviews are focused on heavy hikers. More than likely you’ll be camping out of your car plus you live in the south so there are a ton of great sleeping bags in the $175-$225 range. I bought a North Face 20° sleeping bag 15 years ago for $225 and have never had to upgrade. We recommend natural down as they’re warmer (but they can’t get wet) and always plan on your bag being really “rated” for about 10 degrees warmer than it says. So if you have a 20° bag it’s really probably closer to a 30° bag. This is pretty true and consistent across all brands and price points.
They make warmer tents. They make bigger, thicker jackets. And warmer boots. But if you only have the funds to buy 2 things. Buy a nice sleeping bag and a good base layer. You can get both for under $300 and in my case, both have lasted me for well over 10 years with heavy use.
Besides investing in some decent gear, there are a few other tips to keep you from freezing. Here are some of the more important ones that we came up with.
- Build a nice fire and keep it going. This sounds basic but it’s a whole lot easier to stay warm than to have to warm back up after you get cold. If there is snow on the ground or there has been rain, be sure to look for dry branches or limbs that are still attached to trees. Small limbs and branches still attached to trees are the driest pieces of wood you’ll find when camping because they’re not on the ground where they can get wet and they are often under the canopy of the tree keeping them dry. Just remember, don’t be an asshole and bust out an axe and start chopping trees down. You do not need an axe when camping. Leave it at home and use your hands. It’s far more sustainable, efficient, and practical.
- Fill a Nalgene bottle with warm water before you go to bed. This is an easy one to do as the campfire starts to wind down for the night. Boil some water, fill a Nalgene bottle with the warm water, and then wrap the bottle in a sock. Keep this between your legs or against your stomach and you’ll get a few extra hours of warmth to start your night.
- Keep your gear inside the tent. Most of us are used to living indoors where we leave muddy boots outside and like our rooms and lives to be organized. You can throw that out the window when you go winter camping. Bring your pack inside and anything extra inside your tent and let it serve as insulation. If you are car camping and have an ice chest or any food, be sure to leave that in the car or far away from your campsite. But everything else, get it inside, and build you a little barrier up against the sides of your tent. It’s not much but every little bit helps.
- Bring a friend. Or a lover. Don’t be shy about cramming one more person in your tent. If your tent sleeps 2, bring a 3rd friend. If it sleeps 4, bring a 5th. You would be amazed at how much extra body heat one more person can generate. Especially in a small space when it’s cold. And when all else fails, spoon like your life depended on it.
- Study the landscape and pitch your tent accordingly. Look for where the sun is and where the naturally warmer spots will be in the morning. And at all costs, make sure you set your tent where it is protected from the wind. Cutting the wind off of your tent will add 10 degrees of warmth. It will only take you five extra minutes but planning ahead where you place your tent will make a huge impact on your comfort.
- Don’t be shy about drinking coffee, hot toddies, cider, or warm tea. You have a fire. Use it to make cold things warm. And if that fails, drink lots of bourbon. It’ll warm your belly and make you fall asleep way quicker.
- Pee inside not outside. This is going to be for those of you who really want the full experience of camping and I get that it’s not for everybody. But if you have to pee, pee in a bottle and wrap it in a sock like we mentioned for #2. When it’s cold in the middle of the night, opening the tent and letting the warm air out and cold air in sets you back to basically the beginning of the night and erases any warmth you’ve built up. So stay in the tent, pee in the bottle and then use it’s warmth (it’s insanely warm on a cold night) like you did with the boiled water from earlier. A little gross yes. But it’ll make the difference between you going back to sleep and staying awake the rest of the night thinking about how cold you are.
Obviously camping in the winter is way more in depth than any 1,000 word article on it can illuminate. You need way more than a base layer and a good sleeping bag. Hot toddies and Nalgene bottles alone won’t keep you warm. You need to be smart, prepared, and a little resilient. But if you can figure those out, you will be rewarded with the quietest of the quiet. You’ll hear every scurrying animal, every rustling bird, and every brush of leaves free of noise created by cars, roads, and people.
And if you’re lucky you’ll get a little powder on the ground or a little frost on your tent and you will feel the deafening silence of a snow lined forest that will leave you in awe of nature.
No season is better for camping and no season is more beautiful. So take advantage of it before it’s back to hot nights where your legs stick to everything.