Braving the British winter for a camping trip is no mean feat. The weather can be harsh and forbidding, but for the fearless free spirit, no bout of rain or snow can come in the way of a good escape into winter wonderland.
Though certainly not for the faint-hearted, winter camping is still an achievable activity if you plan ahead and prepare yourself more proactively than if you were venturing out in the kinder months of the year.
Plan and Prep
It should be common sense that careful planning and preparation will go a long way in averting disaster during a winter camping trip.
The climate and weather conditions from November to February – and sometimes even beyond those months – can be rather difficult to brave, even if you’re an experienced, hardened camper, let alone a passing enthusiast.
Planning in advance is key for ensuring your trip is a successful one, especially faced with the bitter winters in the UK.
Pack for the Worst
While packing, imagine the worst case scenario in terms of the weather and general conditions – then add extra precautionary measures on top of that.
In the coldest months of the year, temperatures will likely drop a couple of degrees Celsius below zero at night so you should concentrate mostly on an action plan to keep you as warm, dry and comfortable as possible.
Take extra clothing, food and water, as you’ll be needing more of these than usual. In particular, if you’re choosing a route that’s off the beaten track, study the weather report and conditions on the day, and don’t hesitate to turn back if it starts getting too bad to bear.
Unexpected snowstorms and frost create a hazardous environment in the outdoors and makes you highly susceptible to accidents, injury or hypothermia – your number one enemy for winter camping.
Remain on the Grid
Always appoint at least one person as a remote guardian to keep track of your whereabouts. If possible, notify family and friends of your exact location at least once a day so they can raise the alarm if you’re lost or in trouble.
Preferably, though, winter camping trips are not to be made alone, so bring a friend or two along for the company and the companionship in case you encounter difficulties.
Know the Area
Do as much research as you can about the area you’re camping in. Talking to people who have camped in winter will give you a valuable first-person perspective into the challenges and you might also pick up an insider tip along the way. Don’t leave planning till the very last minute, as it’s almost certain you’ll miss something important.
Even if you’re camping out in total wilderness miles away from civilisation, there are still plenty of resources and tools to keep you on the grid and aware of your bearings. Study any location guides and familiarise yourself with the geography of the place so there are no nasty surprise once you’re there.
Take a look at our camping checklist for a generalised list of camping essentials that will see you through any trip, whether in the high or low season.
Winter Camping Kit
This is where you should spend most of your time, money and energy in preparation for your great winter adventure. The kit set is more extensive for winter camping, and should include the following items:
These tents are built for the grinding cold and ripping winds. Under no circumstance should you ever use a summer tent in winter. Choose a sturdy four-season tent with double walls so condensation and extreme weather are kept at bay.
Groundsheets and Sleeping Mats
These are essential for preventing the freezing chill from the ground to seep into your clothes and body. Think in numbers – several layers of groundsheets and sleeping mats will boost insulation and make for a warmer environment in the tent.
Sleeping Bag and Liner
Not only should you choose a sleeping bag of high quality designed to keep you warm at sub-zero temperatures, but adding an internal liner is an even better idea. This simple additional layer will create yet another insulating compartment that will help you retain heat instead of losing it to your cold surroundings. Beware of the way insulating layers work in unison, however, and always maximise the best sources of insulation you’ve got. For more information about how to make the most of insulation, check out our insulation guide.
The rucksack should be larger than usual to allow you to carry the extra items you’ll be needing. Remember the rule of packing more than what you think you’ll need to be on the safe side, but try to pack lightly and intelligently at the same time.
Snow Shovel (!)
A snow shovel comes in handy when you need to remove snow from the entrance of the rent or dig out a spot for any other purpose.
The very short days of winter mean that lighting should be at the forefront of your concerns. The winter solstice at Glasgow’s latitude means that the sun rises at 8:46 and sets at 15:45 on the shortest day of the year, leaving 17 hours of total darkness. Equip yourself with adequate lighting in the form of torches and head torches with batteries to spare, as these drain quicker in the cold.
Ski/Walking Poles (!!!)
Even if you’re not planning on doing a lot of walking, ski or walking poles will help you maintain stability and balance as you move, and can also be used to determine the depth of the snow and peg down your tent, all in one go.
Keeping warm is the thing you’ll have to worry about the most for camping in winter. The most important thing that assumes a priority over anything else is to keep your sleeping quarters dry. Actually, keep everything dry – but the place where you sleep should not be invaded by moisture as this will only spell sleepless nights on end.
Cotton should be left for summer, your gear should be in tip-top shape with the right specifications, and your extremities will thank you if you protect them well with thick socks, hats and gloves, as well as the right snow boots.
Eating high-calorie foods rich in carbohydrates before you doze off should also help you generate heat. When you go outside, it’s logical to put on an extra layer or two to keep your inner environment toasty after the night.
No camping trip is complete without a bonfire. There’s no better time to light up sticks and stones than in the country in wintertime. Gather a bunch of rocks and logs in front of your pitched tent at night, stuff the gaps with tinder and set your creation ablaze with a fool proof fire-starter, such as very dry lint covered in petroleum jelly. You can sit back and enjoy your campfire under the stars – the breath-taking Northern Lights might even make for an experience you’ll never forget. Check out our campfire guide for a comprehensive look into building fires for a variety of uses when camping.
Food and Hydration
Staying well-fed and watered is critical in extreme conditions. The human body burns far more calories trying to maintain its base temperature of 37°C in cold weather, so you must keep supplying it with the energy it needs. Foods like chocolate, nuts, cereal bars, cheese and oil are high in carbohydrates, protein and fat and with the exception of carbs, will be digested slowly, giving you a steady release of energy.
Alternate Between Water and Energy Drinks
Although the tendency is to drink less in cold weather, you should stay hydrated. Even if you don’t feel the perspiration, you’ll still be sweating and losing water to breathing. If you’re engaging in heavy exercise on your camping trip, it’s wise to replace lost electrolytes as well as water, so stock up on sports and energy drinks.
If your winter camping kit allows, include a compact gas stove that will enable you to cook warm meals. These will not only warm your heart, but also your body!
Finally, safety concerns should be amped up when tackling the great outdoors in winter.
Pitching the Tent
In reduced daylight hours, dawn and dusk are also very brief so it’s best to pitch your tent at around midday or 1 o’clock, which is when the sun will be at the highest point of its trajectory in the sky. This way you’ll save your artificial lighting for when it’s dark and avoid the obvious complications of setting up camp in pitch-black darkness.
Before you choose your camping spot, consider the location. Is it sheltered from the wind? Is the area free from avalanche risks? Is there a good water supply nearby or will you need to melt snow? Is it at a safe distance from trees and branches that could potentially fall on your tent? Are there any landmarks that will help you find your way in the snow after a trek away from the tent? The answer to all these questions should be yes.
First Aid Kit
If you’re camping in a group, at least one person should be a trained first aider. A complete first aid kit should be readily accessible in case you need to use it, and it should contain the elementary tools for dressing wounds as well as effective painkillers.
Pack a whistle for your trip, which you can use to locate others within your group or alert their attention if you’re caught in a sticky situation.