Winter Camping – For Dummies (By Dummies)

Originally, I was going to make this article about good tips to know when camping in the winter. Then I got my car stuck in snow a few times, felt like an idiot, and got towed out of trouble by a good Samaritan… twice. I no longer feel qualified to give anyone advice about anything, but will still cover what we did that worked in relation to camping, and what not to do, in relation to getting your car stuck in snow.

The rough location of where we ended up

The rough location of where we ended up

We decided to go camping this weekend in the Uinta Mountains rather than the warmer desert down south, mostly because the Uintas are much closer to us here in Salt Lake City. We had a great time, stayed warm, and then got to extend our stay by a few hours as we worked to get the car unstuck.

The Good Winter Camping Tips

While packing for winter camping, there are only a few extra things you’ll need, and you can usually make do with the gear you have! The key to camping in really cold weather is staying dry. If you can stay dry, you’ll likely be well off.

First, off is packing up your clothing. You want to avoid cotton at all costs. My camping buddy Jacob, wore a nice pair of Carhart pants that were cotton and as soon as the sun went down they immediately froze and were miserable to wear the rest of the trip. Thick durable pants like Carharts are great pants for non wet/snowy conditions, but terrible once wet. Seek out synthetic and merino wool clothing and you’ll be happy you did.

You will want a good thermal base-layer. I brought a pair of Columbia synthetic long underwear and an UnderArmour Cold Gear synthetic  top which kept me toasty warm and dry. For the baselayer, merino wool or synthetic will be best.

For pants, synthetic and waterproof are best, but you can make do with the warmest pants you have. I brought a pair of Stoic waterproof insulated synthetic pants to wear over my base layer, and they stayed dry and warm, despite spending many hours in the snow.

Jacob doing an excellent job demonstrating that cotton pants are a bad idea

Jacob doing an excellent job demonstrating that cotton pants are a bad idea

For a jacket I brought an Oakley down jacket. Down is not ideal for really wet conditions, because when it gets wet, it compresses and loses it’s insulating properties. Since we were just in relatively dry snow, it worked great, but if you’re going to be in wet conditions, synthetic down is ideal.

The socks I brought were well insulated Merino Wool ski socks. You’ll want a good pair of thick merino wool socks as your feet are likely going to be your coldest extremity on your trip. Merino wool is slightly better and keeping you warm than synthetic which is why I recommend it for your socks.

Winter camping like a Pro

Winter camping like a Pro

Then bring a good hat and a pair of gloves. You’ll lose a lot of heat out of the top of your head, so a hat is a must. You can put your hands in pockets, so your hands may stay warmer than your feet, but a good pair of waterproof gloves will help when you’re handling things that are really cold.

For gear, we brought a regular 3-season tent, both a synthetic and down sleeping bag, 3-season sleeping pads, and a blanket to help insulate the bottom of the tent.

4-season tents are much better insulated and trap warmth better than a regular 3-season tent. Since we don’t have a true 4-season tent, we used our regular car camping tent that is an 3-person, 3-season, Alps Mountaineering Chaos (which is a great value tent by the way). In order to insulate the ground a bit more, we also put down a thick fleece blanket I had laying around the house. Despite only being a 3-season tent, it worked great, kept water out, and kept us reasonably warm.

For winter and wet conditions, synthetic sleeping bags are ideal. My coldest bag, a Sierra Designs Cal 13 (rated to 13 deg F), is a down sleeping bag, so I brought that, knowing it was going to be relatively dry. I took care to keep the sleeping bag dry, and it rewarded me with a great, warm nights sleep wearing only my baselayer while the temperatures dropped to about 10 deg. Jacob brought a 0 degree synthetic sleeping bag, that while too heavy to do much with other than car camp, was a better bag for winter camping in general. Had the conditions been wet, his bag would have performed better, and so he had less to worry about. He also stayed nice and warm thanks to the low temperature rating of the bag.

The sleeping pads we used were 3-season pads with miserably low R-Values (the amount of insulation it provides). Mine has an R-value of about 1, which is terrible. For a good winter sleeping pad, you’ll want an R-value of at least 5. You’ll want a decent sleeping pad, because the insulation of your sleeping bag will compress under your weight and become less effective. To make up for this, the insulation in the sleeping pad is key. Despite the inadequate sleeping pads, we did stay warm, but it was clear we were losing the most heat to the ground.

The only other major piece of gear you’ll want to make sure you have ready for a cold night is your stove. We have a Coleman Dual Fuel stove that uses Coleman liquid fuel. It is rated for 4-season use because it continues to operate effectively in cold conditions. Many stoves will not operate well (or at all) at temperatures below freezing, particularly if they utilize any sort of compressed gas/propane. Make sure your stove is up to the task! Ours worked great and cooked us a deliciously warming meal of mashed potatoes and chilli.

We also forgot water, but luckily it was easy to melt snow, and there was plenty of that. For melting snow for water, always try to keep a little bit of water in the bottom the of the pot. This will avoid the scorched taste you sometimes get from melting snow. Also don’t take snow off the top of ground. Shave off the top layer, our snow had a crusty top so that was easy, and then take some snow deeper down that hasn’t been exposed to critters and what not.

Why I’m an Idiot

Now that we’ve covered the gear we used and how to stay warm and have a good time, I’ll cover what we did wrong, as promised.

"Think that's stuck?" "Na"

“Think that’s stuck?” “Na”

I drive a Subaru WRX. If you’re familiar with the car, you’ll know it has a great AWD system and is very capable off road. I have a good set of winter tires on it (not studded) that grip the snow really well, as we do a lot of skiing and winter driving here in Utah. What it does not have however is good ground clearance.

Now we were at a spot that gets a lot of traffic from snowmobilers and we were less than 100 yards from the main road. Had we not been so close to a well used road, I never would have taken the car off the road and we would have been walking to camp. My biggest takeaway from this trip is if you’re not sure you can get out and are not in a place where help is easy to find, don’t take the chance of getting yourself stuck! We did take that chance knowingly.

We took an unmaintained dirt road off the main road that had about a foot of snow on it. Had the snow been light and powdery, this may have worked out, but it turned out that it was very hard, icy, and crusty. I kept my momentum up driving through the snow and we plowed our own trail. This worked great for a little while, and eventually we came to rest as the snow got a bit deeper (probably 12-18 inches).

Nailed it.

Now time to eat, drink, and be merry.

I knew at this point the car MAY be stuck as the snow was much deeper and harder than I thought it was going to be, but I decided we’d wing it and worry about it in the morning (bad idea). We had a great night, and woke up feeling refreshed and still warm in the morning.

Once we got moving that morning, I hopped in, warmed up the car, and tried to throw it in reverse. 2 wheels spinning while 2 just sat there and we didn’t move an inch.

Alright, we’re stuck, not a big deal at this point. We started to dig out underneath the car, and got it down solidly on all 4 wheels. We tried a few more times to reverse it, and moved the car a whole inch or two after hours of digging and trying to get enough traction to get going. We tried rocks under the wheels, the floormats under the wheel trick, and weighting different areas of the car. No luck.

At this point we decided we were going to need a tow. I sent Jake off (he has a better sad puppy face than I do) down the road to the snowmobile trail head to see if anyone with a big truck wanted to help tow us out. Miraculously he found a guy with a truck and a tow rope relatively quickly.

We hooked up the tow rope to the car and a snowmobile and began pulling. After a few tries, success! We pulled the car off the high center it was stuck on. I started reversing and got some good speed to carry myself out down the road. Halfway down the road, I slowed to a halt as I got high centered again.

Again we tried the snowmobile, but the car was really stuck this time (and didn’t have the luxury of having been dug out for a few hours). This was a job for the truck. We brought the truck down and hooked it up, and again success! We made it the paltry 100 yards down the snowy road to get back to the main road and we were free.

Hours of digging, a snowmobile tow, then a truck tow later, we were back in business. It was a long day, and we were grateful for our rescue! Made it back in one piece and had a good story to tell about snow camping and how to get your car unstuck.

All in all, yes I’m an idiot for getting my car stuck. I know this, and like I said would now have done this had we not been very close to help. Sometimes you just have to go for it and see how far back you can drive into the snow before your car gets stuck. Now we know.

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