At a trip planning meeting for our backpacking trip on the AT this weekend, we were about to wrap up when one last thought occurred.
“Oh, and be prepared for the nights,” I added. “They can be long.”
Really, really long.
This weekend, for instance, sunset is at 5:44 p.m. where we’re headed. However, both nights of our stay we’ll be camped low on the mountain, meaning we’ll lose sunlight a good half hour earlier. Sunrise the next morning is at 7:39 a.m. — again, because we’ll be well below the ridge, let’s make that 8. That’s nearly 15 hours of dark — cold dark. If there’s enough dry wood and we can get a fire going, we can shave 2-3 hours off the front end of that. Still, that’s more than half of a 24-hour day confined to a space not much longer or wider than you are, and that you can barely sit up in. That’s why adding be-prepared-for-the-long-nights as an afterthought is more than a small oversight.
When we ask people why they don’t like to winter camp, near the top of the list (usually right after, I”t’s cold, duh!”) comes “the long nights — the really, really long nights.”
Wrong approach. If you’re prepared, those nights can be one of the best parts of your trip. Think about it: how often in life do you get 15 hours to yourself, free of interruption or distraction? Think of winter tent time as time in your own little Cone of Silence. A few thoughts on successfully turning potentially claustrophobic tent time into glorious me time, from our “GetBackpacking! Guide to Winter Camping.”
Sleeping bag Check the overnight low forecast for where you’re headed. Compare the forecast to the rating for your sleeping bag. Note that the rating pertains more to survival than comfort, and that everyone’s internal thermometer varies. (Also, be sure to store your bag opened up, maybe hanging in a closet: compressed fill — down or synthetic — will cost you about 10 degrees in insulation warmth.) If the forecast low is close to your bag rating, pack a …
Bag liner. A bag liner is a lightweight sack that you slip into before slipping into your sleeping bag. Liners made of silk can buy you another 10 to 15 degrees of warmth.
Sleeping pad. Your sleeping pad not only provides cushiness, it also insulates you from the cold ground. Look for a pad geared toward winter camping with a greater insulation value. And, frankly, because of the long nights ahead, look for a pad with a little more height to keep your hips from touching the hard ground.
Tent. A sturdy four-season-rated tent is designed to shed snow and wind, but these pricy, heavy tents aren’t typically necessary in the Piedmont or Southern Appalachians, where sheltered campsites are abundant. A three-season with rainfly does the job, both of protecting you from the elements and keeping in a fair amount of the heat you generate.
The less obvious
Go to bed warm. It’s not the sleeping bag that keeps you warm, it’s your body. The lower the temperature rating a bag has, the better it is at retaining the heat your body generates. Thus, if you climb into your bag warm, the bag works to retain that warmth.
Don’t overdress for bed. It’s often assumed that the more clothes you wear, the warmer you’ll be. That’s true, to a point. Because of the thermal retention premise of the sleeping bag, your layers of bedclothes could actually prevent your body from warming the bag. We find that a long-sleeve shirt, long johns, a wool cap, and wool socks are sufficient on a cold night.
I gotta go! It’s 2 a.m., you gotta go. You have a few options: Wait till morning (not the best option, for various reasons); keep a “pee bottle” in your tent (easier for guys, but does require some dexterity that sleepiness and the dark may not allow for); or just get up and go. Correct answer: Get up and go. You won’t get back to sleep until you do, and your body will waste valuable energy keeping your pee on board. Before getting back in your tent, do some jumping jacks to cook up some bag-heating warmth.
A lantern. We love a well-lit tent; psychologically, it warms the tent at least 20 degrees. Anecdotally, and based on personal experience, it’s hard to find a light better at illuminating your retreat than a Luci, with its LED lights providing ample illumination to read by, yet a softness that suggests this isn’t a bad place to hang out for 12 hours or so.
Prepare for extended bag time. Even if you get a nice fire going, you likely won’t be out long after dark. If you bring a book, keep your hands and arms warm as they will protrude from your sleeping bag. Jacks ‘R’ Better makes down sleeves; fingerless gloves with mitten flaps are good, too. If you plan to listen to music or podcasts through earbuds, consider keeping your phone warm in your bag to preserve battery life.
Podcasts. Be sure to download them in advance; do not rely on getting a cell signal to pull them in on the fly (you’ll also use less battery). And bring earbuds: not everyone else in camp may be as interested in the latest episode of the “Casefile: True Crime Podcast.” In the dark. Deep in the woods.
Books vs. audio books. I love to read before dropping off to sleep, but when it’s 25 degrees in your tent, you realize just how much of your body is exposed reading a book. A good time to switch to audio books.
When it comes to winter camping, don’t think of your tent as a sarcophagus, but rather a sanctuary where you’ll enjoy some of the best quiet time you’ve had in years.
Winter camp options
Looking for some winter camp me time opportunities?
GetBackpacking! Winter Series: Merchants Millpond State Park, Feb. 7-9. Friday evening we hike in 3 miles in full pack, set up camp, then Saturday hike in day packs 8-10 miles in the park. Sunday, we hike 3 miles out. For more info and to sign up, go here.
GetBackpacking! Winter Series: The Neusiok Trail, March 6-8. We’ll do from 19 to 22 miles on this coastal trail in the Croatan National Forest, starting with a 2-mile hike in late Friday afternoon, 8 miles on Saturday and between 8 and 11 miles Sunday. For more info and to sign up, go here.