Using a compass is easy. The needle points to the north, and so does your map. Just put one atop the other and you’ll get all the bearings you need. A cinch, right?
It is, except that such calculations are incorrect. If you do so when hiking around Seattle or New York, you’ll be a quarter-mile off your course for every mile traveled.
The solution? Learn how to use a compass properly. This guide will explain to you how to set up magnetic declination, locate your position on a map, and take bearings.
(And if you don’t have a magnetic compass yet, you should get one—it is a crucial part of the Ten Essentials.)
Let’s dive right in.
Compass 101: The Anatomy
For the purpose of this guide, we’re dissecting one of the most popular magnetic compasses on the market:
Baseplate – must be transparent so you can see the map below, and have at least one straight edge for drawing lines and calculating azimuths.
Direction-of-travel arrow – as the name suggests, shows you where exactly you should go after taking a bearing.
Rulers – handy to calculate distances using the scale on your map.
Compass housing – where all the magic happens. Let’s look a bit closer:
Index line – a little marker that gives you bearings.
Azimuth ring – aka rotating bezel, is a swiveling 360-degree azimuth scale (azimuths and bearings are essentially synonyms, we’ll explain it later).
Magnetic needle – usually red, shows you the direction of the north.
Declination adjustment – a marker that tells you when to stop rotating the declination adjustment key (which comes attached to a compass’s lanyard).
Orienting arrow – also red, is used to orient your compass after calculating a bearing. If your compass doesn’t allow you to set up magnetic declination, this arrow will be in parallel with the orienting lines.
Orienting lines – a grid that rotates along with the bezel. When taking bearings, you will align this grid with the vertical lines on your map.
Step 1: Adjust Compass Declination
Everyone knows that a compass needle points to the north, but in reality two “norths” exist. The north on your map is actually called the geographical or the true north, and the compass needle points to the north magnetic pole, aka the magnetic north.
The true north is unmoving, but the magnetic north isn’t. Since its first discovery in the 19th century, the magnetic north has traveled above a thousand miles and is now moving towards Siberia at nearly 25 miles per year.
If you draw two lines, both beginning from your current location, one to the true north and the other to the magnetic north—the angle between them will be the magnetic declination.
In the U.S., magnetic declinations vary from roughly 15.6 degrees east in Seattle to 14.4 degrees west in Boston, and even more at the very edges of the continent.
If your compass doesn’t allow you to adjust for declination, get a new one that does. In practice, not adjusting for 15.6 degrees of declination will result in 27 feet of error per every 100 feet traveled. After walking 5 miles, you’ll be 1.4 miles off your destination.
Getting the magnetic declination value for a particular area is easy, you can just google it. It’s often listed on paper maps of the area, too.
Remember that the magnetic north pole keeps moving, so your paper map should be up to date. If it’s not, always check the magnetic declination on the internet.
The declination adjustment process varies for different compasses. For example, Suunto compasses usually come with an adjustment key attached to the lanyard: you just put the key into the adjustment screw on the back of a compass and crank it until the declination adjustment mark points to the value listed on your map.
Brunton compasses often require no adjustment tools. You just need to firmly press the center hub with one hand and rotate it to set the desired declination value, while holding the rotating bezel using your other hand.
These two brands are the most popular ones. Other compasses might have different adjustment mechanisms, so you’ll need to do as the instructions say.
Step 2: Find Your Current Location on a Map
Matching what you see in real life with what you see on the map is the basics of using a topographic map, and it starts with finding your exact location.
Sometimes it’s easy: when next to a distinctive landmark, you can just guess it. But things get more complicated when the closest landmark is miles away.
Here’s what you should do in this case:
Make sure you’ve adjusted the magnetic declination on your compass.
Find the most distinctive landmark around you.
Hold the compass horizontally and so the direction-of-travel arrow points straight at the landmark.
Rotate the azimuth ring until the magnetic needle covers the orienting arrow. This position is also called “red in the shed.”
Look at the index line to get a bearing.
Now transfer the bearing to your map:
Find that exact landmark on the map, and lay your compass so the landmark is at the edge of the straight side of the baseplate, and the direction-of-travel arrow points towards it. Towards means that you should still have at least a vague idea about your approximate whereabouts. The arrow mustn’t be pointing upside down.
Imagine that the landmark on the map is the axis, and rotate the entire baseplate around it until the north mark on the bezel points to the north on the map, and the orienting lines are in parallel with the meridians (lines on the map that run north and south). Do not rotate the bezel alone.
Draw a line along the straight edge of the baseplate, starting from the landmark. If you didn’t make a major miscalculation, you’re somewhere along this line.
Knowing that you’re somewhere along the line can help you figure out your exact location using other landmarks near you. For example, your trail—you’re around the point where the line you drew crosses the trail.
If you’re off the trail and don’t have any distinct landmarks near you, then find a remote landmark and repeat the entire process described above. You’ll get a second line, and your location is somewhere around the point where the two lines intersect.
If you repeat the process for the third time, you’ll get a triangle, and your current location is within it. This method of pinpointing your location is called triangulation; it’s quite precise, because the first two lines alone are often enough, and the third one is used to verify the first two.
Remember that the landmarks you choose should be at least 50–60 degrees away from each other; otherwise, your calculations will be less precise. Oftentimes you don’t need the third landmark if the first two have around 90 degrees between them.
Step 3: Take a Bearing
By this step, you already know where you are and where you want to be. To get there, you need to know a bearing. Essentially, a bearing is just a bit more geographically accurate way to say “go over there.”
There are two important things to know about bearings:
Bearings are based on your current location. If your friend heads to the exact same area as you do, but comes from a different place, his bearing is different. If you blindly follow his bearing, you’ll go astray.
Consequently, you need to know your location on the map to get a bearing. If you don’t, roll back to step two.
This is how you take a bearing:
Take a map and find your current location and your desired location. Mark them (optionally).
Lay your compass on the map so the straight edge of the compass creates a line between these two marks. The direction-of-travel arrow must point towards your target location.
Rotate the azimuth ring until the north marker points towards the north on the map, and the orienting lines are in parallel with the meridians (vertical lines on your map).
The index line shows you your bearing.
Now it’s time to follow the bearing. Put away the map and grab your compass. Make sure the bezel no longer rotates: until you take another bearing, the index line should always point to the bearing you took before.
(It’s not a big deal if you accidentally whirl the bezel, just rotate it back so the index line shows the bearing you need. Once you’ve calculated it, you don’t need to unpack your map again.)
Hold the compass flat in front of you, the direction-of-travel arrow pointing ahead, and revolve your whole body until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow, or the red is in the shed.
Once it is, you’re facing your bearing. Have a nice walk!
Common Mistakes When Using a Compass
Using a compass is not the easiest thing, especially in the beginning. Here are the most common mistakes:
To think that the black arrow points to the north. It doesn’t, the red needle does. Moreover, the black arrow doesn’t even point accurately towards the south because the south magnetic pole is not antipodal to its north counterpart.
To confuse the magnetic north with the true north. The magnetic needle points towards the magnetic north pole, which keeps moving towards Russia at 25 miles per year. To find the true north, you need to set up your magnetic declination.
To forget about local magnetic attractions. The Earth’s magnetic field drives your compass’ magnetic arrow to move, but so does any magnetic metal such as iron and nickel.
Not checking where the north is on the map. This might sound surprising, but some maps do not have north located on top.
Locating the direction-of-travel arrow upside down when taking bearings. If you plan to go from A to B on the map, this arrow should also point from A to B when you’re calculating bearings.
Aside from these mistakes, sometimes people are simply not accurate enough when taking measurements. Remember that small errors can accumulate into a large miscalculation.
So large that you might need some compass tips.
Compass Tips for Beginners
The most important tip is to practice using a compass before stepping onto the trail. Frankly, this isn’t even a tip but common sense. And here are the tips:
Trust your compass. If you don’t carry a brick of magnetic metal in your backpack, your compass is most likely giving you the right azimuth.
Don’t go hardcore. Using a triangulation method makes very little sense if you’re standing right beside a distinctive landmark.
Go hardcore. When finding your current location with a compass, hold it up to your eye to make your calculations more accurate (it’s even better to use a compass with a sighting mirror).
Follow the direction-of-travel arrow. It has its name for a reason. The only situation when you can follow the red needle directly is when your bearing is equal to the magnetic declination of the area, which is, basically, never.
By the way, we keep speaking about bearings and azimuths without actually explaining what they are. Let’s fix this.
Nerd Den: Azimuths vs Bearings vs Headings vs Courses
The simple truth is that all of them are synonyms to a degree. On a casual hike, the difference doesn’t even matter.
However, in an emergency situation, the difference might be important. If you’re communicating with a rescue crew and they ask you for an azimuth, but you give them a bearing, it might be quite confusing.
Now, it’s time to clarify everything.
An azimuth is your direction on a 360-degree scale and is represented in relation to north. It is always measured clockwise. When you rotate the bezel, a number under the index line is actually an azimuth but not a bearing.
An azimuth can be any number between 0 and 360.
A bearing is an azimuth that is represented in relation to the cardinal directions. A bearing is always an acute angle, less than 90 degrees. A bearing of 135 degrees doesn’t exist.
Bearings are measured from north or south first, and then towards east or west. Here are some azimuths converted into bearings:
An azimuth of 45 degrees is an N45ºE bearing, it points to the north-east.
An azimuth of 160 degrees is an S20ºE bearing, it points to the south-east.
An azimuth of 230 degrees is an S50ºW bearing, it points to the south-west.
An azimuth of 350 degrees is an N10ºW bearing, it points to the north-west.
When somebody gives you a bearing of 135 degrees, what he really means is an azimuth of 135 degrees.
Heading and course are basically equal, the only real difference is that the word course is more often used in air travel.
Simply speaking, in the world of hiking, your azimuth or bearing is the direction you want to go, and your heading or course is the direction you’re temporarily forced to go because of obstacles.
Essentially, you don’t need to know all this if you’re just going on a regular hike. That’s why this section is called “Nerd Den.” But sometimes it doesn’t hurt to know something extra.
This video will nerd you up a notch:
The Bottom Line
Nobody is perfect. An Italian explorer once made a mistake when seeking Asia and ended up reopening the Americas.
Using a compass is not that challenging, but you should at least learn how to adjust your compass for magnetic declination. Because you don’t want to end up petting bruins in the Siberian taiga, do you?
Now that you know how to go old-school in navigation, check out our winter camping guide!
James is hitting the trail, all his yummies packed in, his iPhone in a bulletproof case, extra batteries charged up. Nothing can possibly go wrong. In a pinch, one call and help comes within hours. After all, phones don’t need cell towers in close proximity to work in 2020, do they?
Alas, they do. And emergencies still happen, so you need to be prepared. The Ten Essentials is a checklist that helps you cover all the bases of the right camping gear.
A Brief History of the Ten Essentials
If you google it, the internet will readily tell you the notion of the Ten Essentials dates back to the 1930s, when The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization, were the first to introduce it via their climbing courses.
This is just partly true.
Ever since humans stepped into the wilderness, they kept asking themselves: Is it safe there? What are the dangers? How can we survive possible emergencies? And ever since they’ve been asking such questions, they’ve been answering them.
Evolutionary, we’re descendants of those who gave the best answers.
Over the years, this knowledge kept accumulating, and eventually it was formulated into something we now know as the Ten Essentials. The “original” printed list looked like this: map, compass, sunglasses, extra clothing, headlamp, first-aid supplies, firestarter, matches, knife, and extra food.
Original is quoted for a reason. To think of it, people have been exploring the wilderness and writing lists for many millennia. Given our love for round numbers, odds are, the original ten essentials were introduced centuries ago, somewhere in between now and the day the decimal system was born.
This is, of course, arguable. What is unarguable, is that humans are now much more capable of coping with emergencies. And the contemporary Ten Essentials are certainly to be thanked for at least part of it.
The Contemporary Ten Essentials
Technological advances have had their effect on the original list of essentials. The idea has remained the same, but the variety has increased drastically. Rather than a list of ten items, it now looks more like a list of ten systems:
Navigation. Map, compass, altimeter, satellite phone, personal locator beacon, and extra batteries for them. Not only should they help you find the path to safety—they should help rescue teams locate you.
Sun protection. This includes both sunscreen and clothing.
Insulation. The basic outdoor outfit plus extra layers of clothing for emergencies.
Illumination. LED headlamps and extra batteries.
First-aid supplies. Compact and waterproof, and of course, you should know how to use them.
Fire. You need a perfectly reliable means not just for cooking, but to light an emergency fire.
Repair kit and tools. A knife, multitool, tape, needle and thread, cordage, cable ties—the list can be infinitely long.
Nutrition. The longer the trip, the more extra nutrition you should pack in.
Hydration. Always carry extra water. Learn how to get, filter, and store it.
Emergency shelter. You should always carry something to protect you from rain, wind, and heat loss. The exact items depend on the type of journey you’ll be on.
This picture helps you compare the two lists:
As you can see, the new list is much more comprehensive. Now, let’s break down each of the items in more detail.
Technology makes life comfortable. Our ancestors spent hours learning about celestial navigation and how to draw measurements based on the altitude of Polaris, and you can just press a button with your finger.
Not to mention that your casual calculations are much more precise. But unlike Polaris, your phone might be off when you need it. Hence, five essential tools:
A physical, printed topographic map in a protective case is a must. It requires no electricity and can be your backup option. Also, sometimes it might be handier to use it as your primary map for several reasons:
It tags points of particular interest.
It labels campsites, picnic areas, and bathrooms and toilets.
It provides extra information about trails and surrounding lands.
This bullet list is, of course, about Green Trails Maps. They are no doubt the best choice for everyone who’s going to stay on trail.
There are the designated versions for the majority of the popular trails, and they come in different formats, including waterproof, tear-resistant, and ultralight options.
If you plan on leaving the trail, you might opt for USGS maps.
A map is nothing without a compass. Many types exist, and aside from the electronic one on your phone, a magnetic compass is the most familiar and simple.
The magnetic compass is small, requires no energy supply, and is not affected by obstacles—this makes it a reliable backup option. Reliable, because it relies on the Earth’s magnetic field, which is stable under all conditions.
The downside is that a magnetic compass doesn’t point to geographical north—instead, it points to the magnetic north, which changes its location over the course of centuries and is currently somewhere in Canada. To use a magnetic compass, you need to learn how to count and set magnetic declination.
This video will help:
On the contrary, gyrocompasses find geographical, or so-called true north, by exploiting the rotation of the Earth. The downsides are the size, the longer startup time, and the need for electricity. Frankly, this “species” is nearly extinct, but it’s nice to know that they existed. And yes, they still might be useful in some rare cases.
GPS compasses share the best of both worlds. They find true north, cost less than gyrocompasses, and are easy to use.
Probably the best possible option is to have a GPS compass paired with its magnetic counterpart as a backup solution. If you’re an active backpacker, consider buying a smartwatch with an embedded GPS compass and altimeter.
As the name implies, this gadget measures the altitude of an object. Along with a printed map, it helps you locate yourself. For hiking, opt for pressure altimeters: in comparison with GPS altimeters, which can be off by several hundred feet in certain situations, they offer significantly better precision (because they rely on atmospheric pressure and not on satellites).
Cell phones rely on having a cell tower nearby to transmit their signal. But trouble can appear even within the cell mast range—the signal is sensitive to obstacles.
Satellite phones exploit physics to overcome such situations: instead of using towers, they connect to the network via orbiting satellites. This makes them indispensable in certain situations. If you need to call, you will call—these phones can be used almost everywhere on the Earth’s surface.
Personal Locator Beacon
PLBs are used to indicate a person in distress. This beacon is a personal electronic transmitter that emits a signal of a certain frequency reserved for emergency situations. Satellites detect the signal and send it to the nearest rescue center.
Help is dispatched after verification via registration details provided upon purchase, which takes about an hour on average. But despite the delay, this is a tried-and-true system that has saved many lives.
2. Sun Protection
The sun gives life, yet it takes life, too. According to the WHO, 80 percent of skin cancer cases could be prevented by avoiding UV damage.
What now? Stay at home, windows shut tight? Negative. Instead, you should learn how to defend yourself from UV radiation when basking in the sun.
Sun Protective Clothing
If you’re new to hiking and backpacking, chances are you’ve never heard of sun protective apparel. In fact, there’s a rating system—Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)—used to gauge a fabric’s efficacy in blocking UV rays.
The rule of thumb is that if a piece of clothing has a UPF rating label, it already offers some UV protection. Ratings below 15 indicate poor or no protection at all. For example, a regular white cotton T-shirt has no UPF rating, but if it did, it would be around 5.
By the way, the UPF system is easy to understand. Essentially, every number indicates a fraction of ultraviolet radiation that passes through the garment. For example, UPF 10 means that only 1/10th of the UV rays pass through, and UPF 50 points out that only 1/50th of the rays are allowed.
It’s worth saying that the UPF system is most relevant for those who are sensitive to the sun. If you’re not, then opt for any clothes that aren’t white cotton t-shirts and wear a hat.
Even if you wrap yourself up in multiple layers of UPF 50+ clothes, odds are your nose will be left basking, not to say burning in the sun.
This is where sunscreen shines (both territorially and figuratively). Similar to the UPF system, all sunscreens are classified by their sunburn protection factor, or SPF. It works exactly as its previously described counterpart: an SPF of 30 allows only 1/30th of UV radiation through (in other words, it blocks nearly 97 percent of the rays).
But with sunscreen, everything is not as straightforward as it seems. In fact, two types of UV radiation exist: long-wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short-wave ultraviolet B (UVB). They are different, yet both are harmful.
UVA rays account for more than 90 percent of all the UV radiation Earth is exposed to. In daylight hours, their intensity is distributed uniformly throughout the year.
Physically speaking, their wavelength is long enough to penetrate clouds. But you don’t feel them, and this makes UVA rays even more dangerous. They don’t burn you—they age you; UVA rays penetrate into the innermost dermis and damage the DNA in skin cells.
UVB rays are shorter and don’t penetrate deeply. They can’t even penetrate glass and only burn superficial layers of your skin. The intensity of UVB rays fluctuates—you can feel it as clouds roll by.
Scientists used to believe that only UVB rays are dangerous, and UVA are safe. Now we know this is absolutely not true—both are harmful—but the toll has already been taken: the SPF system only indicates protection against UVB rays.
Yes, manufacturers recently started adding ingredients for UVA protection, which is now vaguely marked as “broad-spectrum protection.” But UVA protection is not rated and it’s hard to tell how effective a given product is.
What sunscreen should you get then?
To keep it simple, broad-spectrum SPF 30–40 sunscreens are universal soldiers. They offer enough protection from UVB rays, while somewhat protecting you from UVA rays. Significantly higher SPF numbers often indicate sacrificing UVA protection.
Apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure.
Cover all exposed skin.
Never scrimp on sunscreen.
Reapply it every two hours.
Roughly a century ago, one wise president said: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”
An urge to keep your feet on the ground is essentially why you’re reading this guide. The stars though… They are bewitching, they are magical, and they are so bright.
But why are they bright? This is because they are extremely hot due to the nuclear reactions deep inside. In essence, basking in the sun is no more than sensing the residual UV radiation emitted when hydrogen is being converted to helium inside a thirty-million-degree core. So romantic!
In reality, photons don’t care about sublime matters—they travel almost a hundred million miles only to terminate the DNA of your eye cells. Romance? No, this is war, and your sunglasses will become a barrier no vicious photons can cross.
Decent sunglasses should filter 99–100 percent of both UVA and UVB light. In addition, they are usually marked by Visible Light Transmission (VLT), which has nothing to do with UV protection but is still important.
This picture will help you pick out the proper VLT percentage:
There are two major types of sunglass lenses: polarized and photochromic. The former greatly reduce glare but interfere with the visibility of LCD screens. The latter automatically adjust to the intensity of light; they darken on sunny days and become lighter in the absence of UVB rays within minutes. However, the glare protection of photochromic lenses is not ideal.
Sunglass lenses come in four materials: glass, polyurethane, polycarbonate, and acrylic. Glass is the best option but can break on impact. Acrylic is the cheapest and the worst one. For outdoor activities, choose between the other two: they both offer decent impact resistance and good optical clarity. Polyurethane is slightly better and proportionally more expensive.
Always consider carrying a spare pair of sunglasses, no matter whether you travel alone or in a group.
Nothing can be as annoying on a trail as a poor choice of hiking clothes. At first, you get too hot. Then, you unzip the outer layer and eventually get too cold. You zip it back up, rinse and repeat until you ultimately get wet.
This vicious cycle is ridiculously easy to break out of. All you have to do is to learn how to dress up in layers properly. Here’s the basic idea behind the layering principle:
The first layer is to draw moisture away from your body. Choose synthetic fabrics that have high wicking abilities and avoid cotton. Cotton holds moisture and makes you feel cold and wet.
The second layer is to insulate you. This layer should keep you warm. The best choice of fabric is fleece-based material.
The third layer is to protect you. This is your outer layer, also called the shell layer. It adds some insulation, but its main job is to shield you from wind and rain. Hence, waterproof materials are best.
The layering system helps you adjust layers to the weather to avoid sweating or shivering. And because contemporary fabrics are lightweight and compact, these multiple layers don’t feel like a burden to carry.
On top of this system, you should also apply your common sense. For example, you can exploit the tried-and-true technology of buying pants that convert into shorts and get breakaway sleeves.
By the way, if you’re thinking about camping in winter, we dive deeper into the layering principle and into winter clothing in general in our winter camping guide.
Technology is a torch that illuminates the world, and decent illumination always starts with the LED acronym, which stands for light-emitting diode.
Arguably, the best possible type of flashlight is a waterproof LED headlamp that allows you to adjust the direction of the beam based on your current needs. Keeping your hands free is a killer feature on a trail. Opt for models with an embedded strobe function—it helps send a rescue signal in case of emergency.
Never forget to pack several spare batteries. Given the efficiency of LED bulbs, it will make them shine for dozens of hours.
As for incandescent lamps, just forget about them. Our tiny little space ball is already getting warmer, so why heat it up even more?
5. First Aid
Things happen. And albeit the worst things happen at sea, carrying a first aid kit is crucial in any terrain.
But don’t let your kit give you a false sense of security. At a minimum, you need to know how to use it: how to stop the bleeding, apply an antibacterial ointment, roll up a bandage, treat burns and insect bites, make a compress, rewarm tissues after frostbite, and perform other basic operations.
Then, you need to make sure your kit contains all the essential supplies: sterile gloves, cleansing wipes, adhesive tape, gauze, various bandages, creams, eyewash, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic, painkillers, tweezers, topical antibiotics, and any personal prescriptions on top of that.
What exactly you should pack into your first aid kit depends on the character of your trip, but carrying the bare minimum is essential even on a one-day hike.
Fire boils water, cooks food, gives warmth, light, and shelter, and sends a rescue signal. And even though fire is dangerous, a lack of fire on a trail can kindle a plethora of emotion.
Luckily, you no longer need to rely on Prometheus to defy the gods to simmer a kettle. Instead, you can rely on technology. Tried-and-true butane lighters and matches are mandatory, as well as packing them into a waterproof container. Firestarters help light up wet tinder, and stoves excel in high-altitude conditions.
Even a tiny thing called a magnifying glass can save your life in an extreme situation. Also, remember the fabulous technique your prehistoric ancestor used to impress his prehistoric dame of heart, aka starting a fire with a bow drill.
If you’ve never seen it, here’s how it’s done:
7. Repair Kit and Tools
Tools help you solve a variety of problems and tasks that await you on a trail. The rule of thumb is the longer the journey, the longer the list of tools.
But even on the shortest trips you should include these two things: a knife and a repair kit.
A knife must have a folding blade—a fixed one can be harmful and even life-threatening if you slip on a trail. It might also be tempting to think that the knife in a multitool will suffice, but no, it won’t. First, you might lose it, and losing two items is less likely. Secondly, a decent knife in a multitool is either a fantasy or a rip-off.
A repair kit should include a multitool with at least a couple of screwdrivers and a pair of pliers. Other important things are duct tape, cable ties, cordage, needle and thread, and replacement parts for your other equipment.
Essentially, if you’re not an experienced hiker, you should contact your group leader and ask them what tools to pack in. Conversely, if you’re leading a group of inexperienced travelers, you should pack as much gear as possible.
There’s nothing mysterious about nutrition on a trail. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and conduct weird experiments. Basically, you should just follow the rule of three B’s:
Bring extra food. The longer the journey, the more extra food you should take. The bare minimum is an extra one day’s supply.
Bring calorie-dense foods. You might be the biggest fan of watermelons, yet carrying them uphill is a dubious decision.
Bring food you know. Hiking is about discovering magnificent views, not about pursuing lurking pangs of diarrhea.
Evidently, you must have the means to cook the food you bring; otherwise, you can end up chomping on your favorite crunchy farfalle.
Unless you’re going on a one- or two-day hike, there’s no way you can bring enough water with you. You will have to refill it.
Not only does this require thorough itinerary planning, but it also means you’ll need to have multiple water containers. Plastic bottles are durable and handy but don’t pack small when empty. But hydration bladders do, and this feature makes them a must-have item for a long-term overland voyage.
In addition, you should carry a means to purify water from creeks and puddles. Obviously, drinking from the latter is something you would like to avoid, but it might just happen that you won’t find a crystal clean shimmering pond anywhere around.
Remember, water is much, much more important than food. Depending on your build, you can last up to several months without food; without water, up to several days.
10. Emergency Shelter
An emergency shelter is something you should always carry with you. On longer-term trips, it should come in addition to your main fancy multi-room tent or whichever one you prefer; on shorter-term trips, it can be your only shelter.
But the rule of thumb is that you never step on a trail without an emergency shelter, no matter if you’ve already set up a camp on a beautiful glade right beyond that hill.
But what exactly is an emergency shelter?
The exact setup might differ, but it should protect you from three things: rain, wind, and a loss of heat. Usually, it’s a bivy sack for warmth and a tarp-like material to shield you from rain and wind. In addition, an air sleeping pad can help insulate you from the wet ground (and also packs small and weighs literally nothing).
For some, it might sound absurd and even irritating to carry a bivouac on a day trip. Yet, this is what all experienced hikers eventually come to, either the hard way or the easy one. By the way, certain down sleeping bags weigh less than a pound and pack really tight.
The Bottom Line
Thinking of it one way, the Earth is just another giant rock drifting around the next incandescent star in the endless outer space.
Yet the Earth is beautiful.
No human life is enough to explore its every nook and cranny, with all the variety of landscapes, from shallow lakes to rocky mountains. Even ten lives are not enough. But this doesn’t mean your only life can now be short; conversely, it is here to give you the maximum amount of fun.
The Ten Essentials is a system that makes sure this comes true. It has been evolving over the years, absorbing all the cutting-edge technologies. Just look at your smartphone—it took substantially less computing power to land a man on the moon, and now you can just loiter around with the might of a hundred thousand Apollo 11s in your pocket.
And this is the main problem. Our skyrocketing increase in technological power gives you a false sense of safety. Remember, the bigger the possibilities, the greater the potential hazards and side effects.
The Ten Essentials are great, but they are nothing without common sense. So don’t forget it when packing in all that gear.
Winter camping is incredible. Snow blankets the trees, coats the ground, and freezes lakes and rivers, turning familiar landscapes into a brand new pristine wonderland to explore. Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.
The only problem with winter camping is that it generally takes place in winter. And winter, as we know, is not only about having a cozy talk beside the fire— it’s cold and dangerous.
This guide will help you make it a little bit warmer.
While winter camping is similar to summer camping in many ways, it’s always more hazardous. And the colder it is, the more dangerous it becomes.
Here’s the list of topics to check out before stepping out on a winter trail:
How to choose the proper campsite. The location with the best view is not always the best one. Learn about the other criteria.
How to set up a tent on the snow. Read the instructions for your particular tent. Then check out real-life tips.
How to eat and drink properly. Evidently, camping in winter requires more calories than in summer. How many is “more”? Should you exclude and include any particular foods? Should you boil snow?
Essential winter camping gear. Do you need a paper map if you already have your iPhone? (Yes, you do.)
Dressing properly. Should you just put on everything you find in your wardrobe, or is there any reliable clothing system? What is dressing in layers?
Frost injuries and how to prevent them. Hypothermia and frostbite.
Ice safety. How not to fall through the ice, and how to rescue if you did.
And remember, no guide can replace years of real-life experience, but guides make sure your first backpacking journey won’t be the last one.
Now, let’s break those topics down from the very beginning.
How to Camp in the Snow
The most important thing to remember: building a camp in winter takes more time. Not simply because of the temperature outside but because it requires more planning.
Better planning leads to better decision making that leads to a better experience. When choosing a location to hunker down, follow this checklist to make sure nothing will stop you from having fun on your winter journey:
Daylight hours. There might be a perfect location just over that hill, but do you have enough time to get there? Give yourself at least 2 hours to set up a camp before it gets dark.
Location safety. Steep hills, avalanches, tree hazards, wild animals, and wind are the main factors to take into account. Use terrain features that help you (e.g., forest edges that block the wind), and avoid risky ones (e.g., dangerous slopes).
Privacy. Are you too close to the neighboring camp? Consider moving a bit further.
Water. Melting snow is always an option, but having a frozen lake or a creek nearby makes life easier.
Sunlight exposure. A bit of sunshine in the morning helps you warm up faster and puts a smile on your face.
Distinctive features. A visible landmark helps find your camp in an emergency situation.
In winter, choosing the right spot for your shelter is one half of the battle. Let’s look at the other one.
Setting up a Tent on Snow
When you’ve found the proper location, it’s time to start building your castle. Follow these tips to make your shelter comfortable and secure:
Trample down the snow. Use your skis or snowshoes to stomp out a level spot for your tent. Let the snow harden for 10–20 minutes. This will prevent it from melting and you from sinking into the snow overnight.
Use proper stakes. Standard pegs are no good in winter, especially when it’s windy. Get snow stakes. Or, you can use sticks and branches instead: dig a hole, place a stick in parallel to the ground, cover it with snow, and tread it down with your feet. The key is to place sticks horizontally, creating anchor-like structures.
Dig out a hole in front of the entrance. It will help block cold air from entering your tent, and it provides you with a handy bench and some additional space to store your equipment.
Build walls. Because, what is a castle without a wall? On a more serious note, walls protect you from the wind. Building them is always a good idea unless the weather is extremely snowy (then walls can gather even more snow and make your tent collapse). The ultimate mastery is to isolate your tent with a wall while leaving a gap to vent it and help reduce moisture.
Now, when your overnight shelter is ready, it’s time to talk about ethics.
Leave No Trace
The most crucial part of enjoying wildlife is leaving it as it is—wild. Seemingly “harmless” things can accumulate into a disaster: one negligently discarded cigarette can lead to a massive fire, and a thrown-away empty can might harm an animal and even cost it its life.
Leave No Trace is a set of guidelines that explains how to cause minimal impact on the environment. It comprises seven principles:
Plan ahead and prepare. Not only read the regulations, but also educate yourself about the area you’re headed to. If you’re not allowed to bury your waste products, there might be a good reason for it. Preparation helps reduce your impact and avoid unnecessary risks.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Snow is not just lying there for fun, it protects the underlying vegetation. Compressing the snow cover can shorten the growing season or even destroy plants. Do not create new trails when snow is lacking and hunker down on existing campsites. Remember, good campsites are found, not made.
Dispose of waste properly. Little bits of trash add up quickly and take years and years to decompose. What you pack in, you should pack out, even organic waste. If allowed, you may bury human waste, but never bury toilet paper. If possible, cover the cathole with a big rock to prevent animals from digging it out.
Leave what you find. “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is always a good principle. The best souvenir is your memories of enjoying pristine wildlife.
Minimize campfire impacts. While it’s always safer to avoid using open fires, nothing evokes the magic of overnight camping better than crackling firewood. Once a necessity, it’s now steeped into our tradition. For minimizing impact, use only existing fire rings or stoves.
Respect wildlife. Always store food properly so it doesn’t lure wild animals, and do not ever feed them. Don’t stress them out trying to get a reaction from them, observe wildlife from a reasonable distance.
Be considerate of other visitors. Many people come to the wilderness to enjoy nature. Be quiet and keep pets under control.
Always keep your campsite small—the bigger the site, the bigger the impact. Stay at least 200 feet from any water source to make sure wild animals have free access to water. Never bury feces close to trails, campsites, and water sources.
Learn more about outdoor ethics on the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethicsofficial page.
Food and Drink Tips for Winter Camping
Planning meals is one of the most exciting things about preparing for camping, isn’t it? But even if not, it’s undoubtedly one of the most important things.
Trekking through snowy glades takes a lot of power, whereas your appetite is oftentimes reduced during such activities. To help you efficiently restore energy, your meals should be tasty, energy-dense, and easy to cook.
Speaking of cooking, you can’t do it without a kitchen.
Building a Winter Kitchen
When setting up your kitchen, remember that it’s not just for cooking—it’s for conversation. Especially during the long winter nights.
Luckily, winter generously provides you with free building material. Tramp down an area for your kitchen and then use a shovel to construct tables, seats, and even walls to shelter yourself from the wind. After you’ve finished building your masterpiece, let the snow set up for about an hour (it might take less time for heavy snow).
As a final touch, cover your cookhouse with a floorless tent. Bravo, compadre, great job. Now it’s time to talk about food.
Before recommending particular meals, let’s talk about energy. And frankly, there’s not much to talk about. There’s only one thing to keep in mind—caloric requirements increase significantly while camping in winter.
For an average winter backpacking adventure, you’ll need roughly twice as many calories as you would normally consume on a lazy summer day.
If you need the exact numbers: 3000–4500 calories a day for women, 4500–6000 for men. In real life, these “exact” numbers will vary based on your age, health, and the intensity of your journey, but you can still use them as a starting point.
Experimenting with your diet while backpacking is the easiest way to add more fun to your winter adventure. Especially when hiking across open plains with no trees around.
The best idea is to stick to your regular eating habits, omitting the least calorie-dense meals. Follow these recommendations:
Pack foods you like. Wilderness has enough surprises, food shouldn’t be one of them.
Avoid foods that contain too much water. Water adds extra weight without boosting nutritional content. Leave fresh fruits and vegetables at home.
Focus on dry foods. Freeze-dried foods are the most efficient option, although pricey. They have up to 99% of their water content removed, significantly lightening your backpack. It’s a good idea to have freeze-dried foods as your emergency nutrition. Other good options are cereals, nuts, and cookies.
Fat is the most efficient fuel. It contains twice as many calories for the same weight as carbs and protein. If your body tolerates fat, pack in cheese, butter, and cured sausages.
Focus on simple meals. Complex dishes take a lot of time to cook and might be good for dinner, but breakfasts and lunches should be as simple as possible. However, this depends on your preference.
Use spices to create variety. They weigh nothing and help turn one dish into several different ones. It saves time and helps you avoid getting bored.
In general, your food reserves should be portable, calorie-dense, and easy to cook. Store everything properly so it doesn’t lure wild animals. Hot meals are great, but do not rely entirely on them. For hot meals, opt for one-pot options. For water, use insulated water bottles with special covers—regular plastic bottles can freeze solid.
Now it’s time to talk about meals.
A recipe is a story that ends with a good meal. Winter backpacking meals are more like Hemingway’s stories—straightforward, concise, and realistic.
Options are nearly unlimited. However, certain patterns exist:
Breakfast. The mornings are cold and you usually want to start moving ASAP. But you need a complete meal which gives you enough energy for the day. Opt for having a fair mix of carbs, fats, and protein that requires little or no cooking: cheese and salami tortilla roll-ups, instant mashed potatoes with bacon, powdered scrambled eggs with instant hash browns.
If you’re planning to have a hearty lunch, you can opt for energy bars for breakfast. It’s the fastest possible way to start your day.
Lunch. Some backpackers prefer to keep their lunch short. In such a case, opt for quick foods: protein bars, nuts, dried fruits, and sandwiches.
Others like to hunker down and roam around the camp for the rest of the day. In this case, opt for whatever you like: from fast options to hot soups and complex dishes.
Dinner. Nothing is better than sitting by the campfire, enjoying your hot dinner after a long long day. Pack out everything you have in store and create your culinary masterpiece: from pasta with parmesan and bacon to hot spicy ramen with veggies.
Or, if you’re too tired, opt for “just-add-water” options. It’s your adventure and you set the rules, Morty.
While making rules, keep this in mind:
Protein gives long-term satiety. Add protein to every meal.
Vegetables improve your stool. Dehydrated veggies are a must for long-term backpacking unless you plan on digging catholes every other hour.
Simple carbs are the fastest source of fuel. They are ideal when you need short-term bursts of energy.
Too much fat can cause diarrhea. If you’re not used to eating a lot of fatty foods, don’t start doing it on the trail.
Never ignore snacks. Not only because they are convenient and handy, but also because they help you comfort yourself in stressful situations. Even the most enjoyable journeys cause stress, sometimes barely noticeable. A square of chocolate might help you sleep better.
Covering the outdoors with a thick white blanket, winter freezes lakes and buries creeks, oftentimes making melting snow the only option to get potable water.
Do not eat snow. Even though it doesn’t require purification, it takes too much energy to melt and can easily cause hypothermia.
Find an area with clean white snow (pinkish color indicates bacterial growth).
Light a fire or turn on your stove.
Preheat a little bit of water in your container.
Gradually add snow.
Dumping in a huge pile of snow will not only burn the bottom of your pot but also scorch the snow. If you think it sounds ridiculous, you might give it a try—nothing bad will happen except for lousy-tasting water.
Essential Winter Camping Gear
Undoubtedly, having a good head on your shoulders is the most important piece of your winter camping equipment.
And yet, it’s hard to imagine anyone climbing snowy hills without these essential things.
One-tent-fits-all solutions are rare. Picking out a winter tent is usually a trade-off between livability and weight.
Here’s what you should consider:
3-season tents are lighter, but they can’t resist heavy snow loads and violent winds. If the weather is mild, you can use them for, say, ultralight one-night camping. Otherwise, using them is uncomfortable and dangerous.
4-season tents have more poles and stronger fabrics, hence more weight. They are designed to withstand the most severe weather conditions. Models with rainflys add an extra layer of protection against wind and snow.
Extra space equals extra weight. The ability to keep all your gear inside can cost you several addition pounds of weight on your back.
Ventilation features are also important as they help reduce condensation buildup. The best tents have adjustable vent options.
Winter backpacking puts special demands on your backpack:
Capacity. A 50-liter pack is often enough for a weekend trip in summer, and yet it’s almost never enough in winter, even for a single-day trip. The bare minimum is a 60–70 liter pack.
Frame. A backpack for winter camping must have a frame, whether internal or external. Ultralight backpacks are often frameless and thus aren’t suitable for hiking in the snow.
Features. Lash points, daisy chains, and other tool attachment points make it easier to carry additional equipment, and side zippers provide much easier access to whatever you have at the very bottom of your backpack.
Most importantly, your backpack must fit you comfortably. You’ll be carrying it all day long and a pain in your loin is the last thing you dream about.
If you’re new to winter camping, it’s your sleeping bag that defines whether you’ll want to return for your second journey.
When picking out a sleeping bag, keep these criteria in mind:
Temperature rating. Learn about the lowest expected temperature in the area you’re about to visit and choose a bag with an even lower temperature rating. Ideally, with at least a 15 °F gap between those two numbers. After all, if it gets too warm, you can always unzip your bag.
Insulation material. Talking about insulation always boils down to a down-vs-synthetic debate. Down bags pack smaller and are lighter for the same temperature rating, but they lose their warming properties if wet. Synthetic bags are non-allergenic and efficient even if soaked.
Shape. Usually, winter sleeping bags come in two basic shapes: semi-rectangular and mummy. Mummy shaped bags are narrow at the feet, hence warmer because they have less empty space. The downside is that you won’t be able to roll over inside a mummy bag. Semi-rectangular bags are more spacious but less warm.
Rectangular sleeping bags are roomy, but they can be too cold for winter camping.
Using sleeping pads helps isolate your cozy sleeping bag from the icy-cold ground. Here’s how you should do it:
Use more than one pad. Two, and especially three pads, provide much better insulation than just one.
Use different types of pads. Air pads pack small and light and are soft and comfortable. They are mostly designed for summer camping but are still worthy as an additional layer of comfort. Foam pads usually provide good insulation and are cheap and durable. You can use a foam pad as the first insulation layer (closer to the ground) at night and fold it into a sitting pad during the day.
Check R-values. R-value is the number that shows how efficiently the pad insulates; the higher, the better. Winter options start with an R-value of 5, but it can be lower if you use multiple pads.
Don’t be afraid of puncturing an air pad because it’s usually easy to repair with a patch kit. If you want to use just one pad, self-inflating foam pads offer a nice compromise between comfort and insulation.
Most backpacking stoves come in two forms: canister stoves and liquid-fuel stoves.
Their main pros are size and convenience. Some options weigh less than half a pound and pack really small. Lighting them is easy, just open up the valve and use a match. Also, a canister stove might have a burner and a pot included which makes life easier.
The downsides are that you never know for sure how much fuel is left, that in cold weather a canister stove works poorly without a pressure regulator, and that the small size comes at the cost of a shorter fuel supply.
In general, canister stoves are good for one-day hiking trips or one-night camping when not much cooking is involved. In other cases, opt for liquid-fuel stoves.
These stoves have two major pros: they perform significantly better at high elevations and in cold temperatures, and it’s much easier to tell how much gas is left. Moreover, some of them are multi-fuel, which is useful in international traveling.
However, liquid-fuel stoves have two major downsides: they require periodic maintenance, and most of them require priming. Moreover, they usually weigh more.
Despite their cons, liquid-fuel stoves are much more reliable for long-term winter camping. But no matter which type of stove you choose, these tips will help you avoid emergency situations.
Aside from your body and your sleeping bag, a stove is the only source of heat you have. In other words, everything about your stove is very important. These tips will help you avoid many stove-related unpleasant situations:
Bring an extra stove. Even a piece of rock can break, not to mention a stove. If you travel alone, consider bringing a small canister stove along with its main liquid-fuel counterpart.
Bring extra fuel. In an emergency situation, a stove can be your only source of potable water until you get rescued.
Before lighting your stove, check it for leaks and damage. If needed, repair it with a multi-tool. You always pack one, don’t you?
Choose the most level surface for your stove. It’s not hard with all that snow and a shovel.
And yes, everyone knows these tips, but it never hurts to revisit them.
Snowshoes, Skis, or Snowboard
Choosing different types of footwear can change your experience drastically, opening new uncharted trails and significantly increasing your speed of movement.
These are the main winter options:
Snowshoes are the most affordable and easy-to-start-with option. Basically, snowshoeing is hiking with poles while leaving bigfoot-sized snow prints.
Skis are definitely the most convenient way to travel long distances. They help you cover more terrain and observe more scenery.
Snowboards are fun for sliding down the powdery slopes, but they make it impossible to travel horizontally. Luckily, splitboards give you the best of both worlds: their movable bindings allow you to easily transform them into skis and back.
Arguably, the best possible combo is to have snowshoes paired with a splitboard. A decent backpack won’t make it feel like a burden to carry all that stuff. Moreover, you can always opt to use a sled.
If the trail properties allow you to pull a sled, it’s the perfect option to reduce weight on your shoulders and carry more equipment at the same time.
Remember to attach sled poles to carabiners on your hipbelt (or whichever harness you have) in a criss-cross manner—this prevents the poles from flopping around too much. When crossing the poles, secure them at the center with a cord.
Travelling in avalanche areas requires serious knowledge about avalanche safety. Before stepping on dangerous trails, educate yourself as much as possible. Many locations offer free Avalanche Awareness courses, you can google them.
But even if you don’t plan on traveling across dangerous terrain, these three items might be useful just in case:
Avalanche sufferer’s transceiver. It helps find an approximate location of a person buried under snow.
Snow probe. It’s used to study snow to discover the exact location of a buried person.
Rescue shovel. It helps dig out an avalanche victim.
Oftentimes these things are marketed collectively as a safety set, which doesn’t take much space and weighs little.
Winter Camping Checklist (Ten Essentials)
Camping is all about fun, but there’s no fun when something goes wrong. Especially when it’s freezing cold outside.
First established nearly a century ago by The Mountaineers, the ten essentials have evolved into a system that helps you hold out when something doesn’t go as planned.
The winter camping version looks like this:
Navigation. Phones and power banks can discharge. The bare minimum is a paper map in a waterproof case and a magnetic compass. Optionally, pack an emergency locator beacon.
Sun protection. Sunscreen and sunglasses are just as important in winter as in summer.
Insulation. Check out the how to dress for winter camping section below.
Illumination. LED lamps, spare LED lamps, batteries, extra batteries.
First-aid supplies. The more, the better.
Fire. Stove (must-have in winter), lighters, matches in a waterproof case.
Repair kits and tools. A decent multi-tool with pliers and screwdrivers, silver duct tape, a shovel, cable ties.
Extra nutrition. Bring extra food for at least one additional day for short-term journeys; for longer adventures, bring more. Additional food must require no cooking and be light but energy-dense: bars, nuts, cheese, jerky, etc.
Hydration. Lack of potable water is usually not the biggest problem in snowy landscapes. However, turning snow into liquid is energy-consuming. Make sure you bring enough energy, either as fire or as calories. In emergency situations, your body may become your stove.
Emergency shelter. Setting up a tent is barely possible with a sprained ankle, not to mention that your tent is useless when it’s left at the camp. An emergency reflective blanket or a compact sleeping sack are good additional options.
Don’t forget about signaling devices: whistles, laser pointers, and flares. Water purification tablets and an ice axe might also come in handy.
And remember: it’s better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have.
How to Dress for Winter Camping and Hiking
Along with picking a tent and a sleeping bag, choosing the right clothing is one of the three pillars of safe and sound winter camping.
It starts with the layer principle.
Choosing layers is art, surrounded by tried-and-tested-for-decades science of picking the right clothing materials.
Over the years, science knows that these three layers work best:
Base layer. This layer’s job is to manage moisture, wicking sweat off of your skin. The best materials for winter are midweight or heavyweight polyester and merino wool. Both wicking, the former is more durable whereas the latter excels at odor retention.
Middle layer. This layer’s job is to insulate you. The rule of thumb here is the thicker, the warmer. The best fabrics are heavyweight fleece, down, and synthetics.
Shell layer. This layer’s job is to save you from rain, snow, and wind. Arguably, this layer is the most important one—if it gets penetrated, you’re in serious trouble. The best materials are synthetics that provide a nice mix of resistance to water and breathability. The pricier, the better.
Follow this layering principle and you will never feel cold. Moreover, the layering principle helps you add and shed layers if needed.
Speaking of layers, your feet have their own shell layer, called footwear.
Traditional hiking boots are only good for early and late season, when encountering deep snow is even less likely than meeting a grizzly bear.
In all other cases, your choices are insulated and waterproof winter boots, bar none. They must be big enough to fit several socks. The pricier, the better—good boots are your everything, even when hiking on a budget. Skimping on boots is forbidden.
Don’t forget about gaiters. They provide additional snow protection and add one more layer of insulation.
Likewise, skimping on minor things might cause major troubles. These things include:
Socks. The layer principle applies to socks as well. Opt for a synthetic base layer to wick moisture and for whichever fabrics you prefer for the second layer, except for cotton. Cotton socks are banned when camping in winter. As for thickness, your socks should be thick enough to provide insulation and thin enough to fit into your boots without causing discomfort.
Sunglasses and goggles. Winter can bring many surprises, from severe sunshine to brutal snowstorms.
Winter hat. In mild weather, covering your ears is enough. As the weather gets tougher, a balaclava becomes more useful.
Mittens and gloves. Because your fingers share one room, mittens are warmer than gloves. But sometimes you need more dexterity, hence gloves are also a must. The best idea is to take both of them with you.
Blanket. If you need extra warmth during a cold evening having a wool blanket can make a difference between a miserable and cozy night.
Speaking of major troubles—on a winter trail, idiot strings are more relevant than ever.
Traveling in winter can be life threatening. The two major concerns are hypothermia and frostbite. The former occurs when your body produces heat slower than it loses it, and the latter is caused by freezing tissues.
Preventing them is easy when you follow these rules:
Keep yourself warm. Avoid getting too cold and too hot. If you keep fluctuating between these two extremes, then you should pick better clothing.
Don’t be a tough guy/girl. It’s much smarter to prevent difficult situations than to deal with them. If you start getting cold, stop and do something to fix it before it’s too late.
Watch you group. Observe each of the members from time to time and don’t let them be tough either.
If you follow these guidelines, nothing will happen to you and your group. Nevertheless, if frostbite or hypothermia happens, you will have to rewarm.
How to Rewarm After Cold Injuries
No matter whether you’re rewarming after frostbite or hypothermia, the most important rule is to do it gradually.
Rewarming after hypothermia:
Put on dry clothes and insulate the body. Use multiple layers—the key is to reduce heat loss to a minimum.
Drink sugar water. Carbs in liquid form are absorbed the fastest and help your body rewarm internally.
Apply heat to major arteries. Put hot water bottles at the groin, armpits, and the neck.
Do not rewarm your limbs—this will send colder blood from your extremities to your core, which is dangerous and can lead to death in severe hypothermia cases.
Rewarming after frostbite:
Do not rub tissues, it might damage frozen tissue cells and result in tissue death.
Superficial frostbite can be rewarmed by placing the affected area on a warmer body part.
To rewarm deeper frostbite, immerse the affected area into a water bath. Maintain 105–110 °F, otherwise hotter water will cause additional damage.
Rewarming in a water bath will take roughly 30 minutes. Once rewarmed, apply a gauze bandage and protect the body part from movement and getting cold.
If you can’t protect it from getting cold, it’s sometimes better not to rewarm it at all. Freezing causes major damage, and refreezing after rewarming will result in even more damage. In this case, you should stop your journey and seek help as soon as possible.
Winter Camping Tips
Staying warm, clean, and sheltered is key to successful camping. These tips will help you enjoy your journey even more:
Prepare. You always leave something at home, don’t you? As corny as it sounds, make a list of everything to pack in.
Get warm before bed. Hot drinks could help, but the most efficient way is to combine them with physical exercise. Do some squats and jumps, or just have a little snowball fight. Don’t go overboard—get into your sack before starting to sweat.
Prepare hot water in the evening and put it into your sleeping bag. Not only will it help keep your sack warmer, but it will also provide you with warm potable water in the morning when time is money.
Dry your clothes. If your socks become wet (and they will), use your body temperature to dry them overnight. Or, even better, pull them down over a bottle of hot water. You’ve prepared it before going to bed anyway, haven’t you?
Change thermals. Putting on new thermals for sleep is essential unless you want to make people stay as far as possible from you. Basic hygiene standards do not vanish on the trail. Moreover, experienced backpackers say new thermals make your dreams a little bit warmer.
Isolate the inner layer of socks. If you use two or more layers of socks while sleeping, put on a plastic bag in between layers. It will help keep moisture away from outer layers and will prevent you from changing your entire Gucci socks collection in the morning.
Vent your tent. Condensation build-up is one of the biggest winter camping issues. Air your sleeping bag whenever possible, keep snow away from the inside, and place your tent in parallel to the wind to create some airflow.
Improvise. In extreme situations, everything could help. If you’re forced to sleep in the open air, put spruce branches under your sleeping pad for more insulation.
Ice Safety and Rescue
There’s no such thing as safe ice.
When walking on frozen water, remember—a single careless step can be the last one. Obligatorily, before crossing lakes and rivers, learn the basics of ice safety:
Ice is fickle. Don’t blindly trust the ice you’ve already crossed. It can be weakened by sunlight or deformed by trapped water in a matter of hours.
Spread the group. If the ice can hold your weight, it doesn’t mean it won’t break if your friend comes closer to you.
Check the ice before taking a step. The lead person in your file should poke the ice with a ski pole. Thick and thin ice will sound and react differently.
Don’t step on ice you don’t trust. Opt for roundabout trails, especially if you travel alone.
You should always be cautious. Nevertheless, even the most experienced hikers can fall through the ice. For your own safety, you should learn how to rescue yourself and your group.
At first, calm down. Keep your head above water and steady your breathing. Cold water shock and hyperventilation will stop in about a minute.
Turn into the direction you came from: at least you know the ice is safe there.
Use your arms to pull as much of your body out of the water and kick your legs up to get yourself into a level position.
Keep working yourself up by kicking your legs and pulling with your arms. Even though it might be challenging because the ice is slippery and/or keeps breaking, you’ll get out of there eventually as you reach thicker ice.
Once you’re up, roll away. Do not stand up until you’re completely sure the ice is thick enough.
Rescuing a group: most importantly, minimize panic. Then follow the steps mentioned above, one person at a time. If any of the members of your group are left on ice, they can throw you a rope or something else you could grab. Then you can form a human chain by grabbing the ankles of the person in front.
Never approach the ice hole on your feet, spread your weight as wide as possible. This will minimize the chance of ice giving way. Learning about ice thickness will help you, too.
In general, two types of ice exist. The first type, black ice, often forms on lakes and ponds when the wind is calm. In fact, it’s not black but transparent—it’s the water below that makes it look black. This type of ice is stronger than the second one, white ice.
White ice appears when snow accumulates atop black ice and pushes it down, thus pushing the water up. These forces produce cracks on black ice, letting the water out. Then the water mixes with snow, creating slush. As it freezes, white ice appears.
White ice is weaker than black ice because it has more air trapped in its structure. It’s less dense, hence easier to break. A fun fact—white ice itself is also transparent, it’s trapped air that is responsible for the color.
Even though black ice is stronger, it doesn’t mean it can easily hold your weight. Use this ice thickness scale to assess its strength:
2” or less. Stay away.
3”. It might hold one person.
4”. Suitable for ice skating and fishing.
5-6”. ATVs and snowmobiles.
12”+. Medium trucks.
Tip: for measuring ice thickness, cut a hole with an ice-axe and then use calipers. If walking across icy lakes is part of your backpacking adventures, they are an absolute must for you.
But even the most expensive gear doesn’t release you from learning how to select routes properly.
The general rule is that ice is usually thinner in running water, and the greater the speed of the current, the thinner the ice. The speed can vary even within the same water basin, creating areas with different ice strength.
Many other factors can tell you about ice thickness. These guidelines will help you select better routes:
Rivers: bends, rapids, and constricted sections are at the most risk. Avoid crossing them whenever possible.
Lakes: the thinnest ice is at the spots where rivers enter and exit a lake.
Plants like cattail impair ice structure and hence its thickness. Basically, anything that sticks out of the water (rocks, logs, plants) weakens the ice around it.
Undercurrents are difficult or even impossible to notice with the naked eye. Test the ice from time to time and change your route if needed.
Honeycombed ice is unpredictable. Stay away from it.
Slushy snow, water on top of ice, dark patches, and anything that disrupts a uniform texture on the surface is a danger sign.
Other things to take into account: sun exposure, the depth of the basin (the deeper, the better), the weather, and even your weight. Listen to your common sense and avoid doing anything you’re not sure about.
Backpacking in Snow
Winter is a wonderful time. As snow blankets the landscape, you immediately launch into these dreams of building a snow cave, skiing across frozen lakes, and discovering new picturesque trails.
But unlike summer camping, the price of a mistake in winter might be too high. That’s why all that expensive gear and all these backpacking guides exist—they help reduce the likelihood of making a bad decision and mitigate the effect of making wrong steps.
Hopefully, this guide has helped you learn something new or revise something that you might have forgotten. Add it to your bookmarks and reread it next year before opening a new winter backpacking season.
Who knows, maybe by that time it will double in size. And remember, winter is beautiful but dangerous, no matter how experienced you are.
It is now the time to hit the trails, byways, and campgrounds across America.
However, you need to make sure you are going the right venues. Washington is one of the most underrated camping states in America, as people often prefer heading to locations that they think are easier to get to.
But, when you see what Washington has to offer it will change your mind, and you will come here time after time, and your children will continue in your footsteps with their children. You have towering mountains, dense forests, and the Pacific Ocean and all of its bounties is here waiting for you. Hundreds of bird watch sites, sanctuaries, and wildlife refuges contain more biodiversity than you ever imagined and it’s all affordable for a backpacker all the way up to those who want to camp but don’t want to pitch their own tent. You’ll find it all here in the 10 Magnificent Campgrounds of Washington.
Columbia River Gorge Campgrounds
One thing that is wonderful about the National Parks system is that you get to relive what our frontier ancestors experienced when they were first exploring this great land and all it contains. The Lewis & Clark Expedition mapped out the Columbia River and the surrounding area. If you read the narratives and then see, the area in which you will be camping in you would expect to see canoes with both explorers and their interpreter Sacagawea and her son riding beside them.
However, along with all the history and grandeur, you can still find a good campsite at reasonable prices. Billed as one of the 7-Wonders of Washington you will long remember your stay here. It will cost you $15 a day at the Eagle Creek campground. Eagle Creek is just one of the 4 camping sites in the area that you can pitch your tent or park for up to two weeks of fun and frolic.
Takhlakh Lake Campground
Situated near Mount Adams, you get to see the effects of the last Ice Age along with one of the largest glaciers within the Continental US.
However, if snow and ice are not your cup of tea, you can bask in the beautiful sunshine and the meadowed flower fields that surround the area amid ancient lava flows.
National Geographic has this area on its Top-Ten list of must see and do places in Washington state.
You can hike and paddle the lake and just enjoy the sun as it reflects off the mountain at sunset. Prices for a visit vary at the more than 54 campsites. However, here you can reserve yours and get the price info you need.
Lake Wenatchee State Park
Situated near the Cascades Mountain Range, you have almost 3 miles of waterfront where you can enjoy water sports galore. Though the campgrounds are closed during the winter, you can still hike, ski, and snowmobile during winter’s cold.
The translation of the name of this lake means “Hidden Lake,” and you will want to keep it that way so you can enjoy it all for yourself. The camping spots are roomy and semi-private.
There are amenities to be had and even though you are far from the city. You still can have the creature comforts of life. Here you can reserve your spot and find out costs as well as more information.
Lake Chelan State Park, North Cascades
Lake Chelan is one of those timeless places where you make it a family tradition that says you visit this place for decades and your children continue doing so with their children as well.
The place is changeless and eternal. You come here for the beauty of the lake and the surrounding lands. Fishing, kayaking, and canoeing on the placid water and breathing the fresh air, untainted by pollution and car exhaust. People come here to get in touch with Mother Earth and remember that we are all part of the great “Web of Life.”
With the Cascade Mountains as a backdrop painters, photographers, and writers have the perfect canvas to work from. While campers and hikers have a rich environment to frolic, swim, and play in as well. Make your reservations here and check on pricing.
Ohanapecosh, Mount Rainier National Park
Part of the Mount Rainer National Park, you have the ideal setting for your summer getaway. Nine rivers owe their existence to this mountain and the Ohanapecosh is one starting from a glacier melt on the eastern slope. Along its length, you can see waterfalls and beautiful pools filled with clear cool water. Here fish come to make their home and breed. It is a fisherman’s paradise if you are in the mood to do some Fly Fishing.
The numerous waterfalls climax with the silver falls being the last the river continues past the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs, the campgrounds and the Ranger Station/Service center.
Reservations can be made online. The cost per day is reasonable at $20 a day without electrical hook up.
Spencer Spit State Park, Lopez Island, San Juan Islands
As you can see from the slide show at the website you have found the perfect place to go Kayaking, crabbing, and clamming. You are in the middle of a 200-acre marine park where you get salt tang in the air blowing in off the ocean. Situated on the Strait of Juan de Fuca where to the North beckons Canada, British Columbia, and Vancouver and through its center is the American-Canadian border.
You can indulge in swimming, saltwater fishing, and boating as well. Take your catch in along with those tasty crustaceans you have caught and at one of 3 picnic shelters use the BBQ pit to make a delicious dinner from the ocean’s bounty. Rates are “right on” with the other National Parks.
Willaby on Lake Quinault, SW Olympic Peninsula
Part of the Olympic National Park this campground is located on the south side of Lake Quinault. It is centered inside a Rain Forest like setting, filled with Cedar, Hemlock, Spruce, and Douglas Fir. Within the 19 separate camping areas, you will find facilities for not only tents but Recreation Vehicles and even walk-in campers as well.
Rates are $25 a night, and if you have a second vehicle, you need to pay an extra surcharge of $7. They only limit the number of RVs to 16. You can reserve your spot year round at https://www.recreation.gov
Here and nearby there is hunting fishing, and Hiking along with a variety of water activities including horseback riding, biking, picnicking, and a plethora of other outdoor related activities.
Winthrop, North Cascades National Park
The people at Kampgrounds of America (KOA) have some of the choicest camping venues across the country. Winthrop in the Northern Cascades is one such choice spot to pitch your tent, park your trailer or RV. They even have cabins to rent if you choose to go minimalist. Here in an old Mining town, you can hike, camp, and even take Hot Air Balloon rides over the area to take in all the splendor of the region. It is still an active gem mining area and who knows you might strike it rich while you are here. All the Amenities are here, and they run a shuttle bus into the nearby town as well. There is a heated pool. Never has the Old West been so hospitable. 50 Amp hookups are available. There is even a convenient snack bar in case you are tired of campfire cooking.
Their rates are reasonable, and by calling 800-562-2158, you can get the current rates and see about any specials and when they expire.
Pampered Campgrounds of Millersylvania State Park
Some prefer to camp out in style and want to be pampered as well. Nestled within the 842-acre Millersylvania Park you don’t need to bring a tent or RV. Here you have an exotic Safari-Style tent with all the trimmings waiting. There is a multitude of styles you can choose from like a Rustic Cabin to a Cozy Cottage. Each of the 6 styles of tent cabins has their own unique ambiance and amenities.
From your front deck with a wine glass in hand, you can look out over an old growth forest and inhale fresh air which isn’t polluted or adulterated with fumes and noxious odors. You have 3,000 of shoreline to fish from, walk with a special someone and experience camping like you never dreamed of. Here is what you can expect to see. You see things like a Wolf Sanctuary, miles of trails, a winery, cafe with prime rib, and arts, crafts, and Apple cider and fresh produce. All this is courtesy of the local populace, which wants your stay to be memorial and enjoyable.
It is a tad expensive at $244.50 a night, but it is a once in a lifetime camping experience, not to be missed. This should be high up on your “Bucket List” of things you need to do before you pass into the next life.
Kalaloch, Olympic National Park
Located in a place called “a good place to land” of which the word “Kalaloch” means, it is a place made for the camping enthusiast.
With 73 miles of coastline that include a marine sanctuary and a 3 natural wildlife refuges as well. Crabs and shellfish abound along with Birders flocking here to see their feathered friends. You can swim if you dare. However, there are riptides and logs tend to appear without warning, which makes it something for only the hardy. There is the Hoh Rain Forest and the grandeur of the Olympic National Park itself. The rates vary between $22 and $44 depending on your choice of camping venue. Then all the wonders of nature are here for you to enjoy.
Florida boasts beautiful beaches, historic sites, and unique wildlife. The best way to experience Florida’s diversity is up close and personal. Camping provides the best way to do that since it puts the vacationer in nature. These five Florida camping sites offer unparalleled opportunities to enjoy the state’s nature and culture. Some you may not have heard of or realized that they offer camping. Pack your tent or gas up the RV and get ready to explore five of Florida’s best kept camping secrets.
Map Of The Camping Spots In Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park
Get away from it all, including the mainland at Dry Tortugas, located about 70 miles west of Key West. This 100 square mile park comprised of seven islands and copious amounts of water, only offers access by boat or seaplane. Once there, explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson, enjoy snorkeling in crystal clear water, admire its coral reefs, marine and bird life. Don’t miss the Windjammer wreck, Loggerhead Key, the coral heads, or Little Africa Reef.
The park allows camping on Garden Key only. The fee is $15 per day for a single campsite. Group camping sites cost $30 per day. Campers under the age of 16 stay for free. Golden Age or Golden Access cardholders receive a 50 percent discount. Individual campsites are first come, first serve, but the group site requires reservations. Campers must pay fees on site in cash.
Described by many visitors as what an RV park should be, this RV campground provides an affordable resort popular with families and newlyweds. The resort at 17 Via De Luna Dr., features RV camping across from the Gulf of Mexico with a pool, private breezeway to the beach, free beach umbrellas and chairs for day use, picnic table at each RV site, a lift-accessable clubhouse with gas grill, on-site coin-operated laundry, showers, and the Tiki Shop, a combination convenience store and trinkets shop.
One of the best reasons to stay at this Florida campground gem is the nearby Opal Beach in Navarre, just six miles from the resort. Opal Beach, within the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island, did not exist until 1995. Its sugar-sand beach stands as a testament to the forces of nature and their ability to both destroy and create. Once an area of massive sand dunes, Hurricane Opal made landfall there in 1995. The hurricane’s forces changed the topography of the area overnight. Florida residents woke after Opal passed through to discover a new beach on their shore. The government chose to name the beach after the natural hazard that created it. Open for day use only, visitors can picnic under covered tables or on the white sand beach.
The RV resort winter rates start at $300 per week or $60 per day. A day pass for Opal Beach costs $7 for a pedestrian or cyclist; $10 per motorcycle; $15 per private vehicle with a capacity of less than 15 persons; or $7 per person for a private vehicle with a capacity of more than 15 persons (up to $25).
The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs offers a full range of camping opportunities from cushy cabins to RV sites to primitive tent camping. The Center overlooks the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. The campground offers miles of trails for cycling, hiking, and horseback riding. Within walking distance, visitors will find the Center’s museum and the Carillon Tower.
The five riverside cabins feature two bedrooms, heat and air conditioning, a gas fireplace, screened porch and kitchen. The Center provides linens and kitchen utensils. Each cabin has its own picnic table and grill in the yard. One cabin is handicapped accessible. Pets may not enter the cabins.
Among its oaks, the campground offers 45 ADA accessible RV or tent sites with electric hookups, fire ring, picnic table, and water. The campground also offers two accessible restrooms with showers. There is an RV dump station within the grounds. Pets are allowed in the campground area on a six-foot or shorter leash.
For camping groups, the Center offers two primitive camp areas that accomodate 20 persons each. Carter Camping Area and Cable Crossing Camping Area each have a large fire ring and a picnic table. These two campsites offer no electricity, water, or restrooms.
Cabins cost $100.00 per night, plus tax and a $6.70 reservation fee. RV or tent camp sites cost $20 per day.
All of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is underwater, except the campground. Explore the U.S.’s first underwater park with 70 nautical square miles that feature mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and team with marine life. Take a glass-bottom boat tour or go diving or snorkeling to see its marine life up close. Established in 1963, the park offers picnicking, swimming, hiking, canoeing, kayaking and fishing in certain areas. The park’s visitor center features a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium and a movie theater playing nature documentaries. The park provides beach wheelchairs at no cost and it maintains a glass-bottomed boat that is wheelchair accessible.
The park offers 47 campsites serving tent or RV camping. These feature electric hookups, water, a picnic table and grill. There is an on-site RV dump station. The main restroom is ADA accessible and the the pond restroom, located by the group campsite, features an ADA-accessible private family bathroom. The park also provides a coin-operated laundromat. Pets are allowed. Campsites cost $36 per day.
Residents of the city of Miami don’t have far to travel to campout. You can see downtown Miami from Biscayne National Park. The national park offers boating, camping, fishing, hiking, swimming, wildlife views, and educational programs. It spans the coast and several Keys. It offers two hiking trails, a 14-mile roundtrip tunnel trail through Elliot Key’s tropical hardwood hammock and a one mile loop between its bay and ocean shores.
Biscayne National Park offers two campgrounds, one on Elliott Key, the other on Boca Chita Key. Visitors can access both Keys by boat. Boca Chita offers picnic tables, grills, and toilets. Elliott offers picnic tables, grills, toilets, and cold water showers. Bring potable water to both keys. Visitors may dock their boat or tent campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. At $25 per day, it may be the cheapest place to stay in the Miami metro and you can’t beat the view or the beach access. Inquire about seasonal discounts.
While camping in Florida, check the weather before you leave. Take a NOAA weather radio with you. Pack plenty of bug spray and citronella candles. The mosquitos bite year around. Take along extra sunscreen, too. Have fun and enjoy the great outdoors.