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 Ethics official 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.
- 8”+. Cars.
- 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.