A Veteran Scoutmaster shares his Top 10 Winter Camping Secrets. Whether you call it a Klondike Derby, Freeze-O-ree, or a Polar Bear Campout, learn these innovative tricks to stay warm, eat well, and make your next winter camping trip more fun!
I’ve been winter camping since the early 80’s, and have had the great opportunity to camp with Scout Troops in Germany, the Alps, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Northwest, and pretty much everywhere in between. During that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and picked up a lot of valuable secrets to make winter camping fun. Here are my favorite Top 10 Winter Camping Secrets.
These tips are divided into 4 sections: Winter Camping Food, Cold Weather Sleeping, Staying Warm, and Around the Campsite
Winter Camping Food
10. No dishes, fast cleanup.
You may not win the Winter Culinary Camping Trophy for this, but there’s a lot to be said for keeping a winter camping menu simple. Encouraging youth to do KP Duties (Kitchen Patrol, e.g. prepare meals, wash dishes.) is hard enough during warm weather. When freezing, it’s really difficult. So help the scouts plan ahead for that with simple, fun meals that minimized preparation time and cleanup. The next few tips will lay out a successful winter menu.
9. Dinner Ideas.
Try cooking “Stick Biscuits”. Use the refrigerator biscuits (the kind that ‘pop’ when you unwrap the regrigerated cans of dough). Scouts each prepare a cooking stick, which is a long stick approximately 1 to 3 inches in diameter, shaved clean at the end. Scouts roll the biscuit dough into long snake shapes, about 1/2 inch in diameter, and then wrap them around the end of the Cooking Stick. The biscuits are cooked by holding the stick over the fire, as if cooking a marshmallow.
For the main course, try soup. The Cup O’ Noodle style soups come in their own styrofoam containers, and only need to have hot water added, sit for 5 minutes, and they’re ready to eat with a spoon or fork. The warm liquid will keep youth warm, and because the only dish used in preparation was a hot water kettle, there’s no cleanup!
8. Easy Dessert
I’ve convinced my Scouts this is called “Eskimo Apple Pie” and no one has ever asked where the arctic apple orchards are… This can easily be prepared a few days before the winter campout, at a troop meeting. Each youth gets a red apple, and cores it. They then stuff brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins (some Scouts don’t like raisins, they can leave them out.) The exact mixture isn’t important, just use primarily brown sugar. Scouts may opt to skin the apples first. Then wrap the apple in a sheet of tinfoil, and again in a second sheet. The apples can be kept refrigerated until the campout. To cook, simply place the apples in the hot coals as your campfire dies down (after the flames have died.) Rotate the apples every 10 minutes, they should be ready to eat in about 20-30 minutes. The brown sugar and cinnamon flavor will bake through the apple, it’s incredible. Sitting at a picnic table, the scouts can unwrap their apples and eat them with a fork and knife. Again, no dishes to wash.
7. Oatmeal Breakfast – No Dishes.
This is a backpacking secret, but it works great for any quick and easy breakfast. Use the small individual oatmeal packets, the variety pack seems to be most popular with Scouts (but why do they put a ‘regular flavor’ packet in there?) Have the Scouts carefully rip the top of the pouch open, and then simply pour the hot water directly into the pouch. WARNING – don’t get the water too hot or someone will get burned. Even then, be careful. Have an adult carefully pour the water, have the boys wear gloves, and only hold the sides of the pouch (not the bottom) so that they do not get burned. The oatmeal can be mixed right in the pouch, and eaten directly from the pouch with a spoon. Again, no dishes! Note that certain manufacturers’ oatmeal packets are better suited for this. Some manufacturers use thin paper pouches (which do not work well). The best pouches are lined on the inside with a foil or wax coating, which stands up to the hot water better. At our local grocery stores, Scouts have actually found that the off-brand oatmeals tend to have the best pouch linings.
6. Change Clothes Before Bed.
Make sure to change clothes right before bed. All clothes! Scouts should bring a complete change of dry clothes, including underwear, warm socks, and warm pajamas like fleece. Any clothing wet from sweat or melted snow will conduct heat away from the sleeper during the night. Also, a warm winter stocking cap will help keep the head warm.
5. Insulation on Top or Bottom?
Most of the lost heat occurs through the ground. The reason for this is that your body’s weight compresses the sleeping bag’s fill beneath you. Sleeping bag fill works by trapping still air pockets around you, creating an insulating layer. Beneath you, these warm air chambers are compressed, losing much of their insulating ability. Camping on cold snow or cold ground creates heat loss by conduction – by direct contact. So in cold weather, be sure to use a good, thick sleeping pad and even an extra blanket folded up on top of the pad.
4. Extra Sleeping Bags.Not for you, actually. It’s a great idea to carry a few extra sleeping bags with you on winter trips. Inevitably, one of your Scouts will end up cold during the night. Either a sleeping bag will get wet, will not be thick enough, or someone will have an ‘accident’ (Any Scoutmaster will tell you that bed wetting incidents can happen unexpectedly to Scouts into their early teen years.) The best preparation for this is to carry a few extra sleeping bags or blankets you can hand out in the middle of the night. Oh, and don’t leave them in the car, unless you want to be hiking back to the car at 3am, haha.
3. Heat packs and Hot Drinks
A great way to add extra warmth to boots, pockets, or sleeping bags is to bring those small heat packs available at most camping stores. The heat packs are activated by rubbing the packages, which combines chemicals that produce heat. These packets can be used anywhere extra heat is needed. My favorite use is to throw a couple of them into my sleeping bag while I’m getting changed for bed. When I climb in the sleeping bag, it’s already toasty warm. Hot drinks are also helpful for raising internal body temperature. Hot chocolate and hot cider are great. Just two items of caution. When a scout is cold, it’s easy for them to drink something that is too hot, burning their tongue. In addition to being painful, the mouth loses it’s sense of taste for some time, and is very uncomfortable. So be careful not to get the water too hot. And again, I limit hot drinks within an hour of bedtime for the reason mentioned above. Full bladders, warm drinks, and pre-adolescent urinary control are not the driest combination.
Setting Up and Taking Down
2. Toboggan style sleds.
The best way to get individual and group gear in and out of camp is on the small, plastic toboggan style snow sleds. Many troops also camp with a sled dog style sled, but boys will appreciate having their own sled for personal gear. The sleds are available $10 to $20 dollars at most stores, and can be easily pulled behind the scout. Placing pack and gear on a sled means less weight on the youth, so they will not sink as far into the snow while hiking.
1.Work Before Play
Turn a group of Young Scouts loose on a snowy mountain or forest, and they will inevitably play until they are soaked and frozen – unable to even unzip their own coats. Explain this to the Scouts and encourage them to get camp completely set up before they play. When they’re cold and exhausted, they’ll have a properly pitched camp to return to. The day you leave, remember that the midday sun often melts snow somewhat, making things wet and sometimes muddy. I have found that cleanup is a lot easier when tents and gear are packed up first thing in the morning. Granted, hands will be colder and spirits a little less willing, but the job is actually easier. Keep an eye on the gear – if tents or sleeping bags are at all wet or frosty, they will need to be dried out at home. Otherwise, your next campout will be done in mildew-covered gear.
With these tricks and a few that you’ll develop on your own, winter camping can be a terrific experience. If I could give an eleventh tip, it would be to increase your skills and try building a snow cave instead of using a tent. But that will have to be for another article.