How to Spend a Night in the Woods in the Middle of Montana Winter
Winter Camping Adventures for the Adventurous (And Slightly Crazy)
Years ago, when taking an introduction to public speaking class in college, I chose “winter backpacking” as the topic for my informative speech. I got a “C” on that speech because I had too many uh’s and um’s and talked for twice as long as I was supposed to speak.
I was just so excited to share the wonders and the joys of discovering the winter wilderness when everyone else is bundling up and rushing to get back inside where it’s warm.
Back in October, I had an article about how you can get away from the crowds in the wilderness. One of the tips was to go outside of the regular summer backpacking season. For those who want this adventure, I’ll lay out some tips and tricks you’ll need to follow to not die while being hardcore.
Choosing your winter camping destination carefully
Over the years, I have camped near or on the Rimrocks during the winter. I’ve hit up the mountains, the plains, and just about everything in between. The right destination can mean the difference between having fun and struggling through your adventure waiting until daylight comes so you get to go home.
A destination that’s not in the mountains, or at least sheltered by some trees, can be rather windy. But, as you know, we love sensationalizing the temperatures around here. So, when it gets cold, we get excited by sharing the windchill instead of the actual temperature.
As you’re galivanting through the Montana wilderness mid-winter, that wind will make life miserable. Find a good location that’s sheltered from the wind (preferably with a nice view nearby), so you don’t have to be bundled up in your sleeping bag the majority of the time.
Figuring out where you will sleep, even in the snow
As you probably realize, tents have really poor insulation. So while they will work for shelter, you end up being extra cold. Then, to top it off, you wake up in the morning, and overnight the moisture from your breath has covered everything in a thick layer of frost.
To stay warmer, you have to get under the snow. A snow shelter can be made in one of two ways: a cave or what is called a quinzhee. The snow cave is carved into an existing snow bank; a quinzhee requires you to pile up the snow.
Both shelters, when made properly, are actually rather cozy.
Digging in, you want your door to be lower than the rest of the shelter. If your door is higher, the cold air will settle into the cave instead of flowing out of the cave. Then, keeping a domed roof, the shelter stays structurally sound as long as the outside air temps don’t warm up too much.
Use a sleeping pad to keep you off the frozen floor, as the warmth from your body raises the temperature inside the shelter. It will maintain around 32 degrees, no matter how cold it gets outside. If you have the time to make a big shelter, you can even carve in platforms to cook on, alcoves for candles to light up your space, and separate rooms for sleeping.
How to plan meals in below-freezing weather
What do you do when everything is frozen, and you need some food?
Like a summer backpacking trip, freeze-dried meals are your best option to reduce weight and provide the calories you need. When you’re out in the cold and snow, you actually need far more calories so your body can burn them just to stay warm.
Access to a creek is ideal; the moving water will keep it from freezing solid. But, if that’s not an option, then it’s all about melting snow, a long and tedious process.
Hopefully, your shelter is large enough to have a small area where you can cook. The heat from the stove will keep the air temperature up, so you’re not shivering for quite as long.
Before turning the stove off, boil some water and fill a bottle. Then, toss that thing down at the bottom of your sleeping bag, and it will radiate warmth all night long… just remember to screw the lid on completely. I didn’t once and dumped half a Nalgene bottle of water into my sleeping bag.
What to wear and bring for cold weather camping
If you’ve lived through a Montana winter, you know the cold. And you quickly learn what to wear to preserve your body heat.
It’s mostly the same while winter camping. The difference is that you want to bring most of your clothes instead of wearing them.
Even though it might only be a few degrees out, when you have a heavy pack on and you’re hiking uphill into the mountains, you will get warm. However, too many layers on while moving means you sweat; when you stop moving, that sweat cools down quickly, and you end up in a bad situation where you lose all your body heat.
Instead, pack most of your clothes, and wear just a couple of layers. Then, if you find that you’re not warming up enough, or if you’re overheating, it’s easy to stop and fix the situation.
Any time you’re going to be out in the snow, you want to wear a good waterproof outer layer. That’s especially true when you’re digging out a snow cave. Snow will fall on you, it will be warm there, and it will quickly melt and soak through all your layers if you don’t stop it right away.
A scarf in the mountains is a great asset.
At night, toss anything a little damp (especially socks) to the bottom of your sleeping bag where that warm water bottle is. They will dry, or mostly dry, by the time you wake up the next day.
A word of caution before you go winter camping in Montana
I probably don’t need to mention this, but camping in the winter can be dangerous. Sure, you don’t have the mosquitos bugging you, people are scarce, and the bears are sleeping, but the weather is generally not what most people would find “comfortable.”
Without the right gear, mindset, and abilities, you could end up as a human popsicle. So, test your mettle with an overnight that’s closer to safety. Then, move on to something higher, farther, bigger, and better when you’re comfortable with your abilities.