8 essential tips for camping in the extreme cold
Updated: Jan 2
So you’ve decided to plan a winter camping trip into a cold, extreme environment. Even though I have no idea where you’ll go, I salute you. But do you know the difference between planning for a hard multi-day hike in the Sierra Nevada and mounting an expedition to cross Greenland? Nothing.
When camping in any cold destination, you would greatly benefit from the following essential tips to keep yourself safe and happy. Below are what I’ve come to find are the most important safety considerations for anyone hiking in the extreme cold.
Tip #1: Plan everything about your journey to the finest detail
Fact: The amount of effort and forethought you put in before you leave can make or break your camping trip (and you). But we’re not going to let that happen, right? We're going to make sure you have all the most important angles covered before you even start to think about the best place to anchor your tent or dangle your tarp.
The key to success in pretty much every one of life’s endeavors is to have a plan. Every aspect of your journey needs to be groomed with a fine toothcomb. Clothing, food, communications, routes, etc. If you don’t have a solid plan life will get very unpleasant when the doo-doo hits the fan.
Tip #2: Share your route and have a comms plan
Back in the olden days we hardy hikers used to write our routes on a piece of card and give out copies to anyone and everyone who wanted us to come home safe.
We didn’t have mobile phones back in the 70s and 80s. Well, we did from about 1985 onwards, but they weighed the same as a horse, had a battery life of 6 minutes and were only available to people who earned millions and lived in star ships. I made up the last part about star ships.
If there was an emergency, we had to use one of these:
Now we have mobile phones. And apps. Plus, satellite communications devices like the Garmin InReach Explorer+ (which I’ve reviewed here). A device like the InReach, or SPOT gen 4, are perfect as they let you send SMSs from anywhere in the world. I don’t recommend taking your cell phone because there are large parts of the planet with no coverage. Which means you’ll be carrying dead weight.
Oh, and you should still write a route card and give it to someone who cares enough to call the emergency services should you fail to come home!
Tip #3: Plan your meals
And don’t scrimp. Really, don’t scrimp. Running out of food several days before the end of your camping trip is not a pleasant experience. At the very worst, you might end no longer breathing. At best you’ll have a great comms plan but end up looking very embarrassed when you have to organize an emergency drop of Snickers bars to see you through to the end of your trip.
The question on the tip of your tongue is: how many calories will my body need?
When I skied across Greenland, I was consuming about 6,000 calories per day. And I still lost a lot of weight. Now I’m a big guy – 6’ 1” and about 90Kg – so I need a lot of food to maintain my body.
Your body is different to mine, and I can only recommend you run some tests to understand how many calories you burn when working hard (many of the most modern hiking watches give a pretty accurate figure). And then add 500 – 600 more calories to your intake.
Tip #4: Know your first aid for common cold-weather injuries
This is important. Cold weather injuries are special. Frostbite, and its little cousin nip, are horrible injuries and I wouldn’t wish them on my ‘nearly’ worst enemy. Feeling your fingertips and toes starting to freeze is not pleasant, and the agony that comes when they start to defrost is… excruciating.
At the far end of the spectrum are burns. You’ll probably experience a few moments of sizzling flesh and I urge you to pack plenty of pain killers and sterile dressings.
Anyone who’s hiked and camped in places like the jungle, or desert, will know how fast a wound can fester. Even a small nick in your finger can soon become infected, ballooning to twice normal size and feeling like someone lit a furnace under your flesh.
In short, do your homework about common injuries in the wild, including how to treat cold-weather related injuries, and pack a relevant first aid kit.
Tip #5: Get in shape
This is one consideration many people fail to consider before they set off. Travelling in the extreme cold is hard work. And it’s even harder if you need to move across snow.
I’ve managed to keep myself very fit for most of life. Apart from what will forever be known as the ‘Pie Decade’, 10 years of my life lost to gluttony. But I’m fine now.
Even when I’m not planning a camping trip, or big hike, I keep myself fit. The two most important considerations you’ll have are cardiovascular and rucksack fitness.
Sustained exercise will improve your cardio, ensuring you have the heart and lungs to carry you through your trip. Adding in training sessions with your backpack is a great way of preparing your body for the hardships that come with an extreme hike.
Tip #6: Practice setting up your tent in the worst conditions possible
Harsh weather conditions will hamper your camping efforts. You’ll need to be skilled at erecting your tent so you can take shelter as soon as possible.
If your tent allows it, I recommend you prep it by having the poles half-fitted which will reduce construction time by up to 60% (based on my own testing).
Shelter is vital and can mean the difference between life and death. Practice putting up your tent before you set off. Then practice, practice, practice.
Tip #7: Be prepared to deal with wildlife
I live in the UK and the worst injury I’m likely to receive from native creatures is a bee sting, or maybe be gored by an aggressive stag whilst walking across the Scottish Highlands.
But let’s say you travel in the US. Hikers and campers there have, in some areas, the added worry of bears. Grizzlies and black bears are big and aggressive. Having been relatively close to a bear the only advice I can offer is: KEEP AWAY!
If you see one, head in the opposite direction. And if your camping trip takes you into their habitat, then consider arming yourself with bear spray, bangers, and pen-flares. Keep your food safe using a bear box or rat sack.
Other animals to watch for in wintertime in the American Southwest include mountain lions, deer, elk, pronghorn antelopes, bighorn sheep, and vicious squirrels.
Tip #8: Break your journey into manageable stages
All too often you’ll see hikers trying to cram in as many miles as they can, sometimes marching into the night in order to make up their daily ‘quota’. Don’t be tempted to do this. Exhaustion poses a real risk, leaving your mind clouded and unable to carry out the most basic of tasks.
How far you’ll travel each day should be a critical part of your planning phase. Work out the overall distance of your journey and create stages to be covered each day. Then add an extra day or reduce the total mileage you plan to cover.
Because we’re talking about recreational camping and hiking, not a military maneuver designed to test you to the limits of your endurance. Staying alive is the ultimate achievement.
One more thought: it’s okay to do an occasional longer leg, but ensure you get adequate rest the next day, possibly start hiking a little later than planned in order to recover.
Special note about frost injuries
When it comes to frost injuries, it is crucial to have an immediate response!
The first aid for any frost injury is to warm up the affected area. Gently. Don’t dip your fingers and toes into hot water unless you’re determined to cause yourself more pain.
If you see the tell-tale white patches on your face and ears, the easiest way to get heat back into the flesh is with a balaclava, or buff (which I did when one of my colleagues noticed the tips of my ears going white whilst we were crossing Greenland).
Fingers, hands, toes and feet are best treated by pressing them into your teammate’s armpits, or crotch. This might feel a little uncomfortable, but you have choices: blackened, painful extremities that may need to be amputated, or a few moments of not being able to look your tent-mate in the eye.
The most important tip I can offer is to not shrug off a cold injury. Playing the tough guy, or gal, could prove costly.
Wrapping it all up
These thoughts are a little more than the tip of the iceberg. In my experience (I’ve skied to the North Pole, run 400+ miles across the frozen surface of Lake Baikal – and camped on it – as well as many other forays into the extreme cold) these snippets of my experience are amongst the most important.
Some people may disagree. That’s fine. But I have all my fingers and toes and have never needed to be rescued.
Key takeaways from all of this: prepare your mind and body, plan to tiniest detail, and be confident in the skills you learn.
My name is James. When not going to cold places I hang out at https://treksumo.com where I blog about gear and hiking. Come see me.