Winter camping | Advice from Adventurer, Will Copestake
'Coldest Corbett' adventurer Will Copestake on the lessons he's learnt from his many winter nights in the Scottish Highlands
Over a year-long expedition to kayak around Scotland and tackle a mostly winter round of the Munros, I spent a vast majority of my nights in a tent. Climbing +3000ft peaks non-stop across one of the windiest winters in Scotland’s recent records, I learned first-hand the challenges and rewards of winter camping. There are of course many ways to camp in winter, and I can offer only those lessons I have personally discovered, the options and variances are infinite to the individual.
The greatest importance of winter camping boils down to that immortalised quote: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor gear’ and so long as the six ‘P’s of preparation are respected then winter camping can be both rewarding and comfortable, those P’s being ‘Proper prior planning prevents poor performance’. Three key elements to this are planning, equipment and discipline.
Winter Camping: Planning
Tailor your trip to your experience. Do not go into the mountains planning to winter camp having never camped in summer, build up to it, be it by season or by sheltered valley progressing to a summit. Pay serious attention to both weather and avalanche risk and be conservative, if you can avoid camping on an exposed plateau in a gale then do so. Master navigation and other hill skills to safely get in and out. Go equipped, go prepared and tell someone.
Winter Camping: Tents
Pick your tent to outlast the maximum conditions you expect it will face, and perhaps raise those expectations a little higher. If you plan to camp in sheltered areas such as forested valleys then a three season tent will probably survive in winter, but I would highly recommend investing in a four season shelter with double walls, sturdy poles and plenty of guy lines.
“Sleep naked or clothed? I’ve had some heated (pun intended) discussions over campfires on this one – it seems to be a common argument."
For my winter round, I used a Hilleberg Soulo with the ‘heavyweight’ 10mm winter poles. Pitched correctly it survived winds in excess of 100mph, snow burial under several metres, and to date over 500 nights of use and abuse, and it is still going! Rigidity, strength and quality are three things to look for.
Winter Camping: Gear, Equipment and Sleeping Systems
For my first three years at university studying outdoor education and environmental science, I chose to ‘tough it’ in a summer sleeping bag. Winter nights were something I associated with convulsive shivering, lack of sleep and lack of energy the following day. Investing in a warm bag really makes a difference. Using a silk liner is another great way to add a little comfort, or you could go for the cheap alternative by using a butcher’s meat sack (new, not used!), which is essentially a cheap fabric bag.
Scotland is inherently wet and therefore the best insulating materials will tend to be synthetics like PrimaLoft or a hydrophobic down rather than normal down, the former are more able to perform over multi-day use in damp conditions.
Look for a sleeping bag with plenty of loft, and ideally with a neck baffle. Sleep with your mouth and nose poked outside, and avoid the classic advice to dry wet gear inside your bag and against your body: if you want to stop socks or boots freezing, put them in a dry bag then put that to the bottom of your sleeping bag. No moisture need enter the sleeping bag unnecessarily.
Sleep naked or clothed? I’ve had some heated (pun intended) discussions over campfires on this one – it seems to be a common argument.
I’ll start with a straight answer: it is warmer to wear more layers. The adage that sleeping naked keeps you warmer is likely traceable to the fact that sleeping bags require our bodies to warm them up, no one has ever burned themselves touching a 1000+ down fill bag on the shop shelf. If we are naked our body will warm the bag faster, thus speeding up the initial bubble of heat, however it will just as soon radiate and escape outward and thus, it will eventually be a colder option. Wearing clothes will take a little longer to reach initial warmth but a lower overall loss throughout the night. Think of it like this, you never see a skier wear a down jacket naked, they would get cold without their base layers too.
A sleeping mat is essential. The thicker the better. Personally I use a Therm-a-rest NeoAir, however thick classic foam mats work too and double up as equipment for various emergency scenarios.
Winter Camping: How to Pitch a Tent Correctly
Practice makes perfect. Do not try a new tent for the first time in a mountain storm, test your skills at pitching in wind somewhere safe; it is important to master pitching in wind before needing to do so for real.
A good rule to live by is ‘if I let it go, I let it get lost’. In a winter gale, particularly with snow spin-drifting around you, just a momentary release on a bag, jacket or tent will send it spiralling into the stratosphere, lost forever. Any item not in the hand needs to be pegged down or stashed in a backpack until stashed inside the tent.
Pick a site that offers natural shelter, be it behind a rock or in a hollow and pay attention to potential hazards such as cornices above, or slopes where there is an avalanche risk.
In snow, regular pegs may not be enough to sufficiently hold the guys to the ground. Purpose-built snow pegs are wider and useful additions to the gear list for this reason. For my winter round of the Munros I did not own these, instead I improvised using ice axes and poles to dig a ‘T-Anchor’ and secure guy lines to these, but be aware these may expose during high winds on the upwind side if not dug in deep enough.
Winter Camping: Staying Dry
Once pitched maintain dry discipline. This is pretty common sense, but it’s often overlooked. By creating a bubble of comfort to hide inside even the most inhospitable environment becomes survivable and manageable. Make a rule that no wet kit enters the inner tent, ever! I have found that as soon as moisture comes inside it stays inside. If a little snow or rain makes it past, then towel it out before exposing it to your sleeping bag. Maintaining airflow will reduce moisture from condensation, so keep a vent open, even in the strongest gale.
I chose to cook inside my tent, placing my stove on a snow shelf in the outer vestibule clear of any tent wall fabric. It is essential to increase ventilation during cooking and maintain a constant vigilance to carbon monoxide risks, this can kill if ignored.
Winter Camping: Have Fun
Most of all, winter camping need not be ‘gnarly’– it is about experiencing the wonder that is snow-capped peaks, frosted valleys and epic views from the door of your tent. Follow your instinct to what you find comfortable and have a blast, in every sense of the word.
We recommend booking onto a winter skills course with a certified instructor if planning to head out to camp in winter mountains. Mountain centres like Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia and Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms offer numerous training courses for all levels.