Winter camping: There’s snow feeling like it
You can camp in any season in Ireland, but winter poses particular challenges
“It’s difficult to explain to someone what makes a winter camp a special experience, but seeing the shape of the clouds and hills in the snow as you peek out of the tent is pretty memorable”
We often associate camping with mild summer evenings. However, more and more people are discovering that winter camping can be even more rewarding.
Keith McDonnell, who runs adventure company Extreme Ireland, is a huge fan of sleeping out in frigid temperatures. So keen in fact that he is about to embark on an expedition to Siberia where temperatures may plummet below –40°C.
“It’s difficult to explain to someone what makes a winter camp a special experience, but seeing the shape of the clouds and hills in the snow as you peek out of the tent is pretty memorable,” says McDonnell. “You are camping in a very hostile environment. To make yourself comfortable in this environment is a learning experience.”
Ronan Mullen from Adventure.ie, which offers mountain skills and rescue training, is also a fan of overnight adventuring in winter.
“You can get away with a lot when summer camping. However, if you forget a key piece of kit in winter it can have serious consequences. Pre-planning and bringing the right combination of gear, without carrying too much, is a big challenge.”
While Ireland might not experience the severity of Siberian weather, it’s vital to take extra precautions in the colder months. Here are some top winter camping tips from O’Donnell and Mullen.
1. Be mindful of short days. Don’t be too enthusiastic with your route choice. Everything takes longer than you think, especially in winter. It’s always better to arrive to your campsite early and in good form.
2. Keeping warm is easier than getting warm. Avoid letting yourself get cold as you will have a hard time warming up again. Once you arrive in camp, pop on a couple of extra layers before you start to erect your tent.
3. Bring lots of layers. Invest in good merino wool baselayers and socks as they will both keep you warm and wicki away sweat when you exert yourself. Opt for warm but light midlayers. A lightweight down jacket provides a huge amount of warmth and packs away into almost nothing.
Sleep in the baselayers that you intend to wear the following day so you don’t have to pull chilly clothes on next to skin. McDonnell also puts his boots at the bottom of his sleeping bag in a dry bag to avoid them being frozen in the morning.
4. Don’t leave home without gloves. Good gloves are the first line of defence. Mullen says he always carries at least three pairs of gloves in winter. Frozen hands will make you miserable, and you’ll also struggle to operate things like zips, your compass and do crucial tasks.
5. Invest in good camping gear. If you spend long days in the hills and camp out overnight you have two key considerations when choosing your camping gear: warmth and weight. It’s tempting to take as little as possible but in winter it’s crucial not to take shortcuts when it comes to your gear. Gear with the best warmth-to-weight ratio isn’t cheap but it’s worth the investment if you envisage regular or cold-weather camping.
At a minimum you will need a good tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Many people buy a good sleeping bag but forget about the quality of their ground mat. Without a high-quality insulation barrier your body heat is lost to the ground very fast regardless of how good your sleeping bag is.
Thermarest offers one of the most impressive ranges of lightweight, self-inflating and inflatable camping mattresses on the market. They are designed to trap heat and contribute to your overall comfort significantly.
6. Choose your camp carefully. You should pitch your tent in an area protected from the wind. If you pitch your tent in snowy conditions, pack the snow down and leave it to harden for a little while. Lay a tarp below your ground sheet for additional insulation. You can also build protective snow walls on the windward side for extra shelter.
If you are camping on a slope, face the doorway downhill as cold air will flow into a tent that is facing uphill. And avoid valley bottoms as the air will settle there making them much colder.
7. Avoid the big freeze. If conditions are freezing overnight, turn fuel and water upside down as ice forms from the top down. You can also insulate water bottles by wrapping them in spare clothes.
8. Stay well fed and watered. Dehydration will tire you out and make you colder quicker. It’s easy to forget about drinking water in colder weather, but you must drink at least a litre of water each day even if you don’t feel thirsty.
The cold will also burn energy so pack plenty of grub. High-energy food such as nuts and chocolate are great on the go but you should have a nice hot meal when you get into camp.
Roisin Finlay and Heather Snelgar edit Outsider, Ireland’s outdoor and adventure magazine – www.outsider.ie
GET THE GEAR:
Thermarest Xtherm Mattress. RRP: €254.95.
Delivering the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any of the Thermarest air mattresses, the Xtherm is suitable for even the coldest weather.
Petzl Acktik Core. RRP €64.
Offering 350 lumens of power, white and red light (which preserves night vision), the Petzl Actik Core is a reliable head torch for winter camping trips.
MSR Windburner Stove. RRP €154.95.
Equipped with a radiant burner and a windproof design, this stove not only boils water faster than conventional stoves, it also operates in very poor weather conditions.
MSR Elixir 2 Tent. RRP €284.95.
This tent design offers exception capacity for two people considering its relatively light weight. Made from a mesh fabric with a solid canopy, it ensures maximum protection from the elements in addition to breathability and ventilation.
Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket. RRP: €229.95.
The Microlight Alpine Jacket is a light-weight, weather-resistant down jacket, designed for use in situations where warmth, weight and packability are prime concerns.
All of gear mentioned is available from the following retailers: Basecamp, Wild Side Sports, Adventure.ie, Great Outdoors, and Cotswold Outdoor.