How to Spend a Polar Night in Your Own Backyard
Guillaume Rivest guides us outside our comfort zones with an introduction to winter camping.
Photos—Sean Traer & Julien Jeanson
Cold and the fear of discomfort: two things that prevent most people from trying winter camping. But once you get the hang of it, sleeping outside in winter opens the door to the world of multi-day winter expeditions.
Personally, I’ve always felt that mastering winter camping was the key to adventures. When I was young, I envied the explorers who visited the poles and the highest mountains, with small tents as their only refuge against an inhospitable sea of white. Today I work as a guide and a journalist specializing in outdoor activities. I see each winter expedition as preparation for an eventual epic polar journey.
To demystify this under-appreciated activity, here’s a short guide that may motivate you to freeze the tip of your nose for a night — or maybe even several. There’s no doubt that the cold complicates the activity, so it’s best to start slow. Low temperatures leave a much narrower margin of error than camping in the summertime. Being underprepared or poorly organized can quickly lead to frostbite or even hypothermia. This is not to discourage anyone, only to emphasize how important it is to take gradual steps. To initiate yourself into winter camping, it’s essential to experiment safely before exposing yourself to a more hazardous situation (for example, having your tent whisked off by the wind when you’re 60 km from civilization, as once happened to a friend of mine).
The first step: sleeping in your own backyard
Spending a night in your own backyard will allow you to test your gear and strategies without too much risk. If anything goes wrong, you’re close to the warmth of home. (If not a backyard, you might consider keeping close to a heated shelter or cabin for your first time.) After this baptismal polar night, you’ll be in a better position to determine your needs and what you might do differently. Take the opportunity to ask a more experienced person, whose advice will surely help in your future adventures.
The equipment you’ll need
In general, I object to any approach that puts equipment before the activity itself. Top 10–style equipment lists are generally not very useful and tend to make people spend a lot of money on unnecessary items. The fact is, and I can’t stress this enough, nothing replaces experience. Roald Amundsen, the famous Norwegian explorer, made it to the South Pole in 1911 without a -40–rated mummy sleeping bag or modern technical gear. For many people, not having the finest equipment quickly becomes an excuse not to do something. And on the other side of the coin, there’s no sense in spending $2,000 on winter camping gear just to try it out for the first time.
With that in mind, consider this section a list of suggestions and ideas, inspired by my own trial and error. By all means, experiment with what you have at hand, or with borrowed or rented gear. Afterward, you’ll be better equipped to make purchases that align with your needs.
The sleeping bag
A camping essential. In winter, you’ll need a sleeping bag with excellent thermal performance. The temperature on the label of your new best friend is generally the outer limit in terms of comfort, which can vary greatly according to each person’s body heat. Ideally, try to get a sleeping bag rated for colder temperatures than the ones you’ll be dealing with. In a pinch, you can get away with using one in slightly colder weather than the rating if you’re wearing insulated apparel (it still isn’t recommended, but I’ve done it and lived to tell the tale). Another piece of advice: consider a sleeping bag that’s long enough for you to have some space past your feet, so you can tuck in the clothes and other things you want to keep warm overnight. I usually put my coat, gloves, extra clothes (as long as they’re not wet, of course), and a bottle of boiling water inside my sleeping bag. Just make sure you don’t have a sleeping bag that’s too big, as this will result in cold zones, and you’ll have a harder time keeping the heat in.
Being able to adapt to weather conditions is an essential prerequisite for winter camping. When I’m out on a trip, I always have at least one extra set of dry clothes to put on at night, a polar fleece, a light down jacket, and a large down parka. Depending on the temperature, I adjust what I wear at night. For example, if it’s -40 ºC, I tend to sleep with my parka on. This adds insulation to my sleeping bag, which has a temperature rating of -29 ºC. If the temperature outside is less cold, my extra layers will be tucked at my feet inside my sleeping bag or in the empty spaces, to limit cold spots. Another advantage to this is that my clothes will be warm if I have to put them on later in the night.
In the evenings at the campsite, very warm clothes are also a must: a large down parka, lined pants, and so on. It’s important to dress accordingly in times when you are moving less, since you won’t be producing as much heat.
The centrepiece of the kit. You may have the best sleeping bag in the world, but if your sleeping pad is not up to snuff, you’ll get cold in the night. Thermal exchanges happen much more easily through direct contact, and you’ll basically be in contact with the ground all night. So it’s really important to protect yourself. Most sleeping mats are rated for their insulation value, and a minimum R-value of 4.5 is suggested for winter camping. My worst nights of winter camping were usually because of an inadequate sleeping mat. Now I bring two mats with me on trips: one inflatable and one foam, in case the first one gives out. If you ever find yourself without a warm enough mat, place as much clothing as you can between your body and the ground for insulation.
For your first night in the yard, it’s not absolutely necessary to have a winter sleeping mat. Two (or more) stacked summer sleeping mats can do the job. You can even create insulation with five or six wool blankets.
A few other items I always keep close at hand:
- Wide-mouthed one-litre Nalgene bottle (wide-mouthed so that it’s easier to thaw)
- Insulation sleeve for water bottle (so the contents freeze less quickly)
- Camp booties (warm down-filled slippers. Very nice for evenings and mornings in camp)
- Hand warmers in case of emergency
- Thermos (with hot liquid inside, like chicken broth for your frozen soul)
- A burner to melt snow and, secondarily, to make yourself a hot coffee the next day. To make sure the water is safe to drink, it’s recommended to boil it for five minutes
Photo: Jonas Jacobson
Six tips for polar comfort
1. Moisture is your worst enemy.
This is probably my most important piece of advice. In nearly every circumstance, wet clothing is the worst thing that can happen in winter because it conducts heat away from the body 25 times more quickly. This can be very dangerous. On winter trips, try not to let yourself get sweaty. Take off layers if you’re warm. Always bring a second set of clothes that you keep dry at all costs and that you can put on in the evening.
2. Eat your fill!
In general, you are your only source of heat in winter camping. Consider the fact that a person who spends the day outside burns an average of 1,000 more calories per day. If you’re hungry, your body won’t be able to produce enough heat, and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be cold during the night. Don’t be afraid of fat! For your own thermoregulation, it’s probably your greatest ally.
3. Go pee as soon as you have to.
I know: from inside the warm cocoon of your sleeping bag at 3:00 in the morning, the idea of getting up to pee is unthinkable. But it’s important to know that your body has to work very hard to heat the urine inside you. Don’t make it work harder than it has to. Do yourself a favour and go pee as soon as you feel the need; you’ll notice a difference immediately.
4. Get to know yourself (especially in terms of heat).
This might seem like odd advice, but it’s essential. Personally, I get warm very quickly. If I’m really warm when I’m falling asleep, I know I’ll sweat in the night. When that happens, my sleeping bag gets damp and loses some of its insulating capacity. So I opt to be just at the limit of discomfort when I go to bed. Use what you know about yourself to find a balance that works for you. There’s no secret formula: experience and the number of nights spent outside are the key.
5. Be organized.
Everything needs to be meticulously organized. In winter, you don’t have the luxury of spending long stretches searching for misplaced items; every instant can be the difference between a successful adventure and frostbite. It’s very important to put everything away as you go. A light snowfall can quickly hide stray objects. Your winter camping experience will be 1,000 times more enjoyable if you’re well organized.
6. Learn useful little tricks.
There are many things that will make your expedition more comfortable, and these are often unique to each person. Here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order:
- On very cold nights, I love putting boiling water in a one-litre Nalgene bottle and placing it at my feet inside my sleeping bag. It creates a source of heat for the first few hours of the night (just make sure you have a good seal on the bottle!).
- During trips, a small, waterproof bag can be helpful for putting damp clothes inside your sleeping bag at night. If they’re not dry by the next morning when it’s time to put them on, at least they won’t be frozen.
- No matter how cold it is, it’s possible to dry a damp sleeping bag by leaving it out in the sun. I’ve often draped mine over my pulka (sled). It works fairly well as soon as the sun is up, even if it’s -30 ºC.
- Let your tent get as much airflow as possible. At night, moisture accumulates quickly inside a closed shelter. If it’s possible to ventilate, do it!
The next step: going further than your backyard
So your first night went well, and you feel ready for a bigger challenge? Take the next step and venture further. The idea is to include active travel in your winter camping, and to be obliged to transport the equipment you’ll need. You’ll quickly learn to weed out the superfluous and keep to essentials. The experience should also greatly improve your organization. You have the option to add meal preparation to your trip, but this is a subject for another article. In case of doubt, the simplest solution is a freeze-dried meal (the Québec-based company Happy Yak makes very good ones), so that all you have to do is add boiled water and wait 10 minutes.
If all goes well, you’ll be ready for an even bigger expedition. Make sure you’re aware of the risks before you go, and have an emergency plan (in case of doubt, speak to a professional or someone with experience).
I could go on indefinitely with tips for winter camping, but the main purpose of this guide is to give you the urge to try it out for yourself. After all, since winter lasts several months here, we may as well appreciate it and take full advantage.
Personally, I’ve always found that the cold nights of Nordic winter hold something deeply inspiring, something that’s attracted me for a long time. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of sitting at the edge of a frozen river, watching the reflection of the moon dancing on the snow through dark spruce branches. Moments like these happen nearly every night on a winter camping trip when temperatures dip below -20 ºC. With a little practice and the right equipment, you’ll soon be able to enjoy contemplating a similar scene, at ease in the biting cold.
Guillaume Rivest is a reporter and columnist who specializes in outdoor activities and the environment. An adventurer in his off-hours, he’s also a guide and has founded his own company: Exode bâtisseur d’aventures. Exode offers all-inclusive expeditions, unique experiences that bring together nature and culture, and which invite people to push their limits.