Plan Your First Winter Overnight

Many, many moons ago: I shivered in my old sleeping bag, listening to the wind howl around my tent. It felt as if I were attempting to sleep on a slab of marble. Live and learn, I thought. Here it was, the end of October on the PPJ trail in Quebec and my gear wasn’t good enough. I’d have to make some purchases before we started in on the winter camping portion of our program.

If you’ve been following along in the winter camping series, you know what to wear, your options for travel, and how to manage cooking in cold temperatures. We’ll briefly look at sleep systems and non-emergency shelters and then it is time to put it all together and plan your first overnight.

I am happy to say that I now LOVE my winter sleep set-up. As long as I hydrate and eat well during the day, I can sleep comfortably down to about -30 degrees Celsius. So what’s in my magical system? A few key pieces:

– a heavy-duty emergency tarp that’s metallic on one side. I fold it in half so that there’s a metallic side reflecting heat away from me and into the ground and half that’s helping me retain heat. It’s the first thing I lay down on my tent floor.

– a yellow, open-cell foam pad. The open cell format allows the mat to dry quickly if it gets wet. This is typically less of a problem in winter but I don’t need two different mats. This one does the trick. I lay it on top of the tarp.

– a Therm-a-Rest ProLite sleeping pad. I learned quickly my first term at Algonquin College that my older bones weren’t going to sleep well on just the yellow foamie. The ProLite rolls up small enough and I sleep well enough on it that I am grateful I spent the money.

– a rated-to-minus 20 degrees Celsius hybrid (synthetic and down fill), mummy-style sleeping bag. There is a lot of science behind building and buying the right sleeping bag for yourself. I recommend reading more about it here and then chatting with a knowledgeable person at your local outdoors store. You can always rent from outfitters and outdoors stores before you buy. My piece of advice – if you can afford it and you know you’ll be able to keep it dry, buy a down sleeping bag. It will pack down WAY smaller than my hybrid which is heavy and takes about 15 liters of space in my pack. And that’s in a compression sack.

– a thin, fleece liner. A liner is easier to wash for your body’s oils and dirt than your sleeping bag and it typically adds another 5 degrees of warmth.

– a synthetic-filled overbag. My overbag adds about another 10 degrees of warmth by preventing dampness in my sleeping bag caused by me perspiring (which I also manage by what I wear to bed).

This may sound like overkill but for someone who runs on the cooler side, it’s perfect for me camping out in Ontario winters.

Here’s a picture of my sleep set-up (and my friend Pilar’s) on a night I didn’t sleep in my tent (more on this in a future post):

sleeping bags winter sleep system

My other secret weapon is my four-season tent which you can read about here as to why it works for me. If you have a robust sleep system, you can absolutely get away with a three-season tent for at least the southern portions of Canada and all of the U.S. If you’re looking to mount an expedition in the Far North you probably aren’t reading this article but if you’re interested this is a good all-in-one article. I’ve also winter camped with people who have slept in hammocks and bivouac or bivy sacks. The hammock takes work to perfect your sleep system as you don’t have the snow directly beneath you (and snow is insulating). Instead you deal with a swath of air. The bivy sack is a thin, waterproof liner that slides over your sleeping bag. In both instances any other gear you’re carrying would be left open to the elements unless you bring and hang a tarp.

In planning your first overnight, may I recommend some place close to home? Your backyard, a friend’s cottage, or the local campground that is open all year long are all great places to start. If you don’t sleep well or the temperature drops further than you anticipated, then it isn’t such a schlep to get home and get warm. There are safety in numbers, so enlist a friend or two with similar goals or at the very least, leave your plan with someone you trust. Plot your menu, organize your food and water, lay out your gear, and start the three-dimensional Tetris game to get it all into your 75-liter or larger pack. Click here for my winter checklist that I shared with Parks Blogger Ontario.

In the next two posts, we’ll look at first aid for winter-specific conditions and emergency shelters.

Intrigued? Join us on a trip!