Practical Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping Expeditions – Preparations

Guide to winter hiking and camping part 2

Preparing Your Winter Camping Expedition

A good preparation is essential for your winter camping trip. Make sure you read up on the area to visit and buy some booklets and detailed hiking maps. Pay attention to the (most extreme) weather conditions during the planned tour period, transport options and the accessibility of rescue services. In hilly/mountainous areas, also pay attention to avalanche danger and how to get avalanche warnings.

This article is the second part of a series about winter camping. See the index of all parts below.

Darkness

An important factor in winter is the available daylight. When hiking in the wold’s northern areas in December and January it will be dark for a relatively large part of the day. In fact, north of the Arctic Circle it doesn’t get light at all for several weeks in winter. Hiking in dark conditions is more dangerous and colder than a trip that largely takes place in the sun. Check your destination for sunrise and sunset times. Always bring good lighting (headlamp, flashlight and possibly a gas / petrol lamp). You may have to cook in the dark.

Setting up camp in the dark (Lairig Ghru, Scotland – photo: author)

Check, check and double check

Then select the items you need and check them for proper functioning. Unscrew your stove and test it thoroughly. Check the poles and pegs of your tent and all the zippers of your clothes. Make sure you put enough spare parts and the necessary tools in your bag. Then look at the things that you may still have to buy and go to the outdoor sports store in time, so that any items can still be ordered. If you want to rent stuff, reserve it in time, so you can be sure that the stuff is available if you need it.

Insurance

Last but not least: make sure you are well insured on the road. In general, winter hiking and winter camping are usually not covered by your standard travel insurance and also not by a winter sports insurance. Check your plans with your insurance company and make sure that things like search and rescue by helicopter are well covered. Because you often go off the beaten track, you will need a special adventure, survival or mountaineering insurance.

Selecting your destination

Close to home

For winter camping there is really only one condition: it must be winter, or at least cold. Other than that, you can go anywhere. Even in the Netherlands there are good opportunities, for example on nature camping sites and at the camping poles of Staatsbosbeheer. These are fine and safe places to try a night, a short distance from parking lots and inhabited areas.

Winter in the hills

For a slightly more extreme experience, you don’t have to go straight to the North Pole. In hilly areas in the Ardennes (Belgium) or in the Sauerland (Germany) you can make beautiful snow trips. Keep in mind that wild camping is prohibited in most European countries. If you really want to bivouac in nature and experience the real Arctic expedition feeling, you will have to look for places where wild camping in untouched areas is allowed, such as Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland or Greenland. Always check the local rules for wild camping. These can vary from time to time: for example, sometimes an area is not accessible during the hunting season.

Furthermore, your choice of area depends of course on the type of tour you want to undertake. For a short introduction tour, areas near the Netherlands are perfectly suitable. If you want to walk on snowshoes, you will have to go to winter sports areas or Scandinavia. For ski tours, Scandinavia is the best choice. For climbing winter peaks, the Alps are perfectly suitable, but also think of the Munros (peaks above 3,000 feet) in Scotland, or the mountains in Scandinavia.

North of the Arctic Circle

For the real polar experience, you will have to look for the areas north of the Arctic Circle. Think of the very limited daylight in December and January, so the period February to April or even May is a better choice for this.

Crossing the Arctic Circle in North Sweden (photo: author)

Weather

In winter, it is of the utmost importance to prepare for all weather conditions. If the weather changes, this can immediately be very extreme in the winter. With all your good stuff you are of course prepared for this, but there is more. Because of the short days, it is good to check with every route decision which alternative options there are and where an alternative shelter or camp can be made. For example, do not go from the valley up a steep slope to a summit at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

Winter Sun

In winter, also think of protection against good weather. If the sun shines on a snowy landscape, there is a danger of snow blindness. Sunglasses, but also sunscreen and lip balm are indispensable. Even though the Sun may be low over the horizon all day, sunburn is a serious risk, especially when the Sunlight is reflected in the snow.

Warm in the Scottish winter sun
Sunburn is a real thing, even in the far North (photos: author)

Blizzards

The other extreme is strong winds and blizzards. Certainly areas around the Atlantic Ocean are regularly affected by winter storms. Your clothes should protect you from these things, but also think of good face protection. You also don’t really have to be afraid of this extreme weather. If your clothes are good, it is a special and special experience to be in these circumstances. A special phenomenon that occurs a lot during wind and snow (also in fog) is the white out. In this weather, the horizon merges invisibly into the sky and the whole environment seems to merge into a disorienting white mush, where the landscape disappears completely and you do not see whether your next step leads up or down. Good navigation skills and knowing exactly where you are are essential in this case!

On snow shoes in a Scottish blizzard on the slopes of Ben MacDui (photo: author)

Rain

In rainy weather it can be nice to wear a cap (especially recommended for glasses wearers). In addition, make sure you keep your maps in a waterproof folder, with the necessary part folded out. Also think of a rain cover for your backpack and make sure to have all your clothes and your sleeping bag in plastic bags or waterproof liners in your backpack. Your backpack is not waterproof, no matter what they told you when you bought it in the store.

An important reason to keep a close eye on the weather in winter is the danger of avalanches. Read more about this in the next paragraph.

Wet winter nights in Scotland (photo: author)

Requirements for navigation are almost the same in winter as in summer, although there are small differences. First, the landscape in the snow is harder to ‘read’. Many landmarks such as paths, rivers and even lakes disappear under a dense layer of snow and ice.

Map and compass

It is important to always bring detailed maps, where, for example, contour lines, mountain peaks, forest edges and even large boulders are clearly indicated. The scale is ideally 1:25,000 or possibly 1:50,000. Remember that a map without a compass is worth little. Some experience with map reading or possibly a course navigating can of course not hurt.

Another reason, despite all the great technology available for navigation these days, maps and compasses never run out of batteries.

Detailed hiking map, compass and Greenland glacier ice (photo: author)

Satellite Navigation

Even better is to supplement map and compass with a handheld GPS device. Remember that in cold conditions batteries drain much faster than at temperatures above zero. Store the device under a layer of clothing when you are not using it. Of course, this also applies to your digital camera and/or mobile phone). Never rely on just a GPS. As mentioned above, a map and compass always work.

And if you have a new GPS, practice it a lot at home first. You do not want to muddle with the instructions in the cold. Modern GPS devices have lots of very useful functions, so make sure you know how these work before venturing out. Some devices let you upload maps, so this is also something you do well before you leave.

Simple handheld GPS device (photo: author)

In snowstorms or dense fog (white out) in the mountains, good navigation skills are of vital importance. Sometimes you won’t see rock ridges or precipices until it’s too late. In these situations, keep the group within sight distance and carefully plot compass headings or waypoints from one known point to another. If you do not do this, or if you do not look often enough on compass or GPS screen, you will automatically walk in circles.

SAR Beacon

In many ways venturing out into the winter landscape is like going out onto the Ocean. You will likely go far from civilisation and far from the nearest rescue service, into areas that are potentially dangerous. Like ships crossing the world’s oceans, winter expedition teams should seriously consider bringing a GNSS Search And Rescue (SAR) beacon. When activating this beacon a distress signal goes out via satellite, broadcasting your distress call and your location. This distress call will automatically go to rescue services, who will know that you are in distress and will start looking for you.

Avalanche danger

A combination of snow and slopes is always a reason to take into account avalanche danger. Good preparation and some basic knowledge of the weather and the risk factors can eliminate most of the risks.

Check the local avalanche forecasts

Always check the local avalanche reports before departure and avoid the slopes mentioned there. In case of doubt (or too little knowledge) you always walk around the questionable area.

Avoid avalanche areas

Mountain hiking in areas with avalanche danger is particularly dangerous and requires specialist experience. And even with some basic knowledge and low risks, it is unwise to go out without avalanche detection material (and knowledge of its use!).

Snow depth, temperature development and the slope of a mountain determine avalanche risks (photo: author)

Avalanche rescue

If you do go to an avalanche area, always travel in a group and make sure everyone in the group has at least a basic understanding of avalanche risks and rescue. It is not sufficient that you bring one specialist, because when that person gets caught by an avalanche, you are stuck without knowing what to do. Also bring avalanche search and rescue material for each member of the group.

This material consists of avalanche transmitters and receivers for all group members (so-called avalanche beeps) and also several sets of extendable avalanche poles and snow shovels. But even when equipped with all this material, prevention is better than cure, so please keep avoiding any risk!

Wearing an avalanche beacon
Finding the ‘victim’ of an avalanche during a rescue exercise (photos: author)

Avalanche risk factors to look out for

The extent of the avalanche danger in a given area depends on a large number of factors. Of course, there must be at least a few centimetres of snow and there must be slopes. Especially slopes over 25 degrees are dangerous. The Scottish Avalanche Service uses the following six practical factors for estimating avalanche danger on the spot:

  • Visible avalanche tracks. If you see avalanche tracks on the route in front of you, take a different route.
  • Fresh snowfall. If more than 2 inches of snow falls per hour, this creates potentially unstable situations. More than 30 centimetres at once fallen fresh snow should be considered very dangerous. 90% of all avalanches happen during snowstorms!
  • Snow patches that lie on a layer of ice or icy snow, whether or not in combination with risk-increasing conditions such as thaw.
  • Clearly separated layers in the snow, usually caused by layers of loose grainy snow or layers of air.
  • Sudden rises in temperature. The closer the snow temperature gets to zero degrees, the higher the avalanche risk, even if it doesn’t really thaw yet.
  • An unsafe feeling. The ‘gut feeling’ of an experienced observer deserves respect.

Nature and environment

An important part of a winter expedition is ensuring you have minimal impact on nature and the environment. What this means is simply summarised in the following wisdom:

  • Take nothing but photographs,
  • Kill nothing but time,
  • Leave nothing but footprints,
  • Break nothing but wind

In normal English, this wisdom can be translated into the following principles:

  • Leave no traces of your camp
  • Take all your waste back to civilisation
  • Preferably don’t make campfires
  • Do not spill fuel for cooking appliances
  • Do not build huts from trees and branches
  • Do not chase away or catch game
  • Compensate for the CO2 consumed from all trips
  • Limit the use of motor vehicles in nature

Winter tours largely take place in vulnerable nature reserves, often in areas where the effects of climate change are most visible. These areas should only be visited if you are aware of their specific vulnerabilities and treat them respectfully.

This guide is not about survival or bush craft skills using materials from nature. Knowledge of survival in nature is of course good, but with modern high-tech expedition materials we can now survive perfectly and quite comfortably without having to make use of these vulnerable natural resources.

Animal Encounters

During a trip in winter you will hopefully encounter animals. It is a special experience to see how animals adapt to the extreme conditions and survive seemingly easily in these places.

Arctic hare and foxes

In most northern European areas you can encounter arctic hares and arctic foxes. These are brown or grey in summer and get a beautiful white coat in winter. They are obviously not dangerous, although arctic foxes may try to steal food from your camp. Make sure to store your food where animals can’t smell or reach it. And out of experience: Some animals, like foxes, will tear bags or tents to get to those nice smells!

Arctic fox
Tracks of an Arctic hare

Polar bears

In some places you need to consider potentially dangerous animal encounters. It’s always a good idea to prepare for which animals might be dangerous and learn how to deal with this. The most dangerous animal in the polar regions is the polar bear. It is found on Spitsbergen and other islands in the Arctic Ocean, in Northern Greenland and in Canada. Polar bears are very dangerous. If you are traveling to a polar bear area, always bring a local guide who has experience with these animals.

Moose and reindeer

Moose occur throughout Scandinavia, especially in the forests and forest edges. If you see them, just stay well away from them. You may also encounter reindeer (known in Canada as caribou) in these areas, which are never actually dangerous for humans. Often, especially when traveling in groups, you will make too much noise to see moose or reindeer. They will move away when they hear you coming.

Meeting reindeer in Inari, Finland (photo: author)

Musk oxen

Norway, Greenland and Canada are home to herds of musk oxen, a typical Arctic species of long-haired cattle. Here too, you have to keep as much distance as possible. They are known to attack humans that come too close. Close is a relative thing. Their ‘close’ may be further away than your ‘close’, so be careful. The musk ox gives clear blowing signals when you get too close. In that case, take more distance.

Team work

A winter expedition is a team effort. You should never go out in potentially life-threatening conditions on your own. Only in a group can you reach the most remote areas and most beautiful peaks. In the effort, you not only share the experience, but also the burdens. Literally by carrying shared equipment, such as tents, cooking utensils and food together. Figuratively, by sharing the many tasks that make up an expedition, both in preparation and execution.

Make it to the summit together! Snow shoe team on a summit in Hardangervidda, Norway (photo: author)

Know your team members

The success and pleasure of an expedition largely depends on the members of your expedition team. Putting together the team with attention and properly dividing tasks and responsibilities is therefore an important part of the preparation of the expedition. It is good to take everyone’s physical and mental preferences into account. Divide the tasks as much as possible based on these personal preferences and make sure that people also have the right skills to be able to perform these tasks properly.

For example, make sure that someone who likes to plan routes manages the navigation tools such as maps, compass and GPS. Let someone who likes to cook think about culinary delights that can be prepared at -10oC on one or two small burners and let this person do the shopping for this.

Team psychology

Professional expedition teams sometimes use psychology-based team building methodologies. By means of these tools, mental strengths and weaknesses of individual team members are mapped well before the start of the expedition. Examples of these methods are MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), Big5, DISC, Insights, Belbin Team Roles, MTRi (Management Team Role indicator), Enneagram, etc. Expeditions are full of potentially stressful moments, for example if someone gets injured, the weather is very bad or goals turn out to be unattainable, for example, cancelled summit attempts. It is important to estimate in advance how individual expedition members may react to this and how the team will solve these situations. Such analyses and exercises contribute substantially to the success and fun of your expedition.

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