Practical Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping Expeditions – Gear Guide

Guide to winter hiking and camping part 3

Your Winter Camping Expedition Materials Gear Guide

Unlike camping in summer, in winter the success and comfort of your expedition very much depend on the quality of the equipment you bring. During cold winter nights not just your comfort, but also your life depends on your clothing, your sleeping bag, your mattress and of course your tent. With the right equipment, you will be very comfortable though. In fact, I dare to say, you’ll have the best nights of sleep you’ll have ever experienced!

This article is the third in a series of articles about winter camping. See the index of all parts below.

Clothing

Clothing is your single most important protection against the winter conditions and cold. A correct choice of clothing can be life-saving in extreme cases. In less extreme cases, it at least makes the difference between suffering cold or feeling comfortably warm. And whatever clothing you choose, it should at least protect against three main “enemies”: cold, water and wind. In addition, these factors also reinforce each other: water causes cold, wind causes cold and the protection against cold and wind potentially causes water (perspiration). Your clothing ensures that you are optimally protected against all three elements, but also not too much.

“There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”

Norwegian Proverb

Experience shows that your choice of clothing should be based on the following five rules:

Rule 1 – Layers

Dress yourself in layers. Better several thin than few thick layers. This applies to everything, so upper body, lower body, but also your hands and head. It is best to wear two pairs of gloves than one thick pair. Many professional mittens come with separate liner gloves by default. You will likely even wear two hats (or more likely a hat and a hood).

Layers are critical to regulate you body temperature under the extremes of winter hiking. When ploughing through deep snow your body will heat up very quickly, while during a coffee break you will equally rapidly cool down again, under the cold temperatures, especially when windy. Use layers of clothing to keep your body at a comfortable temperature while ensuring you don’t sweat. Sweat is your enemy when winter camping. See rule 2.

Full winter gear
Dressed to stay warm and dry (photos: author)

Underwear

Each layer of winter clothing has its own specific function and is logically constructed. The inner clothing (underwear) preferably fits tightly and carries perspiration to the outer layers. Undergarments that absorb moisture are out of the question. Synthetic sports underwear with long legs and long sleeves is a good choice in cold weather, but thin hats, gloves and under socks also belong to this category.

Insulation layer

The next layer is the insulation layer. This consists of thicker materials that mainly retain air and thus retain body heat as much as possible. This is especially important on the upper body, where heat is important. You can think of fleece sweaters or cardigans, possibly in two layers, for example a thin fairy sweater with a slightly thicker fleece vest over it. Fleece pants for the legs are only pleasant at extremely low temperatures. The legs can withstand cold better than the upper body.

Protective layer

The outer layer is the protective layer. This layer prevents all weather influences from outside and must therefore protect against wind, rain and snow. However, it should not also stop circulation from within. Modern breathable materials such as gore-tex are therefore the very best. These hold back water from the outside, but allow perspiration from the inside to pass through to the outside. This layer protects the whole body, so also think of a good hat (or hood), mittens or gloves, pants and not to forget good waterproof shoes.

Layers during the day

During winter tours, the (feeling) temperature can vary enormously during a day. When you crawl out of your tent in the morning, it is often bitterly cold and you wear all the clothes you have. If you then pack your things and walk with your backpack, the temperature often rises quickly, especially in the sun. You can then easily regulate the temperature by turning layers off or on.

Rule 2 – Stay dry

An important rule during winter tours: make sure you always stay dry! Once wet, clothes will not dry, even in the sun, and you will get cold quickly. This rule applies most of all to your feet. Wet feet do not heat up quickly in wet shoes. Always ensure that you have at least one extra pair of dry socks available. See the text about shoes further below for more.

“In winter wet equals cold. Dry equals warm”

Remco Timmermans

Stay dry, at all times! (photo: author)

Please be aware that wet clothing in winter is most often not caused by weather. Snow in freezing conditions normally won’t melt, so it doesn’t cause wet clothes. Wet clothes are usually caused by sweating when carrying heavy loads in heavy snow or by doing hard labour. See rule 1.

Dry clothing will keep you warm. Therefore, after a strenuous walk, when you make camp for the night, first thing you do is put on a dry shirt and an extra layer or an extra warm jacket. This is a good time to replace your windproof hardshell jacket with a thick down jacket.

Wear gaiters in the snow or in tall grass. These keep a large part of your shoes dry and ensure that water does not run into them from above. Also (melts) water that runs from your jacket and pants does not get into the shoes. Preferably use a breathable fabric, but in any case something that is well waterproof.

Rule 3 – No cotton

This is a simple rule: In winter you do not wear cotton. Cotton is perfect in the tropics, but disastrous in the cold. It absorbs a lot of moisture and hardly dries in the cold and therefore freezes quickly. Use nylon or acrylic thermal (sports) underwear, fleece sweaters, acrylic hiking socks and gore-tex synthetic waterproof jackets and trousers. Wool is fine too, but becomes very heavy once wet and dries less quickly than synthetic fabrics.

Rule 4 – Keep your head cool

You lose 30% of the heat through your head. Cover your head well, even at night in your sleeping bag. Headgear is also the easiest garment to regulate your temperature. Hat on, hat off. See rule 1.

Rule 5 – Have spare clothes

No matter how careful you are, your clothes may get wet regardless. You may step through the ice into a deep puddle of water, causing your boots to overflow, or sweat more than you expected on that seemingly easy climb. So when planning how many pieces of clothing to bring, there is a fine balance between too much and too little. As a rule of thumb, as long as you don’t get wet, you can keep wearing clothing items during a several-day hike. Yes, you may smell, but there is always a shower at the end of your adventure.

Nevertheless, there are items you should always carry in case of an emergency. This is especially the case for (thermal) underwear, socks and glove liners. If you have at least one unused pair of those in your pack when you get back home, you have done well.

Hiking boots

Your hiking boots must be 100% waterproof. Leather, Gore Tex, plastic are all fine, as long as they are waterproof. A thick rubber sole provides insulation from the cold ground. Optionally, you can wear special insulated winter hiking boots or tundra boots, as long as they are waterproof.

Also think about protecting your ankles. A high B or preferably B/C or full C boot is recommended in mountainous areas. Old army boots are not really suitable because of the thinner sole. By the way, you can walk on snowshoes with all types of (high) boots. When using crampons you should have a B/C or preferably crampon-resistant C/D shoes. Not sure what all this means? Make sure you visit a good outdoor store for their expert advice.

Hiking boots and long Gore-Tex gaiters. Good in the grass and in the snow (photo: author)

Snow shoes

A snowshoe is a kind of ‘tennis racket’ that you strap under your mountain boots. There is usually a hinge at the toe while the heel is loose. The snowshoe therefore hinges while walking, just like a cross-country ski or tour ski. With some models you can secure the heel, which can be pleasant under certain circumstances, for example, when descending.

Just add snow
Walking on show shoes (photos: author)

What should you look for when buying show shoes?

First of all, it is important to know what kind of tours you are going to walk. If it is often flat with deep snow, then long snowshoes with a large carrying capacity are pleasant. In mountainous terrain, with less deep snow, slightly shorter, or adjustable snowshoes with good iron tips at the bottom are most pleasant. For the steepest climbing work, special ‘climbing snowshoes’ are for sale, whereby a kind of elevation can be folded up under the loose heel so that the snowshoe is at an angle under the shoe, in the so-called ‘rise position’. This is very pleasant.

A second factor is the weight of the user. The heavier the person, the longer the snowshoe. When buying, think of the extra 20 to 25 kilos that you carry in your backpack. Here too you can think of adjustable lengths, where you can extend the snowshoe in deeper snow.

Basically, there are two basic variants of the snowshoe. Firstly, the classic snowshoe frame, where the load-bearing capacity is created by a stretched strong plastic ‘sail’ in an aluminium frame. In contrast, there is the completely hard plastic snowshoe. The full plastic variants are slightly lighter, and only these variants offer extensions for deep snow. Also, only these types come with a fixed heel option.

Walking on snowshoes does not require any special training or much getting used to. You walk in the same way as without, only you will find you have much more grip and you don’t sink too far into the snow. For extra balance it helps to use ski poles when walking on snowshoes, although some people prefer without.

Cross country skis

Snow shoes are great for hilly trails in deep snow, or snow-covered heather or mash ground, common in Scotland and Scandinavia. But when covering distance over flat snowy terrain or frozen lakes, also common in much of Scandinavia, you may opt for cross-country skis instead.

Skis, snowshoes or both?

The right choice of ‘transportation’ is an important decision to take before you leave. Both snow shoes and skis are relatively heavy, and if you carry both, you will always tie one or the other to you pack. But making the wrong decision will make it difficult to navigate your chosen route. Careful planning of both the terrain, expected weather conditions and your carrying capacity is paramount.

Carrying skis while snow shoeing…
Carrying snow shoes while skiing (photos: author)

Cross-country or touring skis?

When choosing for skis, there is still the choice between cross country and touring skis. This choice mostly depends on the terrain. Is your route mostly flat, then the lighter cross-country skis are preferable. If you climb steep slopes, with the occasional downhill stretch, then you may prefer the heavier touring ski.

Many types of skis require special boots to fit the bindings. Some cross-country bindings however have straps, allowing ‘normal’ hiking boots to be used. This can be useful when bringing both snow shoes and skis. Similarly, some touring ski boots have hiking soles, making them more all-round than pure ski boots.

Again, your terrain conditions will determine what is best.

“Strap-on” cross-country skis (photo: author)

What about crampons?

There is one type of terrain where both skis and show shoes are less suitable: glaciers. When you expect a lot of uncovered ice on your route, especially when this is on slopes, like on most glaciers, you may consider bringing crampons. Please bear in mind that glacier crossings come with all kinds of other, additional dangers and skills, so you may consider hiring a professional glacier guide, who will bring lots of additional safety measures.

Sleighs

To complete the stereotypical image of your Arctic expedition, all you need to add to the above is a pulk sleigh. A pulk (from Finnish: pulkka) is a human-pulled cargo-sleigh. It has a special metal frame, allowing it to easily be pulled by a person on skis or snow shoes.

Pulling the pulk at the North Cape, Norway (photo: author)

Using a pulk allows you to carry a lot more equipment than in a backpack, but it comes with pros and cons. The pros are in your carrying capacity. Where a backpack should not exceed 20 to 25 kg to allow it to be comfortably hauled through the cold landscape, a pulk can easily carry double that. However, the usefulness of a pulk heavily depends on the terrain. Pulling a 50-100 kg pulk up a hill is no easy feat, nor is it very easy to ski downhill with the same weight lugging and pushing behind you. Especially on cross-country skis.

In relative flat terrain, crossing large Arctic plains or frozen lakes, or on existing ski trails a pulk is your perfect transport. You can even bring firewood!

The biggest disadvantage of a pulk sleigh becomes apparent at the airport, when flying to your destination or back home. It is big and bulky! You will pay extra, sometimes a lot, to put it into the planes cargo hold. Alternatively you could try renting one at your destination, but in my experience there are only very few gear rental outlets that rent out pulks.

Tents for winter camping

Your next important protection against the elements is your overnight place. The choice of the type of overnight stay depends of course on the type of trip, but here we assume an expedition with tents. Not all tents are suitable for camping in winter. In fact, the vast majority of the tents that you see on campsites in France in July and August are definitely unsuitable for cold nights. For winter camping it is important that a tent is made and sold as a 4-season tent.

A 3-person, 4-season tent in the Cairngorms, Scotland (photo: author)

A tent made for winter

A 4-season tent is specially designed for high insulation value, storm resistance and snow resistance. In addition, issues such as attachment points, special pegs, ventilation openings and the thickness / quality of the material play a role. Lightweight winter tents are always made of synthetic fibre (nylon/ polyester) and not cotton. The tent always consists of two layers: an outer tent with a separate inner tent. Between these layers, a kind of airtight compartment is created, which provides insulation. To hold the air as much as possible, a winter tent often has closed pole slots instead of loops or hooks to attach the inner tent to the flysheet. Both layers consist of dense material, so no inner tent of mosquito netting.

Storm and snow resistant

In addition to insulation value, a winter tent must also be storm and snow resistant. To achieve this, very sturdy, but lightweight aluminium bow sticks are used. Winter tents often also have more poles than summer tents, so that a certain weight of snow can lie on the roof without the tent collapsing. Finally, there are many attachment points for guy lines, so that the tent can be well anchored on all sides (even in rotating winds) against storm winds.

Alternative pegs

Because standard pegs are often difficult to use in hard frozen ground or in deep soft snow, alternative pegs are a good idea. Snow pegs – long aluminium or plastic corner profiles – are good in shallow snow, but you can also think of buried bags filled with snow, rocks, skis, ski poles or ice axes. You can also dig your snowshoes at an angle into the snow and attach them to your tent guy lines. Keep in mind that soft, damp snow can freeze up at night into rock-hard ice lumps, making it difficult to get your snowshoes or ski poles out the next day. If all this does not work well, you can also attach the tent to a few backpacks, which then just stay outside at night. Of course nearby trees make great pegs too! Dome tents usually need few tensioning points to remain standing properly.

Snow shoes as tent pegs
Ski pole as tent peg (photos: author)

In the snow, depending on the situation, you can decide to dig a hole for your tent or just pound the snow until a more or less flat spot has been created.

Morning after a snowy and windy night in Norway. Will have to dig out the pegs… (photo: author)

Ventilation

Another important aspect of winter camping is ventilation. There is a tendency to keep all zippers and flaps pot-tight to make it as warm as possible. But as soon as everyone is in the warm sleeping bag, the temperature will drop quite quickly, to only slightly above the outside temperature.

The most important reason to ventilate well is simply oxygen. The good insulation of a 4-season tent can cause the ‘natural’ ventilation through the open bottom of the outer sheet to be covered with snow and then become quite stuffy. Especially if the tent is used for cooking or when you have a gas lamp on, the oxygen will run out at some point.

Another reason is condensation. Breathing air, but also your stove or gas lamp create a lot of water vapour that you want to get outside as much as possible. Even when ventilating, most of the water vapour you and your equipment produce will freeze onto the inside of the outer sheet. Always turn your tent inside out and shake off as much ice as you can before packing it in the morning.

Frozen condensation on the fly sheet (photo: author)

Quality over price

Lightweight winter tents are definitely considerably more expensive than the tents at the average camping store. Quality comes at a price, although a good winter tent can easily last 10+ years with 2 or 3 weeks of use per year.

When purchasing a tent, remember that indoor space for sleeping, possibly cooking (preferably always outside) and also long evenings inside with a book, is more important than luggage space. Backpacks can just as easily stay outside the tent in the winter. It won’t rain when it freezes. Yes, a tent can be too small, but to conserve heat, a tent can also be too large.

Sleeping bag

There are roughly two main types of winter sleeping bags: filled with down or filled with synthetic fibre. The differences between these are the subject of many discussions on outdoor sports forums, without a clear conclusion. Where some swear by down, others prefer the benefits of synthetic fibre.

A comfy bed at -15C (photo: author)

Down or synthetic?

Down has the great advantage that it is light and can be packed very small, while still offering great insulation value. However, a big disadvantage is that it quickly loses its insulation value when the down becomes damp. Once wet, down does not dry very quickly. It also offers little insulation at the bottom because it is flattened by your body weight there. A good mattress should provide insulation at the bottom.

Synthetic fibres are heavier with an equal insulation value and require significantly more volume in the backpack than down. This is the biggest problem, because they are less sensitive to moisture, dry faster than down and also offer some insulation at the bottom – incidentally without this making a good mat unnecessary.

Comfort temperature range

If possible, buy a sleeping bag with the right comfort temperature. This is often indicated as a range of temperatures, where it is referred to as a minimum, comfort and maximum temperature. The comfort temperature is the most important here. This is the temperature at which the sleeping bag offers optimal comfort and warmth. This should be around the expected minimum temperature at your destination. The minimum temperature indicates up to which temperature your bag still offers some warmth, but is certainly no longer comfortable.

Sometimes there is also a maximum temperature. Above this temperature the sleeping bag is too warm. This is also important, because a sleeping bag that is too warm causes perspiration, making you wet and thus cold as soon as you get up in the morning.

Nightwear

The insulation value of the sleeping bag can be influenced somewhat by the clothes you wear at night. If it gets colder than expected, just keep your thermal underwear, fleece sweater(s) and socks on. A hat is also often nice in winter. In addition, an extra inner liner can give extra warmth, as long as it is not made of cotton.

Your sleeping bag is your dryer

Your sleeping bag will get nice and warm during the night, warming up to body temperature for many hours. This makes it the best, if not the only, place you can use to dry wet clothing items. Make sure to stick your damp socks, underwear and glove liners in the bag with you. If made of the right materials, they will dry during the night. Oh, you should also keep your water bottle with you, to prevent it freezing overnight.

Mattress

A good sleeping mat is of great importance, especially with down sleeping bags. The mat must completely insulate you from the frozen surface under your tent. The best are self-inflatable, foam-filled mattresses. This should be at least so thick that your entire body is ‘loose’ from the ground, so no body parts (hip, shoulders) press through the mattress against the ground. Air mattresses are less suitable, because air alone does not insulate sufficiently.

In addition to a good sleeping mattress, an insulating foil blanket or a silver/gold rescue blanket is also recommended. This reflects the body heat slightly and provides even better insulation.

Due to the contact of the slightly warm mat with the frozen ground, the bottom of the mat often becomes very wet during the night. This condensation cannot really be prevented and is part of winter camping. You can get rid of some of this water by taking the mattress out in the morning and letting the water freeze, before deflating and shaking it off.

Your camp kitchen

Warm and energy-rich food and drink during winter expeditions are essential for your comfort and survival. However, cooking meals and melting water to drink are often no fun, considering it is often dark and cold at the end of your hike, while you are also tired from walking and would like to rest.

Nevertheless, it is very important to pay sufficient attention to good food. When a group tour, you can decide to let one group cook immediately after arriving at the destination of the day, while the rest of the group builds the camp. You can do the same during the morning ritual. One group breaks down camp, while others melt enough snow for coffee or tea and to fill everyone’s bottles for the road.

Camp kitchen in the snow (photo: author)

Burners and fuel

In temperatures at or below freezing, petrol or multifuel burners are the best choice. Gas burners – such as the camping gaz burners with the blue cans – are less suitable. Butane gas hardly works at temperatures below 5 degrees, and also with a butane/propane (“winter mix”) blend you have to take into account longer cooking times than in the summer.

Operating your petrol burner

A good petrol burner works extremely easily, doesn’t break easily and always works, even when very wet. Always take a maintenance set with you, especially a puncture needle (nowadays often built into the fuel injector). Especially unleaded (car) petrol can cause a lot of soot, that may block the tiny injector.

In the snow, make sure you have two things around your burner: a windscreen (aluminium) and a baseplate. The baseplate ensures that your burner does not sink into the snow or the frozen soil. You can buy special base plates with your burner, or just use a lid of a pan, a metal plate or a large boulder.

Petrol burners should be well preheated before use. You can do this with petrol, but this causes a lot of fire and smoke (never do this inside your tent!) and also soot. It is also bad for the environment. It is better to use a small bottle of ethanol that you pour into the burner dish and light. When using multiple burners, it is even easier to heat one burner with another, simply by putting them on top of each other (only when they are equipped with separate fuel tanks of course). The latter method works by far the best and fastest.

A good alternative to unleaded car petrol is white fuel (also known as Coleman Fuel). Your car does not run well on it, but it is better for cooking, as it lacks the additives that are put into unleaded petrol. It burns cleaner than unleaded petrol (less soot) and is better suited for preheating. Moreover, it is better for the environment. White fuel is less easily available than unleaded petrol, but you can buy it at most outdoor sports stores in the Netherlands and abroad.

How much fuel to bring?

The amount of fuel to carry depends on many factors. The most important thing is the circumstances: is there liquid water (streams) or are you dependent on melting snow and / or ice? In the latter case, you need at least twice as much fuel as in the former. Also: the higher you go in the mountains, the more fuel you will need. Count on about 50 ml (minimum) to 150 ml (maximum) of fuel per person per day.

Always carry your spare fuel in special metal fuel containers. Don’t bring the plastic bottles it is sold in, as these easily break when packed in your backpack or sleigh, creating harmful and dangerous spills and fumes. Always be very aware of fire safety in your camp!

Please note: different quantities apply to gas and ethanol burners, in case you bring those. It is also better to have too much fuel with you than too little, despite the weight. When using unleaded petrol you can always put it in the tank of your car if you have any left. Always dispose of unused petrol in a safe and environmentally responsible way!

The art of melting snow

If you melt snow for drinking water, start with a little bit of water from your field bottle or melt a small snowball first. The process is significantly accelerated and costs less fuel if there is already a little water in the pan (even if it is ice cold water). The same goes for melting ice. Then let the water boil well immediately to disinfect. Then proceed to fill all the thermos bottles right away. After dinner you fill the bottles for the night, after breakfast for coffee and for the bottles on the way.

Melting snow or
melting ice (photos: author)

Food and drink

Eating and drinking well during winter tours is of vital importance. Forget about your weight loss diet and only think about calories. It is very likely that on a multi-day trip you burn more calories than you take in. Food for a multi-day trip can be very heavy, so plan your rations carefully, while always keeping some reserves for emergencies. Also think about your drinks. In winter much of the water in nature may be frozen, and you cannot eat snow as a drink. Make sure you have enough fuel to melt snow for drinking water.

What food to bring?

When selecting your food, pay particular attention to the maximum of calories at the lowest possible weight. A jar of peanut butter is heavy, but you smear hundreds of crackers with it and contain many more calories than a jar of jam. In addition, cheese, fatty / dry sausage and candy bars or energy bars are very efficient and also easy to eat with gloves.

For your (hot) meals you should not only pay attention to calories, but also to the cooking time. Meals that have to cook for a long time (vegetables) are less suitable. Not only because of fuel consumption, but also because you want to cook outside for as short a time as possible. You can get very cold while you wait for your pasta to be al-dente after 15 minutes. You want to cook as fast as possible, eat quickly and quickly get into the tent and into your sleeping bag.

Freeze-dried expedition meals

Freeze-dried expedition meals at the outdoor sports store are the most suitable for all these reasons. Lightweight, high-calorie and only hot water is needed. A lump of butter through it ensures that you can swallow it more easily and immediately replenishes your fat content.

An expedition meal for two at a Greenland glacier wall (photo: author)

Stay hydrated

Drinking well is just as important as eating enough. Especially during mountain tours you do not always notice that you lose a lot of moisture and in the cold a cold sip of cold water is not always comfortable. However, always make sure you drink enough.

Use every opportunity to replenish your water supply, for example at a waterfall or fast-flowing stream, or at a tap in a village. Every moment that hot water is made for food (both at breakfast, lunch and dinner) you can easily fill all bottles with boiled water. Use hot water as much as you can, preferably in a thermos bottle, so it won’t freeze during your hike or overnight.

Stay hydrated
with every opportunity (photos: author)

To add calories to your drink, you can add energy drink capsules or powder (for example ice-tea powder) to the water in your bottle. This is also tastier than ordinary water. You can also throw a number of bags of instant coffee (or chocolate) with the hot water in your thermos bottle, so you can enjoy a nice warm sip of coffee at every short break. Instant soup is also a good idea, especially because it has some salt.

Please note that eating snow may sound like an easy way to stay hydrated, but bear in mind that your body consumes more energy to melt the snow in your mouth and stomach than it provides.

Alcohol

Despite popular belief, alcohol is a killer in cold conditions. Yes, it may warm your body for a few minutes, but due to the expansion of your veins, it will then cool you down extra fast straight afterwards. Do not give someone who is already cold a nice shot of whisky to warm up, but rather give the person a sip of warm tea or soup. Of course a small amount of alcohol may lift your spirit after a long, harsh hike, and is usually harmless, but only in small quantities, when you have sufficient other means to keep your body warm.

Crockery and cutlery

Here are a few tips for buying your plates, cups and cutlery for winter camping:

Heat insulation

Thermal conductivity. The greater the thermal conductivity of the material, the faster your food cools down. A metal plate ensures fast cold food, especially if you want to put your plate or cup in the snow from time to time. In addition, with metal you have to be careful with bare hands. Before you know it, your damp fingers are frozen to your plate. And be careful when you lick your plate after dinner! In winter, plates, cups and cutlery made of plastic are best.

A metal drinks bottle looks nice and won’t break, but plastic keeps your drinks liquid for longer. An insulated thermos bottle is best though. A well insulated bottle will keep your tea, coffee or soup warm for most of the day, and night.

Also remember that water will break your bottle if it freezes, so keeping it liquid is critically important. Never bring cans of drink. They will freeze and create a sticky mess inside your backpack or tent. Yes, I have been there.

Don’t drop it

The ability to hold it in your hands easily. This seems like an exaggeration, but with thick gloves on, this is more difficult than you think and you don’t want to drop your precious food and drink. Handles on plates and cups are therefore very useful. A plate with a handle makes a good shovel to dig snow with, for cooking or even for digging out a shelter.

A plate with a handle for eating with your gloves on (photo: author)

Follow the locals

Those of you who have hiked in Scandinavia, Finland or the Baltics may have seen them: hand carved wooden mugs and bowls, often referred to as “Lapland mugs”. Made of wood for insulation and always with a handle to hold them and clip them on your pack, these are great for winter hiking! Nowadays you can also find their plastic counterparts, with the same benefits, but lighter weight.

Fire and light

Considering dark and cold winter nights, you will need warmth and visibility. We have discussed the importance of warm food and drink, but there is nothing that lifts your spirit as much as a good bonfire. Similarly, but for more practical reasons, you want to ensure that you always have light to find your way and your stuff in a dark forest.

Light

You will often be setting up and sometimes even packing up your camp in darkness. You can bring a torch (other than the one in your phone), but more practical is it to put a head light on your head. Modern head torches are very bright and very energy efficient, although you should always bring enough batteries.

Additionally, you can think of bringing a gas or petrol lantern. These not only provide good light, but also produce a lot of heat, making them an easy alternative for your bonfire. In case you are camping in an Arctic plain, with no firewood in tens of miles…

A gas lantern will rapidly heat up the interior of your tent. Be very careful with it though! (photo: author)

Bonfires

If you are lucky enough to have access to firewood, you will want to make a bonfire. A bonfire is environmentally unfriendly and can be a fire hazard to your surroundings, so make sure to always follow local regulations and guidelines for bonfires. If it is illegal or unsafe, then just do without. You should also never collect firewood from living trees. Find dead tree branches, or better, bring firewood from a local shop on your sleigh.

There is an entire art to making a good bonfire, especially under cold and often very wet conditions of a winter hike. You can bring some dry fire starter in your pack to get the fire going, and build your fire using small dry leaves, straw, small branches, bigger branches to chopped wood blocks. Always ensure sufficient room for oxygen to be drawn in from the bottom, so building a fire on top of a lattice made of branches often works well.

Try to keep your fire out of the full wind, preferably in the protection of a large boulder, or a wind-wall you made from snow. Also try to put your fire on steady ground, as putting it onto snow will only make it sink and extinguish.

Bonfire under the Northern Lights in Inari, Finland (photo: author)

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