Cold Sleep

How to Love Winter Camping

10 tips for sleeping outside in the snow when it's dark, frozen...and surprisingly fun.

By Allison Williams Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Camping under the stars in Mount Rainier National Park. Tandemstock photo by Mitch Pittman. Product photos courtesy the vendors. 

1. Be Bold.

Figured sleeping on snow was for intrepid mountaineers and masochists? Nope. Beginner backpackers can expand their outdoor horizons past the first frost with a little planning and the right gear. Plus, it’s hella socially distant.

Campers take in the view at Artist Point.

Image: Nate Brown

2. Be Savvy. 

Snow turns almost any terrain into a flat surface, but that doesn’t mean you can hunker down just anywhere. Permits are required to sleep in Mount Rainier National Park, for example, and tents parked beneath a tree can get hit when branches shed snow bombs. Don’t overreach when selecting a campsite: Thanks to the muffling powers of a snowdrift or two, you needn’t hike far to feel perfectly isolated.

3. Gimme Shelter.

Snow caves have provided humans shelter for millennia, but we modern folk can select from all manner of tents; many overnighters use traditional tent-and-fly models constructed with hardier materials than summer versions. Though this year MSR—maker of extreme snowshoes—released its one-piece, triangle-shaped Front Range Ultralight Tarp Shelter that can be erected with a hiking pole. $280

4. Let it go.

Chores abound on a winter overnight—shovel this, melt that—but time to explore is clutch. The decorative power of snow makes everything pretty, and pleasures as simple as snowball fights or Frozen reenactments do double duty as entertainment and self-warming.

5. Get Heated

If you do nothing else, remember this: Make a hot water bottle before bed. Boil snow (line the stove pot with a little water first) and pour in a plastic container like a Nalgene; inside a sleeping bag, it’ll radiate blessed toastiness all night. Don’t be surprised if you wake up cuddling it like a teddy bear.

6. Sleep Tight.

Sure, sleeping bags are important for cold weather rest—definitely don’t skimp—but the sleeping pad underneath is the real secret to satisfying slumber. One of the warmest pads on the market is made in Seattle: Thermarest’s uber-insulating NeoAir XTherm even got a valve upgrade in the 2020 version. $215

7. Chow down.

Permission to gorge yourself is one of the joys of winter adventures; calories mean energy, which means warmth. Few dehydrated food companies hail from the Northwest, but Bellingham’s Backcountry Staples reps the region with recipes for homemade reheatable porridge and oats

8. Night vision.

Cold winter skies hold less moisture, turning them crystal clear more often. Set an alarm to star watch in the middle of the night for a chance at viewing the Milky Way in its bespeckled glory. Tip for night photography: Illuminate a headlamp inside the tent for the glowy effect.

9. Feet First.

The bootie call is essential to the frigid sleepover, just not that kind. SoDo-based Feathered Friends manufactures down booties that should (and maybe finally will, given the pandemic) be incorporated into day-to-day Seattle fashion. $109

10. Cheers.

Congratulate yourself on the way home. You’re tougher than you thought, pioneer! And if you hated it, spring nights and hammock weather are right around the corner.

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