Winter camping requires a slightly different approach to camping at any other time of year...
In the UK, in particular, we often experience relatively mild but damp Winters. Unfortunately, these are ideal conditions for developing hypothermia! In fact, you can develop hypothermia at any temperatures below 15oC or even at higher temperatures, if you are already in a weakened state.
So here are a few tips and tricks that can help you to keep your core body temperature at the right level (i.e. how to stay warm outdoors).
Clothing - Rather than relying on one ultra warm/thick/bulky item of clothing (such as a great coat), try to use a system of layering. For example; a baselayer (next to the skin) made from wool or another good wicking material, then, a warm layer or two(e.g. thick jumper, down jacket, fleece jacket e.t.c.). Finally, a wind and waterproof layer. This type of system makes it easier to regulate body temperature during physical activity or rest. Don't forget your hat and scarf as keeping your extremities warm is vital. You do not want to lose dexterity or reasoning ability when you are in the wilds.
Sweating - Try to prevent sweating. Having sodden or damp clothing can be really unpleasant, not to mention dangerous. Damp clothing and skin loose heat over 10x faster than compared to dry. Naturally, this fact is particularly important during the cold season. If you're clothing does get damp, try and dry it out as soon as possible, particularly if you are planning to sleep in them.
Staying hydrated - This will help your body to self regulate. Hot drinks will help maintain your core temperature. A nice little trick we like to use : each time you make a hot drink, any excess hot water should be poured into a good quality thermos. This means you are not wasting fuel or water and it means you will always have some hot water, ready to hand. A thermos full of hot water also makes for an effective, improvised hot water bottle for inside the sleeping bag.
Keep out of the wind - Even a relatively light breeze can significantly drop the perceived air temperature. This effect is known as wind chill. Even in extreme cold conditions, just getting out of the wind could save your life. Try using a tarp to block the wind or try to build a wind screen. Failing that, a good tent should shield you from a strong wind.
Staying fed - It may sound obvious, but consuming a large, hot meal will also help keep you core temperature up, particularly in cold weather. Your body can burn these calories to stay warm. A hot meal will provide more energy than the same food consumed cold. All food and drink you consume is heated or cooled (by your body) to approximately 37oC. So if your meal is served at 10oC, your body will warm it to 37oC. That means extra calories are burned to raise the temperature of the food. If rations are limited, you may want to take this into consideration.
Insulate yourself from the ground - Sitting on the ground can draw body heat 50 times faster than air. This is due to the physical process of conduction (also exacerbated by moisture). Some survival experts would argue that it is more important to isolate yourself from the ground as opposed to protecting yourself from the rain (we would argue that both are of vital importance).
Finding suitable shelter - Think about what your house does for you in terms of protection. It blocks the wind and the rain and helps retain any generated heat. A good tent or wilderness shelter should do the same. For extreme cold conditions (we would argue that anything under -10oC qualifies), you will probably want to use some kind of heated shelter such as a canvas tent with a frontier stove inside. Alternatively a couple of protected candles in a small tent can do a lot more than you may think. A further alternative is a gas powered heater, designed for tent use. Always be extra careful when using naked flame inside a tent!!!
Peeing inside the tent - Trust us! Leaving the warmth of not only the tent but also of the sleeping bag, can be horrible. Particularly if you are semi dressed, for sleeping. Using a water bottle to pee in is a little bit of luxury but will be greatly appreciated. All the warm air you have trapped inside your tent will not go to waste. You can also use your pee bottle as a hot water bottle. If it is a good quality water bottle, leakage should not be a problem! Sounds gross but it does work!
Sharing body heat - A great way to keep warm for those that don't mind close proximity to others. Best saved for spouses! This is a recommended way to deal with people suffering from hypothermia. The gradual warming provided by close body contact ensures the patient is not heated too quickly (which can lead to shock or heart attack). When a person's core body temperature has dropped to between 32-35 oC, the patient may exhibit some of the following symptons: shivering, cold and pale skin, slurred speech, fast breathing, tiredness and confusion. Dropping to below 32oC may cause the person to stop shivering completely or may lose consciousness. The longer and more severe the chilling (exposure), the longer and more gradual the warming up session should be.
Heated clothing - A modern solution which relies on battery power to heat elements (wires) which run along the inside of the garment. Modern day variations are actually quite effective. The irony is, batteries tend to not work well (or suffer with significantly decreased run times) in very cold conditions so you need to bring a decent supply.
Hot stones - Large, non porous rocks can be heated in a campfire for several hours. These rocks can then be lifted from the fire and placed within a shelter or underneath a bed frame. The latent heat stored within the rocks will slowly be released over the course of several hours. This can keep the chill of the early hours at bay!
Shelter combined with a fire lay - Practically a home away from home. Yes, it is initially labour intensive but saves masses of calories in the long run. As you would expect it is also the most comfortable way to live in the wild.
Naturally, there is a lot more to know about Winter camping but these tips should definitely help you stay warm.
NB! Always let someone know where you are going and when to expect you back! This is all the more important in harsh conditions.
Stay warm, stay safe!
The Bushgear Team