Troop Camping in the Winter Months
1st Rule: Be prepared for any weather in any extreme.
2nd Rule: Plan for cold, wet, windy weather. (And be grateful when it’s not.)
3rd Rule: Plan for the Scouts to be under-prepared for extreme (especially wet) conditions.
There are three key principles to keep in mind when planning a winter campout:
- Stay dry – wear waterproof outer layer; change clothes before going to sleep; wet clothes + cold weather = uncomfortably cold Scout, and serious risk of Hypothermia.
- Dress in layers – wear a wicking base layer (polyester), insulating middle layer (fleece or wool), and water/wind resistant outer layer (ideally Gore-Tex material).
- Avoid cotton material – it absorbs moisture and dries too slowly, and wet clothes draw heat away from the body at an alarming rate.
Stay Warm, Stay Dry, Stay Hydrated
Make sure that you have a good knowledge of the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. You should be able to recognize it in others and in yourself. Tell someone right away if you or another scout is showing signs of cold-related problems.
Keep out of the wind if you can. A rain fly for a tent can be pitched to serve as a wind break. The wind chill factor can often be considerable and can result in effective temperatures being much lower than nominal.
Bring extra WATER. It’s easy to get dehydrated in the winter. You aren’t visibly sweating, so you don’t think to drink water, but since the air is so dry, you lose a LOT of water through breathing. Drink lots of water!
Polyester materials are intended to wick sweat away from the skin (e.g., Under Armor T-Shirts). Sweat wicking material is often disguised under other material names such as: nylon, polypropylene, capilene, spandex, and lycra. If it is made with more than 40% cotton, it is NOT a satisfactory wicking material.
The key to cold weather camping is to stay warm and dry. Bring both light and heavy weight clothing in order to “layer” if the weather is cold. Scouts should remove layers if they start to overheat and sweat. For base layer (i.e., underwear, socks, t-shirt), bring at least one change per full day of camping.
Everyone must be dry by sundown. No wet (sweaty) bodies or wet inner clothing.
Dress in layers, the trapped air helps keep you warm, and you can shed layers if you warm up.
STAY DRY!! If you get wet, make sure you change into dry clothes as soon as possible. In order to do that, you must have more than 1 article of clothing with you. For example, 3 pairs of wool socks, 2 pairs of pants, etc.
NO COTTON clothing as your primary clothing. NO JEANS! (This is especially true in the snow or icy cold rain.)
Make sure you have snow pants, nylon wind pants, or wool pants, and polypropylene or wool long underwear.
Dress right while sleeping. Change into clean, dry clothes before bed. Your body makes moisture and your clothes hold it in – by changing into dry clothes you will stay warmer and it will help keep the inside of your sleeping bag dry. Wearing wool socks and long underwear (tops and bottoms) in the sleeping bag is OK.
Put on tomorrow’s t- shirt and underwear at bedtime. That way you won’t be starting with everything cold next to your skin in the morning. Put tomorrow’s clothes in your bag with you to take up space in the bag and to warm them for the morning.
Put a couple of long-lasting hand warmers into your boots after you take them off. Your boots will dry out during the night.
Don’t sleep directly on the ground. Get a closed cell foam pad to provide insulation between your sleeping bag and the ground. A foam pad cushions and insulates. The air pockets are excellent in providing good insulation properties. Use more than one insulating layer below you – it’s easy to slide off the first one.
No cots! Better to lay on 30F earth instead of -10F air.
If in tents, leave the tent flaps/zippers vented a bit, it cuts down on interior frost.
Drain your bladder before you go to bed. Having to go in the middle of the night when it is 5 degrees out chills your entire body. Drink all day but stop one hour before bed.
Bring extra food that doesn’t need to be heated or cooked. Granola bars, trail mix, etc.
Keep a pot of hot water available for cocoa or Cup-a-Soup – these warm from the inside.
Always eat hot meals (breakfast, lunch, & dinner.) Dutch ovens are the best – they keep the food hot longer. It doesn’t need to be fancy DO cooking. Meals should be 1-pot meals to keep cleanup to a minimum. Don’t get too fancy with the meals – it’s hard to chop onions & carrots at -10F with gloves on. Prep all meals at home in the warmth of the kitchen.
Shelter the cooking area from wind (walls of tarps, etc.)
Fill coffee/cook pots with water before bed. It’s hard to pour frozen water, but easy to thaw it if it’s already in the pot.
Eat a high-energy snack before bed, then brush your teeth. The extra fuel will help your body stay warm. Take a Snickers bar to bed and eat it if you wake up chilly in the night.
Always bring a bit more than what you think you’ll need – water, food, clothes.
Winter Camping Games and Fun
Broom Hockey: play hockey on a lake or pond using brooms for hockey sticks and a tennis ball for a puck.
Water Machine Contest: a water machine is simply a old burlap bag or other porous material (tarp). Gather snow in the bag or on a tarp, gather the top or the corners and tie off the too. Then hang the bag or tarp with the snow in it near a fire. Put a pot or No. 10 can below to catch. Have Scouts start from scratch by gathering wood and building a tire as well as gathering snow. This promotes teamwork and gives everyone in the Patrol something to do. The first patrol to “make” a quart (or gallon) of water wins. The water machine is also an excellent technique for maintaining a continual water supply while winter camping.
Snow Golf: the same as miniature golf, except that the fairways are snow covered and the greens are packed down areas with a tin can buried in the snow for the hole. The golf balls are hockey pucks hit with old golf clubs.
Learn the Basics of Winter Photography: sponsor a winter photography contest by Patrols or individuals.
Exploring: no phase of Scoutcraft can better form motive for a long hike than exploring the Woods in Winter. Exploring (and mapping) a given tract of woodland will prove rich in all around Scout training. It will furnish instruction, recreation and exercise. It will involve not only technical practice in surveying and map-making but also cooking, camping and woodcraft in general. The instructive side will be interesting in itself and one may rest assured that the games, stunts and story-telling contests around the campfire will have unusual energy.
Patrol Animals Snow Sculpture Contest: The actual carving of statuary is another fascinating pastime.
Mystery games like Murder in the Dark and Mafia are a great option when you’re sitting around the campfire at night. No cards or table needed and the darkness and night noises will help make the game more mysterious.
Corn Hole, Ladder Toss, Bocce Ball are all good choices for no snow winter camping. Anything that keeps the gloves on and keeps the Scouts active will be enjoyable.
Winter Camping in Middle Tennessee
Expect the Scouts to wear jeans and a hoodie in cold weather. This is plenty to get them from the front door to the bus stop in cold weather, it should be fine for Scout camp too, right?
Except it’s not. Encourage them to pack and wear warmer clothing, in layers, and to at least bring a waterproof layer in case it rains, sleets, or snows over the campout. Also, be certain to build a fire, not a pretty fire that’s nice to look at, a warm fire that can heat up cold hands and cold, wet bodies.
Winter Camping “up North”
If you’re camping in the snow, wear snow pants over your regular clothing
Bring extra hand covering – mittens are warmer than gloves.
Bring 2 changes of socks per day.
Fill a couple of Nalgene water bottles with warm water and sleep with one between your legs (warms the femoral artery) and with one at your feet. Or use toe/hand warmers. Toss them into your sleeping bag before you get in. Some of the toe/hand warmers will last 8 hours.
Use a sleeping bag that is appropriate for the conditions. Two +20F sleeping bags, one inside the other will work to lower the rating of both bags.
Use a bivvy sack to wrap around your sleeping bag. You can make a cheap version of this by getting an inexpensive fleece sleeping bag. It isn’t much more than a blanket with a zipper, but it helps lower the rating by as much as 10 degrees.
Use a sleeping bag liner. There are silk and fleece liners that go inside the sleeping bag. They will lower your sleeping bag’s rating by up to 10 degrees. Or buy an inexpensive fleece throw or blanket and wrap yourself in it inside the sleeping bag.
Most cold weather bags are designed to trap heat. The proper way to do this is to pull the drawstrings until the sleeping bag is around your face, not around your neck. If the bag also has a draft harness, make sure to use it above the shoulders and it snugs up to your neck to keep cold air from coming in and warm air from going out.
Don’t burrow in – keep your mouth and nose outside the bag. Moisture from your breath collecting in your bag is a quick way to get really cold. Keep the inside of the bag dry.
A zipped-up coat pulled over the foot of a sleeping bag makes an extra layer of insulation.
Winter Camping Kit List
- Sleeping bag – warm bag, ideally rated as a “zero degree” bag or better
- Wool or fleece blankets – to put over and under sleeping bag as extra insulation if sleeping bag is not rated as “zero degree” (adds 10-20 degrees of warmth)
- Pillow (optional)
- Ground pad – either foam pad or Therm-A-Rest pad
- Stuff sack for sleeping bag (preferably waterproof sack)
- At least 3 polyester underwear
- At least 3 pairs of heavy socks with liner socks. NOT cotton sweat socks.
- At least 3 polyester base shirts – long or short sleeve (worn against skin)
- 1-2 insulating fleece pullovers or wool sweaters
- Hooded sweat shirt and sweat pants to sleep in (this can be cotton for sleeping at night)
- Insulated coat/ jacket that is wind/water resistant – suitable for camping environment
- Winter stocking cap that covers entire head and ears
- Balaclava or ski mask to cover head and face (optional)
- Bandana or handkerchief
- 2 pair warm gloves or mittens (outer material should be wind/water resistant)
- Winter boots (with adequate insulation and waterproof material)
- Extra Pair of footwear – sneakers are OK as supplement to winter boots; Crocks/sandals are NOT appropriate footwear for winter camping
- Rain gear (poncho or water-resistant pants/top shell)
- Back pack or duffel bag for personal gear
- Garbage bags to store your clothes (and keep them dry)
- Wash kit – Soap, wash cloth, towel, comb, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, lip balm, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products
- Mess kit – drinking cup, bowl, plate, and utensils with your name on it
- Boy Scout Handbook (in a plastic, zip-lock bag)
- Water bottle or canteen
- Headlamp (preferred), or Flashlight, with extra batteries
- Compass (optional)
- Camping chair (optional)
- Personal first-aid kit
- Medicines and medical supplies (Must co-ordinate with adult leader)
- Toboggan/sled (Optional)
- Pocket knife (Optional)
Troop Provided Items
- Cooking equipment, food and cleaning supplies
- First-aid kit
- Snow shovel
- Rope, twine
- Ground sheet, tarps for under tents
- Fire starter, fuel, firewood, etc.
- Toilet paper
- Duct tape
- Trash bags
- Rubber gloves
Winter Camping Tips, Checklists and Preparation