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Getting ready for next weekend’s winter camping adventure in the BWCA to celebrate the completion of my 52nd hike of the 52 Hike Challenge.   Today it’s got me thinking of how far I’ve come as an outdoors woman, and remembering my very first winter camping experience 6 years ago.

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I was a new Scout Leader, and knew nothing about winter camping but enthusiastically volunteered to coordinate a winter overnight as a camping merit badge requirement. From there, I led my first backpacking trip the following summer without any experience.  Powered by this same enthusiasm and thirst for wilderness knowledge, we trekked to Glacier National Park.  Lots of learning and we’ve  survived every adventure since then!


This evening, I found the original packing list and cold weather tips I emailed to the Scouts.  It’s stuff I had read on the internet and is still pretty solid today.  I have learned and changed a few things since that first trip and will post when we get back from the BWCA . Other than an ENORMOUS packing list, here were the tips I sent on that first trip.

Special considerations:

Cotton is bad, wool is good. Cotton retains moisture. Blue jeans and sweat pants are not advisable for winter camping, although dry sweat pants can be worn in the sleeping bag. Wicking synthetics such as Cool Max are now available for clothing next to skin. They wick moisture away from the skin and allow it to evaporate.

Layering is important. One-piece snowmobile suits are good only when inactive and not recommended for winter campouts. Throughout the day boys will be active, and need to wear layers of clothing that can be added and removed.

Putting clean, dry underwear on when going to bed is crucial. Boys will need to bring a spare pair of underwear and long underwear that they can change in to and wear while in their sleeping bags, as well as a pair of dry socks for sleeping. That night’s underwear and socks can be worn the next day, as long as you have another dry set for the next night.

Most heat is lost from the head. Bring a 2nd dry stocking cap for night, or a hooded sweatshirt, to keep head warm and out of the sleeping bag. For really cold weather a balaclava can cover your face while leaving mouth and nose open to breathe without wetting the cloth. Do NOT breathe into your sleeping bag – you will get wet and cold.

Dehydration can help cause hypothermia. Drink 2-3 liters of water during the day. Storing your water bottle upside down in the snow (next to your tent where you can find it) will help prevent the lid from freezing on.

Physical activity warms you up. If cold, move!

We check on all of the boys all weekend.

That night, we broke from the group in the cabin after dinner, and snowshoed 2 miles out into the woods in the dark to sleep under plastic tarp tents without a floor. I remember feeling a sense of uneasiness when we got out to our spot and wondered if we really would stay warm enough...or if this would be our last campout.  

I borrowed 2 zero degree sleeping bags from friends, doubled up sleeping pads, prayed A LOT and barely slept a wink. I woke up cold, alone and at one point, thought I heard the scouts calling out for help (but it was just a dream). I kind of felt like I was losing my poor sleep deprived mind.

IMG_4205When I crawled out at dawn, I was relieved that it was time to get up and move around.  The other adult leader and scouts (also with zero winter camping experience) were still asleep in their tarps. I went to the Scout’s shelter to check on them…there were 6 of them jammed in there. When they opened the flap, steam rolled out of the shelter! Some had slid out of their sleeping bags because they were too hot and were sleeping on damp grass that had emerged from their body heat!

They all slept great!

It was 11° without windchill that night.

IMG_4242Coldest night of my life.

Have you tried winter camping?  Think winter campers are crazy?  Post your stories here and any wisdom or tricks for staying warm I should know about before next weekend’s trip!

Happy Trails!



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17 thoughts on “My First Winter Camping Experience aka ‘The coldest night of my life’

  1. I went winter camping once in the BWCAW in Grad School. It was soooo cold, like -25. The first night we slept in tents and that was chilly. The second night we slept in Quinzhee’s ….what a difference. It was so comfortable. During the day we would ski and explore. Just beautiful. Enjoy it!

  2. This made me think of my first winter camping experience! It was in a cabin with a woodstove but there was a giant hole in the bottom of the door and it let all the warm air out and the cold air in. It was -12 degrees outside! It was such a cold night and I was so grateful for my zero degree bag!

  3. I’m excited to try winter camping! I get really hot when I sleep so I’m hoping winter camping will be a lot more enjoyable for me than summer camping haha

  4. I moved to the midwest 15 years ago and up until 2 years ago, I hated winter. Before I met my friends Pam and Lori, all I wanted to do was surf, outrigger, and SUP race. They both inspired me to embrace winter through xcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Winter camping, however, has never been on my radar. No fricken way man. But now… I’m thinking… maybe. Your blog and IG has inspired me to consider it. Mahalo, Jen! 🙂
    PS: I love trail running and your beautiful sister has inspired me to trail run even through winter! #not11pacetredmill

    1. Thanks Glo! This is so great to hear! For years people told me that the only way to survive a MN winter was to embrace it. It took me almost 2 decades to embrace it, but I’m so glad I did! I too had a couple of crazy friends that did all of this stuff outside that finally made it seem doable. So glad for those growth opportunities and an antidote to the winter blues. Keep on truckin!

      1. Jen, I’ve got a 3-day weekend coming up and I don’t want to be stuck at home. It’s going to be in the single digits and even colder at night. Do you think winter camping would be pretty miserable? I’d consider it if it were in the 30’s but the single digits just doesn’t sound fun at all. Thoughts?

  5. Here’s my 2 cents. It’s definitely possible but might not be that enjoyable. Can you snag a camper cabin somewhere? Not trying to talk you out of it, but single digit to negative temps were the deciding factor for me at the BWCA… I knew I would survive, but it would take some effort to stay warm when I wasn’t hiking and at night. So I decided against it. If you have the right gear and are prepared to keep moving, eat a lot and do sit ups in your sleeping bag in the middle of the night, you should stay warm enough. But maybe try one night first and see how you like it. 🙂

  6. You are amazing with all these outings -especially in the winter, camping. Those Scouts are lucky guys!

    1. Thanks Mike! I love hanging out with the Scouts, they sharpen me! Continual learning, getting to be a kid again and outdoor skills? Im grateful for the experience and can honestly say its shaped me into the person I am today. Isnt that what the Scouts are supposed to say? Ha! (One happy Scout Leader right here). Happy Trails!

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