Winter Overlanding Tips

Winter Overlanding Tips

by Patrick Rich

It’s officially winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the cold has rolled in, but don’t let that turn you off to overlanding. In this off-season, it’s dark, cold and access can be a little trickier, but it’s also less crowded and far more quiet.  Some of my very best trips have been in the winter months and with a little extra prep they could be yours too.

Whether you are a first time winter camper or a regular, I hope I can share some tips and experience that you will be able to use.  

I've broken them down into 3 basic categories plus a bonus one
  • Organize and isolate
  • Simplify
  • Go prepared
  • Bonus tips

Organize - Whether your trips are cold and dark only, as they often are in the desert, or if you plan to find snow on your journey, the first and most important thing I can recommend is to make organization a priority. The cold brings an expediency to the camping experience and has a way of helping you drop unnecessary activity. Make it easy on yourself with organization - subdivide soft goods into bags for fresh, dry clothes, for dirty or wet clothes, and for warm layers. I like soft bags and duffles so I can toss them on top of the rest of my gear and I like them larger than I need so that I don’t have to worry about packing neatly. Bring tarps to create dry places, or shelter for people or gear; A tarp is a versatile tool in the cold. Isolate gear and subdivide your kit into functional units like cooking, recovery, camp essentials, etc., and try and leave a little room in each case for hasty packing.  The point is that it should be easy to find things, and easy to put them away, at the expense of packing efficiency.  

Small and light kitchen kit


Simplify - Winter means it's dark early and you are going to spend a lot of time driving, or at camp in the dark. You may be tempted to use that time to cook an elaborate meal, but If it’s cold or snowy, a hot meal that doesn’t take a lot of work or dexterity to prepare is probably what you'll want. Whenever I camp off-season, my group plans at least half the meals to be single pot or made by just heating up water.  If we have complex meals we always plan simpler alternatives as well. I can’t count the times I’ve been out when a storm moved in, wind picked up or I got to camp later than expected and how nice it was to have a simple, hot meal instead of a full kitchen effort. 

An single small camp stove or an integrated camp-type stove simplifies the size of your kitchen kit. At the very least, a second small stove makes heating water for hot drinks, heating bottles (more on this later), or meals that require only hot water far easier than pulling out the big kitchen. Pre-made chili, stews, meat gravy (biscuits and gravy, SOS, etc.) or single bag pasta meals have all come in clutch for me in cold, off-season camping. One of my favorite meals was a pot of kielbasa chili made from backup canned chili and the remnants of a meal plan we weren’t in the mood to cook as the snow storm rolled in with a biting wind. A few canned items can spice up what you've already got while keeping it easy in the event you aren't in the mood to play arctic chef.  

Cooking up a one pot meal


Simply your gear generally. Think of what your basic needs are, and add as needed. Focus on the things that keep you dry and warm and leave out the rest.   

Go Prepared - This next section may seem like a contrast to simplifying, but being prepared for the cold and winter contingencies are exactly what you've been saving space for by simplifying and organizing.  What does being prepared for winter camping look like? Stay dry, isolate from the cold, be ready for sudden changes in conditions and be prepared to weather them comfortably.

If you are camping in the snow, be sure to pack chairs to keep your butt, and your feet off the snow. If you are sleeping on the ground, I recommend a cot AND a high r-value pad. If you don't have a cot, pack two pads instead. If space is a limiting factor, a very  high r-value inflatable pad will pay dividends. I like to bring a few more pairs of socks and shirts than I normally would, and I change them out more frequently. One of the biggest dangers with cold weather camping is getting wet, as it quickly draws away heat and makes you colder and more uncomfortable. This happens from a lack of adequate waterproof gear or, more often, from sweat as people tend to overdress and then overwork. No matter how it happens the effect is the same and it should be avoided. Warm and dry is a place you should no be stingy with your gear.  As a side note - don't run combustion heaters in closed spaces without properly understanding the risks and being protected against accidental tipovers and the dangers of carbon monoxide.  
 

Its all about layers


For cloths, dress in layers. The goal is to stay dry and sweat free, layering allows you to add or subtract warmth as your needs change to keep dry. Sitting around you'll need more layers, but setting up camp can be a lot of work, and it isn’t hard to work up a sweat if you are overdressed. Don’t be afraid to change up your outfit often as conditions change. I tend to bring light and heavy gloves, a down coat as well as a canvas type coat as well as a sweater and I will vary the layers as needed.  This is where duffels on top of your gear pays off as these layers should be highly accessible. You are better off being a little too cold, but dry, than too hot and sweaty. Once you are wet, it’s much harder to regulate your temperature.  Note - Breathable fabric is an important factor in staying dry. A ponco might keep the snow out but it keeps your moisture in and you'll end up soaked from the inside out in no time. A failsafe is simply to bring more changes of clothes than you think you'll need so you can swap it out if needed.  
  

Be ready for not only cold, but sudden changes in weather


Being prepared also means being ready for winter's changing conditions and unique challenges. Snow changes off-road dynamics pretty dramatically and a trail that would be a piece of cake in the dry may become totally impassible in the snow. Be realistic with your winter plans. One particular danger of snow is that it tends to push you sideways off a trail. Tires don’t grip laterally on snow very well and it can be so slick that slight off-camber angles can be enough to drop you off the trail or drive you where you aren’t pointing. In addition, the right hand rule says a spinning tire generates a torque perpendicular to its rotation. If you start slipping on snow and you add throttle you are actually adding a sideways force. Those who have wheeled a lot in the snow will tell you that in slick conditions a locker can actually be a liability and not an asset, precisely because of this force. Two tires slipping in unison generate a strong perpendicular force that can slide a car sideways faster than a single tire. Be especially cautious of using lockers on descents. A set of  
chains is a wise investment if you plan to do a lot of winter touring.

Recover tools are essential, and traveling in groups is HIGHLY recommended. To start, Maxtrax and a shovel should be a minimum kit. A winch with full recovery kit, including snatch blocks and extensions, is advisable. A note - a Hi-Lift jack won’t be effective in the snow without a wide base. A  base extension and additional wood boards may be necessary to lift a vehicle. Even if you aren’t planning for snow, it’s still wise to prepare for it. Winter conditions can happen almost anywhere this time of year. I’ve been struck by lightning on a 10% chance of rain forecast day, and snowed out of trips with forecasted sun. If your luck is like mine, you can count of weather being unpredictable.  

Bonus tipsBring a screw top water bottle like a Nalgene and fill it with boiling water. Screw the lid on tight and put the whole thing in a sock (important!) Put that in your sleeping bag for extra warmth. A quart of boiling water produces a little more than 100 watts of heat. That might not sound like much but it will do a lot to keep you warm through the night, or at the very least reduce the shock of getting into a cold bag. To maximize effectiveness, grip the bottle between your thighs on your femoral artery to put a lot of heat into your body quickly. Don’t put anything like this directly against your bare skin (thus the socks) as you can easily burn yourself. People also say to use a rock heated on the fire in a towel for a similar effect, but I’ve found that method messy and dangerous. For more heat, simply add another bottle or use larger bottles. A 10 liter  dromedary bag  full of hot water will last all night on even the coldest nights and may even be TOO hot.  

Leather gloves are a must

For light gloves, I recommend a slim fitting full grain leather glove from a hardware store treated with a leather waterproofing solution (I use Nikwax, but there are other great options). These gloves will work hard and keep your hands dry and protected in moderate cold and wet weather. Plus, they are affordable enough to have multiple pairs. A pair is always in my car.

Layers and layers

Layer your bedding solution so you can add or subtract warmth as needed. In the desert, it’s much colder first thing in the morning than it is when you go to bed.  

You can use passive dehumidifiers to help control condensation in tents and (especially) cars. Rock salt, charcoal and a few other methods you can find only for passive dehumidification will help keep the moisture down.

Cold affects battery performance, bear that in mind for your battery drain calculations or for your personal devices like phones or lights. An old or weak starting battery is not recommended on winter overland trips. 


1 Response

Lee
Lee

January 04, 2022

Really good article from someone with obvious experience camping in winter weather.
I would recommend that people put together their winter kit, especially their personal items (clothing, water, food, bedding, etc..) they THINK they’ll use for a longer trip that’s further from home. Then take that on a nearby and shorter (2 day/night) mini excursion. Get outside and work with that gear to discover what keeps you dry and warm but NOT sweaty. Adjust your gear accordingly BEFORE your planned longer and more off the beaten path upcoming trip. You’ll also generally consume more water than normal. “Hot-Wets” is what we taught in the Marines for winter outdoor living. Consume as many hot and wet foods as possible (oatmeal, soups/stews, tea, cocoa, etc..).
I’ve been winter camping for many years and it’s a lot of fun IF you’re prepared.

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