7 ZS members went camping up in the Adirondack Park in Upstate NY over the weekend of February 15-17, 2008. We had a great time and, I like to think, learned a lot about winter camping.
We camped on the shore of beautiful Polliwog Pond, at a big campsite that was buried under 1-2 feet of snow. The above picture show Polliwog Pond with the firepit in the foreground.
I set up my tent on top of a heavy-duty space blanket after digging down through the snow to reach (almost) the ground. At the end of the weekend I found that even with my sleeping pad and the space blanket, I had melted out an icy outline of myself under my tent.
CommonHighrise had pretty much the same pad and sleeping bag as I did, but he set up his tent without digging down to ground level, and over a layer of balsam branches. He ended the weekend with light and fluffy (and unmelted) snow under his tent. In future winter camping excursions I will follow his example.
Friday night got down to -17 degrees, so all of the lessons learned were learned the hard way, and should be useful for almost any winter camping situations (I hope that I/you never have to go camping in colder weather than that).
Starting and maintaining fires proved quite difficult at these temperatures, but having firestarters to help things along is a definite advantage. I think the key to the difficulty lies in raising the temperature of the tinder and wood to the combustion point; being able to have a firestarter keep the heat on your tinder and wood for the extra time needed is a big help. Increasing the surface area of your tinder and wood (by splitting or "fuzzing" the wood) will help the fire get going.
Once the Sun went behind the trees (at about 4:30), you need to be sure to have more wood than you think you'll need for the night and for the next morning. The campfire becomes a focal point of your winter campsite, especially when the temperature drops below zero. The heat and light from the fire provides both an actual and perceived boost to your core temperature.
This picture, although posed, provide a good example of the signs of a party member chilling down too much. Shivering that they can't stop, and pulling themselves into a fetal posture (arms and legs and head down towards your stomach) is a good signal that the person is getting too cold. The best fix for this is to make sure that the person has dry clothes (and if not, to change into them), get some hot liquids into them (over-strong hot cocoa or gatorade are great for this purpose), and pump some serious fuel into their system (I suggest a couple of big spoonfuls of peanut butter, but anything with lots of carbs and fat will work).
Hot water, and the ability to make it, is vitally important in winter camping. You can actually dehydrate more in wintertime than in the summer, because your lungs will moisten every dry breath that you take into your lungs. If you're not peeing every 1-2 hours, then you aren't drinking enough; don't feel bad, it's easy to do, for a variety of reasons when winter camping...making water from snow is a hassle and peeing in the cold makes you feel colder.
The pieces of gear pictured above are not typically thought of as winter camping gear, but they can make things go more smoothly. A maul to split wood into smaller pieces will make lighting and maintaining your fire easier. The 15" Stanley FatMax saw is small and rips through logs of all sizes really quickly (if it binds in the cold, a quick shot of rem-oil along the teeth will help things along). A really solid folding grill can be useful for everything from grilling meat to supporting pots. Leather-handed gloves are great for handling wood and lifting stuff off of the fire. Skip back up to the picture above this one, and you will see a set of angled pliers, which are great for grabbing pots and pans and grills and providing mechanical advantage for freeing frozen parts.
When winter camping, more than at any other time of the year, food should be viewed as fuel first, and as an outlet for creativity and source of pleasure second. We were lucky enough to have some great cooks along with us on this camping trip, and we all enjoyed super chili and steaks and stew and pancakes and such; but I consider those things luxuries. The first line of winter survival is warm food, rich in carbs and fats and liquid: cocoa and oatmeal started each morning for me, and are a great way to get warmth and water and nutrients into you quickly. Pieces of cheese and pep-stick and the occasional spoonful of peanut butter also kept me fueled up and warm.
I also found myself keeping my next snack and drink inside my outer (windproof) layer, so that they wouldn't freeze. As soon as I finished the bottle of gatorade (which I believe is less likely to free solid due to the salts in it) or Clif bar, I would replace it with the next one, and let my body warm it up so that I didn't have to break it (or my teeth on it) in its frozen state.
My outerwear consisted of pac-boots, windpants, a heavyweight fleece-hooded jacket, windproof coat, fingerless gloves, and mittens. I don't like to layer up too much, because if I'm too layered, I feel as though the dead airspace doesn't work as well. If I start to feel cold in all of this stuff, I either start moving, or eat/drink something.
My inner layer includes long underwear top and bottom, heavyweight wool/poly socks, and a balaclava (generally not added unless it's really cold, or at bedtime). All of these layers, being next to my skin, were likely to become wet, so having multiple sets of each is vitally important. At bedtime I would strip down to a dry set of this layer for sleeping inside my bag; lots of people argue for sleeping without the long undies or socks, but I prefer it.