By Dylan Roche
Most people think of camping as a summer activity. After all, you might ask yourself, “Who wants to sleep outside in the cold?” Especially when you’re trying so hard to give the kids a fun vacation!
But winter camping offers a completely different experience and many rewards of its own. Sure, you might be doing it with a few more layers of clothing, but it’s hard to beat the tranquility of a calm January night, when there are no bugs and the bare tree limbs make it easier to see the star-dotted sky. Plus if there’s a chance of snow, it’s a perfect chance for your family to do activities like sledding, cross-country skiing or just some classic snowman building.
If you’ve never gone camping in the winter, there’s never been a better time to try it. When so many other vacation opportunities aren’t safe in the middle of a pandemic, camping is one of the few trips you can make where you bring your own accommodations with you (no hotels or hostels necessary!) and the whole idea is to be away from other people. It’s just you and your camping party outside in the open air.
That said, winter camping does require its own set of preparations and precautions compared with summer camping. If you’ve got toddlers, it might not be the best option. But for slightly older children, the idea of braving the wintery wilderness might sound like a daring adventure they’ll eagerly look forward to. Involve them in the planning process so they understand some of the challenges they’ll face as well as some of the fun activities they’ll get to do.
Ready to start planning? Here’s how to have the best winter camping trip ever.
Dress in Layers
When you’re spending a lot of time outside in the cold, you want to dress with a close-fitting inner layer, an insulating middle layer made from fleece or wool, plus a weatherproof outer layer. Don’t forget to bring your winter accessories too—your socks, gloves, a cold-weather hat, and a scarf or buff. Be sure to bring several of each in case anything gets wet.
Set up a Winter-proof Campsite
You might be surprised by the challenges you face when you have to pitch a tent in the winter versus the summer. Seek out a campsite that’s near trees and tall rocks, which will help block strong winter winds. You’ll likely have to use harder, stronger tent stakes to force through the frozen soil. Ideally, your stakes should also be grooved so they are more inclined to stay put.
Here’s the part where the kids can help you with making camp. Once you’ve pitched your tent, have the kids help you line your bags and other gear around the inside perimeter to improve the insulation factor. Use foam floor squares (the kind you use for exercise) to line the floor—these will provide better insulation against the cold ground and will be much more comfortable to move around on.
Level up your Sleeping Bag
The idea of a sleeping bag is to keep you warm and comfortable, but a basic sleeping bag is designed for nights that are much milder than what you’ll get in January or February. You’ll want a sleeping bag liner, which can improve the warmth factor by about 10 to 20 degrees. And don’t forget to put an insulated sleeping bag pad underneath you.
Bring petroleum jelly (Vaseline) for defense against the cold air. Including petroleum jelly among your camping toiletries is one of the smartest moves you can make. Lathering petroleum jelly on any exposed skin will form a shield that traps in body heat, protects from moisture loss, and prevents windburn and chapping. It won’t clog your pores, so you don’t have to worry about putting it on your face. If you want to tie in a social studies lesson, explain to your kids that Inuit tribes used this tactic with whale blubber. (Petroleum jelly sounds like a much more appealing option.)
Take care of your Electronics
If you bring your phone or other electronic devices, be aware that cold temperatures will drain your battery a lot faster. Too much use in the cold could even cause permanent damage. When you’re carrying them around, keep them close to your body in the pockets of middle- or inner-layer clothing underneath your top layer. At night, keep them in your sleeping bag with you. If your family is up for it, consider going unplugged for the weekend and don’t even bother with your smartphones. It will up the adventure factor of camping, plus you’ll enjoy family bonding time much more.
Go for Energy-dense Snacks
Warming up your body in the cold requires a lot of calories, so bring easy-to-consume snack items that give you the nourishment you need. Your body digests protein and fat much more slowly than it does carbohydrates, so anything dense in these nutrients will keep you energized and warmer for longer. Go for things like protein bars, string cheese, or nuts. Get the kids involved with prep work by having them make their own snack mix with peanuts, raisins, cereal and M&Ms and portion it into plastic baggies before you leave home. And on the subject of food. . . .
Bring Warming Meals that don’t Require a lot of Prep
The last thing you want to do when you’re cold and tired (and it’s getting dark at 5 o’clock) is spend a lot of time trying to cook a meal over a campfire. Make things easier on yourself by preparing large quantities of soups, stews, or chili ahead of time and packing them in plastic containers or bags. Then you just need to heat them up in an iron pot.
Or you can turn dinner into a craft project by making easy-to-prep wintry snacks your kids will love to make and love to eat. Try fire-baked sweet potatoes or fire-baked apples, both of which can be made in aluminum foil packets:
Cut your sweet potatoes longways, dab the inside with butter or oil, season with salt and pepper, and wrap in foil. Set it over the campfire and allow it to cook for about a half-hour, turning halfway through. This makes a great side for your stew or chili.
For dessert, core the apples and fill the empty center with a cube of butter plus a sprinkle of cinnamon and a pinch of brown sugar. Wrap the apple in aluminum foil and set it over the fire for about 20 minutes.
Stay Vigilant for Signs of Hypothermia
Camping in the winter is fun as long as you stay warm. But there’s always the risk a member of your group could fall victim to hypothermia, a condition where the body temperature drops too low. Signs of hypothermia include:
- Intense shivering
- Slowed, shallow breathing
- Slurred words and garbled speech
- Poor cognitive ability or confusion
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Faint or weak pulse
If you or a member of your camping party shows symptoms of hypothermia, seek or call for medical assistance. While you wait for help, remove any wet or damp clothing and get to the warmest place possible. Provide hot food and beverages, and try to warm the person’s core with blankets.
Remember it’s Going to be Different
Above all, don’t go camping in the winter and expect it to be the same as it is in the summer. You won’t be able to go swimming or birdwatching. But you can get the kids excited about things like winter nature hikes, sledding, and ice fishing.
Sure, you’ll be cold a lot of the time, and there will be fewer hours of daylight. But all of this is part of the adventure—and when all of you keep an eager, adventurous spirit, you’re bound to find that winter has a special beauty and charm all its own.
Where to Camp
Check out any of these great places in Maryland or surrounding states.
Be sure to stay updated on the latest availability—some parks may have increased restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pocomoke River State Park
Located within the Pocomoke State Forest near the cypress swamps bordering the Pocomoke River.
New Germany State Park
Nestled between mountains with diverse forests and miles of trails
Gunpowder Falls State Park
Varied topography encompasses tidal wetlands and steep, rugged slopes
Pocahontas State Park
More than 90 miles of trails and proximity to three lakes for fishing
Delaware Seashore State Park
Close to salt marshes, maritime forests, and the Atlantic Ocean
Shenandoah River State Park
Scenic views of both mountains and rivers
Find more places to camp in the winter!