Thursday, January 30, 2020

Like to stay comfy? Seven tips for newbies on winter camping in Idaho

Winter camping ... just you and the mountains. (photo by Alex Gillespie)

By Alex Gillespie

There is nothing quite like waking up and stepping out of your tent with a view of snowy mountains, knowing there's sweet, fresh powder ready to be skied. If it’s your first time camping during the cold, winter months, I highly recommend it. However, it can be pretty miserable if you aren't prepared. 

Here are seven tips I’ve learned along the way to improve your winter camping experience.

Choose the right winter campsite:

Picking your campsite can be fun! Do your research to see where you'd like to set up. 

Fresh tracks on Pilot Peak, Boise National Forest 
In the greater Southwest Idaho and Central Idaho area, pick a spot that has plowed-road access to trailheads the Boise, Payette or Sawtooth National Forest and Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Popular backcountry winter camping jump-off spots include: 

  • Mores Creek Summit, providing access to Pilot Peak, Freeman Peak and Sunset Mountain, accessed via Idaho Highway 21, north of Idaho City. 
  • Big Creek Summit, half way from Cascade to Warm Lake. 
  • Idaho Highway 21 - Beaver Creek Summit or Banner Ridge Park and Ski lots provide access to many miles of trails in the Idaho City Park and Ski system and remote backcountry locations for winter camping. 
  • Idaho Highway 21 - Copper Mountain and Bull Trout Point are two popular destinations between Lowman and Stanley, on the Stanley side of Banner Summit. 
  • Lick Creek Road and Goose Lake Road, both snowmobile trails in the winter, provide access to the Payette National Forest.  
  • Stanley Ranger Station and Redfish Lake Lodge trailheads in the Stanley area, Sawtooth NRA. 

Beyond Idaho, here are more recommendations on winter-camping locations. You may find reviews from other campers or find great information on the campsite’s website, if they have one. (This is for more developed sites, of course)

Check the weather and avalanche conditions:

It is always important to check the weather and avalanche conditions before you go. This is especially important when camping during the cold winter months. 
Continually check the upcoming weather, check Idaho Snotel sites to check on local snowfall/snowpack, and stay on top of any trail closures in the area. Always make a plan, and let anyone close to you know your where you're going and when you'll be back in case something goes wrong.
Bring the right gear:

Packing for a cold-weather camping trip can be a little bit tougher than during the summer months. It is important to find the perfect tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and whatever else you may need to keep yourself warm. You may notice that many sleeping bags are specifically insulated for a certain temperature. In Idaho and the Rocky Mountains, a sleeping bag that's rated to 0 to -20 degrees would be essential for staying warm. Pick the right sleeping bag for the occasion. Finding the right gear is a crucial part of camping during the colder months, so choose wisely!

Photo by Alex Gillespie
Wear/Bring the right clothes:

The key to staying warm is having the right clothing and layering up. For me, three layers is typically a good place to start. The base layer consists of the underwear layer that directly touches the skin. Wear synthetics that absorb and wick away moisture. Capilene works great. Shop around for light to heavyweight long underwear depending on how low the temperatures will reach. The middle layer is good for insulation. Peel layers when you're climbing and carrying a heavy pack, so they don't get soaked with sweat. Find a warm puffy down or synthetic insulated jacket to wear. For your outer layer, it is necessary to have a waterproof jacket/shell and pants to protect you from any sort of crazy weather that may happen.

Protect your electronics:

Whether you have your phone with you, a nice camera to take photos, or any sort of electronic device, you need to protect it from the cold weather. Cold weather can drain your battery fast or permanently damage your electronic device. You also need to think about the wet conditions you may face whether it rains, sleets, or snows. It would be smart to purchase a dry box container to store your electronics when not in use.

Insulated coolers and water bottles:

There is a greater risk of dehydration when you’re are camping at a high altitude or in extreme weather. Because of that, it is important to keep your water from freezing overnight. Do your research to make sure you are buying well-insulated products for your food and water. When skiing or snowshoeing, it's handy to have a water system where you can take sips as you're climbing. Most day packs come equipped with an internal water bladder. Make sure the outside tube is insulated somehow to keep the water from freezing inside.

When nature calls…:

Don’t try to hold your pee in the middle of the night when nature calls. This will make you colder since your body has to burn calories to keep urine warm. If it’s too cold to leave your tent, men can consider using a designated water bottle and women use a jar or purchase a female urination device (FUD) before-hand. It’s not glamorous, but it works!

I hope you can use these tips to experience an unforgettable winter camping trip. Take the time to do your research on where to go and what to pack. Once you’ve set up camp, be smart and play it safe, but most importantly, enjoy it!

Alex Gillespie a guest columnist for Stueby's Outdoor Journal. She can be reached at

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