Expert Alert: Winter Camping

Nov 16, 2020

Bundle up and go for it!

Cold weather puts an extra strain on COVID-19 quarantining, but Melody David-McKnight, an instructor in UMD’s Recreational Sports and Outdoor Program, says winter is actually a great time to camp. Here’s her advice for a safe trip:

1. What are your top tips to prepare for winter camping?

  • Pack lots of calorie dense foods that won't freeze solid or will still be edible when very cold. Plan on 3,700 - 4,500 calories per day, with a combination of sugars, carbs, and fats. Sugars and carbs give you a fast boost of energy critical to your body's heat production. Fat is energy that's slow to release and will fuel you all day.

  • Research and plan your sleep system. I sleep on two close-cell foam mats to insulate myself, with two sleeping bags, and I toss a hot water bottle in the bottom of my sleeping bag to warm it up before I get in. (Make sure it doesn't leak before you do this!) 

  • Plan clothing layers to regulate your temperature. Everything should be non-cotton– synthetics and wool are both great. The goal is to be able to easily take off layers when you get warm to avoid sweating, then layer back up again as soon as you stop moving to capture the warmth your body is burning calories to produce. Practice with your layering system before you go camping. 

2. What are some benchmarks for winter camping danger? 

  • Getting wet can be dangerous when winter camping, because this can lead to hypothermia if you're unable to dry out. 

  • If a lake is too slushy, or if rain is predicted, these might be reasons to postpone a trip. 

  • Learn the signs, symptoms, and treatment for hypothermia, frostbite, and immersion foot. This will equip you to make decisions about whether you can "stay and play" or get out of the elements.

4. How can winter camping benefit people's mental health during a pandemic?

Think about how you feel when you go outside. Do you feel more peaceful? More present? It doesn’t feel as easy to get outside in the winter, but those soothing aspects of the natural world are no less important. Perhaps you've noticed how comforting it feels to be around people in the pandemic, too, and have a conversation with someone you don't live with. It's safer to be outside with others than it is to gather indoors, so winter camping is great for this! Just remember to stay 6 feet away while you enjoy each others' company, don't share tents or food, and keep your groups small. 

4. Beyond the obvious temperature difference, how does winter camping differ from summer camping? 

In winter, pathways over the frozen water open up that do not exist in summer. The view as you stand on top of the water is expansive on lakes, and the unique perspective on frozen streams lets you in on the secrets of cedar groves from a height and vantage you wouldn't get floating on the river. Look for the footprints of otters, fox, deer, moose, wolves when you're out on the frozen water. This evidence of those who have walked your path before you aren't as prevalent in the summer. Listen for the chickadees, who before Solstice call out their "dee, dee, dee!" warning cries. As the light returns in late January and into February, their calls will change to the springtime "Pheobee!"

Contact Information

Melody David-McKnight

Recreational Sports Outdoor Program

[email protected]


Melody A. David-McKnight