The joys of winter camping

Stunning scenery: Winter camping wonders. Pic credit: Mike Bolam.

Why wait until spring or summer for your next camping adventure? Winter camping has many plus points.

You could wait for spring or summer in Scotland – but you could also embrace the wonders of winter and head out for a camping adventure this weekend.

Remember that warmer spring weather can take a while to arrive and many of Scotland’s higher-level and remote areas will still have snow well into April, and even May.

Of course, you should also take care when planning a winter camping trip and make sure you have the right kit and experience to enjoy a chillier season adventure.

Let’s start with six great reasons to camp in winter:

  • It’s quieter – there are fewer people to spoil the tranquillity of the countryside.
  • It’s a true adventure – the rewards of camping in winter include the satisfaction of self-sufficiency and overcoming a little more hardship.
  • Fabulous views – the landscape is transformed by frost and snow and you will see this from your tent door.
  • No midges – the annoying beasties that plague many wild summer camping trips are not yet around.
  • Longer and darker nights – for more sleep.
  • The need for an open fire – rather than lighting a fire just for show or fun.
Snowy camping. Photograph: Mike Bolam.

Snowy camping. Photograph: Mike Bolam.

The fans of winter camping

When Borders photographer Mike Bolam sees the snowy hills of winter he immediately feels drawn to a winter camping trip.

While Mike, a dad-of-three, enjoys warmer weather camping, he relishes the “complete peace and solitude” of wild camping surrounded by snowy moors and mountains.

He says: “Every winter I look forward to the snow and the chance to get away from it all to walk and wild camp. There is little to beat the true sense of adventure that camping in winter brings, as you face the raw elements and enjoy that superb tranquillity.”

Adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys is also a big fan of “off-season” camping. Part of his latest campaign, a Year of Microadventure, encourages “all kinds of people to get out at least once a month for a year for an overnight adventure”.

He says: “Why wait for spring or summer to camp when winter camping is such a great adventure? Camping in the traditional off-season months has many advantages, such as fabulous frosty scenes, a greater sense of adventure and quieter camp spots. I also like the satisfaction that comes from staying warm and coping well in seemingly hostile conditions.”

Young Scout, Rowan S, has recently discovered the fun of winter camping during an overnight adventure with the 45th Greenock and District (Quarriers) group at the district’s own site at Everton, Inverkip

Rowan, 12, is aiming to achieve his Zodiac Award, which calls on him to camp out one night each month for eight months of a calendar year.

Rowan says: “I was a bit nervous about staying warm in a tent when we went camping last month but it was actually really great. Not many of us were brave enough but I was and I enjoyed the night.

Ultra sleeping bag“I borrowed a good quality sleeping bag from my mum’s friend and I put my own thinner sleeping bag inside. I also used my mum’s inflatable Therm-a-Rest to keep the cold of the ground away from me. I was surprised by how warm I was all night.

“Camping in winter is something I had never tried but I am looking forward to going again next week. I have been telling more of my friends to come this time, too.”

One of my own memorable and thrilling wild camping trips was early one January, half-way up Ben Nevis. Winds were gusting through the valley at up to 100mph and the rain was, at times, torrential.

During the early hours of the morning the rain turned to sleet and temperatures dipped below freezing.

Yet my partner G and I were warm and cosy inside our Force Ten tent. We were fortunate to pitch the tent in the dry and we took the precaution of adding rocks to the perimeter of the tent, as well as pegs and guylines.

Although the tent did blow about a bit and the rain did pelt the outside fabric we were confident that we would survive the night.

In fact, we did better than survive. We enjoyed listening to the stormy winter weather all around us – and waking up to a stunning scene of snow-capped mountains.

We felt a huge sense of satisfaction and adventure from our winter camping trip.

Winter wild camping at Loch Skeen. Photograph: Mike Bolam.

Winter wild camping at Loch Skeen. Photograph: Mike Bolam.

The right kit for winter camping

It might seem obvious but winter camping kit needs to be able to cope with harsher weather conditions. For example, clothing should be warm and waterproof and tents need to be four-season (or good quality three-season).

When choosing the right items you should also think about whether you’ll be overnighting at a campsite or wild camping. The difference is that you could buy a cheaper but heavier winter tent for taking to a campsite (presumably in the car) while you will probably need to pay more for a lightweight three or four-season tent to pop in your rucksack.

Mike says: “I searched and researched to find a good quality and lightweight winter tent. I usually have all my camera kit to carry as well as a sleeping bag, mat, stove, food and spare clothes so weight is important. One thing that people should definitely not compromise on is the sleeping bag. Even if it is bulkier and heavier than your summer sleeping bag you can’t afford to be cold overnight on a wild winter camp.”

Essential winter camping kit list

Red-NalloThree or four-season tent. Most tents are rated as such and this should indicate that they have been designed to be stable, robust and highly waterproof.

Three or four-season sleeping bag. Many people swear by down fill for a winter sleeping bag although there are now synthetics that also promise to keep you warm at sub-zero temperatures.

Check the comfort rating. You want this to be at least -3C or more, depending on the conditions.

Inflatable sleeping mattress. This will ensure the cold of the ground does not penetrate your sleeping bag. The air in the mattress creates an insulating layer. A good choice is an easily inflated Therm-a-Rest, especially the new NeoAir XLite.

You could add a foam mat with foil insulation below the mattress for further insulation or take a campbed to keep you completely off the ground.

If you are driving to a campsite why not take a larger blow-up mattress and throw in a duvet and blankets?

Hot water bottles are a great asset for winter camping. You can fill them with hot water boiled on your stove.

Take extra layers and insulated jackets. Never underestimate how cold it can be when lying still in a tent in winter. It’s recommended that you go to bed in thermal tights and top and add an insulted jacket for extra warmth.

Wear a hat and socks. A hat is a great way to stay extra warm and socks should be warm but loose. Al Humphreys says: “Many people make the mistake of wearing tight-fitting socks but these do not keep your feet warm like loose socks, which allow the air to circulate around your feet.”

Dry bags: Keep all your kit dry in your rucksack by stuffing it in dry bags. If you are keeping items in a galley area in the tent you could use the dry bags to ensure they remain dry overnight.

A stove. Choose a stove that is quick boiling even when it’s windy. A great new stove that is also lightweight is the MSR Windboiler Stove System. It copes really well when it’s windy and it boils water very quickly.

Food and drink. Hearty meals and hot drinks are essential when camping wild in winter. If you are hungry or thirsty you are far more likely to suffer in the cold.

Compass, map, mobile phone and GPS gadget: If you plan to camp remotely you should always have a way of contacting other people in an emergency, or a way to find safety again.

And a few final points:

  • Try to camp in a spot that is out of the wind and away from potential flooding, avalanche or landslides.
  • Vent the tent overnight to minimise the impact of your warm breath and condensation on the tent fabric.
  • Follow the Scottish Outdoors Access Code for responsible camping.
  • A word about tent waterproofing. Tents are made from different fabrics and coated with a range of waterproofing solutions. To find out more see our guide to tent fabrics and waterproofing.

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