Snowpack and frigid temps shouldn’t keep you from a nature date.
There are plenty of reasons to love camping. Any excuse to spend time in nature is all I need to load up the truck on a Friday afternoon.
In winter, though, camping usually is not top of mind for those who like to play in the snow. But when I feel cooped up—which happens often in the winter—a tent and sleeping bag are the only cure, even if it means they are anchored to the top of a snowbank.
If you’re undeterred by cold weather and love an outdoor challenge, you might even want to try snowcamping for yourself.
Plan, Plan, Plan
When I sit down to plan an excursion in the snow, the first thing I consider is location. In the winter, my list of possible destinations is fairly limited. A winter campsite needs to be accessible by road and a relatively short hike from the car. If the weather does something unexpected, bailing to the parking lot should always be an option.
With this in mind, a few of my favorite spots are Arches National Park, Wasatch Mountain State Park, and campsites off the Mirror Lake Highway. Arches doesn’t technically qualify as snow camping since any snow that’s found there will be spotty at best. But the park is quieter and less populated in the winter, the rock formations are beautiful when frosted with snow, and staying warm and dry is fairly easy.
But for a true snow-camping experience, you’ll need to head farther north. Jordan Pines in Big Cottonwood Canyon has sites for winter camping, and depending on the snow conditions, winter camping is allowed November through February. While the campground is unhosted, a Winter Camping Permit is required (available at the Public Lands Information Center, 3285 E. 3300 South, SLC, within REI). The sites are about an eighth of a mile from the parking lot, so they make a good spot for a tentative first-timer.
For a taste of high Uinta wilderness, you might try camping along Mirror Lake Highway (aka State Route 150, east of Kamas) at dispersed sites (not established campgrounds), which offers a much more remote feel. In the summer, this highway takes drivers over Bald Mountain Pass, but in the winter, the gates are closed and parts of the roadway are groomed by the Forest Service for snowmobiles. Contact the Kamas Ranger District (435-783-4338) for more information.
Get yourself in gear
A common misconception is that winter camping requires expensive technical gear. And while this may be true if you’re climbing a mountain or going on a two-week expedition, a weekend warrior like myself can definitely manage to winter-camp on a budget.
To me, the most important winter gear is my clothing—it’s my first line of defense against the cold. It doesn’t have to be top of the line—I just keep an eye on the material. Cotton in the winter is a concern because it dries slowly and becomes cold when damp or wet. Polyester and polypropylene are perfect for base layers, as they wick moisture away from the skin.
Fleece is my go-to material for mid-layers. It dries quickly and, when wet, still keeps me warm. I rummage around for some gently used but still waterproof ski pants and jacket for my outmost layer. It’s important to make sure all the layers fit over each other. This is a good thing to verify at home—not when you’re in the parking lot.
A good pair of boots is vital. I recommend Sorel’s Blizzard XT. At around $110, their durability, warmth and comfort make them a good investment and worth every penny!
Obviously a tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove and headlamp are a must. All can be rented from the University of Utah Campus Recreation Services or REI in Salt Lake City. So if you’re missing some essential gear or want to experience an upgrade, check them out first. Most three-season tents will work in the winter just fine as long as you have the right sleeping bag. Or, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, consider building a snow cave (instructions here).
I use my summer bag year-round, but in the winter, I beef it up with a liner and overbag. Sea to Summit offers a selection of liners, and mine adds 25 degrees to my bag. Two summer sleeping bags will have the same effect as an overbag, but I’m glad I spent the $150 on my Big Agnes Cross Mountain 45, warm enough for summer camping trips and light enough for backpacking.
Camping stoves just keep getting smaller and cheaper so I really don’t see a reason not to spend $45 on the compact, ultralight and reliable MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Finally, don’t forget a light source as winter days are short, and no one wants to go stumbling around in the dark to relieve themselves.