While it’s delightful to see an increasing number of people opening their eyes to sleeping outdoors during winter, the barrier to sleeping under the stars with neither a tent nor a hammock or even a tarp still seems to be a challenge to most.
This weekend, I set out with a couple of friends to sleep under a clear blue sky with nothing but a sleeping bag and a bivvy. Sleeping outdoors in the cold and snowy season requires some extra planning but is wildly rewarding.
For me, the biggest challenge is heading into the woods with a big backpack and Nordic backcountry skis. The additional 10-15kg weight on my back certainly adds some spice to navigating between the trees on long descents in deep snow.
Before you go
Check the weather report and avalanche reports. It’s no fun waking up soaked halfway through the night because of heavy snow. Precipitation doesn’t have to be a show-stopper if planned for, as one can always find shelter under a tree, but it certainly represents a complicating factor.
It’s the same with excessive wind. A proper bivvy keeps the wind out, but it’s no fun having gloves, food items, pans, and pots disappear in the wind unless tied down. Unless you’re practising for emergency situations during longer expeditions, I’d avoid the strongest winds. I hate strong winds.
And finally – take a critical look at the packing list. If it doesn’t have to come, leave it.
Planning-wise, here’s what you need to set out for a successful night under the stars:
- Backpack not weighing more than 10-15kg (max!)
- Two sets of sleeping mats – one closed cell foam pad and one down padded inflatable (both ultralight)
- Proper 4-season sleeping pad
- Sleeping pad liner, for adding a few degrees of comfort temperature and absorbing sweat
- Bivvy – My favourite is Jervenduken
- Inflatable pillow (my first luxury)
- My new Exped Widget Pump / Light / power bank (my second luxury)
- Multifuel kitchen (Primus Omnilite Ti)
- Large titanium pot for melting snow
- Small titanium pan for egg and bacon
- Nalgene bottle for boiling water in the sleeping bag at night
- Compressable piss bottle (clearly marked….)
- Four large plastic bags for shoes, clothes, garbage and a spare
- Balaclava to wear while sleeping
- Warm down jacket for wearing while not working in the camp
- Proper headlight
- Ultralight shovel (for camp)
- Axe and knife for firewood
- Garmin inReach, because you never know when something might happen outside of mobile phone coverage
- Spare undershirt and sweater, all wool.
- Food, fuel and chocolate
- Titanium plate, spork and cup
- I never bring water for winter trips like this when I can easily melt snow
Picking the right campsite
I always watch for two things while picking a campsite: where’s east, and the sunrise, and where can I find proper shelter from the wind and avoid getting soaked in snow if the winds unexpectedly picks up. Normally, this means at the outskirts of an open field or quagmire on the western side, so I can see as much sunrise as possible while enjoying some shelter from nearby trees.
On this trip, I went a bit overboard and dug myself a bit down to hit harder snow. I didn’t want to risk filling my shoes with snow by burying a foot knee-deep in snow, and I wanted a way to stay warm while waiting for bedtime, so I dug myself in and created a proper wind shelter that I didn’t need at all.
For some stupid reason, I decided to keep my sleeping pads underneath the bivvy instead of inside it. I’ll write that down as one of those rookie mistakes you make when you think you’ve got the hang of something so well that you stop thinking about it. Mea culpa.
As with any overnight trip or expedition, I always, without exception, set camp and finalise the night’s bedding before I do anything else. Part of the preparation for sleeping outdoors is boiling a full Nalgene bottle of water to throw into the sleeping bag and bivvy to heat it up prior to sleeping. This can be done early and just refreshed before bedtime. And as always, when sleeping outdoors, do a few burpees to maximise your core body temperature before climbing into the (preheated) sleeping bag and bivvy.
One secret to staying warm the next day is to put the ski boots in separate plastic bags and tie a knot on them, and then put my clothes in another bag and put that in the backpack. This keeps it dry. Spare socks or underclothes go in the bottom of my sleeping bag unless they are wet, in which case I keep them in a separate bag until I get home or have a chance to dry them over a fire.
Regardless of sleep quality, I always find sleeping outdoors magical. Sleeping without anything between oneself and the stars certainly adds a level or two of magic. It’s like replacing the tent with a twinkling dark blue velvet canvas; the fresh air feels otherworldly.
It is however nothing compared to waking up to a beautiful sunrise and then taking an early morning round on skis just to get the body moving. Stunning!
And to top it off, always bring a proper breakfast. For me, nothing really beats bacon and eggs for breakfast.
All that remains after breakfast is to break camp and ensure you’ve left nothing but an empty snow fortress and a few footprints.