Winter camping on a motorcycle has a few extra considerations to take into account or your time in the elements can be uncomfortable at best and flat out dangerous at worst. Motorcycle camping in any season tends to take a great deal of gear but adding the cold element add to the load. The potential for snow, short days, damp wood, bitter winds and more all are set to put a cramp in your camping style.
Fair weather camping sets you up for certain conveniences that allow you to skimp on gear or ignore it entirely. Winter camping can be far more brutal should you find yourself lacking in critical items. In the warmer months if you have less quality gear it might be uncomfortable but it certainly isn't going to be dangerous. Consider these as must haves for a comfortable winter camp.
1. 4 season tent. Most tents are not made for 4 seasons. Even when they say they are. If you find a tent that is comfortable in the winter most often that means you will burn up in the heat of the summer. My snugpak Scorpion 3 tent was an example of such a tent. It was comfortable in Fall, Winter, and Spring but there was simply no way to get enough ventilation to keep from getting hot in the summer. I upgraded last fall to the Hilleberg Nammatj 3GT and of course had to test it in cold camping as soon as possible. After camping in low 20's on the crest of a mountain with relatively high wind I can say this tent fit the bill for what I was looking for. The front of the tent has a large vestibule allowing me to store my gear and even due to the wind and cold and lack of decent firewood get in from the elements while still having the ability to cook hot tea and food. (precautions much be taken when cooking inside a tent but out of the scope of this article). Again motorcycle camping lends you to having more equipment especially in the winter so having a dry place to store your suit, helmet and other gear without having to crawl around it is welcomed.
2. Quality cookware. I realize many campers fully intend to go and dine at the local eateries or intend to heat up some dehydrated meal and call it a night. When winter camping this means you leave your camp in the cold, eat warm food, but then return in the cold leaving you chilled for the evening ahead. Having good cookware provides you with quality food (not just some heat up rehydrated goop) which will help to keep you warm and increase your enjoyment level. In order to cook real food however, you must be able to cook as if you are at home. This means your stove has to have more than 2 settings.. On and off. After a ton of analysis, reading, internal debate, and questioning my friends who have done this longer than me I settled on the Optimus Polaris Optifuel Stove and Primus stainless cookware. Unfortunately the Polaris model is no longer available, in fact, I had to search to find someone who still had it in stock. They still offer the Nova(+) which is basically this stove without the ability to use canisters. That is the unique thing about the Polaris stove. It can utilize virtually all usable fuel INCLUDING canister fuel all without changing the jet. I have always used an Optimus Crux stove that works well to heat water, can simmer a little but not well and uses canister fuel. My goal was to be able to take both stoves (The crux is smaller than a pack of cards) allowing me to cook in 1/2 the time and be able to interchange the canister fuel on the stoves providing more flexibility. In addition in more remote areas you can't find a canister fuel but you can always find other fuel options. I'm very happy with the stove so far and as you can see from the photos having 2 stoves allows for more complex cooking in a shorter amount of time. It also allows me to fix coffee or tea while cooking dinner. A big plus!
3. Warm sleeping bag. Would seem to go without saying but having a higher end bag than your Walmart variety is all but essential to a good nights rest. Especially if you are considering multi-day or week camping excursions where the sleep depravation from nights on the road can take a dangerous toll on your health. A good nights sleep is critical to insuring safety on your travels but also just making sure you enjoy your time away. If every moment in your tent and bag all you can think of is wishing you were home, then you likely need better gear. I just purchased a Nemo Disco 15 degree bag and have been testing it out recently. The reviews are accurate that the bag is closer to a 30 degree bag than 15 but as long as you know that you can plan accordingly. I love the comfort of the bag although it isn't as warm as my Hardgear 15 mummy. While still a mummy it is designed more for side sleepers and stomach sleepers allowing a bit more room to maneuver without feeling like a wrapped fish at the market. If your bag is rated at a higher temp than you will be diving into (or if your bag is simply rated too optimistically) a quick fix and one that really does help is adding a fleece liner that you can drop into your pack and use when needed. This allows you to use one bag in a wider array of temperatures therefore saving space. A liner typically will lower the rating another 7-10 degrees depending on the liner. As we age (I'm 47) poor sleep has a longer toll on our bodies and causes us to suffer with aches and pains longer into the next day than when in our 20's. Investing in quality sleeping gear is worth it.
4. Air pad. For years now I have used a Big Agnes 3.5" air mattress as it packs up tiny but is a massive shift in comfort allowing me to sleep much like I would at home. Not only does the air mattress provide comfort from the hard ground but also acts as an insulator to help protect you from the elements. The key to a thicker mattress like this is to make sure you are not pumping it up too much. Set the inflation so your body can naturally sink into the mattress at the critical points but not so much you hit the ground. Shoulders and butt primarily. This allows your weight to be more evenly distributed and will reduce how often you toss and turn in the night resulting in a deeper, more restful sleep.
5. Fire! I have camped with and without fire and if you are alone or remote, having a fire can change a long cold night to one that is enjoyable. I tend to camp alone as much as in a party and there is something hypnotic about a fire that allows your mind to wander and reset. The warmth also allows you to enjoy the time from about 5pm till 7am where it is dark and the coldest. The short days do change your camping schedule and you must be prepared for that.
6. Heated gear on the bike. Truth be told, I have not invested in heated gear in over 20 years. In fact, I'm still using a BMW heated vest I purchased in 1998. It still works great and you simply plug it in and it gets hot. That's it. No dials, buttons or charging. It just works. That said, if and when it ever does die, I will replace it without question. That simple vest along with proper layering has allowed me to comfortably ride into the low 30's. Beyond that I would benefit from sleeve heat as well. My hands typically remain reasonably warm or at least tolerable in those temps due to the heated grips. Being cold when you get off the bike and seeing the empty campsite knowing what you have to do ahead just adds to the angst of cold camping. The goal is to reduce as much angst as possible. It also helps if you have to run to the store and get supplies or make a firewood run. Having the ability to warm up while on the bike for me is a big deal to keeping that "chilled to the bones" feeling at bay
7. Technical clothing. I have always appreciated high tech anything and today there is a lot of hype out there that sounds good but doesn't really do any better than traditional clothing. It's undeniable, however, that quality tech gear can go a long way towards adding comfort both on the road and at camp. My recommendation is buy the name brand gear and you are less likely to be disappointed. Tech gear is typically thinner but has higher insulation levels, is antimicrobial, and is moisture wicking. This allows you to save room while having higher comfort levels and reduces issues like chaffing and increases hygiene. However, that doesn't mean that some of the older technologies aren't good. I tend to go with merino wool when it comes to things that touch my face and feet. merino wool is superb at handling wet/cold while still maintaining insulation properties. I typically use UnderArmour for thermals and Klim layering gear for clothing. Both brands seem to hold up to wash and continued use quite well
8. Pee bottle. The last thing you want to do is leave that tent once your body heat has warmed it up. Planning your fluid intake in the evening by cutting off drinking an hour before bed will generally solve the need to relieve in the middle of the night. However, as most of us have realized, timing is not always perfect and especially with friends drinking of some sort is continued almost up until bed. This of course leaves you uncomfortable and resisting the urge will cause you to lose the deep sleep you will be sorely missing in the morning. Any screw top bottle will work but don't go less than 20 ounces. Just don't forget to screw it tightly when finished and empty it before discarding the next day.
9. Auxillary lighting. As mentioned earlier, daylight leaving around 5 especially in the mountains can leave you in the dark for hours before bed. I have the Revel light kit that is extremely small but can light a large area providing ambient lighting for hours both in and out of the tent without placing a massive toll on battery power. I also use the Anker 28600 PD power brick as well as a Goal Zero pack that powers my camera gear and also my lighting. For stronger lighting needs I carry a LumeCube light panel as well as 2 LumeCubes that provide directional lighting for video and photography needs but also to light camp when needed for cooking or other activity needs
10. Good attitude. Seems odd to put on a list but let's face it, there are easier times to camp than winter. However, winter camping comes with its own set of beauties. Be prepared so you can enjoy them. There is an eerie quiet that comes with winter camping that you don't get in the common camping months. The bugs are all hidden away and quiet. It is a different set of birds typically that you notice. And you have the potential for enjoying a white landscape which to me makes it all worth it. If you are wanting to clear your head, a winter camp is where its at.
Hopefully these tips give you some ideas on how to enjoy your next winter camp and the reality that we don't have to limit our camping to the "perfect months". At least not in the south. My hats off to the poor folks in the north where they don't see the ground for a few months of the year.
Until next time, see you at camp!
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Adventurist at heart, David Mays looks to inspire others to live their life with focus and purpose. Experience and expansion is why we are here.