The Happy Camper: Winter Camping Food Prep

Baby, it’s cold outside — and that makes winter camping food prep all the more difficult. Here are some tips to ease the burden:

Credit: Kevin Callan

Packing and preparing food for a winter camping trip is tough.

Eggs freeze solid, leafy greens wilt and bagels become hollowed-out hockey pucks. Anything that contains water will definitely ice-over. 

However, nutritious food is more critical than ever when the temperature plummets. You’re going to need to consume at least double your normal caloric intake while trudging through deep snow all day (or just trying to keep warm in your sleeping bag at night). Bacon, stews, chili, shepherd’s pie, chicken fajitas and beef burritos are all good options for winter camping. Precooking major meals is also a very good idea. It can reduce water content (and weight) and saves a lot of time in camp — the sun goes down quickly during these winter months. 

Quick Tips 

Sandwiches for the day (PB&J, honey, deli meat, cheese or even Nutella) can be made up in the morning and kept in an insulated bag alongside a thermos of hot water for tea, soup or hot chocolate. Crackers or freshly baked bannock is far better than sliced bread (which will easily freeze). Snacks that contain fat work well, so you’re not biting into something frozen solid — try fruitcake. Dry treats like shortbread won’t freeze either. Cheese and dried meat should be pre-sliced at home rather than trying to hack into a solid chunk — place a sheet of wax paper between each  slice so they don’t become one lump. 

Remember: the fewer steps and less prep time, the better. It’s just too darn cold to bother with extensive cooking times, not to mention that stove fuel burns off more quickly in cold temperatures. 

Winter Camp Cookery

If you choose to cook on a fire, dig a depression in the snow first, then lay down a layer of sticks (preferably green). The snow below the fire will eventually melt and your fire will sink down, so having something underneath will prevent the fire from being extinguished by melting snow. 

If you’re cooking on a camp stove, use an insulated pad under the stove to stop the snow from melting beneath. (An old computer mouse pad works great for this.) Also, make good use of the stove’s heat reflector and windscreen. A homemade cozy for your pot is an excellent way to conserve heat and save on fuel as well. And remember, don’t take the lid off the pot every minute or two to see if the water is boiling; a watched pot never boils. (Literally, in this case.)

Pressurized gas, especially butane and propane, won’t work well in cold temperatures. Alcohol stoves also have problems in cold temperatures. Placing your fuel canister in your jacket, even under your armpit, for a short while will help, though. Some alcohol stoves, like those from Trangia, come with a winter priming plate that helps warm up the fuel before you ignite it. White gas stoves that need priming first are best. Take note, however, that liquid gas quickly becomes the same temperature as the air and you can easily get frostbite if you spill it on your bare skin during subzero temperatures. 

Camp Kitchen

Use the snow to set up a winter camp kitchen. With a small packable shovel, or your snowshoes, dig a one-metre-deep trench in the snow. From there, carve out a table, chairs and storage and cooking areas. The area will provide shelter from the wind, helping to save camp-stove fuel and keep you comfy.

Hot Tenting 

Cooking on a camp stove or a campfire is part of what’s called “cold camping.” This is when you sleep in a four-season tent and try to survive the night without freezing to death. Actually, it’s not all that bad. A far more luxurious choice, however, is “hot tenting.” This requires a canvas prospector’s tent with a woodstove to heat the inside and to cook on. It might be -20 degrees Celsius outside, but with the stove roaring and a pot of stew simmering on top, it’s 25 degrees inside. 

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is a major issue when winter camping. Dehydration can lead to severe fatigue and contributes to you getting colder, even hypothermic. Problem is, gathering
water, not only for drinking but also for making meals, is a challenge. You can melt snow on the campfire or camp stove — but this takes a lot of time and fuel to do so, and the water will have a bland, scorched taste to it. It is possible to decant and aerate the water by pouring the liquid from one bottle to the next. Another method to keep the burnt taste out of the water is to fill your pot half with water before adding the snow. Of course, you’ll need a bit of un-frozen water first. 

Making a hole through nearby ice is the best option. A hand-held ice auger can be packed along, but the traditional way is to use an ice chisel — which is a heavy steel chisel blade (bevelled on one side is best) with a steel sleeve in which to fit a long wooden pole into, which is, in turn, held in place by a screw. Start chiselling the ice from the outside and work your way in, moving around in a full circle. Also, if you have time, and it’s one of those sunny late-winter days, place a black tarp out in the open, atop the snow, create a depression in the centre and place a layer of snow on it. The sun should melt the snow in a couple of hours. 

Use an insulated container (thermos) to store water while travelling — or buy/build an insulated bottle holder. To keep your water from freezing overnight, store the thermos inside your sleeping bag or place it outside, in a snow bank, upside down so if it does begin to freeze the ice will be at the bottom of the container. The snow should insulate it enough to keep it from freezing solid, however. (Just make sure to mark the spot where you’ve buried it.) And remember: placing juice crystals in your water will make it freeze at a higher temperature — so au natural is best.

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2014 issue.