Winter camping: the cold, hard facts

After thawing out from a three-day backcountry trip last month (see “Walking Awake”), this Xpress reporter checked in with John Zumstein, hard-goods manager at Diamond Brand Outdoors, to get his take on winter camping and solicit a bit of practical advice for folks who want their own winter trips to be both comfortable and safe.

To some local outdoor-recreation enthusiasts, the perfect winter challenge might be ice climbing on white globs of frozen seepage. Others might prefer shredding the blue runs of Southern slopes. Due perhaps to the colder temperatures and unpredictable weather, backpacking doesn’t seem to register on most adventurers’ winter-sports radar screens here in WNC.

But some hiking aficionados say there’s no better time to enjoy the Southern Appalachians. “Hey, you get fewer crowds, clearer skies and better views,” Zumstein proclaimed.

“There are a few seasonal adjustments to consider,” he added. “Things like extra food, warm clothing and high-performance gear … are necessary for the fickle wintry weather.”

In addition, Zumstein stressed a piece of classic advice: “Experienced hikers know to dress in layers, regardless the season of the year. They also know when it’s time to peel off some of the layers.

“Overheating on climbs, or overexertion, can result in several layers getting wet from perspiration.”

Steeped in experience

Zumstein’s unrehearsed but right-on-target responses had experience written all over them.

“Hike with partner, batteries don’t perform well, carry more food and water, leave itinerary with someone,” he rattled off over the phone.

When he’s not busy ordering the next season’s line of gear for Diamond Brand, Zumstein is out in the wild himself, paddling local rivers or scaling vertical inclines with his climbing partners. And for winter excursions, he stressed the importance of quality equipment to help keep adventurers safe and warm.

“With colder weather, you’ll get much better performance from stoves fueled by white gas compared with butane. … Most of the newer stoves offer extra pressurization features that allow stoves to burn more efficiently,” he noted.

Zumstein also gave the nod to closed-cell-foam pads, which offer better insulation than the self-inflating kind.

Four-season accommodations

Being asked for advice is nothing new for Zumstein. Customers, he said, frequently come to Diamond Brand seeking experience-based advice about everything from fly-fishing to technical climbing from the store’s specialists, who are constantly refining their own outdoor skills.

When it comes to fending off the cold on frigid winter nights, Zumstein suggested investing in a quality sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees or below, which can weigh anywhere from 2-3 pounds. … Some winter campers, he added, use a liner inside a three-season bag, which can increase the rating as much as 5 to 10 degrees.

Some folks might opt for wearing more clothing at night, but Zumstein said this can actually hinder a sleeping bag’s performance at low temperatures. Instead, he recommended sleeping in a thin layer of thermal underwear that “maximizes your bag’s insulation without constricting your circulation.”

So much for beds, but what about your home away from home? Zumstein insisted on the importance of using a four-season tent for winter camping here in WNC. According to some gear manufacturers, a tent or bivy sack can add at least 10 degrees to the warmth of your bag. But three-season tents, noted Zumstein, offer more ventilation — a real bonus on humid summer nights, but not the best way to keep wind-blown snow or freezing rain at bay. Four-season tents, he explained, include a full-coverage fly (which reduces air flow around the tent); they also have stronger (and heavier) poles to handle winter’s wind and snow. Zumstein, whose other passions include rock climbing and paddling, often camps along Black Balsam Knob — the highest peak in the Pisgah Ranger District (6,214 feet). Perched atop this lofty crest, Zumstein said he’s experienced “extremely frigid” temperatures and strong winds. “I was glad that I had a sturdy tent and had staked it out well,” he declared.

The good news? “Unquestionably, a restful winter night’s sleep in the outdoors can not only be achieved, but it can be fun!”

Campers, though, aren’t the only thing it’s good to keep warm. Zumstein also recommended filling a Nalgene bottle with hot water, insulating it, and placing it your sleeping bag. “Not only does it warm your bag, but more importantly, you have water to use for your morning brew,” he said with a chuckle. Some folks, he noted, use similar strategies to thaw frozen boots.

Water filters and butane canisters are other items needing protection from freezing temperatures. “Butane stoves perform poorly if the canisters are cold, and some filters are trashed if they freeze up,” noted Zumstein.

The bottom line, said Zumstein, is doing your homework before embarking on your winter experience. “Review your gear, make sure you have the right equipment, prepare well and go out and do it. Oh yeah, plan on spending more time in the tent, and carry extra food — you’ll need it!”

After 40 years in the same location, Diamond Brand Outdoors is climbing to new heights — and, in the process, a new storefront. The outdoor specialty store is moving 4.3 miles north from its Naples, N.C., address (elevation 2,080 feet) to its new 27,000 square foot showroom at 2617 Hendersonville Road in Arden (2,230 feet). For more info, call 684-6262 or visit

Local outfitters

Backcountry Outdoors, Corner of Hwy. 276 and Hwy. 64, Brevard; 884-4262.

Blackdome Mountain Sports, 140 Tunnel Road, Asheville, 251-2001;

Bluff Mountain Outfitters, 152 Bridge St., Hot Springs; 622-7162.

Diamond Brand Camping Center, 172 Charlotte St., Asheville, 684-6262;

Looking Glass Outfitters, 90 New Hendersonville Hwy., Pisgah Forest; 884-5854.

Main Street Outpost, 392 E. Main St., Burnsville; 682-1206.

Mast General Store, 15 Biltmore Ave., Asheville; 232-1883 (with locations in Waynesville, Hendersonville, Valle Crucis and Boone).

Outdoor Xposure, 52 Westgate Pkwy., Asheville, 670-7669; www.outdoorxposure.

Sunrift Adventures, 1 Center St., Travelers Rest, S.C.; (864) 834-3019.

Take a Hike Outfitters, 100 Sutton Ave., Black Mountain; 669-0811.


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One thought on “Winter camping: the cold, hard facts

  1. camping blog

    Yes. I have been winter camping for twenty years. I havn’t used a tent in 15 years! We get plenty of snow up here usually, so a good warm snow hut is not too hard too make.All you have to remember is to stay dry. Stay hydrated. Eat plenty. and plan for the worst weather you can think of.

    camping blog

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