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Max Kabat of Boulder, Colorado makes his way down from the summit of Star Dune at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado during a winter camping trip.
Alex Witkowicz/ The Denver Post
Max Kabat of Boulder, Colorado makes his way down from the summit of Star Dune at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado during a winter camping trip.

The dead of winter drives people to do a number of things, like sip hot cocoa, curl up in a blanket in front of the TV or … venture out into the wilderness?

That’s right — camping is a year round affair, and it venturing into the freezing cold isn’t just for Bear Grylls, either.

Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post
If you’re hiking in to a campsite, load as much junk as you can onto a sled. It’s way easier and less sweaty than shouldering the load.

In fact, Boulder-based polar adventurer and expedition guide Eric Larsen said even novice campers with borrowed gear can enjoy a snowy adventure.

“There’s no such thing as cold weather — just not enough layers,” he said.

After college, Larsen migrated to Minnesota, a place notorious for its bone-chilling weather, where he became a dog musher and started going on Canadian Arctic trips, and he’s since become one of a handful of Americans who have skied to both the North and South Poles, according to his website.

But his advice for somebody more accustomed to camping in summer is more modest.

“Start small,” he said. “Don’t try to do the most epic winter adventure your first time out. It can be overwhelming for people when they can’t warm up.”

From having “rock hard” frozen boots to being the guy to fall through ice, Larsen has collected several tidbits of expertise to offer CU students looking to climb out of their heated burrows for a new type of winter experience.

Setting up camp

Camping in your Subie, where heat doesn’t require striking a match, versus lugging everything on your back to a site, becomes even more appealing when temperatures drop and weather is less forgiving.

“Worst-case scenario, you can jump in your car,” Larsen said.

But if you’re set on hiking in, you can load as much junk onto a sled and tow it behind you over snowpack covering branches, rocks and other obstacles.

And because designated camping sites are hidden under that frosty layer, he said, there are more options and less competition when claiming your land.

For shelter, he said, you could build an igloo or ice cave.

Larsen also recommends a fourseason tent, but he said a three-season tent will do if you stuff it with extra blankets or your comforter. CU has camping stuff available to rent, including sleeping bags and pads, tents, cook stoves and rain pants.

He said most people think they have to buy the most cutting-edge gear to survive, “but you can also use your current equipment in a way that actually allows you a way to be somewhat comfortable.”

Not sweating & staying warm

If it takes 100 layers to fend off goose bumps and chattering teeth, so be it, Larsen said.

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be comfortable being out there,” he said.

However, getting too warm can be a rookie mistake. He said sweaty pits can be the ultimate enemy because it fills in the layer of air needed for insulation and wets clothes that are less likely to dry.

“As you warm up, stop and take those layers off,” Larsen said.

In Antarctica once, he said, he stripped down to a T-shirt because he was overheated, but he was careful to pull warmer layers on once he got chilly again.

In the summer, he said, “you can sit on a rock for a day and not get hypothermia, potentially.” But in the winter, “if you break your leg, you’ve got about a half hour before the first signs of hypothermia.”

Your thirst may not be sapped by the heat of the day, he says, but staying hydrated circulates your blood flow and, as a result, retains body warmth.

At night, Larsen suggests doubling up on sleeping pads and cuddling with a Nalgene of hot water in your 0- to 10-degree sleeping bag.

What to eat

When outside temperatures match a freezer, there’s no need to worry about food going bad.

“It’s going to freeze solid, but it’s not going to spoil,” he said.

All you need to do is to prep a meal beforehand, pack it in plastic bags and throw it in boiling water once you’re up in the woods.

Then, fill your belly with a decadent dinner of steak or lasagna like the king or queen of the woods.

Where to go for snow camping

Most campgrounds close for the winter, but there’s a few places to hunker down and snuggle up.

Moraine Park Campground


It’s the only year-round campground in Rocky Mountain National Park, and it’s 8,160 feet above sea level in a ponderosa pine forest. One night under the stars in one of 64 winter first-come, first-serve campsites costs $20. Only vault toilets are accessible in the winter.

Hessie Trailhead


Only about an hour from Boulder, set up tents in the parking lot or venture in snowshoes down one of the many trails around Lost Lake. It’s also not far from Eldora, so you have a chance of getting first chair. Campfires are prohibited, and campers must stick to other Indian Peaks Wilderness restrictions.

East Portal Trailhead

No permits are required for setting up base camp in the James Peak Wilderness area. Although it’s not a designated car camping area, it’s a popular destination for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Take Colo. 119 to Rollinsville and turn west onto the gravel Gilpin County Road 16, continuing 8 miles to a parking area near Moffat Tunnel.

For when it gets warmer:

By May and June, campgrounds start reopening for the warmer months. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there’s Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Longs Peak and Timber Creek campgrounds. In Longmont, St. Vrain State Park has 87 car camping sites. In Allenspark, Peaceful Valley Campground offers 17 tent and camper sites for $23-46 per night.