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Motorcycle Camping in Winter and Extreme Cold

Turn a weekend ride, into a weekend adventure by adding the challenge of cold weather camping. There is no reason to be cold, even when Arctic Camping, it is just a matter of having the correct equipment knowledge and attitude. This is written in terms of UK winter camping, however see the Arctic Extreme Tips for details of how to handle temperatures into the -30C’s

Tent

For UK winter camping a good quality 3 season tent can be used, here are my recommendations for a good all round tent.

  • Sized for usage, I use a 1-2 man tent, it is a squeeze for 2, but ample for a motorcyclist with enough room to bring in some of your kit.
  • Use alloy poles, fibreglass poles can be trickier to thread, and are not as strong as aluminium, the weight difference is negligible, so go for quality alloy poles, ideally with a centre elastic cord so they don’t get lost and are easy to assemble.
  • It should be strong and waterproof. Some tents are made for ultramarathon events, these are super small and light but compromise on their groundsheet and flysheet thickness. On a motorcycle another 0.5Kg’s is not going to make a difference, so don’t go for the lightest in the class, go for a balance of strength, pack size and weight.
  • Go for one with a well vented inner and waterproof outer fly sheet, this will help manage condensation better when winter camping.
  • Try to select a tent that can stand alone without guy lines. I opt for a 3 pole semi-geodistic type, it is small and strong, to date I have never needed to add the extra guide lines, as the design is strong enough with the fly sheet anchors.
  • Normal pegs are ok, as in the UK the ground is normally soft enough for any peg type.
  • Get a tent with a small porch, this is useful for storage and cooking in bad weather. I am not a fan of tents where your bike can come into the porch, these tents are very convenient for cooking in but surely there is extra bulk to carry. Neither am I an advocate as anchoring a tent or groundsheet to your bike, on soft ground your bike can fall over, not the way I like to be woken!!
  • Carry a tarp, I have a DD 3x3m tarp, it is strong and has a multitude of uses, I mostly use it to rig up a cover or windbreak where I can cook rather than being cramped or as a wind break. http://www.ddhammocks.com/product/ddtarp_olive_green_3x3?gclid=COrnnKTy-NACFeqT7QodkaQOiQ  The reason I prefer this than a larger tent is just the flexibility of it, and as my kit is used for both winter and summer I can just take the tarp when I think I will need it. I like to use niteize carabiners to secure the tarp, they are strong and really easy to set, I use with luminous cord for visibility of the lines at night and adjustable height poles, A single pole can be taken if space is limited to make an effective shelter. http://www.niteize.co.uk/collections/tie-downs-bungees/products/camjam

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Tents should shed snow, or you will be awake in the night pushing it off the roof. Serious arctic adventurers like Tipi style tents, often with no ground sheet. These tents have a shape that stops snow collecting on top, and room to stand inside. If your tent is vulnerable, again the tarp becomes use full, by using 2 poles, create a ridgeline structure with a steep angle above your tent, it will keep the snow from collecting.
  • By not having a groundsheet, and often having a heat proof chimney flap, heaters can be equipped to these tents, these will raise the temperature to above freezing, and make for a pleasant environment. Note, regarding adequate venting to avoid build ups of CO. CO detectors are small light and inexpensive, so worth bringing along if there is a doubt.
  • A single candle burning in a tent will help raise the temperature a little, it needs to be made for the job like the UCO lantern, which burns slowly for 9 hours and is in a safety housing. The CO given off from this candle is very low due to the slow burn rate.  Hang it securely, and use a carabiner so it is lowered a little away from the tent’s fabric.
  • If your tent has an inner, it is possible to add a blanket to the top of the inner, this will help to retain heat inside, but will probably get wet or frozen from condensation.
  • If the ground is ice, you may need to use ice screws instead of pegs, if the ground is snow you will need snow anchors, or snow pegs. A snow anchor can be made easily by digging a hole in the snow, wrapping a branch around your guy line, and burying it. It will freeze in place and be solid. So don’t tie knots, just wrap, as they will freeze.
  • If you have a large tent it is possible to dig a well either side of your bed, the coldest air will fall to the well, and the warmer air be in your now elevated position. A well can also be made at the entrance, so you can put your feet in the well, and sit up right in the entrance. Useful for porch cooking.  

Sleeping Bag

I use a Marmot fusion 15 bag with synthetic and down filling, it is rated to -9C. However I use this in combination with a snugpack Fleece liner, see my recommendations below.

  • Invest in a good quality sleeping bag, and don’t think that down fillings are the only option. Synthetic fillings can be warm, the main difference is the heat retention/bulk ratio. And compressibility of down over synthetic. So choose a bag on various factors.
  • Don’t just reply on 1 bag, I have 2 bags, a snugpack thermal liner, and a Marmot sleeping bag. This means I can use either bag or a combination depending on temperature. A thermal liner makes a big difference to the warmth of a bag, but this is hard to judge. Most bags have a temperature rating, this rating is the minimum rating, not a comfort rating. I would suggest that my -9C bag, will keep me alive at -9C, but will not be comfortable, however if I add a fleece thermal liner -9C becomes tolerable and -4C comfortable.
  • Check the bag size, they come in different lengths and shapes, I prefer some foot room, so try to find a mummy shape with a larger boxed area for the feet or an envelope design.  Don’t go too big, as the air in the bag is heated by your body, so get just big enough to be comfortable.
  • A bag with loops on the bottom so it can be hung to air are handy, and a hood with drawstrings can also be of use when temperatures drop.
  • I suggest a bag with a pertex shell material, it is very breathable and is windproof so will keep out the drafts.
  • Ensure the zip has a good baffle system to avoid cold spots and doesn’t snag when zipping.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Use more than one bag, or buy a real expensive Arctic sleeping bag. I use, a Snugpack fleece liner, a synthetic/down mix bag rated to -9C, then use either a synthetic Vango Stratos 300SQ or a Fibre Pile Buffalo 4s outer over the top. http://www.buffalosystems.co.uk/products/4s-outer/

http://www.snugpak.com/outdoor/fleece-liner

http://www.vango.co.uk/gb/sleeping-bags/580-stratos-300-sq-p.html

 

The buffalo bag repels any condensation keeping the inner bags dry and they are renowned for wet environments. All items in this system will breath well to reduce condensation within the bag’s fibres. If you expect the bag to be getting damp or are sleeping in bivvi’s/snow holes use the Buffalo outer as it will insulate while wet.

  • One night in sub zero temperatures is relatively easy to manage, the trick is to ensure the bags do not build up ice crystals inside. As the body gives off vapour this gets trapped in the fibres and builds up. Over longer periods of time the frozen insulation becomes seriously compromised. This can be greatly reduced by not sleeping with your head in the bag, which is a big temptation. Wear a balaclava and keep your head and therefore the majority of your breath’s vapour outside. Also consider using a vapour barrier. This is a warm layer worn next to the skin that acts like a wetsuit, and keeps the moisture inside. Several Cold Weather Cycling websites have good advice on this. http://andrewskurka.com/2011/vapor-barrier-liners-theory-application/
  • Keep your clothing in your sleeping bag, if it is left out it could freeze. It may be possible to just bring your clothes in for 15 minutes. Also it is known for motorcycle batteries to be brought into warm sleeping bags to aid starting, taking care if acid cell types of course.
  • If your bag does get wet/frozen, find a heated indoor place to dry it out, even if it means a night in a hotel.
  • Put a hot water bottle inside before you get in, this will set you off to a good start to the night and prevents the initial draw on body heat that happens when getting into a cold bag. If you don’t have a traditional hot water bottle, use a sig bottle or Nalgene bottle instead.
  • Never go to bed cold if you can help it, walk around (but don’t sweat) and go to bed warm, and if you do to go to bed cold, do sit ups or press ups to warm up while in the bag. It’s easier to maintain heat, than to generate it as the bag is designed to maintain not generate. 

Sleeping Mat

There are many types of inflating and non-inflating mat out there, even camp beds can be carried on a motorcycle if it is important to you. Some mats are full length some ¾ length. Evaluate your size, the level of comfort/warmth when choosing.

  • For winter use you will need a full length mat. The floor is a major source of cold, as the insulation in your bag is compressed where you contact the floor.
  • Increase warmth by putting some clothes or a blanket under or over the mat. The more between you and the floor the better.
  • If using an inflatable mattress (my preference) go for the thickest that space allows. Some thicker models require additional inflating, I’d stay away from these as they seem like a hassle. 50mm thick is enough for good comfort. But don’t overinflate it, if overinflated it will be uncomfortable. Have a puncture repair kit for the mat in case it does get damaged.
  • Exped have a nice looking inflatable mat with down filling, this seems like a good winter option, I currently use a thermarest.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Use 2 mats, the best combination is a foam mat on the floor, with a self-inflating mat above. These should be fixed together to avoid separation.
  • A blanket over the mat give great benefits if available.
  • If sleeping in a tent with no ground sheet and a side sleeper, the snow can be contoured for your hips and shoulders to give more restful sleeping position.
  • If sleeping in a hammock, put a mat in the hammock, your underside will be the most vulnerable due to the compression of the insulation in the bags.
  • Fill a flask with hot water so if really cold the hot ware bottle can be refilled. 

Nightwear

The sleeping bag and liner are supplemented by the correct sleep wear, warmth starts with what you are wearing.

  • Merino wool or fleece base layers are good as they are comfortable and can be worn under your clothing, so you can jump straight into the bag and minimise heat loss during undressing.
  • Plan for if you need to use the toilet or go outside to reset the tent at night. I tend to keep my boots and an over-jacket and head torch near the exit for ease. Be sure not to get wet when venturing out at night, sleeping bags should be kept dry at all cost.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to go to bed with extra layers,  in the real cold, the more good quality layered insulation the better, just be sure to be comfortable.
  • Wear a hat or Balaclava, as your head needs to be out of the bag to avoid condensation issues within the bag. A fleece eye mask helps cover eyes. 

 

Keeping Warm

A few simple tips will make all the difference to a winter camp.

  • The inside of the tent should be kept dry at all times. If the sleeping bag gets wet, even if transferred from wet clothes, the loss of insulation will be dramatic.
  • Never get into bed cold, sitting out drinking cold beer is great, but can be a chilli experience, so take the time to go for a walk just before settling in for the night. If you go to bed cold, your body will be at a disadvantage from the off. If sitting out gazing at the stars, do put insulation under your seat to stop cold getting through the chair.
  • Make a hot drink before bed, preferably hot milk or hot chocolate, these calories will burn off through the night.
  • Have some food, an hour before turning in, but not so much to get indigestion. Cheese is always a favourite for a pre bed snack, even better if warm like baked camembert!
  • While making your late night drink, fill a hot water bottle and put it in your sleeping bag. It is hard for the body to generate enough heat, particularly on the colder nights, this will help minimise initial heat loss due to transfer from you to the cold sleeping bag, but also will retain it’s warmth for some time assisting your body for a couple of hours into the night.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Try to plan drinks so you are not waking in the night for the toilet, so stop drinking 2 hours before sleep, and if you are to drink, have a hot chocolate just before bed. Everyone is different, so know your/drink, urination habits and work a routine to avoid leaving your bag unless necessary. Pee bottles and shewee’s can be useful, but an unnecessary complication if you can get otherwise prepared.
  • If you have a hot chocolate before bed, and make a second one in a good flask, I find that a thermos discovery tumbler is the best I have found for insulation and user friendliness. http://www.thermosonline.co.uk/store/Thermos-Discovery-Leak-Proof-Travel-Tumbler-0-47L/sp_442
  • Hot water bottles are not bulky or heavy, so take 2 if you can, remember your body can only generate so much heat, so any help will be a benefit, then let the insulation hold it in the bag. Heating pads are also a good idea, larger ones for treating muscle strains will be best.
  • Go to bed warm, but if cold inside the sleeping bag, do some in bag exercises to get some temperature inside, not enough to sweat but enough to raise your pulse and get the blood circulating. 

Camp location

Asses the area before pitching your tent, this decision can be important in contributing to an easier stay.

  • Firstly gauge the wind direction, most tents will be designed to take the strongest winds from the opposite side to the entrance, with the exception of maybe a single hoop 1 man tent, or side opening tunnel tent. Getting the tent in the correct orientation will not only make it more resistant to the wind, it will flap around less, shelter the porch and reduce drafts.
  • If the ground is particularly sodden, try and find the highest point, and evaluate any dips in the ground, as if it rains in the night, these may become water logged.
  • If wild camping ferns can be laid under your tent for a little more comfort and insulation.
  • If the ground is not level consider the direction to pitch so you are not rolling to the tent wall. This and pitching to the correct wind direction might be a challenge and compromises might need to be made. I sleeping on a slope is the only option, keep your head higher than feet, and roll up clothing to stop you rolling onto the tent wall, as this may lead to condensation running onto your bag.
  • In bad weather a tarp comes in handy, it will allow you to maybe make a fire next to it if configured as a lean to, or at least cook in an upright and sheltered position. Never cook in a tent, apart form the obvious risk of fire, carbon monoxide can build up and be fatal. There are instances of deaths where people have a smouldering barbecue in the tent entrance and with a zipped up modern tent there are risks of accumulation of CO.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Apply normal rules with more care, particularly be prepared for snow and wind causing drifts, if you camp too close to a large rock, the rock may attract a drift that will engulf your tent.
  • If camping on snow, consider what is underneath, be sure you are not camping over a crevasse, lake or stream.
  • Ask locals about avalanche areas and recent weather to determine risks, be sure you are not in an avalanche risk zone.
  • Be ready to dig out if snowed in, so have a shovel, or at least a frying pan to hand, and never go off for the day without securing camp, as a storm can blow snow into an unsecured tent. 

Bike Loading

A few things to note that may improve your ride and comfort.

  • Firstly strike a balance of what you think you need and what you will use. I always get this wrong and carry too much, but I see some grossly overloaded bikes. Keeping the weight down low helps with riding, and puts less strain on the bike, and if you do find yourself off road, every kilo counts.
  • Put the weight centrally balanced, as low as possible and in the case of rear panniers, near the front. Putting a heavy bike lock and a set of snow chains and a litre of water on the top of your top box will significantly alter the handling. Spread heavy items around, keeping them low and try to keep them close to the suspension pivots, the further away the load is from the pivot point, the more leverage it will apply. Also keep each pannier side balanced, having one side for your sleeping bag, and clothes and the other for all the cooking gear and water will put the bike off balance, you will compensate yourself unknowingly, but why not just think it through and help yourself with logical loading.

 

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • If riding in extreme cold, studded tyres will do the best job, chains second. Fitting either of these in extreme cold will take time and need dexterity, so have some gloves for the job, this will probably not be your riding gloves. Bare hands will freeze very quickly.
  • Pack carefully and put small items together in a larger bag, small items can easily drop into snow and be lost without noticing. If anything is essential, tie a luminous cord to to it to help  make it stand out.
  • Weight over the back wheel is an advantage for traction, but if it is too high up beware as bike balance will be critical to staying upright, as you will slip around and need to be ready to react at all times. 

Camp cooking

Cooking and self sufficiency is a rewarding part of motorcycle camping, normally food is readily available so be it for economy or just fun, camp cooking is great fun.

  • Go for a petrol stove, the fuel is carried on the bike already and they will work even in extreme cold. I use an MSR Whisperlite international, as it is small, light, powerful, has a jet self cleaning mechanism and pre-heats itself easily with unpressurised petrol.  
  • Dried foods are light weight, but can get boring, so pack a mixture of dry and hydrated foods for a better experience.
  • Try buying the foil bags, and making your own camp food, make something you like, for example chilli, add a little more salt then usual but not too much. Sterilise the foil bag, fill it, and seal it with an Iron. This will taste much better than the pre-prepped meals from camping stores. Army rations are ok, but if you have watched Mondo Sahara you will know French army rations are better than British Army ones.
  • Try making bread, here is a recipe I use, by pre-bagging the dry ingredients and just adding the oil/water before kneading into a dough while still in the bag, this is a quick, easy and mess free way of making fresh camp bread.
  • Camp Chapattis
    2 cups plain Flour
    2 tablespoons oil
    1 teaspoon salt
    3/4 cup warm water.
    (Keep the flour in a plastic food bag, Add oil and salt to the bag, mix to a breadcrumb appearance. Slowly add water till it makes dough, roll flat and fry.
  •  Buy good quality cookware, a frying pan will benefit from a thick base, as food will quickly burn through thin cookware. Also carry a long handled spoon, I like the Kung-foon, http://www.gsioutdoors.com/titanium-kung-foon.html  it is a combination of chopsticks and a titanium spork, but when the chopsticks are wedged into the handle it becomes a long reach spoon, great for getting to the bottom of deep pans.
  • Carry a flint and steel, a good one will light a petrol stove in any condition.

 

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

 

  • Expect frozen water, if in a camp for a while you may want to use your sleeping hot water bottles to rig up a warm place to put water to keep it liquefied. Be careful if using your sleeping kit for this, a wet bag should not be risked.
  • Beer and wine will freeze, so if you want to carry drinks of this nature, put them in plastic bottles or buy cans, do not take glass, it will shatter.
  • Melt ice not snow if available, the volume of actual water in snow is much less than ice so will make the whole process a lot quicker.
  • If you have fuel keep your stove on low, so as the food cools from the environmental temperature, you can give it a quick few seconds over the stove.
  • Gas canister stoves and gas lighters may not function, use a pressurised petrol stove and have a fire steel to light it.
  • Never cook in the tent, be aware of fire and CO at all times. 

The information provided here is opinion only from personal experience, and other sources verbal and online, this information is to help stimulate your ideas, so please take it as it is meant, and research heavily for yourself if planning an extreme cold trip.

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