Barry Karcher knows all about being very, very cold. Last year, the Fort Collins self-defense instructor camped in Canada, 325 miles south of the Arctic Circle, for the sixth season of the History Channel’s reality show Alone (he lasted 69 days and ultimately came in fourth). We tapped Karcher for some survival techniques that can help prevent mere mortal Coloradans from freezing their rear ends off during winter camping adventures.

Understand your sleeping bag.
Karcher says that although sleeping bags are important pieces of gear, many newbies don’t really know how they work—that is, they retain your warmth, rather than providing their own. “You should never go into your bag cold,” the extreme adventurer says. “Eat a hot meal right before going to sleep, and do some exercises to increase your core temperature.” At times, he even did flutter kicks and situps inside his bag to generate body heat.

Photo courtesy of Amy Counts and Evan Manser

Protect your face—and your zippers.
Alone contestants are only allowed to bring 10 items (plus the clothes on their backs) into the Arctic, so when vapor from his body heat froze his sleeping bag zipper closed, Karcher had to use fat rendered from a trout he’d caught to grease it open. “If I could have brought more items, I would have grabbed Vaseline,” he says. “It helps open zippers and can be smeared on the face to avoid windburn.”

Be thoughtful about where you pitch your tent.
Karcher recommends taking a Goldilocks approach to tent placement: “You don’t want to camp in a valley, because that’s where cold air settles,” he says. “But don’t go to the top of the mountain, because you’ll be exposed to the wind. Somewhere in the middle is best.” And although trees can shield you from the wind, don’t set up under heavy branches—they may fall during a snowstorm.

Keep meals fatty and calorie-dense.
“You burn calories faster in the cold,” Karcher says, “so I like 75 to 80 percent of my pack weight to be food.” Karcher recommends pemmican, a protein-rich dried meat that can be made at home or purchased through Tanka or Lakeside Gourmet. Not ready to turn your camping trip into an extreme eating contest? Consider meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, which have plenty of calories and flavor but won’t weigh you down.

Pack heat.
Karcher says a good fire is essential. “It cooks your food, boils your water, and keeps predators away,” he says. Since the snowy Front Range often leaves wood damp, Karcher suggests a firestarter like the Bernzomatic TS8000, which burns hot enough to get even wet branches smoldering (check fire restrictions in your area).

Space Heater

Photo courtesy of Sportube

Some people might quibble with a heated ski boot bag as a winter necessity. Those people have clearly never had to stuff their toes into frozen boots.

There’s nothing worse than parking in Copper Mountain’s Beeler Lot and discovering your ski boots have turned into foot-size ice boxes on the drive up. In an effort to prevent such suffering, the folks at Avon’s Sportube debuted the Toaster Elite Heated Boot Bag in 2018. The Why didn’t I think of that? tote comes with three temperature settings, plugs for both wall and car outlets, and a fold-down mat to ensure your feet never touch snow. There’s also enough space for a second pair, should you feel generous—or, better yet, should you feel like letting your buddies vie for the space with competing après offers. $250 

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.