Winter Camping Means Lots Of Elbow Room


Camping in the Rim country in the winter means finding lots of elbow room, and an opportunity to experience a certain solitude not possible during crowded summer months.

"We really don't do much winter camping," said Walt Thole with the Payson Ranger Station of Tonto National Forest.


With nearly 3 million acres of forest surrounding Payson, central Arizona is a great place for a weekend getaway in the woods.

Most of the developed Rim country campgrounds close Oct. 31, he said. Only the Houston Mesa site remains open.

"Or it has in the past," Thole said. "It might close too (for winter) because it hasn't seen much use."

He said people can camp most anywhere in the National Forest during the winter, but in the area damaged by the Willow Fire southwest of Payson is off limits.

"Mostly (campers) stay along Tonto Creek up by the fish hatchery, weather permitting, or at the river crossings off Houston Mesa Road," Thole said.


Gerry Foster enjoys taking his children, Madison and Max, along with their dog, on overnight stays to the Rim country. Gerry says the cool fall weather is an ideal time for camping and riding ATVs. The family resides in Gilbert.

He added that campers using undeveloped campgrounds are required to take their trash with them. Thole also recommended self-contained trailers to provide rest rooms and other amenities.

Campfires are permitted as long as the area is clear of debris, and a fire ring is built.

"Anyone with questions about making a fire properly can call the Forest Service," Thole said.

Advanced planning is essential for safe winter camping. Temperatures are substantially lower at higher elevations, so campers should prepare accordingly.

Keeping warm is the most important part of cold weather camping. Campers should remember the acronym "C-O-L-D" to stay warm:

"C" -- Clean: Insulation is only effective when heat is trapped in open air spaces; keep insulation layers clean and fluffy. Dirt, grime, and perspiration can mat down those air space and reduce the warmth of a garment.

"O" -- Overheating: A steady flow of warm blood will keep your body well-heated. Several loosely fitting layers of clothing and footgear allow maximum insulation without impeding circulation.

"L" -- Loose Layers: Avoid overheating by adjusting the layers of your clothing to meet the outside temperature. Excessive sweating can dampen garments, which can lead to chills.

"D" -- Dry: Damp clothing and sweaty skin can cause the body to cool quickly, leading to frostbite and hypothermia. Avoid cotton clothes that absorb moisture. Always brush off excess snow before entering heated areas. Keep clothing around the neck loosened to allow heat and moisture to escape.


Winter camping experts advise changing clothes before going to bed. Damp clothes cause the body to chill, leading to frostbite and hypothermia. Use a thick pair of sweats or thermal underwear for sleeping. Also wear wool or thick, cotton socks and a stocking cap at night.

Sleeping bags should be winter-rated. These are typically stuffed with five pounds of holofil, fiberfil or other polyester ticking.

Put the bag on a sleeping mat; one-inch thick high-density rubber foam is preferable.

Don't use an air mattress or sleep off the ground on a cot. The air underneath will cool and create a threatening situation. A spare wool or natural fiber blanket can be used in place of a pad.


When camping in winter extra calories are needed to keep your body warm, so plan on lots of extra carbohydrates.

  • Oatmeal for breakfast and pasta for supper works well.
  • Pepperoni and cheese, or peanut butter on crackers make great high-energy lunches.
  • Keep plenty of snacks, such as granola bars, chocolate and trail mix available. Fruit will freeze, no matter what you keep it in.
  • Melt butter in a pan and toast bagels or English muffins in it for lots of energy.
  • Drink plenty of hot chocolate and avoid caffeinated beverages. Caffeine is a diuretic and staying well-hydrated while camping in winter is important. Dehydration leads to hypothermia.
  • Cooking meat is difficult in cold weather. It's hard to keep the frying pan hot enough to effectively brown meat.
  • Instant soups are a terrific staple for winter camping.

Other Tips

  • To keep boots from freezing overnight, put them under your sleeping bag. Lie them on their sides, soles out, below the bag where your backside rests. The warmth of the bag and your body should keep the frost out and help keep you from rolling off the sleeping pad in the night.
  • Keep gloves, socks and the clothes that will fit inside your sleeping bag, what doesn't fit, put under the bag. This will keep the clothes warm and make dressing more comfortable, plus provide extra insulation at night.
  • A non-leaking water bottle, filled with heated water, put inside the sleeping bag before retiring will warm it up.
  • Go for a night hike or play an active game just before crawling into your sleeping bag. After getting in the bag, take a mouthful of water and eat something fatty, like cookies, this gets the furnace started and helps keep it going throughout the night.
  • Bring extras of everything -- stoves and lanterns will fail, water bottles will freeze and crack.
  • Make sure everyone knows the signs and how to treat hypothermia.

For more information on winter camping, contact the Payson Ranger Station at (928) 474-7900, or log on to

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