A winter campout can offer the entire family a thrilling experience. It gets you out of a stuffy house and exposes you to a kind of natural beauty that many people never fully appreciate. But before you brave the cold, snow and ice, take these smart precautions. 

Brace for the brrrr

One of the biggest dangers posed by exposure to the cold is hypothermia. It happens when your body has been cold for so long it can no longer produce internal heat to stay warm. Victims can become disoriented and lose consciousness. If you find yourself shivering, your body is telling you it's time to warm up.

Bringing appropriate gear is the answer to staying warm. Start with the right sleeping bag. Every bag should have a temperature rating. Look for one that is rated for the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. The Sierra Club suggests you put at least two insulated pads under your bag to separate yourself from the cold ground. You'll also want to bring an extra set of warm clothes, blankets and bedding. If your regular set should get wet, the spares could make a difference between a comfortable camping trip and a trip to the hospital.

The CDC also recommends packing these:

  • mittens or gloves
  • a scarf or knit mask
  • a hat
  • sleeves that are fitted at the wrist
  • thick socks
  • water-resistant outer layers and boots
  • long underwear
  • loose-fitting clothes to go over the long underwear
  • a second, dry set of long underwear for sleeping

Wool, silk and polypropylene fabrics provide the best insulation. But don't just throw on the heaviest wool sweater you own and call yourself dressed. Instead, dress in layers. That way, if you feel too warm and start to sweat, your can peel off a layer before your clothes get wet (and you, in turn, get extra-cold when you stop moving). If you get cold, add a layer.

Even if your body is bundled up and warm, your fingers, toes, ears or face may still be at risk for frostbite. Learn the symptoms.

Finally, cold weather makes the heart work harder, so the CDC suggests people with heart disease or high blood pressure take it easy in the great outdoors. Talk to your doctor if you're not sure you're fit for the adventure.

Navigating Jack Frost's hazards

A frozen lake or pond might be tempting to traverse, but think twice before you do. If you decide to risk it, test the thickness of the ice first to avoid a sudden dunk into winter waters. The Boy Scouts of America says ice should be at least three inches thick to support a small group of people.

The organization also suggests setting up your campsite away from windy areas, such as ridge tops, hill tops and open fields. Your tent might not survive the gusts. And waking up to find yourself trapped in a tall snow drift can put a real dent in your morning schedule.

When making your way through a forest wonderland, look up as well as down. Dead branches can break off and fall without warning.

It's unlikely you'll encounter an avalanche, but make sure you don't cause one. Most avalanches are triggered by humans, not nature, according to the University of Denver Alpine Club. Don't camp or hike on steep, snow-covered hills or mountainsides, or in gullies. The safest places are where other campers and hikers regularly visit.

If you've brought snowmobiles, use care in avalanche country. Allow only one vehicle at a time to approach any questionable terrain. Have your buddies stay behind for a possible rescue, advises the Oregon State Snowmobile Association. Keep a shovel, probe and transceiver handy for emergencies.

Keep an eye on the sky

Most communities have a radio station that broadcasts regular weather reports. If your campsite has phone or Wi-Fi service, find a site or app that tracks local conditions.

Looking for continuous reports around the clock? The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broadcasts local conditions 24/7 via a nationwide network of radio transmitters, but you need a special type of radio receiver to hear it.

Build a warm and safe home away from home 

An appropriate tent should be dome-shaped with three or four poles, according to the Sierra Club. Every door, window and screen should have a solid, zippered flap to keep the elements out. A secondary “fly” cover set over the top of the tent will protect it further.

Keep the floor dry by placing a plastic ground cloth underneath it. Secure everything to the ground with long “snow stakes” instead of old-fashioned wooden pegs.

If you bring a heater that burns any kind of fuel, such as wood or kerosene, keep it outside. No matter how tempting it may be to fire it up inside of the tent, the fire danger poses too great a risk, according to the Boy Scouts of America.

Whether or not you plan on burning fuel, pack some candles, a fire-starter and plenty of matches. Add to the list lip balm, a flashlight and extra batteries, sunscreen (snow on a sunny day can give you sunburn), a good map of the area, a compass and extra food in case you get lost or stranded by unexpected weather.

If you know any experienced winter enthusiasts, ask them what they bring along. You won't know what else you may need until you really need it.

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.