Winter Camping for #Occupy Protesters

I spent Saturday in solidarity with the Occupy Milwaukee protesters. If any of you still haven’t heard of the #Occupy movement, you can find a good summary here. I summed it up on Facebook like so:

This movement stands for increased accountability from corporations: through regulation, through taxes, and through limiting their political influence. I went very cautiously, not sure what it would be like. Was stunned by the unity of purpose, the incredible diversity of the people there, and the friendly attitude as everyone self-organized into a voting General Assembly.

The Reality of Occupation

One of the issues pressing the occupation is the reality of holding a piece of ground round-the-clock (it is an occupation, after all) in October and, soon, November. Milwaukee occupiers have been forced to relocate; Minnesota protesters, who face an even colder winter, have been told they can’t use tents. When you’re outside and exposed, winter survival is a safety issue of Valley Forge proportions.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time living in the snow, and I’ve written this post as a how-to. If you’re holding the line in the name of the 99%, thank you for what you do. I hope this advice will help keep you healthy and on your feet (fingers and toes intact).

1. Siting & Layout

When you set up a camp in the winter months, location is everything. Many Occupations have already launched, and they’ll have to make the most of the current site. Others are still in the planning stages, and should take the lay of the land into consideration.

If you are still planning: There are many things you want from your site: visibility, accessibility, and a hope of avoiding arrest. None of these mean anything if you can’t sleep at night from the cold.

Wind and shelter are two of your biggest considerations. In most areas, winter winds come from the north, but be aware of your local weather patterns. An ideal location (in a city) will be a low-lying area with taller buildings on all sides, especially the side the winter wind comes from. Hedges and evergreen trees provide surprisingly effective wind blocks; fences do not. Scout your location on foot and pay attention to whether it seems less windy than the surrounding streets.

Elevated areas are terrible for winter camping. Don’t choose high ground. Likewise, areas that channel wind (such as long, narrow parks or malls) will be miserable.

This is a terrible location to camp.

The long, narrow shape of this campus mall will channel strong winds in the winter.

This is an ideal site for urban winter camping.

Likewise, do not camp on concrete or asphalt. Even a thin layer of mowed grass is better to lay and sit on. If possible, choose a location with tall (unmowed) grass, which will do the most to insulate you from the cold ground.

If you’ve already chosen your site: Once you’ve seized a piece of land and occupied it, chances are you’re not moving come winter. Even if you don’t have the most sheltered area of land, there are things you can do to mitigate the weather.

Be thoughtful in how you arrange your tents. If people have put them up hap-hazardly, address your General Assembly and ask to form a working group to reorganize the camp. Proper siting is crucial to survival.

All tents and shelters should be arranged with their doors facing downwind. Larger shelters (such as pavilion-style tents or group meeting tents) should be the farthest upwind, and smaller shelters (individual tents) should be in rows after that. This allows the bigger structures to act as wind-breaks for the smaller ones. Likewise, large vehicles (first aid trucks, etc) should form an additional windbreak if possible.

People like to put their tents in circles for a sense of community, or out on their own for privacy. That is selfish under these circumstances. Putting the tents in lines not only blocks the wind, it makes it easier to clear walkways through the snow in the winter. The lines of tents should be staggered so there are no “alleys” channeling wind across the camp.

Think also about the function of each structure. Shelters used for eating or meeting should be in the initial windbreak line, while those used for sleeping should be farther down where they’re protected from the wind.

2. Accommodations

Most people associate camping with tents and sleeping bags. Tents are a horrible choice in wintertime. This doesn’t mean you should refuse donated tents, but be aware of their drawbacks. Tents do very little to keep the wind out, and nothing at all to insulate you against the ground.

People staying in tents must not sleep directly on the ground. If their sleeping bag is on the tent floor or the bare ground they are in serious risk. There are a variety of ways to get off the ground, and the absolute best is a bed of pine boughs.

I know, where are you going to get pine boughs in the middle of the city? Don’t strip your city parks. Most Occupation sites are supported by a network of volunteers and donors. If even just one supporter lives on a farm or owns a section of woods, you can get a huge amount of fresh pine boughs without killing any trees. Reach out to your network and ask; one pickup truck load of fresh branches will keep dozens of people cozy all winter.

To make a pine bed, all you need are branches, not whole trees. Take a few branches and lay them out parallel to each other. Then put a second layer over the first, criss-crossing them. It’s like making hash tags with your #pineboughs. Keep going, it needs to be thicker than you think. The point of the pine bed is that it doesn’t compress under your weight or let you touch the floor—you want pockets of air and lots and lots of branches between you and the ground.

This is the difference between sleeping all night and clutching yourself shivering and praying for morning. It doesn’t matter how good your sleeping bag is.

Aside from warmth, pine beds are comfortable and keep insects away. Consider the risk of lice or bedbug outbreaks in your camp, and you’ll appreciate the pine boughs all the more.

If you can’t get pine boughs, or not enough of them, a similar bed can be made with lots of tall grass or even with loose straw if you can get enough. Many people will suggest air mattresses, and you should take ’em if they’re free, but air mattresses are a sub par choice. They’re expensive, cumbersome, require electricity to inflate (or an hour of pedal-pump action) and not nearly as warm. I consider air mattresses a waste of donor dollars.

This beats anything science can manufacture.

3. Clothing

Proper clothing makes a huge difference. Here are some simple guidelines.

  • Unless you have a wool allergy, wool is the single best thing you can wear in the winter. It keeps you just as warm wet as it does dry. A wool sweater and socks are worth ten times their weight in cotton or synthetic.
  • Keep a dry change of clothes in your shelter, and have a place for hanging up clothing to dry. People still sweat in the winter.
  • Waterproof boots or shoes are one of the best investments you can make.
  • Heavy waterproof layers like snowpants are not necessary for most people. They add extra weight and make you sweat more. Unless you’re rolling in the snow, leave them at home.
  • Chapstick and sunglasses are your wintertime friends.
  • When your core body gets cold, it is willing to sacrifice your extremities to keep your vital organs warm, and that is why your ears, hands and toes are cold. No amount of extra socks will fix it because your body just won’t heat those regions. Instead, add extra layers of shirts/coats and pants/longjohns, and wear a hat. By warming your head and core, you’ll find your toes get much warmer and you can even walk around comfortably without gloves.

Last, let me tell you about your new religion (no, not that one). This religion is called sacred dry socks. Your pair of sacred dry socks are your special, secret reserve pair that live deep in your backpack. You have two pairs of socks for daytime use, and the sacred dry socks never get rotated in with those. Sacred dry socks are not even worn to dinner, they could get sweaty! They stay 100% dry so that every night, seconds before sliding into your sleeping bag, you can put them on and experience the special bliss of dry, warm feet. In the morning, they come off again.

Add Your Own Advice

The #Occupation is beyond a democratic movement, it’s a consensus-based one. My advice is only that: advice. I’ve assembled the most important bits of knowledge I have from winter camping, filtered to work better in an urban park.

What winter camping advice can you add for our brave protesters? I want to see this movement succeed, and I feel that many Occupiers exemplify the Heroic Life. Do you have suggestions for warmth, food, shelter, health, or general care during the winter? Speak up and let the people’s mic repeat it!

Please share or tweet this post so it will reach more brothers & sisters.


51 thoughts on “Winter Camping for #Occupy Protesters

  1. Jo says:

    Great post, Drew. Let’s hope for a mild winter (or at least a sunny one..when the sun is out, the outdoor weather is always more bearable). We have an Occupy Toronto one here (about an hour north of where I live) well as others in Canada. Although I can’t camp out (due to job and family) I hope to help and lend support where I can.

    • Greetings Jo, thank you for your comment! I have mixed feelings about sunny days in the winter. The sun feels good in the afternoon, but clear days lead to the coldest winter temperatures. When there is no cloud cover, there’s nothing to hold the daytime warmth in when the sun goes down and the nights drop to bitter low temperatures. That’s why the warmest winter nights are when it’s actually snowing – the thick clouds help hold in the heat (what little there is).

      I wish the best to all our Toronto compatriots! Glad to hear you are able to offer support.

      • Everyone looks at me weird when I mention being glad its a cloudy night in winter. They respond saying that they are sick of cloudy days and could use some sun etc. The next morning when you get up, their tune changes quite quickly :)

  2. Sacred Dry Socks are especially worshiped on long, cold, wet canoe trips. (was the best part about going to bed, and is second only to a warm meal)

    Great tips Drew. I hope that many Occupy folks are looking into this.

    • Thanks Rua. This morning I posted it to the four facebook pages for the MN, Milwaukee, and NY occupations. I see that 3 out of 4 promptly deleted it which I feel is a shame. It seems to me that encouraging the free exchange of information would only help the cause.

      • Wow, I was a bit shocked to have read that the posts were deleted. That’s a real shame indeed. I certainly don’t want to hear of the consequences on not heeding to your advice. I agree with the free exchange of information being of help. I hope that this movement gets enough of a foothold that it won’t require people on the ground through winter.

    • Thanks Jen. The wind demons are my brothers…. or so I tell myself when I find myself hit in the face by them on winter expeditions. I wish I could show Occpation sites how to build snow caves, but it’s not a practical option for them.

  3. elspi says:

    “A wool sweater and socks are worth ten times their weight in cotton or synthetic.”

    Not so fast. Fleece works at least as well as wool and is much cheeper.

    Remember when it gets cold, you are best packing as many people as possible into as small a space as possible. Sharing body head is the best way to stay warm.

    It is very important to have a good shell. You cannot stay warm if the wind is knifing through you.

    Also, growing a beard helps a lot with the cold.

    Best of Luck

    • Welcome Elspi! My personal experience with fleece is that the wind cuts through it too easily; that said, some people like it because it’s lighter than wool. If you have a wool allergy it certainly is the best synthetic alternative.

      Thanks for posting, Elspi!

  4. Jim says:

    Pine boughs? In the city? Consider CLOSED-CELL foam instead. (I stress closed-cell, because the usual open-cell mattress is fairly useless for insulation.) The air in an air mattress resting directly on ice-cold concrete or stone will set up convection cells that carry your body heat to the ground all night–if you last all night. A mat of closed-cell foam on top of (or even under) the air mattress will keep you much warmer.
    Old newspapers also insulate surprisingly well, but are a problem in wet weather.

    • Hi Jim, thank you for commenting! I’d still suggest the pine boughs over the foam, from a cost perspective if nothing else. Those closed cell pads are expensive! If donors provide them, great, but it would be hard to get a budget to buy enough.

      And YES in a city! I stand by my suggestion of asking donors who live in the country to provide a few pickup truck loads :)

  5. van says:

    Make sure to eat a good meal at night. You need the energy to help keep you warm in the sleeping bag. Also if there’s enough snow you could make igloo type shelters. And i love smartwool socks. Get a good thick pair for the night. Also in a pinch you can stuff your clothing with crumpled up newspaper for extra insulation.

    • Great tips Van. I love sleeping in snow caves. I didn’t suggest it here because I find most non-wilderness people freak out at the very idea. But if a camp has willing and trained people ready to live in snow caves or igloos it would be better than any tent ever created.

  6. steve says:

    I was wondering if they are going to allow them to keep the tents up. I have a feeling that might not happen.

    If that is the case, they can only hope for lots of snow. Make snow shelters. The powers that be could not refuse to allow them to build shelters that will melt away in spring. Also, the snow makes an excellent wind block and adds immense insulation value. Keep up the peace, good luck and God bless. My thoughts and admiration are with these brave souls.

  7. katajamasaki says:

    You could use rigid pink foam used for construction under your tent. This would insulate way more efficiently than pine boughs.

    • I personally would take pine boughs over foam in a heartbeat, but I won’t deny anyone their sources of solace.

      That said, whatever you use should be inside the tent on the floor, not underneath the tent.

    • GrandOrange says:

      Taking pine limbs will not kill the tree, they will grow back, and they will decompose after use unlike a foam mattress. They are perfectly sustainable. What would you suggest as an alternative, Stephan?

  8. Drew, I think this is pretty much the best article I’ve ever read on Rogue Priest. And you’ve had SO many good ones. But it’s just such an unusual subject, with a nod to current events, and so useful, too! Kudos.

    • Wow Shanna. That is high praise. What makes you think it is the best? What do you like about it? (Hey I gotta ask, it’s the only way to keep strengthening my blog writing!)

  9. There’s nothing better in a winter camp than a hot fire. Unfortunately, in a city where shelter is usually found indoors, hot fires are not allowed. Except, perhaps, in some back alleys where the homeless will start blazes in 55-gallon trash drums, out of necessity.

    Perhaps small, fueled space heaters or Primus stoves will be allowed inside tents. Make sure tents are vented; carbon monoxide kills quickly. You’ll need two vent holes: one in the roof, one at the door, to provide a through draft. Candles would bring inside temperatures up a few degrees (every degree counts!).

    A car’s back seats, floor mats, bench seats taken from a city bus; these make great insulators inside tents. Mattresses taken from hotels or from evil stockbrokers would keep you off the ground. Pine burns much too fast to line tent floors; a dropped marijuana blunt or overturned bong might start a blaze.

    We’re going to see lots of suffering from exposure, frostbite, trench foot (long-term cold, wet (not frozen) feet; trench foot leads to amputation), carbon monoxide poisoning.

    And for what purpose? While you’re out there ‘chilling’, the rest of us will be enjoying our popcorn! And, the slopes, where the cold weather is always welcomed.

    • Thanks for adding this, Serr8ed. I hope there are not too many cases of frostbite and so forth. With proper caution that and trenchfoot can both be avoided,.

      One thing I will say, pine bough beds are hard to burn. They should be green branches with fresh, green needles. Taken directly off of living trees, not from the ground. They will stay green for quite some time and are not particularly easy to catch on fire till they dry out (and should then be replaced).

  10. Liz R says:

    Thank you, Drew, for sharing your experience and advice. I got the link from a tweet by occupykc. Just sharing some of what I’ve learned – the hard way in some cases – hope you don’t mind.

    No cotton next to your skin, especially when sleeping. There is a reason we love cotton in the hot summer, because it will pull heat away when damp. And it doesn’t take much activity/perspiration for that to be noticeable on a cold night. Plus, once wet it then takes forever to dry in cold weather.

    Also, keep the blood flowing out to your extremities and back, so avoid tight socks, shoes, gloves, cuffs, etc., even hats or headbands can be too tight. Just be aware of what is cold and adjust to see if it makes a difference.

    Stay hydrated. And then, the result of being hydrated… don’t make your body unnecessarily put energy into keeping your pee warm. When you wake up (invariably the coldest part of the night) and need to “go” but don’t want to because its so cold, get up and do it anyway. Your body will reward you with 1) getting warmer from the activity of getting out of your sleeping bag 2) being able to keep you, instead of your pee, warmer once you are back in your sleeping bag.

    For clothing, wool is a perfectly good option and I can see it as possibly the best for some pieces like socks and sweaters when occupation camping, I’m just not sure I’ll find it that easily and reasonably priced to donate to the occupykc folks.

    So sharing what I am most use to, and have made a sport of finding inexpensive pieces with careful shopping – the pretty typical active outdoor “uniform” since the synthetics came about – a “polypro” / wicking base layer (makes for good PJs) also keeps you warm when damp, a fleece insulating layer, and a wind/rain shell layer (breathable is more expensive, but an easily “vented” non-breathable outer layer works fine too). The pieces allow you to layer up and trap more air for warmth if needed, or not, depending on the day’s weather. The synthetics can even “wear” dry if they are allowed to breathe. Yes, some days the fleece isn’t enough against the wind, some wool sweaters might not be either, so then you put on the outer layer. Sounds like a lot of pieces, and maybe not feasible for all occupiers that don’t already have some of it, but at minimum a good base layer never hurts.

    And while we all might have slightly different points of view or experiences, the one tenent I think we all agree on is… the sacred dry socks!!

    Egads! I sure “shared” a lot – but not going to erase it now :-)

    Thanks again, Drew!

  11. Get a wool watch cap and wear it to bed. It keeps you warm because you lose tons of heat through your head. If you can’t find pine boughs, dried leaves work well too, make a pile of them and put your bivy bag on top of them. Get a quart-sized plastic bottle with screw-on lid to piss in, when done screw the cap on and keep it in the bivy bag, it’s at 98 degrees and will serve as a source of warmth. Dig a small fire pit, about the size of your quart bottle and about as deep, and have a ramp going in, looks like a keyhole from the top, face the ramp windward, build a fire in that and put rocks on top, you can cook on the rocks, and they’ll be warm after you’re done cooking. Get a Boy Scout handbook and learn how to make a fire with wood shavings (cottonwood or the fuzz in milkweed pods work well), small twigs, and larger twigs and maybe bits and pieces of larger branches to make a good bed of embers. Learn how to make a fire with flint and steel, beats the hell out of matches or a lighter in weather up to and including a blizzard. Look at where leaves accumulate, there’s where there’s no wind and you can set up camp there. Large dogs make good company, btw, warm and furry… better than newspaper…

    • Definitely some good tops there. Thanks for adding them. I don’t think our Occupiers are going to be able to have fires, which is a shame, but the rest will surely be helpful.

  12. Oh, and always bank your fire when you go to bed so that you’ll have hot coals to start your morning cook fire with, cover up the hot coals with ashes. You should have enough hot coals in the morning to get a fire started.

  13. As an alternative to pine boughs, one of the things I learned camping was to put one of those heat-reflective blankets (you know, the shiny metallic-looking ones) between your sleeping surface and the floor of your shelter. (And if you’re on an air mattress, between you and the air mattress). The cold ground will leech so much of your body heat out of you, no matter how good your sleeping bag is. The heat-reflecting blankets are noisy as all get out, but better to be nosy than freezing!

    The above commenter was right – it’s amazing how much body heat is released through your head. Wear a hat to bed. Even better, follow the “nose out” rule – i.e., have only your nose exposed for breathing purposes. I wonder if scuba gear can be adapted to winter sleeping so even the nose can be under/in the covers?

    And finally, we donators need to be sending hand-warmers and like devices to the occupy sites, STAT.

  14. Id say some of you have never been homeless before. Pine Boughs, in downtown new york? Let me help here for the winter occupier.
    1 Corrugated cardboard. 4-5 pieces stacked up make for a great bedding. Im sure you can sacrifice some signs to do that. Dont get rid of cardboard.
    2 Newspaper- Wadded balls of newspaper inside your coat/sleeping bag help with heat retention. Dont make them tight balls but sorta loose. Pockets of air are your friends.
    3 People – where as it may not be as fun to sleep with 2 other people, the human body puts out a lot of heat, Snuggle up Occupiers.
    4 Mylar blankets. Reflect heat back at you, fairly cheap at your army surplus store
    5 Hot Water Bottle Most of these occupations have stove/cooking of some type, use some boiled water in a hot water bottle and then PUT IT IN A ZIPLOCK BAG. The bottle will leak as the water cools. but if its put in your sleeping bag with you that warm water will stay that way for some time. Also wanted to add that Even soda bottles work well. Put it in a sock to help keep you from being burnt.
    6 Catalytic Heaters. ($35-$70) One bottle of propane can run a heater for upwards of 10 hours. Now while its true that money can be a issue id be remiss if i didnt at least mention it. (doesnt OWS have like almost a half million in donations?)
    7. Chamber pots/ Wide mouth water bottles. If you have to go, then wouldnt you rather go with out getting out of your shelter. Plus if its in a 1Liter bottle its at 98 degrees, another source of hot water will help keep you warm.


    Now the above hold true when it comes to tents. HOWEVER. a Tarp and a couple of blankets/cardboard and you can insulate your tent. Set your tent up and throw a couple of blankets over it followed by a tarp or plastic sheeting. Secure down in case of wind. line the bottom of the tent with corrugated cardboard. Now depending on the style of tent, and were going to assume most have nylon dome tents, keep your doorway half covered. Lose weave blankets/afgans are best for insulating your tent. This was what i did and then added a Catalytic heater. propane was 2 bucks every other day. i could run on low for a few hours and it would be nice and cozy. Wanted to also throw out there that if its snowing USE IT. Go to walmart and pick up a second set of tent rods and reinforce your tent. After you insulate it dont remove any snowfall on the tent (to a degree a inch wont hurt but if it starts to pile scrape some of it off but not all) that will help in keeping it insulated. Profit.

    I tried to make this depending on your financial abilities. The tent portion is something i have done for some time. I would say that if you can get 3 people in a insulated tent with one heater you increase your chances of survival. Also wanted to add, think about when you are sleeping. Its much easier to stay alive at night being awake. Sleep as the sun is just starting to come up.

    • I also wanted to add, MIGRATION. Now i know that some people are broke. But if you are living in the north and can get it together go to a southern occupation. Imagine if you will if all the northern protesters (chicago, ny, philly ect ect) went to south (ATL, Dallas, Austin, ect ect) the movement would be able to continue on with minimal safety issue.

  15. GrandOrange says:

    What do you think of pallets? I was thinking of raising the tent off of the the ground with the abundant amount of pallets present near Occupy Montreal. Maybe that with some measures to close them off to the elements to the sides?

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  17. C. E. Halbürg says:

    Hello Everyone. Here are a couple more tips for ya.

    1) Do not use air mattresses. The air will only get cold, and like tires will lose air presure. Use a thermo-cell.

    2) Take a metal coffee can. fill can 1/4 with clay cat litter. Using an emergency candle it can produce a bit of heat.

    3) Heavy protine. I recently heard anout a product called Tanka Bar. It’s buffalo and dried cranberries. the addy is

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  19. Haunt thrift shops and church rummage sales for wool sweaters and other woolens. Get whatever woolens you find and share what you don’t need.

    I live in Maine and lived in the woods in an uninsulated log cabin for a couple of years (no, I don’t want to do it again – ’twas necessity). Here’s what I wore then, and now.

    1. thin pair of wool socks under heavier pair of wool socks. Inside I weat flip-flops over these 2 pair of socks and they’re warmer than tight shoes or boots. Outside, waterproof boots 1 size larger than regular shoes to accommodate thick socks.

    2. lightweight wool longies or wicking synthetic longies under woolen pants – lightweight or heavier depending on activity. Sometimes two pair of longies under pants, which are 1 size larger than usual to fit over longies.

    3. soft wool undershirt followed by lightweight wool turtleneck (gotta keep your neck warm!!!) followed by heavy or light long-sleeved wool sweater, depending on activity.

    4. wool scarf around neck, wool hat which covers ears, wool gloves under wool mittens so air space keeps hands warm.

    5. Good, wind-blocking jacket with hood. If you dress as above, you won’t need the jacket until it gets down close to zero, at least for us cold-acclimated Northerners (Maine).

    Just don’t get wet, that’s the real secret, especially the feet. .

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