Snow Camping 101
For many of us, once summer and fall are over and the snowy winter months arrive, our camping gear takes its place near the back of the closet or in a storage space until warmer weather returns in spring. But not so fast – snow camping can be an amazingly unique experience, even if enjoyed in freezing temperatures. Here are a few pointers to ensure your first (or next) snow camp in the mountains is as enjoyable and memorable as any summer trip.
Equipment: Bring the Right Gear
By and large, the outdoor gear you'll bring snow camping is similar to that for "normal" camping. But there are some key differences:
- Layers, layers, layers. Layering is of utmost importance when traveling and camping in a snowy winter environment. Make sure to have base layers, mid layers, a fleece or other insulated layer, a winter-worthy puffy, and a waterproof shell.
- Tent. You’ll need a tent that can hold up against the winter elements. Depending on the adventure you have in mind, either a sturdy three-season tent or a four-season tent will work. If you expect high winds or significant snowfall, play it safe and go with a true four-season tent.
- Sleeping pad. A warm sleeping bag is crucial for a pleasant (and safe) snow-camping experience. Be sure to bring a sleeping pad with an "r-value" of four or more. This will limit or prevent the cold snow underneath you from chilling your body.
- Snow gear. Bring a shovel to dig out your tent foundation in the snow. More on that below!
- Hydration. If in the warmer months you are someone who uses a hydration bladder or reservoir with a hose, know there’s a good chance the water in the hose will freeze solid in a winter environment, making it unusable. That said, it’s best to bring a normal water bottle or dromedary, and leave the hose/bladder at home.
- Stove and fuel. Make sure your stove can operate properly in cold temperatures, and bring plenty of fuel since you’ll likely need to melt snow to make drinking water.
Research and Planning
Having the right gear isn’t enough! Winter weather can be unpredictable, and winter backcountry travel presents unique safety considerations. Here are a few considerations:
- Weather. Look up the weather forecast from multiple sources. Know what to expect the day of your trip, as well as the day before and day after. Don’t let lack of planning damper the trip, or worse!
- Avalanche risk. Research the area’s avalanche forecast, including the level of danger and any particular avalanche problems. (If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, visit: www.nwac.us.) Know how to assess and identify avalanche terrain, and either avoid it, or have the skills, experience, and gear (e.g., a beacon, shovel, and probe) to travel through it safely.
- Navigation. Because summer trails are often covered up and hidden by snow, do plenty of research and bring a map of the area so that you know your route to the area where you’ll snow camp,.
Snow Camp Preparation
Unlike summer camping where there is often a clear choice in location where to set up camp, you often have greater freedom (or at least selection) in setting up your snow camp. Here are some tips:
- Picking a tent spot. When you arrive at the general area where you’ll camp, look for an ideal spot to place your tent. Choose a spot that is protected by the wind, and not directly below any snow-covered tree branches. Bonus points if you find a nearby liquid water source, so that you don’t have to melt snow for water.
- Creating a tent platform. After you find a good spot for the tent, the next step is making your tent foundation in the snow. Draw a box or circle in the snow that is a few feet wider than your tent. Then start shoveling the top layer of snow from the inside of the box or circle to the outside, creating wind barriers of snow along the edges, in the process. After the top layer of snow has been shoveled out, start packing down the snow using your boots, skis, or snowshoes. Flatten and level the surface as necessary using your shovel. The end result should be a level and protected platform to place your tent!
- Dig a vestibule hole. If your tent has a vestibule – which is always nice to have in winter – be sure to dig a knee-deep hole in the snow underneath the vestibule to step or dangle your legs into while entering or exiting the tent. (A good example is pictured here.)
Tips to Avoid the Freeze
There's really no way around it: if you snow camp, you will be "living" in unusually cold temperatures. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer. A few tips to ensure you don’t perish in the frigid cold:
- De-layer any damp layers. Upon arrival at camp, get out of any sweaty layers, and bundle up in multiple dry layers. When you expect to be chilling, standing, or sitting around camp, you should bundle up with every warm layer you've got and get comfortable!
- Bring some luxuries. Bring a small square of foam, or a small sit pad, to sit or stand on. Whenever you can avoid direct contact with the snow, do so! Also, consider bringing down “booties.” Your toes are often the first to get cold while winter camping. And once they’re cold, it’s tough to warm them up. I’m a fan of the Feathered Friends down booties, which have an inner down sock and an weather-resistant outer shell for when you’re walking around your camp in the snow.
- Use hot water. Just before going to bed, try the “hot water Nalgene” trick: fill up a tightly sealed water bottle with hot water, and put it inside your sleeping bag, either near your core, or down near your toes. You’ll be treated to several hours of comfort as your sleeping bag turns into a cocoon of warmth.
- Move. If all else fails, the best way to warm up is to simply ... move. Run around camp, do jumping jacks, shadowbox, whatever – to get the blood pumping once again.
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So, what are you waiting for? Gather your crew, get out there, and try out snow camping in the snow-capped mountains. Who knows – you might find you enjoy winter camping as much as or even more than summer camping. Regardless, when all is said and done, remember to pause and take in the unique beauty and solitude that only a winter backcountry landscape can offer.
Interested in combining snow camping and winter photography? Check out our upcoming Mount Baker Snow Camp Workshop in February 2018!