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3-Season Tents 4-Season Tents Backpacking Backpacking Tents Expedition Tents Hammocks Tent Stakes Ultra-Light Tents Wind Protection Gear Winter Backpacking Gear Winter camping Winter Tents Winter Tents X-frame design

3-Season vs. 4-Season Tents

Will a 3-season Tent Work in Pacific Northwest Winters?

The short answer is yes. I’m not going to do a detailed review of particular tents, but I want to mention a few models that I see often on our trips. I’ll also discuss a few pros and cons of using 3-season tents in the Pacific Northwest winter conditions and some of the best 4-season options available. In context, I’ll be referring to small and light tents for backpacking rather than tents that are used for basecamps and long stays in one location.

3-Season Tent Examples

Here are three of the better examples, used by winter backpackers in our group:

3-season tents snow camping
3-season tents by REI Half Dome (left), North Face Stormbreak 1 (middle) and Big Agnes Fly Creek (right) that have withstood 20–25mph winds and snow on our trips.

These tents are lightweight and packable. They shed snow and withstand wind well.

The wind is an important consideration because stronger winds are more frequent in winter. The wind passes through 3-season tents more easily than 4-season tents making the tents colder inside. Sometimes drifting snow will pass through the mosquito-netting too. These problems make 3-season tents less comfortable. Otherwise, in calm weather, the experience of being in one is similar to being in a 4-season tent.

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Food storage Sleeping systems Snow camping Tent setup Winter camping

Tips for a Better Winter Campsite

1. Camp on snow

Be equipped to camp on the snow. Once you learn how to do it and how comfortable it is, you may never want to camp on the ground again. To do this, you need a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. The standard practice for snow camping in the Pacific Northwest is two mattresses, either one solid core and one air or two solid ones.

Snow is soft and clean, usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation. Sometimes you might need to stomp it down a bit with snowshoes or level it with a snow shovel. It is easy to level a spot even on slopes. Pitching a tent on the snow is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It also increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). And, it is often the only option if you want to camp in the winter season. So be prepared!

For more on sleeping warm, see winter sleeping bags.

Winter sleeping system
My main sleeping system consists of a roll-out solid core foam mattress, an air mattress, and a sleeping bag. The solid core foam mattress has an R-value of 2.8 (about $30) and two of these will do the job. Or one 2.8 foam pad coupled with an air mattress with at least 2.5 R-value and you’ll be comfortable. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad which has 5.7 R-value ($150–225). The patches on my sleeping bag are the result of some small critter eating through the bag to gather down stuffing.

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Snow stake cords Tent setup Tent Stakes

How to stake a tent in snow without tying knots

This is just a quick tip to help you stake out your tent on snow. You may already be familiar with snow stakes and the deadman strategy for securing the stakes in soft snow. What I want to explain here is a method of setting up your stake cords so that you don’t have to tie any knots when you set up your tent. That is, the only tieing involved is done at home before you head out to the wilderness. Technically, you do need to tie one “knot,” a “girth hitch” to attach the cord to the stake, but this isn’t the kind of knot that requires much finger dexterity or time in cold conditions.

When you get ready to set up camp, you may be tied, it may be getting dark, and the weather may be cold and windy. You’ll want to set up your tent as quickly as possible. Tying knots with gloves on is not easy, so if you can avoid it, why not?

To eliminate this hassle, you can use the 2mm utility cord to prepare

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Backpacking Bear-proof canister Snow camping Ultra-light gear Winter backpacking Winter camping

Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions

Some Exceptions…

Most of my gear falls in the light to ultra-light category. This is important especially in the winter because sleeping gear and warm clothes add to the weight. But I have a few not-so-ultra-light exceptions, some of which I’m going to discuss in this post: my hard-shell bear-proof food canister and my extra sleeping pad.

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Backpacking Snow camping Winter backpacking Winter camping

Backpacking in the Sublime Season

Solitude and Snow

With the right gear and knowledge (know the hazards), you can head out and experience the beauty of the wilderness without the crowds.

To stay cozy and safe, you’ll need to add some pounds to your pack, making your ultra-light strategies even more important. And, sometimes you’ll

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Backpacking Snow camping Winter backpacking Winter camping

Winter Backpacking!

The things that make winter backpacking the best

Here are some reasons snow backpacking delivers a special and unique kind of backpacking bliss.

    1. Spectacular snow scenery.
    2. Solitude: There are fewer hikers in cold weather and fewer cars at the trail heads.
    3. Low-impact: When the snow is deep (6 feet or more) you can set up your tent most anywhere without impacting the meadows.
    4. Fewer restrictions: Campsites and trails are buried deep under the snow. You can hike off trail without damaging fragile vegetation. Areas that are restricted to permit holders are open in the winter and parts of the shoulder months of May and November.
    5. No bugs: The winter cold suppresses mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying bugs.
    6. Less sweat: The cool, usually dry air, helps minimize sweat.
    7. Less trail dust and mud. The bottom of your tent rarely gets dirty and the footprint (ground cloth) isn’t even needed.
    8. Bears are usually hibernating.
    9. It’s easier to have a level, smooth, and stick-free surface for your sleeping area
    10. Water is everywhere. You just have to melt it. In the winter there is no reason to carry a heavy load of water.
    11. Glissading

 

Very few hiking experiences can compare to traveling across pristine snow under a blue sky.

Before you head out, be sure to read my short post about the dangers of winter backpacking.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically for correction, etc.

Also, please don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and leave comments below.

 

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Avalanche dangers Snow dangers Winter backpacking Winter camping

Winter Backpacking Dangers

A few things that make snow backpacking dangerous

Before you head out, be aware of the risks. Here are the most basic concerns:

      1. Avalanches. Check the avalanche forecast in your area before heading out.
      2. Snow conceals dangers such as tree wells, very deep holes with streams, and crevasses that you can fall in.
      3. In cold and snowy conditions you are at greater risk of hypothermia, frost bite, and snow immersion suffocation.
      4. Trails, trail signs, and familiar landmarks are covered in snow increasing the risks of getting lost.
      5. Depending on where you are, there are fewer people in the wilderness to find you or help you if something goes wrong.

Be sure to read my safety tips blog too.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically.

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and leave comments below.

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Backpacking Safety Tips Snow camping Snowshoeing Winter backpacking Winter Backpacking Safety Winter camping

Winter Backpacking Safety

A few safety tips

Winter backpacking is like driving a car. There are always dangers, but there are ways to reduce those dangers. After all, we want to make sure we get a chance to backpack another day.

  1. Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, carry walkie-talkies.
  2. Do day-hikes in the snow to learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions and also how snow changes in the course of the day effect travel and gear requirements (snow is usually harder in the morning and softer as the day progresses). This way you can get to know conditions for different types of gear, such as micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. It will give you an opportunity to learn how to layer clothing and what levels of warm clothing are needed for different temperature ranges. Being too hot—overheating and sweating—or being too cold can both lead to hypothermia.
  3. Give greater attention to trail navigation, before and during hiking. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spots reliable natural markers. Consider bringing a GPS, but don’t be reliant on electronic devices or batteries which may fail, especially in cold weather. Don’t depend on clear visibility, or expect exposed trails, or footprints in the snow for directions.
  4. Carry appropriate gear (layers, insulated clothing, non-cotton clothing, and gear suited for the condition and weather, such as the snowshoes with side walls and a four-season tent that sheds snow). Always be prepared for conditions colder than anticipated. It is good to have a sleeping bag that is 10–20 degrees warmer than what you expect. If you’re just out for a day hike, carry emergency shelter in your day pack.
  5. Expect to get wet and be prepared to deal with it. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Snow may melt on your books and gloves. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting your boots wet. Bringing extra pairs of socks and gloves to replace wet ones.
  6. Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. (There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.)
  7. Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
  8. Carry and know how to use basic avalanche safety gear (transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel) when traveling in areas with avalanche risks.
  9. Check wind conditions and generally be prepared for high winds (goggles, balaclava, gloves, windbreaker, insulated jacket with hood).
  10. Learn about common dangers such as tree wells, snowbridges, and crevasses.
  11. Carry multiple fire-starting devices, but don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting and starting a fire is difficult, counter-productive (you expend valuable energy and often get wet in the process) and environmentally unsound. Fires are for emergency situation. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The art of staying warm involves preserving the warmth your body generates. The secret to being warm is eating, circulation, and insulation. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it.

 

snowshoes, gaiters, hiking poles
Some snowshoes are better suited for flat terrain. For steep and mountainous travel, be sure to use snowshoes with adequate side walls. In early season snow, when snow is soft and deep, wear gaiters (not shown in this photo) to prevent snowmelt and moisture from getting inside your boots.