Here are ten tips to make your snow camping experience a little more luxurious and trouble free.
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!
A simple method of setting up stake cords so that you don’t have to tie any knots in severe weather conditions.
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?
It is always a good idea to trim off unnecessary weight, but sometimes there are safety considerations or just simple pleasures and preferences that make you want to hang on to some gear choices. Here are two of mine.
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. Continue reading “Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions”
Most backpackers stick to three seasons—spring, summer, and early fall— avoiding winter and cold weather camping, but some backpackers keep going, year round. Why?
The things that make winter backpacking the best
Here are some reasons snow backpacking delivers a special and unique kind of backpacking bliss.
Spectacular snow scenery.
Solitude: There are fewer hikers in cold weather and fewer cars at the trail heads.
Low-impact: When the snow is deep (6 feet or more) you can set up your tent most anywhere without impacting the meadows.
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.
No bugs: The winter cold suppresses mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying bugs.
Less sweat: The cool, usually dry air, helps minimize sweat.
Less trail dust and mud. The bottom of your tent rarely gets dirty and the footprint (ground cloth) isn’t even needed.
Bears are usually hibernating.
It’s easier to have a level, smooth, and stick-free surface for your sleeping area
Water is everywhere. You just have to melt it. In the winter there is no reason to carry a heavy load of water.
Very few hiking experiences can compare to traveling across pristine snow under a blue sky.
If you’re new to backpacking in snow conditions, here are a few things you can do to help minimize some of the common dangers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. (There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.)
Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
Carry and know how to use basic avalanche safety gear (transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel) when traveling in areas with avalanche risks.
Check wind conditions and generally be prepared for high winds (goggles, balaclava, gloves, windbreaker, insulated jacket with hood).
Learn about common dangers such as tree wells, snowbridges, and crevasses.
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.