Ten tips for a better winter campsite

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. This means having a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. Snow is soft and usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation other than stomping it down a bit with snow shoes or leveling it with a shovel. This is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). It is often the only option anyway if you want to camp in the winter season.

Winter sleeping system
My sleeping system consist of a solid core foam mattress, an air mattress, and a sleeping bag. (The patches on my sleeping bag are the result of some small critter eating through the bag to gather down stuffing.)

2. Secure your tent without having to tie knots in cold weather 

The tent stake loops that come with your tent, even 4-season tents, are usually short and you’ll need to add utility cords to allow the stakes to be put deep into the snow in order to secure the tent against high winds. A simple technique for doing this without tying knots in the cold is explained in How to stake a tent in the snow without tying knots.

3. Protect your air mattress

Clip together any loose side-release buckles on your pack to eliminate sharp buckle ends that might puncture your air mattress. Take care to keep any sharp gear away from the air mattress and tent floor or walls. Leave microspikes and crampons outside in the tent vestibule and away from your air mattress. If you don’t have a vestibule and put any gear outside have a way of identifying the gear location, such as looping the gear onto a snow shovel. Anything left outside may get buried under snow during the night.

4. Secure the food 

For me, all food and snacks go in the bear vault which goes outside. I’m usually not concerned enough about bears in the winter to put the bear vault 100 ft (30 meters) away from my tent, even though I have seen what might be black bear tracks as late in the year as the end of December. A more common issue is smaller mammals that will eat through your gear to get at your food. They will, in fact, eat through the lid of the bear vault too, so you may want to flip the vault over to protect the lid and keep animals wild.

Even the smaller BV450 (which I use) still adds 2 pounds to your pack. Is it worth it? I keep telling myself I’m not going to take it anymore, in favor of a critter-proof sack, but the convenience and effectiveness of the vault container have persuaded me and, so far, I have never left without it. It is, of course, required gear in many locations, such as specific national parks. I always figure that if there’s a good reason for a bear-proof canister in a national park, there’s probably a good reason to bring it when camping in the forest or wilderness areas near those parks—which is most all of the Cascade Mountains.

If you’re thinking of hanging your food in a sack, that method is certainly a problematic idea at high elevations in the winter. There are few or no tall trees and the trees are often more like snow sculptures with tree wells beneath them. Others hikers are coming to the recognition that the hanging method is ineffective, endangering people and wildlife.

Bear tracks Cascade National Park
These are some tracks I found in the fresh snow on an early morning while hiking down a forest road leading into the Cascade National Park. Bear? Looks too narrow to be bear—more like dog prints. But if it is a dog, it’s a very large dog very far from any people, traveling alone. I’m not an expert tracker so let me know your opinion.

5. Don’t lose the gear 

Secure all your stuff sacks as you unpack. I usually put all the smaller stuff sacks and sleeping bag stuff sack into my tent stuff sack as I unpack. Pull the tent out of the stuff sack and clip the stuff sack to a belt loop. Then put any additional stuff sacks into it as you set up your camp site. This helps prevent two problems—light stuff sacks blowing off the ridge in a gust of wind and simply not knowing where a stuff sack is when you need it to pack up in the morning. You don’t want to have to unpack gear to see if a stuff sack ended up inside of your sleeping bag. 

If you are stopping to set up in high winds, put up the tent poles and throw your pack inside to weight the tent and prevent it from blowing away. A tent can act like a sail, catching the wind and taking off instantly.

6. Have a gear distribution system

You don’t want to be searching for gear in the dark. Determine where your gear will go inside your tent before you head out to the trail. That is, prepare your tent at home in advance. Create a system for distributing your main gear (pack, boots, etc.) and small items (glasses, headlamp, ditty bag). Different tents have different features. Your system has to work for your tent. My 4-season tent, for example, has a small pocket that would work well for my eyeglasses except that it is located at the entrance and I prefer to sleep with my feet at the entrance. For this reason, I detach my pack lid and position it where I can easily reach it during the night. This way I have my glasses and headlamp where I can easily find them. 

My gaiters (usually a bit wet and ice-encrusted) go under my pack, which is inside the tent by the door and under the solid core foam mattress. My air mattress goes between my solid core foam pad and my sleeping bag—which I think is the safest way to do it.

My boots go by the door if temps are above freezing and inside my the bottom of my sleeping bag in a dry sack if temps are below freezing. 

Trekking poles, shovel, ice ax, and snowshoes, are stuck in the snow outside the tent in a vertical position so they can be found in the morning. Crampons or microspikes go at the base of the shovel. 

Electronics (transceiver, camera gear, cell phone) go in my pack lid or in my sleeping bag. I usually lay my puffy and rain jacket over my sleeping bag at night. 

One consideration is to keep gear situated so that there isn’t anything touching the tent walls and collecting moisture.

7. Dig a cooking pit

Dig a small pit that will work as a chair. You can set up your stove with a slot in the snow to secure the fuel bottle. You can use your solid core foam pad as insulation for both your bottom and your feet. Fill in the pit before you leave (i.e., leave no trace or hole for someone to stumble into).

Campsite cooking pit
A simple cooking pit in the snow. When the snow is deep (we were unable to touch the ground under us with a 9ft avalanche probe) it is easy to dig a pit like this, which make a comfortable seat when preparing food.

8. Create a clothesline

A clothesline can be handy for airing out wet socks and sweaty clothes. Look inside your tent and see if there are any loops sewn in that allow for a clothesline. Many tents have them. A clothesline is usually ineffective in winter, but if your camp is setup up long enough the solar energy inside the tent can actually dry out the clothes. This is better than laying the clothing on exposed rocks if there is a risk that they might get blown off the ridge.

tent clothesline
A 2mm cord being used for airing out wet socks.

9. Make a pillow

Stuff sacks (tent, tent pole bag, air mattress bag) and sweaty clothes all go inside the tent stuff sack to form a night-time pillow. 

10. Get the early sunlight

It is possible and worthwhile to identify where the sun will come up over the horizon and make sure your campsite is in line to receive the sunlight when it first breaks. Having the early morning sun shining on your campsite can make a real difference in temperature. It is a very fine experience to be warm and well lit when you’re preparing breakfast. 

snow camping sunrise
The first sun rays in the early morning shining in my tent.

Preparing for Winter Winds

Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 8,000 feet of elevation. However, during the winter months, wind speeds increase significantly and trip planning needs to include clothing for wind protection to prevent discomfort, hypothermia, and even frostbite.

There is a thin line of protection between being a happy winter camper and being miserable and at risk. Always plan your kit so that you are fully protected and never cold for any significant length of time.

winter winds average speeds in Washington State
If you are use to three-season backpacking, you may be unfamiliar with the increased wind speeds of winter. Planning for the cold is not enough. You need to factor in wind as well to be safe.

Wind Forecasts

When planning a trip, bear in mind that a forecast of 10–25mph wind can fail to represent wind speed in specific terrain conditions, such as the crest of ridges or narrow saddles and valleys, where the wind can increase significantly. The Mountain Forecast website provides wind speed data for sellect elevations.

intense mountain winds
The forecast included 10–25mph winds, but on this ridge we had trouble walking, indicating that the wind speed was around 40mph. The temperatures were 7–10ºF at 5000ft, making the wind chill probably –15ºF. This placed us close to the edge of frostbite danger.

Judging wind speed and frostbite risk

It is often easier to get a temperature forecast than to know the wind speed you are encountering. If the wind is strong enough that you are having trouble walking and you know temperatures are below 10ºF, then you are at risk of frostbite on exposed skin. To make it easier to judge wind speeds, I have combined the Beaufort Wind Force Scale with a wind chill chart (see below). Note that the brackets for West and East Cascades are averages. Wind chills can exceed these averages.

Beaufort Wind Force Scale combined with Wind Chill Chart
The Beaufort scale is based on observation rather than actual measurements. These observable correlations allow the scale to be a practical guide to wind speeds. It was developed by Francis Beaufort of the Royal Navy in 1805 and first officially used by HMS Beagle. Here, I have combined it with wind chill information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and added some basic data about conditions on the west and east sides of the Cascade Range.

Except on the eastern slopes of the Cascade range, average temperatures and wind speeds do not pose a serious frostbite risk below 9,000ft. However, unusually low temperatures and high wind speeds can occur. The most likely risk would be in the 0–10º degree range with winds 15mph or above.  

Average winter temperatures in Cascade Mountains

Even without the risk of frostbite, wind robs your body of warmth and comfort. It also places you at risk of hypothermia. The number one safety rule is to be able to cover all flesh if you encounter high winds.

Essential wind protection gear

  • Have a hardshell jacket with a hood to protect your core and head. Layers of Capilene and wool are not enough to prevent strong winds from robbing your body warmth. Even if there is no rain in the forecast, always bring your hardshell rain protection in case of high winds.
  • Use a Balaclava that is designed to cover your nose and mouth while allowing ventilation under your nose to prevent your goggles and/or glasses from fogging over.
  • Wear ski goggles. These are available in eyewear compatible designs.
  • Wear gloves with high-rise design to cover jacket sleeve ends 
  • Wear gaiters to seal the ends of your pants. In severe conditions bring hardshell pants as well.
Winter wind protection gear
Balaclava, goggles, and high-rise gloves. These with your regular winter layers will allow you to keep all flesh protected from high winds.

A hardshell jacket, gaiters, and gloves are standard gear for any winter weather trip. So the only added wind protection weight is the balaclava (2.45 oz) and goggles (5.40 oz), adding a half pound to your kit. I prefer several pairs of light-weight wool liner gloves and a mid-weight water-resistant pair, but in severe cold temperatures (below 15ºF), I’ll add heavier high-rise gloves too (7.80 oz). 

Costs: balaclava ($36), goggles ($65–85), and high-rise gloves ($25–100). Prices can vary a lot and you may be able to find these items on sale. I bought my goggles for $35.

A buff adds warmth to the neck and can be pulled up over part of your face but the thin fabric does not provide adequate protection in high winds and low temperatures. A winter weather balaclava is necessary.

Finding shelter from the wind

If you find yourself hiking on a ridge in hind winds, you’ll need to find a natural wind barrier to set up camp and reduce the windchill. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best and safest possible locations may be on the windward side of the ridge. The leeward side of the ridge will often be loaded with snow with increased avalanche danger. Look down the windward slope and watch for moving trees. The trees may be relatively still, indicating that the wind is gaining speed and peaking on the ridge. You can then head down the windward side (hiking into the wind) to a lower elevation, which may be all that is needed to escape the stronger winds. In the evening the winds will often subside. In my experience, winds usually die down a few hours after sunset allowing a better opportunity to come out of the tent and prepare a meal, hot tea thermos, or hot water bottle for the night.

Wind and tents

Tents add very little warmth while you sleep in winter, except when it is windy. If you are using a 3-season tent, high winds in very cold conditions will send snowflakes through the mosquito netting, allowing drifts to build up around your sleeping bag. This can quickly (within an hour) reduce your warmth and the wind will also more easily penetrate the sleeping bag. In high winds, fine snow blowing in the wind can be hardly perceptible, but if you leave your tent door open the snow can build up quickly.

The primary reason to carry a 4-season tent is wind protection.

4-season tent used for wind protection
My 4-season tent on windward side of the ridge—safest wind-protected spot that still had a 5-star view.

Know your gear limits

My coldest weather sleeping bag is rated –20ºF, which means it provides comfort down to 0ºF, and that is, therefore my equipment comfort limit. However, at 10ºF water and food freezes so fast, that my trip planning preference is for above 15ºF, with ideal weather being between 20–30ºF—cold enough that snow doesn’t melt, but not so cold that hot food freezes too quickly.

How to stake a tent in snow without tying knots

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?

To eliminate this hassle, you can use the 2mm utility cord to prepare Continue reading “How to stake a tent in snow without tying knots”

Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions

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.

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. Continue reading “Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions”

Backpacking in the Sublime Season

Before you decide to give up on the idea of backpacking in the more beautiful Wilderness areas because of the growing crowds of day hikers and lucky permit holders, consider snow backpacking.

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 Continue reading “Backpacking in the Sublime Season”

Winter Backpacking!

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.

    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.

 

Winter Backpacking Safety

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.

  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.