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.
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.
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).
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.
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.