Published on December 23rd, 2014 | by Editor0
How to Camp in the Snow
Why would you go camping in the winter? It’s simple: Solitude. Silence. Snow. Special. With no more than a hiking partner and a light breeze blowing (solitude doesn’t require you to be solo) it’s so silent you can hear the stars come out. It’s so cold, well, it’s just cold. Now, aren’t you happy with your new hooded down parka and thinsulate gloves?
I’m lucky enough to get to show first-time winter campers how to go snow camping in the Sierra Nevada, and these are the things that help them have a great time and come back smiling:
Keep it simple.
The backcountry is a lot closer to the trailhead in the winter. Not as many people go very far and so you don’t need a long-distance hike to get away. Because of the snow cover, there are few visible scars left by a winter camp. Since there’s a blanket of white, a lot is covered up and ready for your adventure.
Read the weather report.
Winter weather will make a trip great or it can imperil your life. Mother Nature doesn’t grade on the curve for either the newbie or the veteran. Possible snow predicted in the mountains. Where? How much? When? What about wind? How about temps? Be your own weather expert. In the days before your trip, log onto the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) weather at http://www.noaa.gov/ . Type in the town closest to your destination and then zoom in on the topo map to select the specific area where you intend to camp.
What are you looking for? With this point-forecast, you can precisely identify the expected precipitation, temperature, wind speed and direction for every hour leading up to and during your first nights of camping. Sit on this website the day before your hike and be ready to cancel if things turn sour. Absolutely give a final check before you embark. And never head out into a predicted or active snow storm. Questions? Google “Donner Party.” Equally important, watch for rising temperatures which can mean really unpleasant freezing rain–a much harder factor to deal with than snow.
Get comfortable with navigation tools.
No trails visible. How do I see where I’m going? Best policy is to keep your eyes open and observe–look for the wide spaces between trees to indicate paths in the forest; be aware that sometimes a large open space surrounded by trees might not be a meadow but instead, a lake. But, generally, point your snowshoes where you want to go and move them. Left-right. Repeat. Ducks or cairns might be visible but don’t rely on them for your navigation. Map. Compass. GPS.
Tahoe Meadows is a huge alpine meadow that attracts hundreds of snow-shoe hikers, XC skiers, sledders, and kite skiers. Each year, a few weekend snowshoers become lost and die within just a mile of the major road bordering the meadows. White-outs here are not unusual and hikers who become disoriented trying to navigate back to their car end up as annual statistics. Of the three navigating tools available to you – map, compass, and GPS–a compass will never fail you. A map is no help without visibility and a GPS depends on batteries which can easily fail in freezing temperatures. But a compass never errs. Learn how to use it and always carry this simple, important piece of gear.
Allot plenty of time.
If you haven’t gone snow camping before, it’s hard to imagine that, in the winter, everything (and I mean every single thing) takes approximately 8.5 times as long to do. Think you’re just going to skate into your campsite and begin setting up? Almost.
Select a primary campsite that’s sheltered from the wind, not in an exposed location, and not in an avalanche runout zone. Prepare a backup in case of wind changes.
Once you arrive, keep your snowshoes on and begin clearing a shelter pad with your rescue shovel. Size it for your tent plus room for extended guy lines and a 3-snowshoe wide perimeter. Toss the excavated snow to the upwind edge of your site to act as a windbreak. Then, put your pack back on and stomp down the area that will support you and your tent. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Then stomp some more.
Before it hardens, use your rescue shovel to cut a foot-well along the line of your shelter door. Make this about knee deep, as long as the door, and at least as wide as your boots. Imagine yourself sitting in the door of your tent with your feet comfortably hanging down. Easy to put boots on; easier to get into the shelter without the snow following along.
Stomp some more. Now wait. What you are waiting for is for the snow to sinter; that is a process whereby the snow crystals change to form a tight, concrete-like bond. Sintering takes about an hour more. Take your pack and sweater off and stomp an entrance and exit from the boot well. Cutting two boot-sized steps here is handy. Stomp a trail leading to your kitchen. Even stomp out a path to your selected privy site. Back and forth. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Better now than in the middle of the night.
Have the right gear.
If you go solo in winter, keep your tent as small and simple as possible. I use either a lightweight single wall tent or an ultra-light pyramid. Either way, it’s easy for me to heat up a small space, keeping toasty all night. Place your tent stakes sideways into the snow and use an easy tensioning knot in the line. Know how to set up this gear before you go.
Your stove needs to be either a white gas or a canister stove. An alcohol stove isn’t effective in freezing temperatures. White gas stoves are fiddly but they do provide reliable heat, even in winter. These stoves can be pressurized by manual pumping and the flame guarded by a windscreen, both providing better heat output. Canister stoves are convenient and reliable but the pressure in the can and heat output decrease with temperature and elevation. And a windscreen is not advised unless you are into rocketry. When it’s below freezing, putting the canister in a plate or bowl of water raises the gas temperature and pressure, so the stove is more effective. Also, a small square of old closed-cell foam will nicely support either stove, keeping it on top of the snow.
Make it like home.
You say, “Jordan, I’m not seeing the weak-smile part of all this.” Don’t worry. It’s coming. But so is nightfall, so get busy on your kitchen. A backcountry kitchen is usually defined as a log or a rock sitting on dirt or rock. But in winter you must create a kitchen in the snow. Unless you use a pyramid or other high ceiling/floorless shelter or build a snow shelter such as a snow-cave with flow-through ventilation, do not cook in your tent. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Dig into a snow bank or around a tree-well to build your ideal outdoor kitchen that allows you to stand in a wind-sheltered spot with shelves for stove and lantern, and a cupboard for water bottles or thermos. A bottle of water will stay liquid if it’s insulated in a cupboard made of snow. Shovel a flat sit-spot for your keaster. When you are in your kitchen, you need to sit on a foldable square of your old z-pad that you cut just for this important purpose. It will insulate you from the snow and the snow from you–or else your flat spot will soon be flat no longer.
Eat like a king.
Foods and cooking are so important in the winter. It’s no longer a casual pleasure/satisfaction item but rather a calculated nutrition/fuel item. Eating more than usual and drinking as much water as normal is your goal. Hydration fights hypothermia. Carbohydrates and fats are the fuel for your internal furnace. So take treats like hard candy, corn chips, chocolate, sticky buns, hot cocoa mix, pop tarts, fruit-drink mixes, or anything else that you will definitely eat. A little hot sauce or curry powder makes a bland pasta dish more appealing so you’ll likely eat a bit more. High fat content is definitely permitted in the winter and adding some olive oil does wonders for most every backcountry dish. Make certain that you save one candy bar for your midnight snack. (And don’t leave it where it can freeze.)
In the winter, it’s likely that you will need to make water rather than to gather water. Trying to fill water bottles from a stream or lake can send you post-holing through a snowbank or ice-shelf right into the water. This is a bad situation that is tough to recover from alone and difficult even with a partner. So making water involves melting snow. The single rule to this is to start the process with a small amount of boiling water to which the clean snow is added. You won’t like the taste of burned snow if you forget this step. This takes some time (8.5 times as much, remember) and is going to cost some fuel. Calculate your fuel needs before you go, not while you’re melting snow.
Sit back and enjoy.
By four-thirty, the sky is darkening and you are about ready for dinner. If you have attended to the other tasks, your sleeping system and shelter are in place, you can easily maneuver around your shelter site, and you can go to a well-planned spot for privacy. Your kitchen is viable and you are ready to create water and make dinner. Now is the time to kick back, look at the stars chasing away the sunset, and sip that first cup of hot chai tea.
If you are able to time it properly, full-moon hikes are incredible in the winter. Here’s where you get the serious Ahhh-factor. But a moonless night of the Milky Way isn’t at all a bad second.
Any way you do it, whenever and wherever you do it, wake before sunrise and take the opportunity to quietly walk away from camp to any nearby overlook. I swear you can listen and hear the sun as it hits the snow, climbs the trees and begins to make shadows that move all around you. It pushes a warm gust of air kicking up snowdust that seems to send the little brown birds to their next perch. Walk on, circling back to camp, and listen to the sounds popping out of the silence and arrive back at your kitchen, warmed and ready to enjoy a warm morning brew. You’ll be back.
Some hints to increasing the pleasure factor:
Take down booties for inside the shelter
Put a Flexible liter canteen of hot water (insulate it with a sweater or socks) in your sleeping bag
You will sleep warmer if you are hydrated
If you have to go–go
If you wake at night, it’s your good luck. Open up the tent and see what’s going on.
Use a reflective closed cell pad as part of your sleep system
Use a bag rated twenty degrees colder than the coldest forecast
Get your layering system down
Rub waxed paper on the sections of your hiking sticks
Make sure all batteries–lights, cameras, cell phone, GPS–are lithium and new. Carry spares.
Carry one must-stay-dry base layer set and a sweater and keep them dry
Put your boots into your inside-out sleeping bag stuff-sack and put it in the bottom of your sleeping bag
Read Winter Camping by Buck Tilton and John Gookin