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Winter Camping and Backpacking Tips Camping or backpacking in the snow appeals to anyone who enjoys the beauty and peacefulness of a pristine winter wonderland. There are no bugs or crowds, and who doesn't enjoy playing in the snow? With a little preparation, you also might be surprised at
Camping or backpacking in the snow appeals to anyone who enjoys the beauty and peacefulness of a pristine winter wonderland. There are no bugs or crowds, and who doesn't enjoy playing in the snow? With a little preparation, you also might be surprised at how comfortable it can be. Here's how to get started.
Winter outings offer different challenges than summer camping. You must be prepared for more severe weather and shorter daylight hours by having extra gear and additional skills. Before you leave home, have a plan.
The simple rule of winter camping is to stay dry and warm. Carefully choose clothing layers that are moisture-wicking, quick-drying, insulating and waterproof/windproof/breathable. By adjusting your layers of clothing, you can regulate the amount of warmth you need. The 3 basic layers:
The base layer is basically your underwear—the layer next to your skin. Synthetic and merino wool fabrics work best (avoid cotton). They wick perspiration away from your skin to outer layers so it can evaporate. They dry quickly so you spend minimal time in wet clothing. For maximum thermal efficiency, the base layer should feel snug but not constricting. When snow camping, it's common to wear 2 base layers: a lightweight or midweight layer, then a thicker heavyweight layer. A zip T-neck is a versatile choice in cold weather.
The middle layer is your insulating layer. It also moves (wicks) moisture away from your body, but it is primarily designed to help you retain body heat. For snow camping, consider expedition-weight fleece or microfleece shirts, pants and jacket and/or a goose down jacket.
The outer layer , or shell, is your waterproof/windproof/breathable layer. Shells made of laminates such as Gore-Tex, eVent offer premium protection. Less expensive alternatives typically use polyurethane-coated fabrics that are equally waterproof but somewhat less breathable. Many are designed with core vents and underarm vents to help you expel excess heat and moisture.
Tip: If you take a break, put on a layer so you don't cool off too much. Your body will have to work harder to warm up again.
When heading into the backcountry—especially in snowy or cold conditions—it is essential to have the right gear for your comfort and safety. Developed in the 1950s, the "Ten Essentials" are a time-tested group of items that has more recently been updated into the 10 essential systems.
Winter backpacking requires extra gear, so you most likely want a high-volume pack. Pack as lightly as you can, but always make sure you're prepared for winter weather and conditions.
Rough guidelines for a 2- to 4-day winter backpacking trip:
If you plan on carrying skis or snowshoes, make sure your pack has lash points or is otherwise able to secure these large items.
For longer trips and expeditions, it is common to pull a sled. A sled helps you to reduce weight on your back, and it lets you carry more gear. A sled is not practical for all terrain, so study your topo map and ask about trail conditions beforehand. It's also a good idea to practice pulling a sled while wearing your snowshoes or skis.
A sleeping bag helps retain your body heat to keep you warm, and keeping warm is essential to snow camping. Make sure you use a bag that's rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. You can always vent the bag if you get too warm.
Bags are generally categorized as follows:
|Bag Type||Comfort Rating (°F)|
|Summer Season||+35° and higher|
|3-Season Bag||+10° to +35°|
|Cold Weather||-10° to +10°|
|Winter/Extreme||-10° and lower|
Cold- and winter-rated bags are supplied with generous amounts of goose down or synthetic insulation. Down is the most popular choice due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio—just make sure to keep it dry (when wet, down loses much of its insulating ability). These bags are also distinguished by their draft tubes behind the zippers, draft collars above the shoulders and hoods to help keep the heat in the bag.
Using a bag liner adds extra warmth, minimizes wear and helps keep your bag cleaner. The extra layer can add 8° to 15°F of warmth.
These provide both cushioning and insulation. For winter camping, be sure to use 2 pads to help insulate your body from losing body heat on a cold surface such as snow. Pads are rated by R-value, the measurement of insulation, ranging between 1.0 and 8.0. The higher the R-value, the better it insulates.
Rules of thumb:
While a 3/4-length pad is fine for spring through fall backpacking, a full-length pad is recommended for winter use.
A ground cloth protects your tent or bivy sack from dirt and twigs, plus winter campers find that it deters any water that might seep from the snow through the tent floor. You can use any tarp as a ground cover, but a tent "footprint" (sold separately) is custom cut to fit under your tent's floor design, easily attach to the tent and be lighter weight.
Winter nights are long, so make sure your headlamp and flashlight batteries are new or fully charged before an excursion and always take extras. Lithium batteries perform well in cold weather, but they can overpower some devices like headlamps. Check your product's manual for compatibility. Alkaline batteries are inexpensive and should work in any device, but they drain at a faster rate.
Tip: Cold temperatures decrease battery life. Store your batteries and battery-operated devices inside your sleeping bag to keep them warm.
Use these to stay connected to members in your group who travel at different speeds or if someone elects to stay at camp while you're out skiing or snowshoeing. Remember, the backcountry most likely has no cell phone coverage.
You have a number of enjoyable options for snow travel. For an overview, see the REI Expert Advice article and video on backcounty travel in winter. Just keep in mind it takes a little more gear than in summer to get there.
If you're a skier, these are great ways to go for both the ascent and descent. AT ski bindings let the heel move for going uphill, and they clamp down for downhill skiing. Telemark skiers have their heels free all of the time, which requires a different type of turn when skiing downhill.
AT skis require matching boots that are a combination of a plastic climbing boot and an alpine ski boot. A switch sets the cuff to a soft flex for uphill skiing or climbing, or it can be set for a stiff flex for downhill skiing. Telemark boots and bindings are not compatible with AT gear.
Skiing with a full pack on your back takes some practice—so practice!
Tip: To keep your boots from freezing at night, put them in a stuff sack (turn the stuff sack inside out to keep the inside clean and dry) and then into your sleeping bag. Your toes will thank you in the morning.
Just as snowboarding is popular on ski-resort slopes, it is also a popular way to see the backcountry. A snowboard's wide base makes it great for descents, but the ascent may still require snowshoes (which means more weight on your back).
Some snowboards are split boards—they are actually 2 skis that latch together and form a snowboard. These are not as rigid as a traditional snowboard.
Snowshoes offer the easiest and least expensive way to travel in snow. "If you can walk, you can snowshoe" is a common expression indicating that no special skills or training are required. Snowshoes disperse your weight over a large surface area, thus providing a degree of flotation that reduces the amount you sink into soft snow. You should not, however, expect to literally "float" on the surface of the snow.
Snowshoes provide good traction for climbing, traversing and descending slopes. They also work better than skis in areas of closely spaced trees or in brushy or rocky areas.
Poles: No matter what your means of ascent, you'll want to have a pair of adjustable ski or snowshoe poles. They provide welcome support and balance and can be used for downhill skiing or snowshoeing as well. If you don't want them for parts of your route, just shorten them and strap them on to your pack.
Ice axe: This can help you self-arrest when sliding, serve as an anchor for climbing or hack through ice when setting up camp. Be sure you know how to properly use it before heading out. Seek out competent instruction and practice.
Crampons: These provide traction when walking on snowfields, climbing on technical terrain or ascending waterfalls.
Tip: Regardless of your means of travel, have each member of your party take turns being the one to break trail in deep snow.
Excess snow or bad weather may hide the trail and/or your destination. Before heading out, make sure everyone in your group has a good map and route description. If using a GPS, program in lots of waypoints. Mountaineers should consider using an altimeter as an extra means of determining their location.
Study your map and plot your compass bearings in advance so you know what terrain to expect. Beware of simply following someone else's tracks, as this person may not know where he or she is going! Plan and follow a safe route. Avoid cornices, snow-covered rivers and lakes, snow bridges, hidden holes next to logs and rocks, tree wells, rockfall and avalanche zones.
You may need to vary your route somewhat to find better snow conditions.
If you get lost:
Snow saw: This is a necessary tool when making a snow cave or igloo and you need to cut through layers of ice or snow. Use by hand or attach it to a ski pole for longer reaches. It is also useful for evaluating slope stability to determine avalanche hazard.
Snow shovel: Everyone should carry one in the winter backcountry. Shovels can be used for avalanche rescue, leveling a tent site, digging a snow shelter or getting fresh snow to melt for drinking water.
Avalanche transceiver: This is a required item in avalanche-prone areas for each member of your group. As with any safety device, be sure you know how to use one before heading out. This requires competent instruction and practice.
Probe: Another mandatory item in avalanche country, a probe is a collapsible pole with depth markings (usually up to 10' long). Sections can be quickly assembled after an avalanche to probe into the snow and help find victims. Some ski poles have a connector option that allows 2 poles to be used as a probe, but taking the baskets off and connecting the poles takes longer than using a probe.
AvaLung: While optional, this popular device from Black Diamond can help avalanche victims pull air from the snowpack and thus increase the time the victim has to breathe. It is worn like a pack over your clothing. To work, the mouthpiece needs to be in place before the wearer is buried in the snow debris.
Tip: The best way to survive an avalanche is to stay out of avalanche areas.
Personal locator beacon: If you are ever in danger in the backcountry, you'll be extremely grateful to have a PLB. Once activated, it sends out a signal to satellites about your position that in turn alerts search-and-rescue teams.
Make sure you start your hike or drive early enough to reach your destination with time to spare. Give yourself time to relax, have a snack, cool down and put on extra clothing layers. You want plenty of time to be selective in finding the right camp spot and setting up your gear.
Winter campsite considerations:
In patchy snow conditions, set up camp on the snow or an established campsite of bare ground and no plant life. Always practice Leave No Trace camping ethics.
For snow camping, you ideally want a "mountaineering tent" (also known as a "4-season tent") that's easy and quick to set up in frigid conditions. These tents are a bit heavier than 3-season backpacking tents but offer better protection against the elements.
Typical mountaineering tent features:
Mountaineering tents employ either single-wall or double-wall construction. Each has its advantages.
|Lighter weight||Heavier and bulkier|
|Cooler than a double-wall||Warmer than a single-wall|
|Quick setup||Longer setup time|
|Costs more than a double-wall||Costs less than a single-wall|
|Potentially more condensation||Better ventilation, less condensation|
Ultralight backpackers can opt to skip the tent and go with a bivy (short forbivouac ) sack instead. A bivy sack keeps you and your sleeping bag dry and adds about 10ºF of warmth to a bag. A bivy is simply a waterproof/breathable overbag for your sleeping bag that provides one of the lightest ways to protect yourself from the elements. A few models have mesh netting and poles that give tent-like protection around the head area. These are sometimes called bivy shelters.
Experienced parties who plan on camping at the same spot for multiple nights can consider making a snow cave, quinzhee, igloo or trench. It's a lot of work, but the result is quite satisfying: a quiet and relatively warm place to sleep. Typically, it takes 2 people at least 2 or 3 hours to complete a snow cave or igloo; trenches can be created somewhat faster.
To build one of these shelters, you need a snow shovel and, for igloos, a snow saw. Before digging, use a probe to make sure you won't be digging into a rock. And, just in case, you may want to bring a tent as a backup shelter.
Steps to building a snow cave:
Tip: Put a backpack in the doorway to keep a snow cave warmer. Just make sure the door remains accessible.
Steps to building an igloo:
Tip: Don't make it too big. The wider the base, the greater the risk of collapse. Sprinkle water over the igloo at night (early in the day is OK if the temperature is cold enough) to freeze and strengthen the structure.
Steps to building a quinzhee:
Sometimes, the snow may not be deep enough for a snow cave nor firm enough for an igloo. In these cases, a quinzhee makes an excellent alternative.
Steps to building a snow trench:
A snow trench is a relatively quick and easy shelter for 1 or 2 people. It is typically an emergency shelter and will not be as comfortable or warm as the snow shelter described above. It is not recommended during heavy snowfall since the "roof" could easily collapse with the weight of additional snow.
Sourced By Geoff Irons
Tip: It's OK to wear your wet clothes while establishing camp. Your body heat will help them to dry more quickly than it would to hang them.
Liquid-fuel stoves are recommended for cold temperatures. White gas is readily available in North America, Australia and New Zealand. For other countries, consider a multifuel stove that allows you to burn auto gas as well. Auto gas burns dirtier than white gas, but it might be your best or only option in some areas. Before you leave home, always make sure your camp stove is working properly.
Other winter camping considerations: You may want a windscreen and heat exchanger to improve cooking performance. Keep in mind, too, that you'll use more fuel at higher elevations, and it takes extra fuel to melt water. Finally, bring a backup stove, just in case. The added benefit is that having 2 stoves speeds up the group-cooking process.
It's best to have a sheltered cooking spot, which can be as simple as your tent's vestibule. If you have the time and energy, dig a trench about 3 feet deep to create a cooking area that is sheltered from the wind. One of the joys of winter camping is the ability to build a kitchen, using your shovel to make a cooking surface, seats, table and even a storage cabinet. Use your imagination to make it as elaborate as you'd like. Consider taking a foam sit-pad to use while cooking on the cold surface. It helps you stay a little warmer and drier.
If you're snowshoeing, skiing or boarding, you are using a lot of energy. Be sure to eat before, during and after your activity to keep your energy up and help your body recover.
Proteins, fats and carbohydrates all provide energy.
During your activity, consume some of the many energy foods , performance beverages and snacks available. Consider food that does not take much cook time or clean up. Look for one-pot meal or, better yet, buy some freeze-dried entrees and breakfast foods—just add hot water in the pouch and pack the garbage out. No dirty dishes!
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol increases blood flow and cools your core temperature; caffeine restricts blood flow and cools your extremities.
Tip: To stay warmer, don't stop for long lunches where you cool down and then need to put on more layers. Instead, take short breaks to snack on food, or simply nibble while you're moving.
This is the body's temperature decreasing due to exposure to the cold conditions. It can be life threatening. A person can become hypothermic without even noticing it.
Tip: Carry a small vacuum bottle with a hot drink or soup—it'll warm you up when you're getting cold.
This happens in cold-weather conditions. Frostbite is a freezing of the tissues usually on the fingers, toes, nose or face. It is a result of heat being lost faster than the blood can circulate. In severe cases, appendages may have to be amputated.
Tip: Use chemical heat packs to help stay warm and to avoid getting frostbite.
Even when the temperature is low, you can still get dehydrated and that's not good for your kidneys, heart or brain. So drink plenty of water—even if you're not thirsty. Drink before you become thirsty.
Tip: Keep the fluids flowing in freezing weather with an insulated reservoir and tubing. In extreme cold, leave the reservoir at home and use a water bottle cover for your bottle. Turn the bottle upside down. (Water freezes from the top down, so by turning it right-side up you'll be able to unscrew the cap and drink.)
A good way to determine if you're drinking enough is to check the color of your urine. If it's dark, you are dehydrated. If it's pale in color, you're doing a good job hydrating!
Other symptoms of dehydration in extreme temperatures:
For treating water:
Altitude sickness is a result of being in a low air pressure at a high altitude. Symptoms include nausea, severe headache, dizziness, insomnia, shortness of breath, lethargy, body ache and not wanting to eat. The remedy: Descend to a lower elevation for a few days.
Tip: Make a camp base and acclimatize for a few days before climbing higher. One strategy—don't ascend more than 1,000' a day.
As with any backcountry trip, you should always practice good hygiene habits.
Snow camping requires extra steps to be taken with your body wastes. You should always bag your waste using sanitary kits. These often include bag neutralizer (to reduce odors and turn the waste into a gel for easier transport) and a hand sanitizer.