After another year of backpacking, I've drifted towards a new reality...I'm not satisfied. Perhaps I didn't get out as much as I'd have liked, but the reality is the sun is pretty much gone for the next half a year, and I just can't settle for the wait. I ski, ski tour, and mountaineer to stay busy through the colder months, but I think this year is the first I'll be pursuing major snow camping ambitions.
Moments like the above are gone, and the ground is turning into a wet, cold mess. So how do you handle the transition? I've backpacked many times in the rain, but what procedures should I be practicing to start camping on the snow? Do people recommend digging motes, pitching my ultamid any different, using any specific mats, etc...? I'm eager to get out, get cold, and learn the hard way. However, I'm also eager to see if I can skip out on any obvious mishaps through this community's hive mind for outdoors information.
Lay it all on me! I'm open to trying new gear, going to new places, etc... I'll always be most stoked if I can end up on a mountain, so the goal is to build my kit/ambitions tough! Also very open to routes/locations people are keen on here. I'll be in Washington for the next year, and the further I can get into the mountains, the better!
Winter camping is the best! No bugs, no bears, no snakes, no dirt, and all the building material you could want for the perfect snow shelter!3
Stoked for your new pursuits! I'm currently a desert dweller, so I don't have much recent experience, but I've got feedback based on winter camping trips with Boy Scouts growing up in Wisconsin, and a NOLS semester in Patagonia.
* Snow is obviously cold, but it's also very wet. I have forgotten (and been reminded) many times that staying dry and getting dry in the snow is a challenge. Removing layers while you are moving in order to help minimize sweating will help keep you hydrated, and warmer once you stop moving and begin to cool down.
* Snow is also an excellent insulator, for temperature, light, and sound. I recommend doing some research on quinzees, which can be both quiet and shockingly warm (in the 20s) even if the outside temperatures dip below zero.
* Wall thickness for quinzees is important for stability, but a crucial detail to maintain heat within the structure is to have the door be as low as possible, and then to crawl UP into your sleeping space. This will ensure that when the warm air rises, it's trapped inside, and doesn't escape through an elevated exit. For the best weather proofing, fill a trash bag with snow, and pull that in after yourself as a door.
* You will still want a small hole for ventilation.
* Quinzees are great, but they are also time-consuming and exhausting to build, so probably more practical as a base-camp shelter as opposed to a backpacking option. If you're in a tent, it may snow, and then you'll have to clear the snow off to prevent collapse, suffocation, etc. As much as you want to, DO NOT USE A SHOVEL. You'll think you are being gentle, but you will almost undoubtedly rip or tear your tent fabric, and then you'll have a whole new set of issues to deal with. Use a gloved hand / arm.
* A 20º bag with a Z-rest is not enough to keep me warm when I'm sleeping on snow, even if temps are only in the 20s. I would use a warmer bag and/or an additional inflatable pad ON TOP of my closed to cell foam pad so my therms stay as close to my body as possible. But I would be very open to hearing different options that work for other people.
* PSA: to get the º symbol, type opt+0 (zero) on a mac or alt+0176 on a PC.
* Peeing in the snow in the middle of the night is not fun. Some other options include:
- Neoprene "pee booties" - ankle height will get the job done, are lighter than calf length, and easier to get on and off. The weight penalty is worth avoiding freezing your feet in the snow, or trying to don frozen boots in the middle of the night.
- A WIDE MOUTHED pee bottle that you can use in the tent, and then pour out into the snow in the morning
- I know of some real pros who have been able to use the pee bottle in their sleeping bags, while lying down, without spilling a drop. Something to shoot for, but maybe not something to attempt on your first outing.
* A snickers bar in your sleeping bag is good fuel to help keep the internal furnace running in the middle of the night. Sit ups will also work.
I hope this is all helpful! I'm looking forward to reading additional tips from other people, and hopefully some sweet photos from @swbugas2
Forgive me if any of this is a repeat, but here are a few of the lessons I have learned about winter camping over the years.
Moisture is your enemy is sub-freezing conditions. It's better to be a little too cold than hot and sweaty, especially if you are going to be camping.
It's important to protect your sleeping bag's down or fill from the evaporative moisture of your body as you sleep. The sure fire way to protect your fill, is to use some sort of vapor barrier layer (VBL). There are sack liners and VBL clothing options. It's a real drag to strip down each night to don cold VBLs before crawling in the sack, but by day 5 your sac will still have all it loft. Whereas if you don't use VBLs, by day 5 your bag will be full of ice, clumpy, heavy and cold.
I rarely use chemical hand and feet warmers but I always carry some. The few times that I have needed them, they have saved my toes and fingers.
Not too loose but, more importantly, not too tight. Clothing and especially foot wear should never be too tight. Tight boots restrict circulation and cause your feet to get cold hella fast, which can quickly lead to frostbite. Frost bite and hypothermia are against the rules.
Having a variety of layers to don and remove throughout the day is essential. Everyone's thermostat is a little different. I personally tend to run a little hot and I can get away with fewer layers than my partner. It takes experimentation to figure this out. Bring a few more layers than you might expect to need in the beginning.
If sleeping on snow or frozen ground, it's important to have a closed cell pad. In the winter, I carry two pads: a neo-air (or similar) and 1/8" thick close cell pad that I bought from a sewing shop and cut myself. I made it longer and wider than my neo-air, but because it's so thin it packs down to nothing and is very light. Even a thin close cell pad stops the transfer of cold from the ground. An inflatable pad does not.
Camp fires are amazing. If there are no restrictions in your area, use them. 2 million years of hominid evolution can't be wrong. :)
I always carry a bic lighter around my neck in the winter. Lighters often refuse to work in the cold. By making a necklace out of a bic, my lighter is always next to my body, which keeps it warm and it works every time. Plus I always know where it is.
Use fat for fuel, especially in the winter. Carbs are like kindling, fat is like logs. Burn logs to stay warm and energized. Cheese, butter, fat bombs, powdered heavy cream, fatty meat sticks, nut butters (if tolerated) are all great winter fuel sources. All circumpolar cultures use(d) fat for fuel and praise it for it's ability to keep you warm.
I hope you have a wonderful winter of adventure and discovery. There is no end to the learning process. Making tweaks to the gear, the food, the route selections, training, diet and more is a bottomless rabbit hole. May it suck you in and never spit you out. :)
Winter camping is the best! At least once you have your systems sorted.
How technical you need to be will depend on the temperatures and duration of your trip.
If im out in scotland, it rarely gets below -10C even on mountain summits. I use a -4 C bag and wear insulated trousers and jacket inside, bonus means i can hang out, get up for photos easy. I dont worry about the vapour barrier Bjorn mentions above in those conditions. I use a neo air x therm mat and it is great for me to around -10C
If im camping in colder than -10C or out for more than a few nights then i change things a bit. A vapour barrier liner for my sleeping bag which as Bjorn said, stops the down becoming a clumpy sad frozen mess. I will also carrier a non inflatable mat to put under the thermarest. I feel this adds insulation, but, if my mat were to fail (ive had 3 neo airs fail, great warranty though) i have something that will help me survive a night. I also use a much warmer bag.
Normally i use a gas jetboil stove, but gas sucks in the cold. For longer trips or any night below -10C i use a primus multifuel stove. It is much more efficient and faster to melt snow. I tend to carry thermos flasks so i can melt water and add it to the flask. It will keep warm overnight and i dont have to worry about it freezing up. Nalgene bottles can make good hot water bottles and keeping it in your bag will stop it freezing.
Eat lots. Especially right before bed. I find a bag of almonds or something with a high fat content really makes a huge differance to my warmth overnight.
take more pairs of gloves than normal, i might be carrying 5 pairs on a wild scottish winter day. This allows me to swop them out as they become wet. Very useful when pitching a tent on snow as you are likely to get your pair wet.
Pitching on snow is pretty similar to normal. I carry 4 stakes for the main guy corners, and then snow bags for the rest unless its really icy neve, then i might just take pegs. Use your axe, crampons, skis as pegs if you like. In soft snow you might need to do some digging and stomping of snow to give a firm surface. Stomping down the snow helps consolidate it and helps it take a stake. Digging down under the tent can help create more space, but you dont want to make a cold well, where the cold air ends up trapped.
In windy conditions i build a wall and pitch the tent snug to the ground to reduce spindrift blowing in.
Hope that helps. Id start small and build up as you become comfortable and learn. Give yourself extra time to pitch the first few times on snow. Good luck!2
The suggestion to eat before settling in for the night is excellent, but add to that keeping your hydration up, too. Blood circulation is how heat gets to all parts of your body. Blood volume is affected by hydration. Stay well hydrated all day and all night. Don’t let fear of getting up to pee stop you from drinking.
I use light weight liner socks with a produce bag over them followed by a thick warm sock and another produce bag. I use this in both my boots and in bed. Keeping that insulating layer dry is all important. Additionally, I put my shoes in a plastic bag and put that at the foot of my sleeping bag. Keeps them warm. You’ll appreciate that when you put them on in the morning.
It’s hard to put too much insulation on your head and neck. We can lose a majority of the heat we generate through our head and neck areas. Our bodies will sacrifice extremities to save the brain and other vital organ. So those areas are kept at operating temperature. If there is leftover heat, it gets sent to other body parts. Remember the old adage, if your feet are cold, put a hat on? There’s truth in that!
If you don’t use a vapor barrier in your bag and you do use down, then using a light weight synthetic quilt over your bag could move the due point out of the down bag and into the synthetic quilt that can handle moisture way better than down. If there’s an engineer reading this, could you help with some numbers?
We stomp out a space for our tent, and a path to where we will cook and eat and also to where I'll take pictures so we can remove the snow shoes.
We layer up, but not so we are too warm right at the start so we don't sweat on the way to the campsite. At the campsite we then bundle up more.
We use a tent with a heavy duty emergency blanket on the floor silver side up, not sure if that helps but we use all year long anyways.
We put the air mattress on the bottom, with the closed cell pad over it, and right before bed we boil water, placing it in our Nalgenes, and put those in our sleeping bags to heat up the bag. The bottles are still warm by the time we wake up.2
Snow camping is the best!
Always have lots of layers and lots of food, extra fuel is good for the colder conditions!
Take a VBL as mentioned as you really don't want a down sleeping bag getting icy or clumping it makes such a difference! I guess here in England it doesn't get really cold I've slept in -10 in a 20 quilt and my neoair xtherm pad!
For the tent we just stomp down on the snow and make it firm and take our usual light weight stakes!1
Snow shelters rule. I prefer snow caves, Igloos, Quinzees, or any combination. You can do them in 45 to 90 minutes with practice and decent snow. Shovels and snow saws are a must. Best shelter size group is two to three. Shelters for one are a lot of work and more than three gets too big. Tents are just a last choice backup. Better though if you are continuously moving camp.2