Snow camping, eh? We won’t lie to you – it gets cold. Sometimes it gets really cold. But the upside is huge: beautiful scenery and very few people. Winter doesn’t have to bring downtime to your backpacking schedule – it can transform a familiar locale into a new world. It is a great chance to hone some of your backcountry skills and it can also help you understand the limits of your gear and yourself. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate each and every warm night you spend outside during the rest of the year.
This is a brief guide for people looking to go snow camping for the first time or anyone trying to brush up on some of the fundamentals. It is by no means a comprehensive guide to the art of winter travel or winter safety. For more information on these topics, please see the Recommended Reading section.
Choosing a Place
Choosing the right spot for your first snowbound overnighter is an important decision. Keep in mind that wintertime camping comes with a fair amount of manageable risk. Weather is the largest variable that you’ll have to deal with. While you don’t have any control over this, you do have control over the decisions you make and how well you prepare. Be careful not to overdo it your first time out.
Choose a location that has a well-established, frequently used trailhead. In California and Oregon, Sno Parks are usually a very good starting point. These areas have parking lots that are plowed regularly and they have enough traffic from day-trippers that you’re likely to find plenty of information on the area in guidebooks. You may feel more comfortable visiting a place you’ve been to in the summertime – you’ll be amazed how different everything looks with a blanket of white covering the landscape. Buy a map or a guidebook ahead of time and decide on a starting point or trailhead. Choose a couple of possible locations for your camp. Having multiple options can be helpful if your first choice turns out to be a dud when you get there. For your first time out, it’s probably best to stay within a mile or two of the trailhead. This gives you the option of a quick retreat in the event that you’re not feeling up to the challenge.
While you may not be able to fully determine avalanche risk based on maps, there are some general rules to follow while selecting your potential routes and campsites. Try to stick to level terrain. Avoid open slopes between 20 and 60 degrees. Also consider wind direction and the potential for wind loaded slopes and corniced ridgelines. Before departing, check the avalanche conditions with the local avalanche center.
Most of your regular backpacking gear will work just fine for winter camping. If you ski or snowboard and have good clothing for those activities, you’re probably well equipped already. Resist the temptation to go out and drop a bunch of money on all new gear. You probably have most of this gear already. Whatever you don’t have can be borrowed, rented, or improvised in some way.
Just remember the basics. Use a simple, but versatile layering system. Start with a mid-weight or heavy-weight base layer. Add to that one or two insulating layers – like wool, fleece, or down. Top it all off with a waterproof/breathable layer, such as a Gore-Tex or softshell jacket and pants. Bring clothing that is versatile and can be worn in various combinations and layering configurations, depending on the weather and your level of activity. Keep a few things in mind when selecting the clothing. Cotton kills – avoid it like the plague. It is best to use clothing made from either wool or synthetic fibers. Synthetic stuff is great and wicks moisture very well. It also dries quickly. Wool isn’t as fancy, but it stinks less and has an old-timey charm to it. Either choice will be fine. Get an idea for the expected daytime and nighttime temperatures for the area you’re going – check www.nws.noaa.gov. Pack clothing that will keep you well insulated for your expected low temperatures.
Bring a good pair of waterproof gloves or mittens to wear around camp. I prefer to wear a pair of thin liner gloves under some burly OR waterproof mittens. This allows me to take off the mittens when I need nimble digits and still keep my hands relatively warm. I also strongly recommend bringing a pair of cheap wool or pile gloves for working around camp. You can get these at AutoZone or a gas station for about $8 – nothing fancy. Setting up camp, particularly if you’re building a snow shelter, will absolutely soak your gloves. This will cause big problems when you slow down and the temperature drops. When you’re working on camp or building your snowman, put on these work gloves and keep your good pair dry and warm. Also pack a good, warm hat – or two. An extra pair of super thick socks is also a nice treat before you hop into bed.
Your footwear will largely be dictated by your mode of travel. If you’re skiing, you already have a pair of boots. You may want to consider another option once you get to camp, for the sake of comfort. Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book has a great section on putting together a booty system for camp. If you’re snowshoeing, like us, it is important to choose a pair of boots that will keep you warm as the temperature falls. If you only want to bring one pair of boots, choose a pair of insulated snow boots with a meaty tread on them. Regular hiking boots are a good choice for day trips, but lack the insulation to keep your feet warm when the temperature falls and your activity level drops. Salomon, The North Face, and several other manufacturers all make snow boots that are great for snowshoeing and offer adequate insulation for snow camping.
When you’re snow camping, a quality stove is one of your most important pieces of gear. Its purpose is two-fold. Besides fixing up hot meals for you and your crew, the stove is your key to staying hydrated. Melting snow will be your primary means of drinking water. Don’t count on being able to find running water. Liquid fuel stoves are much more reliable in cold weather. I am a big fan of the MSR Whisperlite. It is reliable, field serviceable, and has a good, stable base. Boyle’s Law dictates that canister stoves will perform poorly in cold temperatures – don’t blame me, it’s physics. If you insist on using a canister stove, performance may be improved by warming up the canister ahead of time in your jacket. Also consider bringing some type of base to set your stove on. This helps keep the stove level as the flame begins to melt the snow underneath the stove. No matter what type of stove you bring, be sure to bring adequate fuel for cooking and melting snow. Melting snow is a total fuel hog – plan accordingly. A general rule is one liter of gas per day per 3 person group.
If you have the time and patience to build a snow shelter, I strongly recommend it. More on this in the “Setting up Camp” section. If, however, you don’t have the time or prefer the nylon confines of a tent, there are several options for you. We use a floorless “tarp” style tent called a Megamid (made by Black Diamond, AKA Bibler). The Megamid is a fantastic shelter with a lot of options for setup. Check out our guide to using the Megamid for Winter Camping. Most major tent manufacturers offer 3+ or 4 season tents that will fare well in the snow. These are generally bombproof shelters, but they are heavy and expensive. For your first time out, consider taking the time to build a snow shelter or possibly borrow or rent a tent from somebody. For minimalists, a bivy sack with a good sleeping pad is a lightweight, if less comfortable, option.
We’ll tell you this up front – dialing in your sleeping system is going to take some time. Let’s start at the bottom. You’ll need a tarp or heavy emergency blanket to provide a waterproof layer underneath you. On top of that, you will need a very good sleeping pad or pads. Do not skimp here. Insulating yourself from the snow underneath is critical to a comfortable night. We use a combination of closed cell pads and Thermarests to achieve this. It offers a nice union of insulation and comfort. A mummy style sleeping bag with a well insulated hood is the only way to go – the flannel lined Coleman bag that you bought at Kmart in ’83 just won’t cut it. Down versus synthetic is too large a debate for this guide, just make sure that the comfort rating on the bag is enough for the expected overnight low temp. This next suggestion might seem like a no-brainer, but Matt learned it the hard way – make sure your bag fits. If you’re big around the shoulders or you’ve never zipped your bag all the way up to the neck, make sure you can do this without too much trouble. Also consider dead space in your sleeping bag – too much room at the feet or around your torso can decrease your bag’s effectiveness against cold. If you have a lot of extra space, throw a bulky sweater or fleece down at the foot of your bag or wear additional clothes to bed.
Most of the other gear you bring on a normal backpacking trip should work well for a snow camping trip as well. There are several odds and ends you can bring to make you trip more comfortable. However, each piece of gear is more weight in your pack. The 10 essentials are a no-brainer, as are the Oh Shit Kit and the First Aid Kit. One piece of specialty gear you’ll need is a quality snow shovel. You’ll use it for setting up camp, building your shelter, and digging out your car the next day. Of course, the shovel is also a key piece of gear any time you travel in avalanche terrain – but that’s another story for another time. Choose a shovel with a well-sized polycarbonate (Lexan) or aluminum blade. A telescoping and/or detachable shaft helps with packing. T-grip or D-grip is a matter of personal preference. Life-Link, Ortovox, BCA, and Black Diamond all make excellent shovels for this type of use.
You have two primary options for transport over snow – skis or snowshoes. [begin rant] Snowmobiles are excluded from this list on purpose because they are noisy, stinky, and a general affront to all things that are sacred about the backcountry. Also, if snowmobiling is your idea of a good time, snow camping probably isn’t. [end rant] On telemark or AT skis, you can cover more ground in a short period of time than snowshoes. However, backcountry skiing requires a lot of specialized gear and experience. If you’re not an experienced skier, it may be best to consider snowshoes for your first wintertime overnighter. Snowshoes can be rented from many mountain shops and require no special skills. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.
Before leaving for your trip, be sure to let a responsible person know where you’re going and when you plan to return. Indicate your trailhead, general route, license plate number, and emergency phone numbers. Specify a time that should raise concern if you haven’t been heard from. Make a copy of this information and place it in an envelope on the front seat of your car at the trailhead. For a trip information template, look here. Before leaving the trailhead, make one last check of your gear to make sure that you have everything you need.
Speed of travel over snow can vary greatly, depending on snow conditions and terrain. Breaking trail through fresh snow is tiring and time consuming. If you are traveling in a group (which you should be), take turns breaking trail so that nobody strokes out halfway to your campsite. As a general rule, estimate your travel speed at half of what it is on dry ground. Give yourself plenty of time to reach your campsite and factor in some extra time for fiddling with your pack and, if you’re out of shape, barfing up a lung along the way. If you don’t have adequate avalanche safety training (reading a book does not qualify as adequate training), then avoid avalanche terrain at all costs. Try to stay on level ground and do not travel on or around steep slopes (20 – 60 degrees) or corniced ridgelines. Also worth mentioning, if you are on snowshoes, resist the temptation to use cross-country ski tracks that are already there. Clomping through somebody’s skin track shows poor backcountry etiquette.
Setting Up Camp
Plans for your campsite may change once you get moving. Heavy packs and deep snow have a way of letting you know you’re not quite the hardened badass you thought you were. When you’re looking for your campsite, try to find relatively level ground with some protection from the wind. We usually look for a place in a wooded section on the edge of a meadow, if possible. If you choose to camp amongst the trees, take a quick look around to make sure that the trees are in good shape and won’t be dropping branches or themselves on you if the wind picks up.
Once you settle on a location for camp, resist the temptation to drop your pack. Your first order of business is to stomp out a solid, work-hardened patch of snow for your campsite. The added weight of your pack will help compress the snow even further. After you stomp out a perimeter, spend some time really pounding away at the snow in the middle. The harder you stomp, the more it will compress. If you don’t, you’ll be mighty sorry when you wake up a 2 AM to go pee and wind up post-holing up to your hip. When the stomping is done, give the snow some time to settle, or “sinter”, together – 30 to 45 minutes should be enough.
After your camp area has set up nice and solid, it’s time to put together your shelter for the evening. Site location and method of setup will differ depending on your shelter of choice. Digging a snow cave or a quinzhee is a lot of fun and they serve as excellent shelters in almost all conditions. However, be conscious of the time it will take to do this. In my experience, building a decent sized snow cave for 2 people can take 2 to 3 hours. Even simple “doghouse” shelters take a while to build. Be realistic about your time and whether or not you want to be digging by the light of your headlamp. For great guides to building snow shelters, see the Recommended Reading section. If you’re using a tent or a tarp system of some sort, be sure to securely stake and guy out the sides of the tent to protect it against wind. If you’re interested in our approach to using a Megamid tent, check out our article – Megamid for Winter Camping. Flake out your sleeping bag when you’re done setting up camp. Allow the bag to regain as much loft as possible before bedtime.
If you have a while before sunset and you’re feeling industrious, take some time to give your campsite some homey touches. Building a windbreak around your tent is a good idea if nasty weather is a possibility. Create a nice space for cooking, as well. You can use your shovel and snow saw (if you have one) to build a good work area for cooking.
While you’re hanging out around camp, do your best to keep your gear in order. It is easy for a map or sweater to get buried once you start shoveling. More so than summer backpacking, it is important to keep an eye on your gear and be ready to break camp fast if you need to retreat.
While a handful of GORP and two Clif Bars may pass as a dinner on a warm weather trip, a hot meal is one of the few indulgences afforded to you while snow camping. Take the time to plan something yummy for dinner and breakfast while you’re out there. Try to bring calorie dense, lightweight food. Ease of preparation is a big plus. If it takes much more than boiling water, think twice about your choice. Ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, and instant potatoes are all good options. Hot cereal can be a real treat for breakfast. Ordinary tastes come alive when its 10 degrees outside and you’ve been waiting for snow to boil for 25 minutes. Pack an adequate amount of food to sustain yourself, given your level of activity and the increase in metabolic rate that you may experience in the cold weather.
If you’re using a liquid fuel stove, priming it may take longer than normal in the cold weather. Add a bit more fuel to the priming cup than usual. Bring a lighter to start the stove – there is no good reason to fumble around with matches in the cold weather. If the lighter is being fussy, warm it up in your hands before trying to light the stove. Water boils at lower temperatures as your elevation increases – keep this in mind when cooking. Your cooking times are likely to increase as a result. Adding a bit of salt to the water may help equalize this difference and cause the water to boil slightly hotter. If you’re using dehydrated backpacking food, you may need some additional insulation to keep the meal warm while it rehydrates.
Winter nights can be long. In order to stay warm throughout the night, consider a few things. A sleeping bag is essentially a insulating device. Go to bed cold and you’ll probably stay cold. If you go to bed warm, you have a much better chance of staying warm. Before you head off to bed, spend some time picking up camp to get your blood pumping. On colder nights, it may be best to head out for a quick ski or snowshoe around camp to warm up your muscles and help you relax before hitting the sack. Other people enjoy a hot drink or a little dessert before bedtime. Be sure to insulate the key parts of your body before zipping up. A hat is essential bedtime gear in all but the most mild snow camping climates. If your feet are cold, switch into a pair of thick, cozy socks. A quick foot massage before you put on those socks can get the blood circulating through your feet and help warm them up before you doze off.
Contact lens solution can and will freeze solid! Matt learned this the hard way. If you wear contacts, store the container in your sleeping bag during the night. I usually tuck them inside the ankle of my sock.
Really pack down the path to the bathroom area ahead of time. When you wake up at 2:30 in the morning and need to go to the bathroom, you don’t want to have to strap on your snowshoes or skis just to go pee.
Cameras, headlamps, GPS units and other bits of electronic gadgetry take a beating in the cold. LCD screens refresh much slower and battery life is greatly reduced. Keep this type of gear as well insulated as possible until you need to use it. Lithium batteries seem to be less susceptible to low temps than regular alkaline batteries – they also weigh less.
Bladder style water bottles are a godsend when filled with hot water and brought into the sleeping bag at bedtime. We recommend one with a solid cap – such as a Platypus.
Check out the Recommended Reading section for more information on Snow Camping