Snow Camping Fundamentals
By Matt Pritchard
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.
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