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An Intro to Snow Camping

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12.22.17

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An Intro to Snow Camping

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Light painting using headlamps with a Mt. St. Helens National  Monument backdrop. Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Andrew Stohner

It’s the time of year when my on-the-fence adventure friends either pack away for winter hibernation, or make claims that ‘this is the year’ they’ll snow camp. It seems that the healthy fear of frigid temps and waist deep snow are deterrents to getting out camping, and I spend a good deal of time convincing first-timers that not only is snow camping within their reach, but a totally different and worthwhile experience to add to their bucket lists!

Yes, there is typically more inherent risk to camping in colder temps since our bodies don’t come with the natural blubber or wool to keep us warm below freezing temps. Heck, you can get hypothermia at 50°F if you’re exposed to elements in wet or windy weather. But with a little preparation and the right tools, snow camping is just as fun and comfortable as summer camping!

Cold conditions require adequate preparation, but can result in stunningly beautiful experiences.  Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Andrew Stohner

It takes time to learn the nuances for preparation and safety that go along with winter camping, so it's often best to start out joining someone who is more experienced to learn from. Learn to check weather reports (note: Mountain-Forecast provides detailed information for multiple mountain locations and elevations) to help you predict what layers and gear you will need. Always be prepared for weather systems or emergency situations that may arise. Bring a printed map in a weatherproof sleeve and a compass, and be sure to study terrain features on the map before you ever set foot on trail. And be sure to let someone back home know where you've gone and who to contact in case of an emergency.  

The cost of gear adds up! Technology has significantly improved to reduce weight of products, make them easier to pack, and keep you warm and dry in inclement conditions. However, the cost for a lot of this tech is a deterrent for many who are just trying it for the first time or may not already have the appropriate equipment. To start, focus on making purchases that are specific to you on trail, and look to share group gear. Give yourself goals to add to your gear over a period of time: For example, look to purchase a good sleeping bag and pad in year 1, stove and tent in year 2, and better layers, traction, and shovels in year 3. Spacing out your purchases will help make gearing up more manageable and to help your expectations feel less daunting overall.

Sharing group gear, and enjoying tentless views from the bivvy on a sunny snow day.  Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Andrew Stohner

Some gear can be rented from equipment providers (see companies like OutdoorsGeek.com for more) to test gear, or test your interest in cold weather camping. Hint hint...they also sell some 'gently used' gear for pretty good prices for bargain shoppers. When buying used gear from any source for winter use, be sure to check items for insulation and waterproof quality. Sleeping bags lose their loft and effectiveness over time. Tents and jacket shells lose their waterproofing. Although saving money is great, it's best to be sure your equipment will be effective!

The gear you bring on your outing will depend on many factors, including the distance, temperature, weather, elevation, activities, and people involved. I like to build a spreadsheet that I use for adventures that list the gear I own, and I can check off what I feel is necessary for any given trip. This is a helpful tool when packing to be able to double-check that I have all the gear I need. Unfortunately, I have been that idiot that shows up at the trailhead for a snowy hike, only to realize I accidentally left my boots at home and I'll be snow hiking in a pair of Nike Free sneakers. Not ideal.

Snow trekking in the wrong gear... a result of not checking the packing spreadsheet.  Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Josh Lupkin
An example of my winter packing spreadsheet, which is very effective -- when I follow it.

For my friends who keep asking what gear they need (you know who you are) and for those readers who just might find this list useful, here’s a few recommended products to help you brave the cold and enjoy the comfort of a snowy backcountry camp.  

Note: these are personal recommendations-- I have a tendency to value packability and weight the most in my purchases, and will spend more money on products that have these qualities as long as I feel they're also durable.  There’s too many great products to list them all-- so if you have a recommendation of your own, share in the comments below for others to reference!

4-SEASON TENT

Honestly, a 3-season tent is perfectly acceptable for most mild snow camping experiences. A 4-season is only needed to handle higher winds and snow loads…so if the weather is right, go ahead and use your 3-season tent. For this exercise, though, I’ll recommend 4-season options for those ‘just in case’ expeditions.  

Recommendation:

Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 $550 from Mountain Hardwear

Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2

Admittedly, the Direkt 2 has a small footprint for long trips, but at a ridiculous 3lbs 5oz, this tent is miles ahead of the competition in space saving and weight saving. If you’re out enjoying the outdoors (like you should be), your tent's main purpose is your shelter at night or from the storm. The Direkt 2 holds up to the elements with it’s single-wall design. If needed, an additional vestibule piece can also be purchased and added to the setup.

Alternates:

Nemo Kunai 2  $499.95 from Nemo Equipment

Marmot Hammer 2p  $549 from Marmot

Budget Option:

Alps Tasmanian 2  $201 from Amazon.com

SLEEPING BAG

It’s winter and there’s snow on the ground, so you know your lightweight 45 degree bag just isn’t going to cut it. A down bag offers the best packability and warmth, but is more expensive than synthetic insulated alternates. Depending on the winter temperatures in your area - look for options in the 0 to 15 degree range to keep warm at night. You can also pick up a sleeping bag liner to make sure your bag is extra toasty!  

Snow camping ninja move: Keep your clothes you'd like to wear tomorrow in your sleeping bag by your feet-- which helps keep them within reach and warm enough to put on in the cold mornings.  The foot box storage also works for water bottles and bladders that you don't want to freeze overnight (make sure the lid is on tight!)

Recommendation:

Marmot Helium Down Sleeping Bag (15 degree) $399 from Marmot.com

 
Helium 15 degree down sleeping bag by Marmot

Yes, $400 is a lot for a sleeping bag. But, I’ve been using this bag for years as my go-to for most trips in all weather conditions. The featherlight weight and packability of this bag rivals warm-weather bags, but this one holds up well through all conditions. Replaces the need to have multiple sleeping bags in your closet…which makes it worth it!

Alternates:

Nemo Sonic Sleeping Bag (0 degree) $499 from Nemo Equipment

Sea to Summit Trek Tk II (18 degree) $299 from REI

Budget Option:

Big Agnes Encampment (15 degree) $179.95 from Big Anges

SLEEPING PAD

Sleeping pads are designed not only to keep you comfortable - but more importantly - to keep you warm. Sleeping bags require loft (hence the feathers) to retain your body heat. So the part that gets crunched under your body isn’t really doing much to insulate against the cold. Insulated air-filled pads pack well and provide great comfort in winter conditions. Look for pads with high R-value (5+), which is your indicator you'll be better insulated.

Recommendation:

Exped Downmat HL/UL Winter  $269 from Summit Hut

Exped DownMat HL Winter M 

Boasting a toasty R-value of 7.0 and 5.9 respectively, the Hyperlite and Ultralight options from Exped will keep you warm on the coldest nights. The incorporated schnozel inflation bag helps save your lungs at altitude, reduces condensation inside the pad, and doubles as a nifty stuff sack as well. The durability of this pad is excellent, and although expensive, I’ve found it’s worth the extra investment.

Alternate Options:

Nemo Cosmo Insulated Air Pad $139.95 from Nemo Equipment

Big Agnes Q-Core SLX $139.95-249.95 from Big Agnes

Budget Option:

REI Stratus Insulated Sleeping Pad $79.95-99.95 from REI
 

SNOW SHOVEL

The best thing about snow camping is that the malleability of snow allows you to create your own campgrounds. With a useful backcountry snow shovel, you can carve your own tent or bivvy spot, build seating, or make your own personal cold-storage and bar.

Recommendation:

Black Diamond Evac 7 Snow Shovel $79.95 from Black Diamond Equipment

Black Diamond Evac 7 Snow Shovel

There’s not a lot to look for in a shovel usually - lightweight and ‘packs small’ are the key for backcountry travel. But more shovels today are adjustable for multiple uses. Thanks to the Evac's unique pole shape and reversible shovel head, this tool can be used effectively as either a shovel or a hoe, depending on your digging needs. Super useful and durable - and still packable.

Alternate Options:

Backcountry Access RS EXT Shovel $69.95 from BCA

Mammut Alugator Pro Snow Shovel $79.97 from Mammut

Budget Option:

Snow Claw Guide Snow Shovel $20 from REI

STOVE KIT

A good cook stove is your resource for warm food and melted snow water when you can’t have a fire. In recent years, cooking setups have become more lightweight and compact for backcountry travel. Depending on your needs, a very minimalist setup can work great, while other packaged stoves have all the bells and whistles you could need.  

Recommendation:

MSR Windburner Stove System $139.95-159.95 from MSR

MSR WindBurner Stove System

I can’t understand how MSR made a product that works so well in all conditions. I’ve taken this fully-self-contained system into high elevation and high winds, and it boils water and cooks unbelievably well. The packaged system includes a wind-proof burner, insulated cook pot, bowl, lid, and optional add-ons including a skillet, or my favorite: the french press filter.  

Alternate Options:

Jetboil Flash Cooking System $99.95 from Jetboil

Primus Eta Lite Black Stove System $104.95 from Primus

Budget:

GSI Halulite Minimalist Complete Stove and Cookset $74.95 from REI

SNOWSHOES / TRACTION

On well traveled trails, boot pack may be enough to allow you to hike in boots only. When the trails get steep or the powder gets deep, it’s nice to have options for traction and float. Whether you're dealing with wet ice and snow in the Pacific Northwest and need more traction, or need more float for pillowy snow drifts in backcountry Rocky Mountains - some combo of snow spikes or snowshoes with traction are a great backcountry tool.

Recommendation:

YakTrax Summit $90 from YakTrax

YakTrax Summit

If I’m being honest, I never thought I’d need Yaktrax. I have crampons for mountaineering, and solid rubber traction on my boots. I didn’t think there’d be enough of an in-between to warrant a purchase.  But after trying out the Summit series, I realized instead that these lightweight packable traction add-ons actually reduce my need to carry my crampons in many conditions. The boa lacing system holds it in place better than any Yaktrax product to date.

Alternate Options:

MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes $299.95 from MSR

Louis Garneau Transition Snowshoe $199.95 from REI

Budget Option:

YakTrax Pro $30 from YakTrax

GAITERS

I’ve noticed that gaiters aren’t always in the closets of folks who don't regularly get out in the snow-- but they’re super useful to have for snow hikes, hikes in ash and scree, and wet weather jaunts as well.  A good pair of gaiters keeps you dry below the knees, and prevents unwanted snow or dirt from getting into your boots or pant leg.  

Recommendation:

Outdoor Research Expedition Crocodile Gaiter $99 from Outdoor Research

Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters

Alternate Options:

Black Diamond GTX FrontPoint Gaiters $69.95 from REI

Outdoor Research Verglas Gaiters $65 from Outdoor Research

Budget Option:

REI Mountain Gaiters $44.95 from REI

Outdoor Project Contributor Josh Lupkin feels plenty warm in his many layers of down and thermals, even in cold conditions.  Photo by Andrew Stohner
 

Additionally, be sure to have a few good insulated or sweat-wicking clothing items to keep you warm. Bundle yourself in layers, give yourself options. The usual mix is a waterproof shell + down insulation + non-cotton thermal + non-cotton baselayer.

DON'T WEAR COTTON. Period.  

This includes baselayers. If you don't have quality wool or synthetic baselayer apparel, take a look at brands like Icebreaker, Smartwool, or Patagonia for thermal comfort. 

Clothing choices for snow activities are so uniquely independent for each person - many assortments end up looking like a backwoods-harlequin-marshmallow. Wear your goggles correctly to avoid an unwanted mugshot on the @jerryoftheday instagram feed but otherwise - let your weird flag fly. Color coordination is less desirable than mixing and matching your way to mountain nirvana.

And be sure to enjoy the experience!  Bring your camera to experiment with the beauty of snowy night-time photography. Drag a sled to help carry the burden of extra gear - and be sure to put it to proper use catching air and dishing out backcountry nachos. Or simply sit and enjoy the incredible softness of sound in a snow-covered backcountry wooded setting.

Backcountry snow nachos on a sled elevate any winter camping experience to new heights.  Photo by Outdoor Project Contributor Andrew Stohner

Etiquette is important.

Remember to respect your surroundings and preserve the experience for others in the future. A small list of items to abide by when snow camping:

  • Pack everything out. This includes food, trash, and solid human waste. Some people tend to think burying excrement in snow is enough...but when the snow melts in spring, hikers are treated to your left-behind waste. Pick up some blue bags at your local outdoor store to keep things sanitary.
  • Don't dig below the snow. It's easy to start burrowing your way into the snow and end up digging into the soil below. This can be very damaging to flora below the snow that is waiting for spring to come. Do your best to avoid impacting plant life or digging holes in soil.
  • Don't hack trees. Forage for wood if needed - don't chop limbs or tree trunks unless you have a permit or approval to do so. Foraging for dry wood is tough under the snow - and often snow camping trips don't include a fire. Plan accordingly. And be considerate of fire size and proximity to the trail.
  • Be considerate of trail uses. When exploring winter trails, remember the multiple reasons people are using the trail. If you're hiking along a trail that is popular for cross country or back country skiers, don't stomp along ski trails with your boots or snowshoes. Kindly preserve the ski tracks by walking off to the side when possible.

For more tips, tricks, and places to test your snow camping mettle, check our Winter Camping Essentials post.  

Whatever your pleasure, embrace the snow this winter, and add a snow camping trip to your calendar!

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