Love winter camping? How about snow camping? Camping with the cold white stuff under your tent is heaps of fun, but there are some pretty important things to get right.
With resorts closed and distancing imperative, more people are trying their hand at backcountry and off-piste this year. We Are Explorers is diving into some backcountry basics so you can stay safe out there!
Snow Camping for Beginners
You never forget your first.
Snow camping, that is. I remember shoving my regular tent pegs into the soft snow, only to have them blown away with the slightest breeze, leaving the vestibule flapping around in the snow. I shivered in my three-season tent as the wind shook through the night, barely sleeping a wink.
When dawn finally broke a wave of relief came with it, I felt accomplished for surviving the night. The thought was momentary, looking around my sleeping bag I noticed a thin layer of snow over all of my things…
It wasn’t all bad, seeing the full moon sparkling off the snow, the entire valley twinkling is forever etched into my memories. Those final turns down to camp at sunset, the pink mountain hues that will always draw me back for another night in the snow.
I learnt a lot of lessons that night and have learnt many more since. We’ve all been beginners at some point and whilst I believe the greatest way to learn is to go out there and experience for yourself, I’ve made these mistakes so you won’t have to!
What’s so good about the backcountry? 6 Reasons To Ski Out Of Bounds
Totally New to Snow Travel?
As this article is an insight into snow camping for beginners, I cannot stress the necessity of a guide (or an experienced friend) for your first trip if you are new to backcountry travel in the snow.
The mountains at all times of the year can be an unpredictable place, but winter comes with the added challenge of snow on the ground, unstable terrain, colder conditions, strong winds, and low visibility.
There are plenty of amazing local guides around who will teach you things and share their amazing knowledge of the area. They will show you safe routes into the backcountry and familiarise you with new areas to visit in the future.
Even those with experience can have an epic: 4 Things I Learnt Getting Lost Backcountry Skiing at Night
Do I Need ‘Winter Specific Gear’?
On that first trip I packed a three-season tent, a warm-ish sleeping bag and used an inflatable mat – it just was not warm enough.
Some regular hiking gear may suffice in the snow, but it can lead to an uncomfortable experience and become dangerous in extreme mountain conditions. Essential items including a tent, sleeping bag and mat should be specifically designed for snow camping to guarantee a comfortable night’s sleep.
Typically snow gear comes with a higher price tag than summer gear because winter gear is made for cold, wet and windy conditions. Whilst it’s more durable and better insulated, the extra warmth also comes at a cost of extra weight to your pack.
Be mindful when trip planning as packs may be heavier, resulting in slower travel and shorter distances travelled.
If you’re new to snow camping, why not rent or borrow some gear? You’ll be able to work out what you need without the investment.
How to Set Up Your Tent on Snow
Arriving to camp late in the afternoon I put no consideration into building a tent site, I didn’t even know what a snow platform or snow wall was at that time. I’d chosen a spot out in the open with the best view, with zero thought to snow drifts, wind direction or shelter.
Nowadays setting up the campsite is the highlight for me. I always plan to arrive at camp before sunset to maximise time and allow for building and moulding the perfect snowy home for the night.
I’ve learnt just how different it is to camping on grass, dirt or any other surface for that matter. The lie of the land doesn’t necessarily dictate where you sleep, as any angled or bumpy surface can be easily smoothed out to create a campsite.
Step 1. Location, Location, Location
The view of sunrise out of your vestibule may make a fabulous Instagram photo but there are a few more things to take into account when choosing where to build your tent.
The alpine area of Australia is a sensitive landscape, resulting in some areas being off-limits for camping all year, for example glacial catchments in Kosciuszko National Park must be avoided.
Scope out a location that isn’t in any avalanche pathways or snowdrifts to avoid waking up buried alive in snow. Remember that snow is super malleable; an angled slope can be flattened and snow walls can be built to offer protection from the wind.
Step 2. Build a Wall (That Trump Would Envy)
Once you’ve located the ideal campsite, begin to stomp on the soft snow layers covering an area big enough to set up your tent.
Pro Tip: use your skis or split-board if you have them to accelerate your stomping.
I first thought that snow walls were just for extreme expedition movies, not really understanding their real purpose. I quickly realised that they are super easy to create, provide protection from the wind and offer a bit of extra warmth.
Using your snow shovel, cut out and create bricks of snow from the packed down snow, stacking them around the perimeter of your stomped-out area. This will create a sheltered wall for your tent and a flat platform to build your tent on, at the same time.
Did I mention that it’s heaps of fun?
Step 3. Set Up Your Tent
Before setting up your tent ensure you’ve packed down and smoothed out the area within the snow walls. There’s nothing worse than laying down to bed and pushing your hand through a hole beneath your tent. Set up the tent, avoid stepping back over your beautiful levelled work, walking along the edges of the platform.
Be mindful of ski boot buckles ski poles, snowshoes and ice tools around the tent, to avoid tearing the walls and creating an unwanted window.
Snow pegs are the best anchors in my opinion however plastic bags filled for snow, sturdy sticks (if you’re below treeline) and ski poles can also be used. Once the tent is completely erect add the pièce de résistance, vestibule footwells.
Split the area under your vestibule in two; cut a hole to step down into on one side, and smooth out a ledge on the other half. This makes getting in and out of your tent super easy and the ledge is great for taking off boots.
Unless you want ice-cold boots, ensure they aren’t left in the well as it also acts as a cold sink for air overnight.
Forgot your tent? Never fear! Read: How To Build an Igloo You Can Sleep In
Step 4. Grab a Cold Beer, Sit Back, Relax and Admire Your Craftsmanship
Tips for Staying Warm During the Night?
Sleeping in the snow doesn’t mean being cold! There’s no better feeling than being toasty warm in your cocoon of a sleeping bag, listening to the snow fall outside. Using a good quality winter sleeping bag and tent is first and foremost, but there are a number of other tricks that can help.
Working from the ground up, using two mats (one closed-cell foam then one inflatable) will stop the cold seeping through underneath. If this isn’t enough, swap out your silk sleeping bag liner for a thermal liner to add a few extra degrees to your sleeping bag.
No night in the snow is complete without a hot-water-bottle; filling up a Nalgene water bottle with hot water, and wrapping it in a sock will keep your coldest parts warm throughout the night (beware of cheaper bottles, you don’t want that hot water escaping!).
What Happens When It Snows Overnight?
Imagine waking up face flattened against your tent ceiling that’s been caved in by snow. This is a very real scenario that can happen in winter. With a build-up of snow applying pressure onto tent poles through the night, they can snap and completely collapse a tent.
On really snowy nights, it’s essential to keep your tent roof and vents clear of snow. Set multiple alarms throughout the night to wake up and clear snow from around and on top of the tent. It sounds exhausting but is essential during heavy snowfall.
Make sure touring skins are removed from skis and split-boards at night to avoid them freezing over.
How Do I Cook in a Blizzard?
Drinking ice-cold water from snowmelt streams can be hard to do when you’re already feeling frosty.
The best way to stay hydrated in the snow is with warm liquids; think ‘Cuppa Soups’, miso, herbal teas, chai lattes and hot chocolates. Cooking inside your tent can be dangerous as most tents are super flammable and breathing in fumes from a gas cooker isn’t great for your body.
However, in some winter weather you have no other option but to stay inside.
That’s why you created the smoothed-out vestibule snow shelf next to your vestibule footwell. This handy little smoothed out area creates a fabulous camp kitchen, just ensure all vents are open in your tent and open the vestibule door if possible.
If you’re cooking with gas, storing the gas canister in the bottom of your sleeping bag should prevent it becoming too cold to work. Some people use liquid fuel stoves in these conditions as they’re more reliable.
The Dirty Stuff
According to backcountry guides peeing in your sleeping bag is a game-changer. I’m not talking about wetting the bed, but using a bottle to pee in overnight means not having to get out of bed and losing precious body heat.
I’ve heard from a reliable source that ‘girls can do it too’ insisting that those practised in the art of the ‘she wee’ can also use the overnight bottle method.
Otherwise, if all this sounds a little bit messy, make sure peeing before you go to bed is the last thing you do, as sleeping with a full bladder will actually keep you colder.
In terms of the brown stuff, the alpine area is an extremely sensitive area and digging a hole into the snow to poo in will only result in frozen solid faeces littered around the backcountry.
All faecal matter and toilet paper must be carried out using a poo tube; a sealed PVC pipe, dry bag or container works well.
Have Fun Snow Camping!
Camping in the snow is very different to other forms of camping, so don’t expect a colder version of your other adventures.
With the right gear and mindset it can be heaps of fun – you get to brave the elements, create a little fortress for the night and experience the rare beauty of sunrise and sunset in the alpine environment.
Build your skills slowly, learn from those more experienced than you and enjoy!