John, Family Ambassador
So you’re an experienced snowshoer and you’re looking for the next challenge. Here it is: Snowshoe Camping. It’s just like backpacking, but you do it in the snow and you can go anywhere! Backpacking typically means you’re hiking on trails and have to take care to camp only in established sites or on durable surfaces (e.g., rock, dirt). Plus, everyone else is out there competing for the same spots.
Not so in the snow. Excluding highly regulated places like national parks, you can go anywhere and camp anywhere without worrying about damaging the terrain. The snow insulates the ground and plants from both the cold air and your steps.
To start your adventure, pick a spot. Since you aren’t constrained by existing camp sites you need to consider your destination more carefully. I look for places that won’t be heavily trafficked and have great views. At the same time, you need to be aware of the possibility of avalanche, snow bombs (big clumps of snow falling from trees), and wind. There’s little you can do about the first two (other than avoiding those areas entirely when the risk is high), but you can cheat a little on the wind.
When you arrive at your camp spot you can either use your snowshoes to stomp out a platform for your tent or dig into more consolidated snow. The latter will get you a little out of the wind and building a wall of snow on the windward side will help even more. You can also pile a little snow on the base of your tent to seal it from the wind.
A benefit to snow camping is you can dig a foot well just outside your door. This will allow you to sit up normally in your tent with your feet outside. You can leave your gear there overnight and have some expanded shelter (assuming the tent’s vestibule covers it).
Whether it’s windy when you get to camp or not, you’ll want to secure your tent and regular tent stakes won’t work. Instead, you can use snow stakes (bigger, flatter stakes) or anything else you can bury. On my last trip I used one of my FLEX VRT snowshoes as an anchor. Dig down and tie the guy line to the anchor. Make sure you position the anchor so its biggest surface is perpendicular to the guy line. Bury it and stomp the snow down. The snow will consolidate and you’ll have to actually dig the anchor out in the morning.
I’ve mentioned digging a couple of times so it’s time to talk about the shovel. You should always be carrying a shovel in the winter backcountry. With care and luck you’ll never need it to dig someone out of an avalanche, but you will need it around camp. Check out a shovel like the BCA B-1 EXT avalanche shovel. Avalanche shovels are great because they are light, have big blades, and most have extendable handles.
Once I have my tent set up and anchored, I put all my gear inside and start making water. Of course, you carried some water with you, but unless you’ve carried a ton you’ll need more. Luckily, it’s all around you, albeit a bit cold. Start with a little liquid water in the bottom of your pot and start adding the snow. You’ll be amazed at how much snow it will take to make enough water so keep feeding it with the cleanest snow you can find. You should still boil the water to be on the safe side and as a bonus hot water will do wonders for your internal warmth and mood.
Pro-tip: Fill your water bottle with hot water and put it at the bottom of your sleeping bag. Your feet will be warmer and you’ll have water first thing in the morning.
Speaking of your sleeping bag, it’s important, but not the most important. Most important is your sleeping pad. You’ll be lying on the snow with just a thin floor of the tent in between. Your pad needs to insulate you from the cold or you’ll have a terrible night. Almost all pads are advertised with an R-value that indicates how well the pad insulates. You’ll need to figure out what your best R-value is based on how warm you sleep, but I generally shoot for the 5 to 6 range. Insulated pads can be pricey, but insulation is additive so you can stack less expensive pads. The pad won’t compress to the size of a water bottle, but you’ll be just as warm. (Plus, you can pretend to be a princess, just look out for peas.)
Now to the sleeping bag. There are many, many options. Traditional mummy bags are great for warmth because they are tight around you and reduce the amount of air you need to keep warm. Some people don’t like the constraint though, so other “sleep systems” have been developed like partial bags and down quilts. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s rated below the lowest temperature you expect to experience. If you’re camping in the 20F degree range you want a bag rated to 15F or even 0F. Just like with pads, you can add layers to increase the insulation. There are bag liners that can add as much as 15F of range to a bag and don’t weigh very much at all.
In the north, nights are long. It can get dark as early as 4pm and light as late as 8am. Make sure you have good lighting. On my last trip I took a small string of battery-powered twinkle lights in addition to my normal headlamp. While the headlamp can light up the area, the twinkle lights made camp festive.
I haven’t mentioned the tent yet and that’s because I don’t think it’s the most important piece of gear you have. You can buy a very expensive four season tent, but don’t be fooled into thinking it will keep you warm by itself. I made that mistake and have a bomb-proof tent in my garage that I rarely use because it’s heavy. I have no doubt that if I were in a big storm on a big mountain it would stand up better than my usual three-season tent, but for trips in decent weather it’s unnecessary. I’m still using the same three season tent I’ve had for 17 years. It’s heavier than the latest and greatest, but not so heavy I’m willing to buy a new one. Even with eight inches of new snow falling overnight, it was fine.
For food, I focus on high-calorie foods that are easy to prepare and eat. For longer trips, that’s lots of dehydrated food. In summer, I tend to only have hot food for dinner, but in winter I’ll have hot food for all meals. I’ll also spend the time to make hot drinks for both breakfast and dinner (it’s really just an excuse to have cocoa) and carry warm water throughout the day. But my most important food is what I eat just before going to bed.
Pro-tip: Eat a candy bar before bed.
I like Snickers so I’ll eat a bar just before bed. The digestion produces a little more heat throughout the night and seems like it helps me not need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. (However, if you do need to go just go. Don’t try to hold it. You’ll just waste energy heating it up.)
When it’s finally time to tuck in for the night be sure you have dry clothing on. I often wear the clothes I’ve brought for the next day so I don’t have to worry about getting cold while changing. This can include my hat and socks. And don’t forget the bottle of hot water at your feet (or wherever you’re cold).
Before you head out on your first overnight in the snow I strongly recommend a trial run close to home or at least the car. Shivering through a long night is no fun and if you need to call it quits you don’t want to be too far from the relative safety of the trailhead.
No matter how cold you might be, how much effort it takes to make camp, how heavy your pack is, waking up to a silent, snow-filled view is worth it. So strap on you snowshoes and head out.
Be safe, have fun, and climb your mountain.