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The Beauty of Snow and Silence:
The why’s and how’s of winter camping
By Trevor Deighton, NOLS Instructor
Photo: Fredrik Norrsell

Brrrrgh! Ughh! Why would you ever go camping when it's so cold and snowy? 'I don’t like cold weather,' you might think. 'I would freeze to death out there right now.' Fact: Winter is a cold time of year. Fiction: When winter camping I will be cold and wet.

Unfortunately, many people’s first thought on winter camping is their last, but for those willing to try it out the rewards are many. With proper techniques and equipment, you can enjoy what the winter wilderness has to offer: silence, tranquility, fresh, untracked powder skiing, custom built snow shelters that merge art and warmth, dry housing, and glimpses of seldom seen wildlife, all without the crowds frequently associated with being outside in the summer. The skills and knowledge gained from summer camping provide a good foundation for the winter. But there are some differences between the two and here are some tips to make your first or fiftieth winter trip a success.

How to Get There
Walking, snow shoeing, skiing (cross-country, telemark or randonee alpine touring) or split-boarding (snowboards that convert to skis) are all human-powered ways to access the backcountry in winter. Generally, walking is only a feasible option if the snow isn’t very deep and cross-country skis don’t provide enough floatation to carry a big pack and/or sled. Snowshoes, telemark/randonee ski set ups and increasingly commonly split-boards (a snowboard that converts to small skis for uphill travel) can all be rented at quality outdoor shops.

TIP: Make sure to get skins when you rent skis or boards. Skins stick or strap on to the bottom to facilitate uphill travel and then come off to slide down.

If you will be traveling on or under any terrain or slope, no matter how big or small, steeper than 20 degrees (about the steepness of “green” slopes at a ski area) than a Basic Avalanche or Avalanche Awareness course is a must (see the Avalanche Education sidebar for more details).

What to Eat
Food is your fuel and metabolism is your fire. To stay warm and happy out there you must supply your fire with plenty of fuel. 1.75 pounds per person per day make up a NOLS summer ration. In the winter that quantity is increased to 2.25-2.5 pounds. Large gourmet meals are guilt free in the winter. Calorie dense foods and fats like butter, chocolate and bacon are necessities not luxuries.

The cold outside temperatures mean that you can bring frozen foods like veggies, meats and sauces, and that they won’t spoil. Be sure to pre-slice and freeze anything ahead of time. The last thing you want to try and cook is a two-pound block of cheese or hamburger when it is 20 degrees below zero.

TIP: Crack eggs and pre-freeze them in ice cube trays to make cheffing omelettes a breeze. Your stoves will be running a lot to melt water and supply you with plenty of food and hot drinks. Doubling your summer fuel calculation will give you a rough estimate.

TIP: Always save some “starter water,” that is water you will add snow to, slowly at first, so you will not burn the snow and then have burnt water. The NOLS Cookery has more details and a plethora of excellent suggestions for food and fuel calculations.

What to Wear
Layers, layers, layers. If you want to stay warm then you must bring plenty of clothes to keep the cold at bay. Start with a synthetic or wool long underwear/base layer to wick away moisture and sweat and follow that with four to five upper body layers and three lower body layers that are synthetic or wool and can be worn together without constricting your movement or circulation. Lastly, bring a nylon or Gore-tex outer layer to keep out the snow. Of course, warm socks and boots and gloves and hats are a must. A common mistake is to wear too many clothes when active. While hiking or skiing, wear as few insulating layers as possible and then add more layers whenever you stop.

TIP: Outfitting yourself for a winter camping trip does not mean working the rest of the year to buy the clothes. With a quick trip to the thrift store or attic you can probably find used wool sweaters and ski clothes for free or cheap.

What Else to Bring
With a few additions, your summer camping gear should work nicely in the winter. If you can’t rent or afford to buy a winter (-20 to –30 F degree) sleeping bag, then there are several options available to you. You can add a wool or synthetic blanket, buy a sleeping bag liner, or use two summer-weight bags. Also add an extra sleeping pad to further insulate you from the ground when sleeping. Another necessity is a shovel to build shelters and kitchens.

There are several additional things that make winter camping easier but aren’t strictly necessary, including an extra stove and pot for melting water, a lantern, a snow saw for cutting blocks and adding those stylish touches to a shelter or kitchen, and a sled to pull all of this extra stuff.

TIP: Instead of buying an expensive pre-made sled, make one from a plastic kiddie sled. Run rope through the holes for the handles and then attach that to you backpack waist belt. The sled won’t maneuver as well through tight trees or down hills, but it will save you a few hundred bucks.

And Don't Forget…
Lastly and most importantly, get psyched. Winter camping requires a ton of energy, a positive attitude and hard work. I always start my NOLS winter courses by telling my students that one of the most valuable things winter camping will teach them is that “hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive." So far, it's a philosophy that has proved itself correct every time. Everyone returns tired but with smiles on their faces and excited to rush to the phone and share their stories with their friends and families. So enjoy, and happy adventuring out in the winter wonderland of snow and silence.

Avalanche Safety and Education
When traveling in avalanche terrain, there are five things each person should always bring.

  1. An avalanche transceiver and the knowledge and practice to use it. (A transceiver is a small radio device that both transmits and receives signals so that a person buried in the snow can quickly be located by their companions.)
  2. A shovel.
  3. An avalanche probe or probe poles.
  4. A partner, i.e. never venture into avalanche terrain alone.
  5. Your brain, in working order. This means that you must possess skills and knowledge to safely travel and play (ski, ride, snowmobile, hike etc.) in avalanche terrain. A NOLS course is a great way to acquire these skills. You'll learn about assessing the hazards of mountain winter environments, avalanche terrain and weather, avalanche assessment, snow pack dynamics and snow physics. Some courses also include a Level I Avalanche certification (see specific course information for details).

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