Snow camping tips
Whether you are on a skiing, snow shoeing or mountaineering trip, if you're out for a few days it is likely you will have to camp in the snow. Here are a few tips. - David Sisson 01:06, 23 August 2006 (EST)
- Arrange your pack so you can sit on it during breaks. Another way to avoid a frostbitten bum is to sit on a neoprene mouse mat.
- Keeping warm is something you can largely work out for yourself. Layering is the key to comfort in the snow. Take off a layer when you are exercising and add a layer when you are resting. In addition to normal hiking and ski gear, carry thermal underwear and a warm hat. Always have a few layers of clothes that you can easily adjust. If you have them, a down jacket, fleece pants and down booties are the height of decadence at night.
- Gloves get completely wet pitching a tent in the snow, so it is worthwhile carrying a second pair. Some regulars carry oversize waterproof riggers gloves and wear them over thin inner gloves.
- Batteries often seize up in low temperatures, so if your torch or camera isn't behaving, take out the batteries and put them in your armpits for at least five minutes. Equipment that previously showed no sign of life should be restored to robust good health... until the batteries cool down again.
- Gas stoves with less than 30% propane in their fuel sometimes suffer from the cold too, the solution is to put the gas cylinder up your jumper for 15 minutes. Fortunately most brands of gas cylinders have a 70/30 butane/propane fuel mix, which shouldn't present any problems for cooking in slightly sub zero temperatures. For really cold temperatures you can get isobutane/propane canisters.
- If you are using a shellite / petrol stove, prime it with a modest amount of fuel. Carrying a small bottle of metho to prime the stove is another option. Coleman Fire Paste or similar can also be used. This is one situation where you really don't want a flare up as it could cause severe burns or burn down a hut. It goes without saying that you should avoid using a stove anywhere near a tent if it is at all possible. Never use a stove inside a tent. If you use the stove in the vestibule, it is better to light it outside then bring it in when the flame is stable.
- Carry two sleeping mats. Supplementing your normal mat with a light closed-cell foam mat, will give you a slightly softer bed, but it also provides a lot of extra insulation when you are sleeping 2 cm above the snow.
- On longer trips take a book or small radio or iPod etc to help ward off tent madness when confined during bad weather. AM radios get amazing reception after dark, and weather forecasts can be useful.
- Wet boots left in a tent vestibule can freeze solid on a cold night. This can often be prevented by putting then in a waterproof bag by your feet. Choose a quiet bag that won't make a noise when you accidentally kick it at 3:00 am
- However you should always try to keep the weight of your pack down to a comfortable level.
Selecting your campsite and erecting your tent.
- With a few exceptions, only a quality four pole dome tent facing into the wind can survive a blizzard without shelter. But there are plenty of ways you can arrange enough shelter for all but the dodgiest of tents. Try and forget most of what you've heard about campsites with good views. Instead look for shelter. Ideally you should camp on a fairly flat area below the treeline, away from ridgetops, on the downwind side of a ridge. You can cut blocks of firm snow using a snow shovel or skis and build a low wall to partially protect your tent from the wind.
- Don't camp directly under trees if they have snow on them or it is likely to snow overnight. They can be weighed down by a lot of snow and shed it in one big dump. This can break your tent poles.
- If the snow cover is sparse, camp on a patch of grass. It is much warmer and more comfortable.
- Snow is soft and malleable, but if compressed and left for a few hours, it will set relatively hard. This can be both helpful and annoying. First of all, it is important to have a firm, smooth base for your tent. If you don't take a few minutes to stamp down your tent site and scrape it smooth, you will have an uncomfortable lumpy floor and slowly sink into it over the night as your body weight compresses a human shaped dent in the snow.
- Unless you are camping in a very flat area, be careful when you assemble tent poles prior to erecting your tent. They can slide away without warning and are very hard to find.
- Ordinary tent pegs don't work very well in the snow. Perhaps the best alternative for occasional snow campers are the wide, strong, yellow plastic tent pegs sold by Kmart. Only buy a few and use them at the ends of the tent. Elsewhere use sticks and ordinary tent pegs in well compressed snow. If you're a regular snow camper, buy long snow pegs made from curved aluminium sheet. They cost about $4 each at outdoor shops.
- Without realising it, you are probably carrying a few things that make excellent snow pegs. Skis and ice axes are long and broad and do the job very well, as long as you don't want to use them while the tent is standing. If you tie a guy rope to a billy, snowshoe or tree branch buried in firm snow, it makes an anchor which is very difficult to dislodge. A cord tied to a buried plastic bag full of snow also makes an excellent anchor.
- Plastic golf-balls, used for practice, are very lightweight, hollow, and full of holes. They make ideal snow anchors. Tie some cord through the holes, poke a hole into the snow, and drop the ball in. However, they can be very difficult to remove in the morning. An ice-axe can be helpful.
- Snow and water will get into your tent on your clothes. Carry a small sponge to soak it up. You really don't want a wet sleeping bag when it's -6ºC outside! Some people carry a small, stiff, brush to remove snow.
- Enter and exit huts as quickly as possible, don't leave the door open for more than a split second or you will let warmth out and the wind in. You will also find yourself subjected to a great deal of abusive language! This especially applies to huts with exposed doors like Cope or Vallejo Gantner but also to those with airlocks between two doors like Cleve Cole, M.U.M.C. and New Federation.
- Unless you are camped near a hut with a tank or close to a creek that can be safely accessed, water will be at a premium, so don't waste it. Old, grainy snow makes a great pot scrubber. Always try and avoid wasting fuel melting snow on a camp stove. If you're at a hut without a tank, fill a billy with snow and leave it on top of the hut's wood fuelled stove. It will take a while to melt, but a litre of snow packed into a billy should yield about a cup of water. If you have to collect water from a creek, be very careful as overhanging snow banks can collapse without warning, dumping you in freezing water.
- Don't leave things out overnight or they may be lost under snow that falls overnight. Stand skis, poles and ice axes upright.
- In the daytime it can be as warm as +2ºC, but at dusk the temperature will quickly drop to about -4ºC. At night the temperature rarely drops below -10ºC, and many people are quite comfortable in a sleeping bag rated to -5ºC (at least 6 cm of loft on the top half of the bag). However if you're a cold sleeper you may want a warmer bag. Liner bags made of synthetics or silk will add warmth as will a down filled booster bag and wearing thermals. Wearing a beanie or balaclava and a neck gaiter or scarf to bed are great ways to keep warm (a large amount of radiant heat escaping from the head and neck). On especially cold nights, wear a warm jacket and more loose fitting clothes to bed. Don't drape things on your sleeping bag, as this will squash the down, making the sleeping bag cooler, not warmer.
- Many people carry a snow shovel and dig 25 cm deep pits in the vestibules of their tent. This gives a lot more storage space for things like snow encrusted packs, which you don't want inside the tent. In bad weather, it also gives you a fairly safe place to light a stove without much danger of the tent catching fire.
- Finally, you can build things from blocks of compressed snow. While it takes four or five hours to build an igloo, you can knock up a wall of blocks to shelter a tent from the wind or even a table and chairs in only a few minutes work with a snow shovel. On a smaller scale, miniature igloos make good shelters for candles.
- Remember that if you have a shovel with you, you still have the means to construct potentially life-saving shelter, even if you have lost your tent.
- Snow caves have the advantage of being totally wind-proof, relatively warm, and do not need to be carried (unlike a tent), but they are slow to set up, and if it really rains hard for prolonged periods, the roof can cave in, depending on how well constructed you made it.
- It takes a while to dig a proper cave (e.g. 3-4 hours for a good 4-person cave), but a basic trench can be dug quickly for shelter in emergency situations to get people out of the wind, the trench can later be roofed over and enlarged, etc.
- You often get very wet digging a cave, put on all wet weather gear, and keep dry clothes for afterwards.
- You need a steep slope (e.g. 30 degrees), and a few metres deep - NB this can also be ideal conditions for avalanches, consider that risk before digging in!
- Dig in shifts. One is the "mole" digging into the hill, another clears the snow the mole is throwing back. The other two wait to take over from the first two, making hot drinks in a "cooking well" beside the front door which is the first thing dug into the snow.
- It can be a good plan for two pairs to dig two tunnels parallel, then link them up once in the slope, then enlarge the sleeping area, and block one entrance up as the cave is finished, or use that entranceway as gear storage, cooking area, etc.
- Have the entrance tunnels sloping up to the sleeping platform, helping warm air stay inside.
- Smooth the inner walls, so there are no points for water to drip from. Nice and smooth. This matters.
- Keep shovels inside, so you can clear the entranceway if necessary in a storm.
- Have a few ventilation holes. A ski pole poked horizontally through the wall can be a good idea, so that is left in place and gets re-poked and jiggled around to clear any snow build-up. You will not suffocate from carbon DIoxide in your sleep if these get blocked by snow, however, so there is no need for a constant vigil all night to keep the holes clear.
- Cooking inside can be a dangerous thing, as this can lead to carbon MONoxide build-up if not adequately ventilated. This potentially lethal gas has no smell or taste.
- Stay warm by insulating yourself from the snow. One foam mat is often not enough, two foam mats are better, or one foam mat and one therma-rest. A waterproof bivvy-bag or sleeping bag cover helps too.
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