An introduction to Backcountry Winter Camping

Ok, you're really tired of the crowds in the summer backcountry so you've finally decided to try your hand at some winter camping. The only problem is that you don't know quite how to get started. That was the dilemma that I was faced with ten years ago when I caught the snow bug. Fortunately, I had already connected with some of the local Sierra Club members who lead winter trips, and they taught me the basics (In fact they introduced me to snow camping). I feel that I owe a debt to those unselfish volunteers, so here is a brief primer and perhaps an idea of the sort of things you will need to travel comfortably in the snow.

Where Do I Start?

Snowshoes or Skis?

Which type of Pack works best?

What do I wear?

Should I carry a tent?

What about Sleeping Bags and Pads?

Which Stove should I get?

Is there anything else I might want?

I want to know more. Where do I look?

Getting Started

The best place to start is with an assumption that you have at least a small amount of Backpacking expreience. To start your backpacking career in the winter might be asking an awful lot of yourself. So I will presume that you are comfortable around backpacks, sleeping bags, boots, stoves, and tents. We will discuss these items in detail in other sections.
So whats so different about camping in the snow?
That will depend on where you live and how severe the winters are there. I live in Northern California near the coast where it doesn't snow at all so all my snow camping is intentional and requires several hours drive to get there. If you live in the Northern latitudes, you might suddenly find yourself snow camping in the middle of the summer and will want to be prepared for it year round. The main differances between summer and snow camping are:

The first thing that you should do before starting out is what you are doing right now, educate yourself. Learn about possible hazards and special needs. Next, you need to be fit physically. It takes a lot of energy to stay warm in the snow and you won't have a toasty fire to warm up by if you overexert. Hypothermia is a constant concern and a fit person is better equipped to withstand its effects. Then, after you have the right knowledge, equipment, and are physically prepared, you will need to find out about the conditions where you are going. This is best accomplished by contacting local Outfitters, Guides, and Rangers (often these professions overlap). The people who are in the backcountry are your best source of weather, avalanche, and other information and are usually more than willing to share that knowledge.
Finally I recommend that you hook up with someone who has camped in winter conditions before and go on a trip with them. Better to learn from anothers mistakes than your own. As my gramdpa always used to tell me, "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you wanted!"
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Skis or Snowshoes and other Footwear Questions

So the big question that most people ask is "Should I Ski or Snowshoe? The answer is pretty simple, if you are a capable cross country or telemark skier, and have skied with a pack before, then I would say to go for the skis. They are faster, provide better flotation, and take less work to actually propell you across the snow. BUT, if you have never skied and are going into terrain with any ups and downs, I recommend snowshoes. They are easy to learn how to use, will keep you in place on a hillside without a high level of skill, and do not require a special shoe or boot.

That is the quick and easy answer. However if you ask any ten people who snow camp, you will probably get ten different answers about which is better and why. I tend to think that you will form your own preferances by trying different methods and it isn't my place to prejudice you.(But of course I will.)

For a novice skier, the best way to start is by renting a pair of backcountry skis and taking a few lessons from a qualified instructor. Make sure that you rent metal edge skis. Track or touring skis are fine for groomed slopes or trails, but on side hills with a pack on your back, the metal edges will bite into the snow more securely. Then after you have the basics down, pick a destination on moderate terrain and go for it. I highly recommend renting a good set of climbing skins (textured or haircovered material that is attached to the bottom of the ski and lets it slide foreward but not backward). They will prove invaluable on steep slopes and will also slow you down if you have trouble controling your speed downhill.

If you've tried skis and floundered, or don't want to go through the learning curve, then try snowshoes. They are simple to learn how to use and they can take you anywhere you can walk and beyond.
Most people think of snowshoes as oversize tennis racets, but there are many styles to match a wide range of snow conditions, terrain, and uses. The type that resembles the tennis racket is a traditional shoe made of hardwood that is steamed and bent to form the frame with rawhide lacing woven into a criss-cross pattern that makes up the deck or platform that you walk on. Older shoes are bound to your boots with leather straps and are cumbersome and need constant tightening and repair. Shapes vary from a "Yukon" (long narrow frame with a long tail and overall length of up to five feet) to round fat "Bevertail" shape that requires a wide stance.
Technology has made snowshoing much easier and fun. With new materials like aluminum frames and composite fabrics that are light and strong, modern snowshoes bear little resemblance to their forerunners. Most common is the "Western" style shoe, 8" to 10" wide and from 20" to 45" long, they are usually an aluminum frame with a solid deck of Neoprene or Hypalon material and utilize a metal binding with a claw that points downward for traction on icy slopes. Others are molded from space age plastics like lexan and are rugged and light. Whichever type you select, the bottom line is that snowshoes are an easy to use, relatively inexpensive way to get around in the backcountry.

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Backpack choices

The common question here is "Which type of pack should I choose?"
I recommend an internal frame pack because they sit closer to your back and are less likely to send you off balance, sprawled in the snow, face first. Notice that I say less likely instead of "won't". The face plant is an important part of learning to carry a pack in the snow. If you already have an external pack, it isn't absolutely necessary to go out and buy an internal. I have many friends that regularly snowshoe and even ski with externals on their backs, but it is still a good idea to at least check around and borrow or rent an internal if you can.
Whichever type you choose, proper fit and balance of the load is very important. An ill fitting pack or one that is out out balance will make your trip miserable. It is also important to have enough room for all of the extra gear that you will need to haul with you. Since the warmer clothes and sleeping bag is bulkier, you need about 1/3 more space in the winter. Check with your local outfitter for an evaluation of your equipment. A good salesperson with experience should be willing and able to tune up your gear for you even if you aren't ready to upgrade.
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Winter weather is unpredictable and can be severe. Proper clothing is your first and last defense against the elements. A layering system is most commonly recommended and consists of three parts. If there is any rule in winter camping, it is to NEVER wear COTTON. Cotton is great for desert hiking and around town, but since it stores water in its fibers, and water lowers the tempurature as it evaporates, it cools the wearer. In the winter, your prime objective is to Conserve heat, not loose it.
  1. Wicking Layer -The layer next to the skin to wick moisture away. The most important part of your layering system bercause it is closest to you. This can be a natural fiber like wool or silk, or a synthetic fiber like Polypropylene, Thermastat, Capeline, or BiPolar. The synthetics are preferred to natural fibers because they wick moisture better, dry faster, and last longer. Although silk is very comfortable, it does absorb water and dries slowly. Wool was the standard until synthetics were developed and although it still is an alternative for those that can't tolerate synthetics, all except Marino Wool is scratchy, all is slow to dry and smells when it gets wet. A word of caution regarding Polypro. It is cheaper and does wick very well, but it retains odor and if accidently thrown in the dryer, it will shrink to doll clothes size. The other synthetics are more expensive ($25 to $60) but well worth their higher price tag.
  2. Insulating Layer - This layer traps warm air that your body has heated up. Modern winter travelers rely on polar fleece and Down or Synthetic lofting fibers like Quallofil or Polarguard as insulation. Commonly combined with the protective layer in ski parkas and jackets used in the city, in the backcountry it is better to keep this seperate from the shell to allow for changable conditions. When you start going up a hill, it is a good idea to remove a layer of insulation to prevent overheating, and then replacing them as you cool down. This isn't possible if your shell and insulation are combined in one piece. For moderate conditions, a Polartec Fleece jacket is the best choice, and in extreme cold a down sweater can be added. In camp you might find yourself wearing all your layers since you are not working as hard and generating as much heat. A low cost alternative to the high tec garmets is an acrylic sweater. Much cheaper than a down or fleece jacket they will provide the necessary air space to insulate you provided you have a good quality shell over it.
  3. Protective layer - Next to the wicking layer, this is the most important part of your clothing system. The outer layer protects the two inner layers from wind, rain, and snow. The best type of fabric for this layer is Gore-Tex or another waterproof-breathable material. Since you will encounter a wide variety of conditions, you will need an outer shell that will keep you dry, protect you from wind, and still let the perspiration that you will be generating evaporate. That means it has to let moisture vapor pass through but keep water droplets out. That is what a waterproof-breathable fabric does. Simply put, the fabric has millions of microscopic holes in it. Large enough to allow water vapor through but too small to let liquid water in, so perspiration evaporates through the shell but rain and snow stays out. If you are on a low budget, some less expensive alternatives are light weight nylon shell jacket and pants that cost under $40 each will work in a pinch and some even use PVC coated rainsuits, but use caution with this type of gear and stay close to shelter, it won't protect you in really nasty conditions.
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Ok, now we are almost there, but where do we go to get out of the wind, snow, cold, etc? If the conditions are just right, you know what you are doing, and you have the right gear, you can simply spend about three or four hours digging a snow cave. The only drawback is that they are a little wet, and require some work to build. If you are fit and have the time, that is not a problem, and a snow cave that is properly constructed is warm and cozy in even the worst storm. This is not a primer on snow caves and there are many things that I have not included, but here are a few tips on construction.
When you start your cave, pick a slope where the snow has collected fairly deep but is somewhat consolidated. Avoid any slopes that pose an avalanche danger! Start digging below the point that will be the floor and angle up slightly as you dig. This puts the door below the floor and will trap heat in the cave. When you have gone up a few feet, tunnel straight back and up, taking care not to punch through to the surface. When you have a tunnel built far enough back to allow you to strech out full length, cut a sleeping platform starting higher than the door opening, sloping slightly from front to back so meltwater runs off. You can cut shelves in the side of the cave to store your gear, and round off the inside of the cave so drips run down the walls instead of falling on you. It is VERY IMPORTANT to push a ski pole, branch or ski through the top of the cave to provide ventilation. This will have to be maintained during storms so the hole doesn't plug up. If there are more people in the cave, make more ventilation holes so you don't sufocate.
If you don't want to go through all that work and want to be more mobile, a quality four season tent is a good idea. The most common question here is "What makes a tent Four Season?". A four season tent has a stronger frame to withstand a snow load and high winds, a full coverage rainfly to protect the tent body, and usually has a vestibule to provide a place to get out of wet gear before entering. They usually are made out of heavier materials and have less mesh to retain heat better, or zip in covering for all mesh, and have many tie points on the rainfly to secure them in extreme conditions. When setting a tent in the snow, its often necessary to make a level platform and sometimes make a snow wall to protect the tent and cooking area. Since it is easy to dig and mold the snow and it will melt in the spring, you can build whatever you have the energy for. I usually dig a trench in front of the tent door so I can sit in the door and take off my boots without stooping. This can also be used as an emergency kitchen in a serious storm, but BE CAREFUL, a tent fire in the backcountry is the ultimate disaster. If you don't have a four season tent and can't afford one, a good three season can weather all but the worst conditions if you prepare it properly. Building a snow wall around it and digging it into the snow will protect it from the direct force of the wind, and if it's snowing, you can clear the accumulation off regularly. Fiberglass poles tend to break in the cold and under the force of a heavy snow load, so I recommend against them. If you think that you will encounter extreme conditions, you might consider renting or borrowing a true four season. As I would recommend for any kind of camping, be sure to bring some kind of ground cover to protect the tent floor. I use a quilted type emergency blanket, the type that has reflective mylar on one side and woven plastic tarp material on the other. This helps to reflect some of your heat back into the tent if you put the shiny side up. It can also come in handy if you need a fast emergency shelter.
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Sleeping Bags and Pads

Ok, now what about your sleeping arrangements? Why can't you just take that old three season 20 degree bag that you use for the summer and wear clothes? Well in an emergercy you can get a little more warmth out of a bag by wearing your clothes, but my experience is that the bag does not supply any heat, your body does,and so if you insulate your body from the sleeping bag, then it never warms up inside the bag, ie your extremeties never get the benefit of your warmer torso and tend to stay cold. I have spent a very cold night in a bag that was not insulated enough for the tempearture and tried to stay warm with clothes on. I was told by an oldtimer that if I took all but my long underwear off and used my extra clothes as a blanket that I would be warmer. After that sleepless first night, I was willing to try it, and was amazed to find that it worked. The best way to stay warm is to buy, rent, or borrow a 0 degree or colder rated bag. If you are cold blooded (you sleep cold) then go to a colder rated bag, warmer blooded people may be ok in a three season bag but don't count on it. The sleeping bag and pad is your last line of defense so don't compromise there. As far as fill or insulation, the options are Down or Synthetic. I prefer down which is lighter, more compressible, and has a longer life. Look at bags that use 550 fill podwer or better. Fill power is calculated by taking one ounce of down, placing it in a cylinder with a weighted disc on top and then removing the disc. The cubic inches in volume that the unweighted down occupies is known as its fill power. This is important because the higher the fill power, the more a bag of equal weight will loft, and loft equals warmth. The only problem is that the higher the fill power, the lighter the bag, the more money it costs. A zero degree, 650 fill down bag will cost between $200 and $300 and the 750 fill power goes to around $400 and up. Since down can loose loft if it gets wet, you can add another $100 to $150 for a Gore-Tex Dryloft liner. Synthetic bags are a less expensive alternative however there is a trade off here also. The synthetic fill can weigh a pound or better more than even the 550 fill down bags and their lifetime is often shorter than down. Still since moisture doesn't affect these fills like it does down, they can be a better choice in wet climates and for extended trips in the snow. Expect to spend $200 to $350 for a first rate synthetic bag.
The other part of your sleeping system is the ground pad. Don't scrimp here either. A 40 below bag does you little good if you are sleeping directly on the snow. I like to go as light as I can and in California where the temps don't often go much below zero, I use an ultralight 3/4 length thermarest and a full length ridgerest pad (Corrugated closed cell foam). I also carry a piece of 1/2" closed cell foam that is about 18" x 20" for a seat on the trail. That doubles as a foot warmer when standing around and and extra insulator for my feet at night to make up for the short thermarest. I know some mountain guides that use only the ridgerest pads and often carry two, since they are usually wearing crampons and thermarest pads are pretty useless if they are punctured, this makes good sense. I do always carry a repair kit for mine.
A trick that many who camp in the snow often is to buy a bag that is a little long so you can put your clothes inside it. This makes getting dressed a little more comfortable in the morning Another trick is to use those extra clothes to help insulate from the snow underneath you. Even a thremarest pad will let a little heat escape to the ground (or snow), so if you put them between the bag and the pad, you will stay a little warmer.
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What about the kitchen? Well, there is nearly no practical way that you can rely on a campfire to cook in the snow. Even if you carried the wood in, you still need a place to have your fire that won't melt into a hole. Backpacking stoves are the reasonable answer, and there are a few things to consider when selecting the right one. The best stove will start easily, burn hot enough to melt snow, use fuel efficently, and be lightweight. Some prefer a butane/propane fuel stove due to their ease of use and the adjustability of the flame. Drawbacks are; in really cold temps the butane can freeze which reduces the heat output making it necessary to warm the cannisters first and then keep them warm. Some stoves have a heat sink that takes heat from the burner and carries it to the cannister to keep it warm. These stoves seem to work in relatively cold temps but can still be hard to get started and maintain a hot flame in extreme cold. Optimus makes several comperssed fuel stoves that work ok in the cold as does Bibler and Coleman. Liquid fuel stoves are easier to use in moderately cold weather because most fuels don't freeze easily. White gasoline (Coleman fuel) is the cleanest and hottest burning liquid fuel and is commonly used in MSR or Coleman stoves. In extremely cold temps, you may have to use a preheating gel to warm up the part of the stove that vaporizes the fuel in order to start it, but once going they are more dependable than the pressurized cannisters. I have used MSR and Coleman Apex stoves in a variety of winter conditions and like both. The MSR is a torch that will melt snow quickly and get a large group rehydrated in a hurry but falls short in the simmering category. The Apex is a dependable stove that will simmer well and fix those gourmet treats that the backcountry chef can conjure up with a little imagination and some acessories like an "Outback Oven" or a "Bakepacker". I have eaten beter at 10,000' than in a fancy resturaunt on the way home. Another stove option will be available in 1998, a dual fuel stove. This type of stove will operate on both liquid fuel and pressurized gas. Check back here and I will update this page when they become available. Whichever stove you use, make sure that you check it out and test it before leaving home. At best broken stove can ruin a trip, and at worst can leave you in a seriously dangerous situation. Which ever stove you pick, you should also have something to keep it from melting into the snow as it heats up, either a pad or platform of some sort. I have used a piece of an old closed cell sleeping pad covered with heavy foil on one side. There are also commrcial stove bases on the market like MSR's "Trillium" base that clips to the legs on all their stoves.
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Other Stuff

What else might you want to take? Tons of stuff and a Sherpa to carry it all. The serious items can still create a pretty long list. I always like to start any list with the 10 or so Essentials. These are the items that as a backpacker, you should be famaliar with and know that ALL trips however short should include these items. They are:
  1. Map and Compass; both items are needed! Some like the GPS units which can be lifesavers, but don't depend too heavily on a battery operated system, it can fail and there is no substitute for good old know how.
  2. Flashlight or Headlamp; I perfer a headlamp for hands free use. Don't forget extra batteries, the cold can shorten the life of those alkalines and you may need to switch off for a warm set that you keep in an inside pocket.
  3. First Aid Kit! should go without saying.
  4. Knife or pocket utility tool with pliers and knife blade.
  5. Signal device; whistle, mirror, or both. The best is the mirror!
  6. Sunglasses; These are especially important for snow travel.
  7. Matches; Preferably windproof and waterproof in a waterproof case.
  8. Firestarter; no not just the matches, a candle or flamable material to start wet fuel.
  9. Extra clothing; this can be a wind shell and pants or jacket, depending on climate.
  10. Extra Food; pick something that you won't eat as a snack, this is EMERGENCY food.
Now , here are some items to add for a snow trip, some are really important like the snow shovel which really belongs on the list above, and some are just nice luxeries. I have marked the necessities with a *.
This list can be expanded or shortened depending on your stamina and experience in the backcountry but I always recommend that you keep it as simple and light as you can as long as you don't leave out the basics.
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Recommended reading

Here is a partial list of great books to further your education on winter camping and related subjects:
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Thank you for your interest in snow camping and I hope that this Primer has been of some help to you. I have tried to cover the most important issues without pushing my own preferances and prejudices. If you have any suggestions about how I might improve the information presented here I am always open to suggestions. Please feel free to e-mail me at

© Copyright 1997-98 Chard Lowden