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Some notes on ski/snow camping
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David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Some notes on ski/snow camping on 03/01/2010 08:40:43 MST Print View

After a trip this weekend (video in the Trip Report forum) I'm now nine months into visiting Yellowstone NP at least once a month for a year. It's been a great experience, seeing different parts of the park as the seasons come and go. Winter has been especially nice: you can go into different places in the park (Bear Management areas), camping is much less restricted, and the closure of roads makes the park so much bigger.

The terrain I saw this weekend in the NW corner of the park was fantastic. Great for ski touring, great for turning, and great for sitting around the fire and listening to owls at night as the moon rises.

I was also struck how, if you have a few bits of knowledge and the right gear, easy winter camping is. Following are some thoughts that I hope others might find useful.

-Fires are nice. Winter nights are long and cold. This weekend I found a spot in the lee of some trees that had shallow snow cover. I dug down to bare ground in a 7' circle, poked around to find some nice dry pine, and enjoyed a few hours of relaxing on my ridgerest, watching the moon rise, reading, and sipping tea. Good dry wood ensured that no sparks burned holes in my puffy coat, and a site out at the edge of the meadow ensured that a down-canyon breeze kept the smoke out of my eyes.

-Big shovels are good. My Black Diamond Deploy 7 is not light (700 grams on the nose), but moves snow fast and busts through hard snow with ease. My sleeping trench was 5' by 4' by 10', and took 10 minutes to dig.

-Snow shelters are fun. I found a nice deep drift in the lee of a big downed log. Anchoring my tarp over the top with sticks was the hardest and slowest part, due to the very dry snow. I dig in light clothing and Goretex shell mits, and stayed totally dry.

-Melting snow is slow, regardless of your heat source. I was psyched to see that the Gallatin was ice free.

-I prefer hydration systems, dry high altitude winter air dehydrates you fast. I use a big Dromedary with a hydro hose. During the day, I make sure to blow back into the bladder, and stow the valve in my collar. I use a simple soft rubber valve, with no hard plastic parts. If it does freeze, I can chew on it to thaw it out. Overnight, I bring the cap, remove the hose system, and sleep with the hose complex in my bag. If I have to keep water in the bag overnight, I bury it in the snow to keep it from freezing.

-Being cold at night is no fun. I use a 48" ridgerest and full length Thermarest. This, my WM Antelope, and a puffy goes down well below zero in comfort.

-Clothing is key, and sweat is your enemy, even more than in summer. Delayer before you sweat, and choose items that dry fast and breath well. My system for this past weekend, for dry temps from 30-0 F:
Wool 2 t-shirt
Ibex wool hoodie
DAS parka
Lightweight capilene tights
Soft shell pants (w/ shock-cord instep straps)
Capilene 1 headband (key!)
Omni Gloves
Endeavor Mitts
This system worked very well. The Houdini rocks in the winter, and I prefer the synthetic parka to down as it deals with moisture better.

-Vapor barrier socks. I ski in plastic tele boots with warm liners that absorb tons of moisture if given the chance. I use very thin knee-high liner socks, and vapor barrier socks on top. My feet are always warm, and the thin liners dry fast overnight. I keep fat wool socks in my sleeping bag for the night.

-Fat waxless skis are great. I love my Karhu Guides. They're not too fast on packed tracks, but break trail and float well, and can ski down anything the driver can manage. For me winter camping means getting off the beaten track, and not being restricted from exploring cool terrain.

-Avalanches are scary. As you can see in the video, snow study and terrain assessment is vital. Get educated.

Get out there! Winter is great!

David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Some notes on ski/snow camping" on 03/01/2010 09:17:53 MST Print View

Thanks, very informative.

What do you use for vapor barrier socks?

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
VB socks on 03/01/2010 09:34:59 MST Print View

I acutally use Sealskins socks. An Alaska friend swears by them, and they certainly don't seem to breath much if at all.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Some notes on ski/snow camping on 03/01/2010 11:06:25 MST Print View

Oh man, I spent a week ski-touring in Yellowstone once upon a time, but yikes, it got down to -40 at night, and never got above -10F by day. Just keeping warm and hydrated was a constant battle. Beautiful though.

(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Ski / snow camping on 03/01/2010 17:40:04 MST Print View

In my non-expert opinion, the best time for this is just about to start: Spring. Days are longer, and avalanche danger is usually less. A 200-foot hill can kill in Winter: “Our best guess was that he was halfway up the slope when the avalanche started,” McCall said. “It did propagate quite a ways above him.”

The slide was 500 feet wide and ran 200 vertical feet down the slope. The crown of the slide was 2 feet to 3 feet high

“There was NOT a lot of vertical drop, but there was a lot of snow that entrained in the avalanche,” said McCall. “There were some places where we probed the avalanche debris to be over 9 or 10 feet deep, so it was quite a large avalanche.”

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
avalanches on 03/01/2010 18:01:04 MST Print View

I was mostly buried by an avalanche once, and only one arm and my head were exposed. It had run down a slope of less than 100 vertical feet. It doesn't take much to be lethal.


David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Some notes on ski/snow camping" on 03/01/2010 18:03:13 MST Print View

Bob - If you don't mind, can you share more details about your avalanche mishap?

We could all learn from it......

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
avalanches on 03/01/2010 18:22:54 MST Print View

It wasn't a big deal. Four of us left the west end of Donner Lake one snowy morning. We had intended to do a two-day hut trip, but then a storm dropped a lot of snow, and we felt uncomfortable with the proposed ski route, so we just stayed back nearer to Donner Lake where (we thought) it was safer. After skiing up past the RR tracks, we continued up Schallenberger Ridge a way. It was lunch time, so two guys skied off east and two of us stood in place to eat a quick bite. I was in a grove of 1-foot diameter trees, and I felt like that was semi-safe. I stood there on my skis facing away from the uphill. Then I heard a swishing sound behind me, so I turned around to see what it was. Well, it was the slope above the trees that was sliding. I had about a half-second and then it hit me like a Mack truck, reorienting me into a horizontal position with my skis and body underneath 3-4 feet of hard snow. Except for my left arm and head, I couldn't move a muscle. My buddy and I were wearing beacons, but he was standing just slightly outside of where the snow stopped, so he saw me. I did not feel in a panic since my head was out. If I had been alone, it would have taken me an hour or three to extricate myself. I called the other two skiers on my radio and told them to return to us, but they could not figure out what the fuss was about. However, my buddy pulled out his shovel and dug down through the top until he could reach down and release my ski bindings. Then I was able to wiggle out about 10-15 minutes later. Working together, we had the opportunity to dig for another 30 minutes to find my X-C skis and poles.

I've been in bigger avalanches before, but I had always floated on top of the snow rather than under it.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Re: avalanches on 03/01/2010 18:37:32 MST Print View

Avalanches are scary for sure. We've had and have a horrid snowpack in Montana this winter. Plenty of stuff to ski, but the plum lines are still waiting.

55 degrees in Missoula today, spring might not be so far away.

Gerry Volpe

Locale: Vermont
ski touring on 03/03/2010 08:30:40 MST Print View

It is great to see so much activity with lightweight ski touring this winter in the forums. I just got back from a lightweight ski tour in NHs White mountains, my first without a heavy sled supported by luxury food, libations, and my wood fired tipi. It was awesome to travel and camp in lightweight style on skis. Many of Daves notes ring true. My tele boots sucked up moisture and I was wishing for a vapor barrier. How warm do you think you can go with this system?

Spring type wheather is so much more challenging for me moisture management wise. Temps were between 25-35 degrees with about two feet of very wet snow falling. My houdini and softshell pants wet out one day and when I tried hard shells I was even more soaked from persperation. Luckily it was ridiculously warm.

I wish I had bought the Guides and have a serious case of gear lust for them. I have the 10th mountains which are great skis but when my trip partner and I went for some turns after our tour my skis really bogged down in lots of heavy snow not to mention the camber and a half makes turning more difficult in hard snow conditions.

I need to try tarp camping in winter especially in warmer wheather. We were in a shangri la 3 which I got to replace my old tired mega mid. My winter experience has always been that condensation freezes in my mids and I can get rid of it by knocking it off without feer of getting wet. However last week in our weird weather it never got below freezing in the shelter and we had lots of liquid condensation, a tarp would have been much better in the warm conditions.

We almost left the shovel at home since we have no real avalanche danger in 98% of our eastern terrain but were glad to have it to move the snow so quickly in camp plus we didn't need a seperate stove base.

Again it is awesome to hear about peoples experience lightweight ski touring. I can't wait to read about Kevin Sawchuck's JMT thru-ski and Andy Skurka's Alaskan Loop.

Edited by gvolpe on 03/03/2010 08:34:29 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
X-C skis on 03/03/2010 12:13:19 MST Print View

Gerry, I think you'll find that the 10th Mountain skis are optimized more for "many miles" rather than "many turns."

Paul Vertrees

Locale: Southern Colorado Rockies
Your winter soft shell pants? on 03/03/2010 12:27:02 MST Print View


What soft shell pants did you use? I just finished an extended weekend of backcountry skiing and camping. It was great!

Gerry Volpe

Locale: Vermont
ski gear on 03/03/2010 12:43:54 MST Print View

Bob you put it well. The 10th mountains do tour wonderfully and actually turn well for a xc ski. I would like the Guides for their go anywhere do anything capabilities. They are much lighter than my tele skis and the waxless base beats skins much of the time. This makes me think of the late 70s backpacker magazine I followed a link from the forums to. The articles and adds about ski gear and technique were very interesting, our options are nothing short of amazing compared to a short time ago.

John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Re: ski gear on 03/03/2010 12:48:24 MST Print View

>>>our options are nothing short of amazing compared to a short time ago.<<<

I'm trying to get into backcountry/tele skiing and I find there are so many options and so much posturing that it's totally confusing!

Gerry Volpe

Locale: Vermont
backcountry/tele skiing on 03/03/2010 14:16:53 MST Print View

John skiing is a wonderfull way to spend time outside in the winter. There are many people much more qualified to give advice than I and hopefully they chime in but there are a few questions you must ask yourself to begin navigating the maze of ski options.

What is your experience?(Alpine skier, Cross Country,none )

Where do you want to ski? (backcountry, area, both)

What type of skiing do you want to do? (Downhill, touring rolling terrain, both)

I started Tele skiing in the late 90s because I thought it would be a cool way to go camping. I then proceeded to spend the next 10 plus years mostly area skiing to get good with only occasional backcountry excursions. The last couple of years I have tried to focus more on backcountry skiing both downhill(very intermediate) and touring and am loving it.

Telemark Festivals are a great way to get introduced to tele skiing and gear. They have clinics and you can demo all the latest models. There are lots in New England. I think Bretton Woods and The Balsams Wilderness are both this month in NH.

If you want to do a little bit of everything and spend most of your time in the backcountry the Karhu Guide ski, Voile 3 pin cable binding, and Garmont Excursion boot package is a great all round set up. You can go out your backdoor and tour around (more slowly than lighter set ups)and ski most any downhill. The package was recently very reasonable(comparatively)at or something like that. When you get hooked just be prepared to want a heavier tele setup and lighter touring set up but if I had to get by with just one ski that would be it.

Anyway it is a great sport and I encourage you to try it out.

John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Re: backcountry/tele skiing on 03/03/2010 19:35:01 MST Print View

Hi Gerry,

Thanks for the response.

I think when I have time tomorrow I will start a thread in the Winter Forum so I don't hijak this thread with all my questions.

Thanks again, and I would appreciate it if you keep an eye open for my new thread tomorrow.


David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
gear stuff on 03/03/2010 22:27:11 MST Print View

I'll try to answer all the questions:

I've yet to use the vapor barrier socks in my tele boots much above freezing. At the rates things are going, I'll find out soon.

I have a pair of Patagonia French Roast pants that I added instep straps to, as well as some stretch gussets to the ankles to make them fit over my T2s.

I actually think that the gear options for extended off-trail touring are quite limited. So much of tele gear is meant for resort skiing (read: heavy as crap, complex, and easy to break), and AT gear (where all the inovation goes) is not so good for flat and rolling terrain.

For reference, my boots, skis, and bindings, come in at around 8 lbs a foot, and that's for fairly light gear (in the turning oriented world). Karhu is dead, but rumor has it that K2 picked up the Guide amd 10th Mtn patents and will be releasing versions this fall. I like simple Voile Mountaineer 3 pin bindings. 1 lb a pair, simple, and very reliable. I do find a pair of 15mm risers to be worth the weight.

Boots are the real area of lack. Excursions are the only light plastic still in production, and they don't fit skinny feet well, and are too heavy for the performance they provide. There ought to exist a two buckle, laterally rigid but soft fore and aft plastic boot with a thermo liner that weighs not much more than 2 lbs a boot. Unfortunately, the "real touring" market is very small. The local guys around here talk about "going on a tour" when they ride the lifts to skin in the slackcountry.

Edited by DaveC on 03/03/2010 22:36:34 MST.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
VBLs on 03/03/2010 23:17:08 MST Print View

As a winter backpacker/pulker and former Nordic patroller (10 years) & present Alpine patroller I can say that VBL socks are REQUIRED for keeping boot liners dry.

I use thin neoprene dive socks that I've seam sealed. Had 'em for years and tehy work very well. All you need under them is a pair of thin polypro sock liners, W/ a spare pair to change out each night while the 1st pair dries in your bag.

As for gloves, I prefer good GTX gloves with REMOVABLE thick pile or thinner fleece liners. I carry two spare sets of glove liners and a GTX OR mitten shell backup for extreme cold.

Don Selesky
(backslacker) - M
Re: VBLs on 03/04/2010 06:24:32 MST Print View

"As for gloves, I prefer good GTX gloves with REMOVABLE thick pile or thinner fleece liners. I carry two spare sets of glove liners and a GTX OR mitten shell backup for extreme cold."

Suggest you try the RBH Designs mitts with built-in VBL liners. I've used their lightest mitt during winter camping in the northeast, and have found them warm enough that I haven't felt the need for anything thicker. They're light, also. About the only downside is, because of the VBL liner, I can't use them above 32F.

John Brochu
(JohnnyBgood4) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
Re: VBLs on 03/04/2010 06:49:46 MST Print View

>>>As a winter backpacker/pulker and former Nordic patroller (10 years) & present Alpine patroller I can say that VBL socks are REQUIRED for keeping boot liners dry.<<<

They don't make any liners for ski boots out of materials that won't absorb water? For quite a long time now, liners that don't absorb water have been available for platic mountaineering boots.