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Winter hiking FAQ?
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Matthew Marasco
(BabyMatty) - F

Locale: Western/Central PA, Adirondacks
Winter hiking FAQ? on 09/07/2010 13:34:46 MDT Print View

I am new to winter camping, and was wondering if anyone could direct me to a good FAQ or website that lays out the basics. I am a fairly seasoned three season camper, and I believe myself to be a fairly warm-blooded person.

One question I have is about my sleeping bag. I currently own two lightweight Lafuma down bags, a 30 deg and a 40 deg. Both are on the thin side for their ratings. If I brought both and used one inside the other, what could I expect to boost my comfort rating to?

Another question is about shelter. Would my Copper Spur 1 be adequate for light snow? I assume I would likely have to dig out a spot to pitch it on, so a shovel would probably be a necessity, right? What are some good ultralight shovels?

I would also have to gear up a bit in the clothing department. I don't currently own a puffy jacket. What pants are you guys wearing hiking in the winter? Would my snowboard shells suffice in the winter?

Most of my camping and hiking is done in western and central PA, in the Allegheny National Forest and the Allegheny Plateau.

Thanks guys and gals. Oh yea, I'm also new here. Great to see so many like-minded people in one place!

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Winter hiking FAQ? on 09/07/2010 14:13:13 MDT Print View

First of all, winter travel might take one of several forms. You might be on boots if the snow is very thin. You might be on showshoes if the snow is thick and the terrain is more difficult. You might be on cross country skis if the snow is thick and you have a trail.

Lots of the time, while you are moving you are generating a lot of body heat. Therefore, you don't want to wear anything really warm during travel hours. More likely you will be wearing some thin synthetic or wool with a shell. Then when you get to camp, you may have to shovel a lot, so you will be generating even more heat. When the sun goes down and you are standing around, that is when you pull out the warm woolies. I used to use Army issue class A worsted wool trousers. Down jackets are good. Get an extra warm cap.

In my opinion, an ultralight shovel isn't much good if you have to do any serious snow shovel work. There are some diggers with no handle. I use an aluminum 2-piece that is shaped somewhat like a grain scoop. The plastic Lifelink shovels are also popular.

If you have really deep snow, like six feet or more, you don't need to carry a tent at all. Instead, you count on the shovel to help you dig a snow cave into the side of a hill. It takes some work, but the advantage is that a properly constructed snow cave will develop an internal temperature right around freezing, assuming that there are one or two people inside. That tends to be much better than a tent out in the open.

If you go snow camping, I recommend that you go with a group.


eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
aluminum shovel on 09/07/2010 14:32:20 MDT Print View

if you're anywhere near an avalanche area don't use a plastic shovel ...

they barely dent the icy now ...


"AS SOON AS THE LA TRAVIATA AVALANCHE came to a rest, Bieler and the other seven skiers who'd been above it rushed downhill, dropping, one after another, off the five-foot fracture line. They were an instant rescue party of almost unprecedented size... (lead guide Reudi) Beglinger helped direct the effort and stayed in constant communication with the seven rescue helicopters he'd summoned by radio. Fanning out across the debris zone, rescuers scanned the snow with transceivers and probed for bodies.

Avalanche probes formed by screwing together ski poles were too short; only standard probes could reach the deepest victims. Plastic avalanche shovels, Alaskan John Seibert recalls, could barely cut into the compacted snow of the settled slide, and one of the tools even snapped. "There's a difference between the Cool Whip you dig into in a clinic and the cement of a real avalanche," he says. (Seibert says that in the future, he'll only carry a metal shovel; he's also investigating the Avalung, a breathing device that can help skiers survive longer under snow.)"

Edited by bearbreeder on 09/07/2010 14:35:13 MDT.

(RobertM2S) - M

Locale: Lake Tahoe
Winter snow camping on 09/07/2010 15:56:22 MDT Print View

Re: "If you go snow camping, I recommend that you go with a group." Yes, yes and yes. Also, take classes and read books. Mr. Beginner, who doesn’t know a cornice from iced corn, happily uses his brand new snow shovel to dig a hole into a snowy hillside “with a cute little curl way up there at the top.” He heard a suggestion to take only a snow shovel into the snowy woods and leave all tents at home. “Oh, good,” he says, “I can’t afford a winter tent, but I can afford a snow shovel.” Mr. Beginner doesn’t realize that the cornice is being held up by a continuous column of snow from ground to top. As he digs away the last little bit of that snow column, the cornice falls on him, the six tons of snow and ice making a huge “WHUMP!” The point is not that snow shelters aren’t fun and useful, they are both fun and useful, but rank beginners sometimes read this site, and if sent out into the snowy wilderness with only a shovel, not all of them are coming back alive.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Winter snow camping on 09/07/2010 16:22:46 MDT Print View

That's why I stated "a properly constructed snow cave."

That's why beginner snow camping classes are led by experienced individuals.


Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Winter Camping on 09/07/2010 17:45:12 MDT Print View

I started doing winter snowshoe trips into the heart of the Sierra two years ago. It is a wonderful and challenging experience. To answer a couple of questions:
1) I take almost the exact same setup clothes wise as I normally do for three season. This is with snowshoes. Generally I don't wear anything heavier than Capilene 3 except in the early morning. A wind shirt has also come in handy.
2) I would try your bag in bag to see if it works for you. (I supect you could get 20 or below with it I generally will take a sleeping bag liner to extend my Ul-20. I also will sleep in a bivy which I believe helps keep in the warmth and keep out the drafts. I have had that combo down below zero F.
3) Everything will be harder in the winter: water, eating and even putting your shoes on in the morning.
4) Your sleeping pad(s) will be critical. I will often take a Ridgerest Deluxe and Thermorest Prolite 3.
5) Make sure you have gloves with liners. It will allow you to dry the liners in the event they get wet.

It took me several trips to get a routine nailed down. Have fun.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Winter Camping on 09/07/2010 17:53:14 MDT Print View

I was leading a snow camping trip once about 25 years ago. When we got to the easy destination, I told the group that I would show them how to dig a snow cave. Nobody was interested. I told them that a snow cave might be a lot warmer than a tent. Nobody was interested. If course, I dug my snow cave and got all situated. In the evening, I dozed off, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, I was only partly in the sleeping bag (mild temperature inside the cave). Well, it was cold outside, and in the morning about half of the group was pretty frosty. I told them that next time they might want to try the snow cave.


K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
winter camping on 09/07/2010 18:07:48 MDT Print View

I have only been on 2 snowshoe/ backpacking trips. I went with a group both times. The first trip was not nearly as cold as the second one ( I think the last thermometer reading was around 5pm at 18 degrees, and dropping fast). Several in the group got cold after we set up for the night, so I would not recommend to go very light in the clothing and bag department. I am not sure how low in temps you are planning to go, but I also started with a Lafuma bag and I would not even rely on that in a fall trip in the Sierra. Obviously we all have different bodies and some run colder than others, so it's hard to say what would work for you. If I had Greg's gear on the trip we did together, I would have died, unless someone else covered me up some more. Maybe among your other research, look up some of the trip reports and see what people are wearing. Some of us wore 2 very lofty down Jackets on top of base layers....and one of us even wore 3 at camp ;)

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Winter hiking FAQ? on 09/07/2010 20:07:40 MDT Print View

Winter is really good fun, I love it and so will you! I am not familiar with the area you are going to, but take a look at some of my winter gearlists on my adventure page to see if the conditions match/similar to your area. It'll give you an idea of what works for me and can get you thinking.

It will obviously be a learning process to see what works for you...overnights close to the car are a great way to test new gear systems.

Based on posts above, I am assuming the Allegheny National Forest and the Allegheny Plateau have avy issues. If so, maybe best to steer clear until you are up to speed. No need to add the complexity of additional gear/knowledge used in avy areas when you are trying to work out what pants/bag/stove/basics are going to work for you. One step at a time.

I can't comment on the gear as I don't know the conditions you'll see. Up here, on typical flat hiking trail your tent would be fine, a shovel wouldn't be needed, and your snowboarding pants would work aswell. Tent platform: Just stomp the snow down with your feet and wait an hour or so for it to harden. Pitch tent on top.
That's how we roll up here :)

Beau Beveridge
(Roadtorque) - F
Winter camping site on 09/07/2010 22:16:12 MDT Print View

Here is a site I reference a lot for winter camping.

joe newton

Locale: Bergen, Norway
Re: Winter camping on 09/08/2010 02:13:36 MDT Print View

On your first winter camping trip go with someone who knows what they're doing. You'll learn so many crucial fundamentals and neat little tricks that will make the experience SAFE AND ENJOYABLE!

And knowledge is power so read up on the subject here on BPL and also try 'Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book - Travelling & Camping Skills for a Winter Environment'. A fantastic, enjoyable book.

Bruce Tolley

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Winter hiking camping on 09/08/2010 07:58:25 MDT Print View

There is a good chapter in Ryan Jordan's book about winter gear. Backpacker Magazine put together an OK book on snow camping. NOLs put out a better book on Winter Camping.

I second the idea voiced above about finding a group to go with. Local Sierra Club chapters often have snow camping sections. Various private mountain guide outfits often have (for fee) wilderness seminars that teach snow travel, avalanche awareness, setting up a winter camp, etc.

REI rents winter bags. You could test out your current sleepling kit in your backyard during the coldest night in December and then figure out how much colder it will get at your intended venue.

For winter puffy jackets, you need them most when cooking dinner and before you start moving in the morning. But you probably want to make the investment after you are sure snow camping is fun. Patagonia puts the Das Parka on sale every year for about 50% off on the Patagonia web site. Prolite Gear puts the Integral Design synthetic insulation on sale in January or February.

Think Snow!

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
THE winter camping book on 09/15/2010 23:09:30 MDT Print View

Buy a copy of "Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book" As a former Nordic Ski patroller and Army ROTC Cadet winter survival instructor I can say this is the best darn book I've seen on the subject.

Don't be fooled buy it's thin appearance. Mike Clelland's excellent drawings are jammed with info in the "a picture is worth a thousand words" style.

And the word "ski" in the title is only partly accurate. This book is 80% about winter camping in safety and comfort.

Edited by Danepacker on 11/27/2010 13:43:36 MST.

lavender lee
(hippocampus) - F
I need help on 10/04/2010 04:30:36 MDT Print View

I'm planning to have a winter hiking to Fansipan in Vietnam, but i don't have many experiences with going in such condition? Can you help?

Edited to remove commercial advertisement
Roger Caffin
Online Community Monitor
Backpacking Light

Edited by rcaffin on 10/04/2010 14:48:42 MDT.

Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
"Winter hiking FAQ?" on 10/04/2010 07:53:11 MDT Print View

+1 on Mike and Allen's book. Learned a ton from it.

Daniel Masek
(Dannoh) - M

Locale: NE Ohio
Winter Hiking Pa on 10/05/2010 16:51:28 MDT Print View

If you haven't already, you might want to check out . They run a lot of winter trips in Pa and usually some of the trips are geared toward winter beginners.

John Adams
(scsjohn) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Camping in Winter on 11/06/2010 14:34:58 MDT Print View

Here is a site that provides good information. Not lightweight but helpful for knowing things about backpacking in the winter.

Good Luck.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Winter... on 11/08/2010 20:07:34 MST Print View

Snow must be on my mind.... :)

This site from our friends to the north has a LOT of info (even if they spell lots of words with an extra 'u' like colour... ;) )

I gave an intro to snowshoeing workshop. About 80% of this doc is for any deep winter (day) travel, though...

Winter is a great time to be outside. Something so wonderful in those intense blue skies, deep pink sunsets and the sparkling snow. Enjoy!

Michael Meiser
(mmeiser) - F

Locale: Michigan
s24o / shakedown hikes on 11/08/2010 22:25:48 MST Print View

While the hike with others thing is cool not one person has mentioned how to gain experience on your own.

In the ramp up to your winter hike I highly recommend doing a lot of short quick overnight trips, aka. shakedown hikes or s24o (sub 24 hour) trips.

The key thing is to "fail quickly". Make careful notes of what you use, what works, what doesn't. I find it useful to write about it as if I'm writing to a mailing list or a friend. The process will help you quickly figure out what works and what doesn't and expose you to a good array of random situations.

BTW, your tent will work, but you might want to drip the inner completely and just take the shell. Second you may want to look into a bivy / bivouac. They're much more effective on open ground and in the snow. No ground cloth necessary. I'd say they add as much as 10 degrees to your bags. The cheapest bivy alternative if you don't have the cash to drop on the spot is a Frogg Togg Dri Ducks poncho. Those things have amazing breathability and UL weight and can be fashioned into a very quick and simple bivy. (Either improvised or with a little sewing skill.) Meanwhile the tent will keep any wind, snow or potentially even freezing rain off you.

Can't get into cloathing, cook and fire gear or any of that right now but your sleep gear is the most critical.

Edited by mmeiser on 11/08/2010 22:27:32 MST.

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Winter hiking FAQ? on 11/09/2010 09:01:05 MST Print View

First step: depending on your living situation, set up in your yard (or apartment porch, etc) and sleep out there a few times in cold weather to see if your two bags will work. If you have a weekend, you might even make a game out of spending it outside. Cook your meals outside, wear the layers you're thinking about using on your trips.

If you don't have an apartment porch/backyard, go to a local campground or someplace you can set up close to your car... you want an easy bail-out option if your gear fails you miserably. If you were able to try things out at home, campground or short (think a mile or less) in is a good next step.

Not so much digging of tent platforms as stomping. Stomp an area roughly the size of your tent while wearing your skis or snowshoes.

Experiment with water on those trial runs... ie, don't just run inside & get tap water when you need it. See what kinds of things you'll have to do to keep or get liquids. See if your stove set-up works reliably in sub-freezing temps.

Get a poofy jacket; error on the side of warmer than you think you'll need. I also like to bring down booties for winter trips.

On your first trips away from the campground, still experiment with 1-2 days. Bring a bit more clothing than you think you'll need for the first couple trips. Safer & easier to winnow out the extra with personal experience.

Your Copper Spur will be fine. I'd use the whole tent, saves you the fuss & weight of a bivy sack & ground sheet, & will make your experience a bit easier.

Wear thin layers during the day... like, one... & maybe a windshell. Experiment/gain comfort w/this during shorter day outings on showshoes/skis. When you're on the move you'll be plenty warm... & you don't want to overheat, b/c you'll end up sweaty & run into more temp regulation problems. It's best to run a little cool while on the move. At rest stops & in camp, though, you'll want to layer up.