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Backpacking in the snow
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Dan Magdoff
(highsierraguy) - F

Locale: Northern California
Backpacking in the snow on 09/06/2011 23:51:09 MDT Print View

Hey all
Hope everyone has had an awesome summer of backpacking. As the summer season winds down I want to really get myself geared up for some winter backpacking. Was hoping to get a few pointers. I feel very comfortable backpacking in the spring, summer and fall. But am unsure about the winter. However, I have a feeling that it is very similar to the other seasons, but with a few different things. I was wondering how you do a few things different in the snow, compared to backpacking in the summer. Obviously the clothing you bring is different. But where do you set up camp? Do you just pack down an area of snow and set up on top of that? Where do you build a fire? Is it necessary to have a four season tent, or would a three season tent work well?.....This is assuming with fair weather. Are there any tips or advice you can give to get me going on the right track?


Jeremy and Angela
(requiem) - F

Locale: Northern California
Some basics on 09/07/2011 01:46:22 MDT Print View

Hi Dan,

I think there should be plenty of information in existing threads that may give you good ideas. For some quick answers, I prefer a spot sheltered from wind but not directly under trees (the branches load up with snow). Stomp around to flatten it, and let it set up for a while before pitching the tent.

I cook with a stove and haven't had a fire in snow in close to 15 years. You may wish to double your sleeping pad from summer (an r-value around 5 or more should work). A three season tent should be fine as long as wind or heavy snowfall is not an issue. (I survived a pretty severe storm in the Donner Pass area in an REI Halfdome 2 tent, but I wouldn't want to do try it a second time. I also nearly froze my fingers shoveling snow around the tent to make sure the wind couldn't get under the rainfly.)


Charles Henry

Locale: Arizona and British Columbia
Re: Backpacking in the snow on 09/07/2011 11:28:19 MDT Print View

I Use a TT Moment in fair weather, down to 10 degrees. It's important to have a much warmer pad than summer or else your heat leaks right into the snow.

Some people PREFER sleeping on snow and I understand why, nice flatter ground.

Jim MacDiarmid
(jrmacd) - MLife
Re: Backpacking in the snow on 09/07/2011 11:38:27 MDT Print View

BPL'er Dave Chenault has a nice snow camping summary here.

Mike C! also has his useful winter gear list posted here

I don't know where you are in NorCal, but my first snow-camping experience was with the Sierra Club Bay Area chapter.

As Dave says in his recap, sweat is you enemy in winter. It was hard to get used to the idea of starting a hike out feeling cold wearing only softshell pants, my BPL hoody and a houdini in temperatures around freezing, but I was happy not to have to stop to de-layer after 15 minutes of snow-shoeing. And you need to stop and delayer if you are sweating.

My steepest learning curve inre winter camping was keeping my hands and feet dry and, consequently, warm. I wet-out multiple pairs of gloves my first two trips before figuring out that while actively snowshoeing or digging,etc, I often didn't need gloves at all and at most needed a thin baselayer type glove. The thin gloves also dry quickly, and you can bring several pairs to rotate for the weight of one pair of 300wt fleece ones that will take forever to dry out once wet. Waterproof gloves are nice but just like a a jacket, you get wet from the inside. I got a pair of MLD rain mitts to wear over my baselayer gloves when necessary. I also have a pair of BPL featherlite mitts with built in Vapor Barrier liners for really cold temps. I've found for stuff around camp that requires dexterity, like eating, I like a baselayer of something like the Mountain Hardwear Butter liners under a pair of my old pair of OR Index mitts with flip down thumbs and fingers.

I haven't experimented with much with Vapor Barriers except for my feet, and for those I find them indispensable. A pair of plastic grocery bags with duct tape reinforced toes and heels over a think liner sock and whatever sock/shoe combo you choose to wear over it makes a world of difference in having dry, warm feet at the end of the night. My last winter's footwear system was liner sock/VBL/lightweight merino hiking socks/Rocky goretex socks/trail runners. I've read good argument in favor of neoprene socks as well.

Down or synthetic booties with fresh dry socks are also really nice for around camp.

A mid style tent should be fine anyplace below tree-line. When I used a mid in the Sierra, we dug out a shallow trench and put the mid over that. Those with 4-season tents just stomped down a snow platform. Most people on my Sierra club trips brought 3 season tents and were okay, even with heavy snow (3"+ overnight) on the 2nd one) you just may have to wake up more often to shovel snow off the walls. Condensation will also be an issue in any single wall shelter. Snow caves are fun but a lot of work for only one night.

Proper ground insulation is another big thing. I stack two Ridgrests. One torso-length and another full length, so I have an R value of 5.2 under my top half and 2.6 under my legs. Other people need more or less R-value to feel comfortable. And you need a CCF to sit on as well. Sitting on snow is cold.

Also, this seems obvious, but stuff freezes overnight. Like wet clothes, shoes and water bottles. Buy an isulated cozy for your water bottle.

Edited by jrmacd on 09/07/2011 11:39:12 MDT.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: winter camping on 09/07/2011 11:56:51 MDT Print View

I had forgotten all about that post, thanks Jim.

I wouldn't change much of that advice, except perhaps to add that it depends on conditions and personal preference. Get out and experiment 4-6 miles from the car; close enough that you could bail to safety, but far enough so you won't be tempted to wimp out. Once your skills and confidence grow (usually a matter of 1-3 trips) go bigger.

John Adams
(scsjohn) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Nice Overview on 09/07/2011 13:27:44 MDT Print View


I found this article to be quite helpful when first thinking/learning about backpacking in the winter.

Good luck,


Dan Magdoff
(highsierraguy) - F

Locale: Northern California
great replies on 09/07/2011 15:54:07 MDT Print View

Thanks for all the replies, all of it was very helpful. I had a few more questions. Would it always be recommended to bring a synthetic bag vs a down bag since it would be likely the sleeping bag would get a little wet?
Considering I am a light sleeper, would a 20 degree bag and sleeping with several layers on be sufficient? I also have a 40 degree summer bag that could fit as an over bag for my 20 degree. Would that help?
I have a thermorest prolite full length as well as an old thermarest (not sure which type) 3/4 length, but about the same thickness as the prolite. Would that be sufficient?


Edited by highsierraguy on 09/07/2011 15:57:29 MDT.

Justin Reigle
(jreigle) - F

Locale: SF Bay area
Re: great replies on 09/07/2011 16:10:12 MDT Print View

I've always used down bags, even in winter. This largely depends on how adept you are at keeping it dry - I've not had any problems in that regard and should be very doable.

Your comfort in a 20 degree bag really depends on conditions where you plan to camp. This will be very difficult for anyone else to say with certainty. For myself (warm sleeper), I've slept comfortably enough in a 35 degree bag with several insulating layers down to the teens. Others might be miserable. Eating a big, rich meal before bed will help maintain body heat.

Stacking the 40 degree bag on your 20 might hurt more than it helps depending on whether or not it compresses the insulation in your 20 degree bag. IMO, you will get better temperature extension by layering up inside the bag rather than piling additional. stuff on top.

I think you will need more substantial ground insulation than a prolite with a 3/4 length thermarest on top. The proper pad is very important in winter. Prolite with a full length ridgerest/z-lite would be better. Having a foam pad is invaluable in that it serves as an emergency spare if your airmat fails, allows you to use the airmat in cooler temperatures, and gives you a nice dry and warmish seat for your butt in the snow.

Edited by jreigle on 09/07/2011 16:11:36 MDT.

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
We may be close on 09/07/2011 18:02:38 MDT Print View

Dan, there are a number of us from the Yahoo group, NorthCA Hiking that bp year round, most have multiple winter seasons under their belts. We're scattered all over, Anderson to Willits, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sac, Placerville, Plumas County. Might want to start late Feb. or March and stay close to the car, but sounds like this is just a transition for you. We camp on the snow, digging kitchens to sit around so we are all facing each other if a large group. If nice weather, a summer tent will do, two warm pads to sleep on. Early Spring is a good time as temps are warmer by then and the nights so much longer. You gotta try it to see what works for you. We have also done multiple nights out.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Backpacking in the snow on 09/07/2011 20:36:13 MDT Print View

That is why there are organized snow camping classes. Geez, I taught them myself for almost twenty years. They begin with the assumption that you are comfortable with summer backpacking, and then they assume that either you can cross-country ski a little or else snowshoe. You might be able to get away with just boot travel, but maybe not.


David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Backpacking in the snow" on 09/07/2011 21:50:22 MDT Print View

The timing of your post is interesting as just yesterday I started craving a snow trip. Even though it's in the upper 90's here right now.

Have a look at this by Mike Clelland:

You would not be going wrong buying all of Mike's book (except maybe the glacier one).

Last year I did three simple snow trips that would be suitable for a beginner (which I am). Once solo and twice with friends. You are welcome to come along this season.

Can't wait!

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
Classes? on 09/07/2011 22:09:50 MDT Print View

Man, how did I ever learn to bp and then snow camp? No classes here. School of Hard Knocks. Although Don from our group did a couple SC trips, he is ok though.:)

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: Backpacking in the snow on 09/07/2011 22:11:20 MDT Print View

I posted this a few years back in another forum, and it may be useful to you:

I'm sure I've said all this before in various posts, but it seem worth repeating, as I often see posts from folks looking for basic advice about getting started with winter/snow camping. First off, the best way to learn is to go with someone who knows what they are doing. While you may be so lucky as to have a friend who is an experienced winter camper, it's not likely, so the best way is to go on an organized trip, either with a professional guide service or an organization (Sierra club is one) that offers classes and trips designed for beginning snow campers. There is no susbstitute for experience, but you don't have to learn from your own mistakes, you can learn from folks who have made the mistakes already and learned from them.
Once you have learned the basics about gear and skills from somone who knows, then you can begin on your own. I think the best way to go about it is in very small steps. The simple rule is to start by staying close to the car or the house. If you live in snow country, then your first snow camping trip on your own hook should be in your backyard. If anything goes wrong, safety is close at hand. If you don't live in snow country, then you'll have to get to it, but you should stay close to the trailhead and the car. You want to be close enough so that you can get out safely no matter what - in the worst weather, in the middle of the night. That probably means you're going to be within a few hundred yards of the car that first night. Play it safe! Also, you should have plenty of experience in winter daytrips before you go on an overnight. I have suggested in the past that a great way to maek the transition from winter day trips to overnights is to go out for an all-day day trip, carrying everything you would take on an overnight, bu don't actually spend the night out. You'll find that it's quite differnt travelling with that big pack instead of a day pack, and at the end of the day you are back at the car, safe and sound, with much learning under your belt. Then you might try the same thing but finsih the day close to the car, find a site, set up camp, and spend the night. It seems a little silly to go out for a long day with all your gear just to camp so close to the car that you could have just left your stuff at the car, but it means that you have that easy out if anything goes wrong. And it's very easy for things to go wrong in the winter - the margins of safety are much, much smaller than in the summer. From there you should continue with small steps, making your trips longer and more adventurous as you gain experience.
When the snow covers the ground, the mountains and forests are transformed into another world. To have the privelege of enjoying that world takes work. You have to put in the time to gain the experience to enjoy it safely. You need to respect the power of the weather to destroy your life very quickly. But once you reach that point where you can travel safely in the snowy wilderness (which will take time and effort), there is nothing like it
You may notice I have not mentioned gear at all. That's becasue the gear is the easy part, and there is lots of good advice on all kinds of gear elsewhere in this forum and from other sources. Knowing how to use the gear, how to deal with the weather and the snow conditions, knowing when to go and when not to go, and when to turn back, that's the hard part, that's the part that takes time to learn.

David Lutz

Locale: Bay Area
"Backpacking in the snow" on 09/07/2011 22:41:21 MDT Print View

Well said Paul.

Snow camping = No bugs, no crowds, no heat, no dust.

And tremendously beautiful.

Dan Magdoff
(highsierraguy) - F

Locale: Northern California
sweet...thanks! on 09/08/2011 13:01:17 MDT Print View

Well thanks everyone for the helpful replies....I am pretty stoked to get out there this winter! SOunds like the main things I need to get are another sleeping pad and a good snow shovel.
If I am going to be hiking in snowshoes, is a pair of microspikes necessary for around camp and whatnot?
If I do want to build a fire, and suggestions or tips? It seems like I would have to find a spot where not alot of snow has accumulated. And the best spot to get dry wood is going to be the under sides of trees? Any other thoughtS?


Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
What David said... on 09/08/2011 20:03:52 MDT Print View

Definitely get "Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book". It's THE best little winter camping how-to book I've ever seen. and I own most of them worth owning.

As one who loves winter camping I hope you'll come to love it too. Someday when you're snowbound in your cozy tent in a raging snowstorm you'll see the beauty in even that display of Nature's fury.

Paul McLaughlin
(paul) - MLife
Re: sweet...thanks! on 09/08/2011 20:20:23 MDT Print View

I don't think you'll need the microspikes if you are using snowshoes. I've never need any traction devices around camp. As for fires, some folks actually bring fire pans - a round metal pan to build the fire in on top of the snow. I've never built a winter fire myself.

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
Not pc on 09/08/2011 21:27:34 MDT Print View

I've used green boughs before in NF land, you build your fire on top of them. The fire will burn thru them in an hour and start sinking into the snow. Best would be a pan, but then, if you are wearing expensive gear, best to just go to bed and read or with a group, sit around and chat. Find an area that has trees with dead limbs you can break off, only on public land not in Wilderness. I've snowmobiled into areas close to home and used it to gather wood in areas where Lodgepole pine grows. Most of the time now if going solo, I go to bed and read for a bit, no campfire needed. I collect vintage stoves, so that is my incentive these days to go out a little more and use them to cook and keep my hands warm in the morning when packing up.

Rod Lawlor
(Rod_Lawlor) - MLife

Locale: Australia
Re: sweet...thanks! on 09/08/2011 21:49:50 MDT Print View


I think it's worth asking why you wantp a fire. Is it for the experience, or for a bit of warmth? Often people new to snow camping assume that a campfire will keep them much warmer than going without. In fact I've never found this to be true, and sufficient DRY clothing, in conjunction with your sleep system is the most important thing. Once you have these, the heat from a fire is superfluous, and probably won't be felt through your clothes anyway! I'd be happy to start a fire if I NEEDED it, but in this situation I would plan on two big fires, with me in the middle. This would presume that for some reason everything had gone pair shaped and I was cold and wet with no sleep system. Possible, but unlikely.

If you want the experience, go right ahead if it's legal, but plan on doing quite a bit of work to make it happen. I prefer to kick back in an open air snow kitchen with a big mug of hot chocolate made on my stove and watch the sky.

Have fun out there. It's certainly my favorite time of the year to be out.

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
Shed some light on 09/09/2011 06:06:13 MDT Print View

Bring a bpers lantern for light and dress warm. That'l save your nice clothes from getting a ember hole in them and they'll smell better when you get home. But above all, get out in the snow, a totally new experience.