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To snow camp, or not to snow camp

2:19 a.m. on November 1, 2010 (EDT)
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Hey all--my husband and I have been having a debate...I would like to try a three day snowshoe/backpack trip this winter since I have never tried something like this. I have done quite a bit of summer camping, but have only done day trips in the winter.

His advice to me is "don't!" He went in HS 35 years ago, and he just remembers being more wet and cold than adventuresome.

I have read around on the forums, and it seems that if one is prepared, the experience can be fun and rewarding.

So--the debate rages on...I was thinking of doing something really simple--fairly low on the shoulder of Mt. Rainier--not too far--I have a Eureka Timberline, with a full vestibule, a -5 down sleeping bag, etc...

Thots? BTW, I know that I am opening a can of worms...

8:14 a.m. on November 1, 2010 (EDT)
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If you are not familiar with winter camping I highly recommend taking a test run or two before you leap in. By that i mean , go car camping somewhere with the gear you would bring, camp in your backyard. Camp like 1 or 2 miles in on a trail so you can still bail easily if needed. After you do that, then you can go out for overnights or longer trips.

Winter camping is alot different than the milder other 3 seasons. Getting dry and staying dry, and staying warm are the biggest obstacles. If you get in over your head and are unprepared for the weather you can quickly find yourself nearing hypothermia, or sliding down a ravine wall to break a leg or worse.

Traction aids are needed depending on where your going, snowshoes, crampons etc.

You need to be prepared for the worst possible weather. Make sure you have a dry set of clothes for emergencies. Do not hike so hard/ wear too many layers while hiking that will cause you to sweat. sweat kills.

You need to make sure your stove will work in winter temps, canister stoves for instance are hard to use under cold temps. You need to carry extra fuel because you will probably be melting snow for water.

As long as you are prepared it will be an enjoyable experience you are correct, but go out even the slightest bit unprepared and you will be miserable or get injured or worse.

If you have more specific questions feel free to ask away.

1:48 p.m. on November 1, 2010 (EDT)
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I teach winter camping, and start the course this way -

WINTER CAMPING IS FUN!!!

Camping in the snow is just about the greatest fun you can have in the outdoors (there is something else, but this is a family site). If you do a little preparation and learn a few techniques and skills beyond 3-season camping, you can stay dry and warm (staying dry is the first step toward staying warm).

Take a look at my avatar over there on the left - I am trekking through a LOT of snow there. And I was plenty warm (it was about -25F when that photo was taken). A very large fraction of my camping over the past 40 years has been in snow (and the rest of my family, too - Barb and I lead snowshoe trips several times a winter).

Just because your husband had a problem when he went camping while he was an adolescent male in full hormonal flow (and like all adolescent males believed he was Immortal, Invulnerable, and Omniscient - that means "knows it all"), is no reason to think you would have to be miserable, too. As a Scoutmaster, I get to observe that all the time (I, of course, was never like that when I was a teenager - I was perfect {;=>D). Don't let his comments discourage you from getting out there and having fun (who knows? when he sees how much fun you are having, maybe he will try it again and find out how much fun it is).

As TheRambler says, the best way to get started is the same in winter as in summer - start with small steps, like a car camping trip. You mention Rainier. You can go car camping there in winter. The idea is that you will have the car there to warm up when you make those inevitable early mistakes in trying out various things to see what works and what doesn't. You can also contact the Seattle Mountaineers (sections all over the PNW) and take one of their classes. They publish a series of books that will be helpful in learning. Plus there are several excellent guide services that conduct classes from beginner to expert level.

As you probably know from your previous camping, keeping warm for walking around means layering your clothes. Base layer (long johns), insulating layer (fleece, soft shells, filled jackets as appropriate to the temperature and activity), and the outer waterproof/windproof layer. You can spend lots of money, but you can also use ski clothing that people have donated to Goodwill (it is amazing how people donate barely used excellent gear to Goodwill and Salvation Army).

Your tent works (the Boy Scout troop I was Scoutmaster of used the Timberline as our standard tent summer and winter). The sleeping bag is ok for a starter (if it is down, you need to take some precautions to be careful to not get it wet - Rainier can have very wet snow). I assume in your "etc" you have a sleeping pad. It should be foam filled (a Thermarest, for example).

I do think Rambler overstates the problems, but he is right that if you don't learn the basics and make a point of staying dry and warm, you can get into big trouble. But if you start with small steps, you will learn the techniques.

9:43 p.m. on November 1, 2010 (EDT)
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To snow camp!

You've already got lots of advice and encouragement above, but I wanted to add a bit of the latter: Go for it! Winter is fun, and quieter.

I'd try car camping the first time or two to start also, but just build from there. Bring extra layers, note what did and didn't work well for you, bring extra food and hot drinks, like chocolate.

Have fun.

1:29 a.m. on November 2, 2010 (EDT)
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I agree with Bill, the best memories I have from 40 years camping were from snow trips.

I think the best way to approach winter camping is doing a couple of trips with experienced people top guide you.  They'll help you avoid mistakes like wearing Levis (something your hubby probably did back in the day). Try a Sierra Club snow 101 type event.  If going to the mountains it isn't a bad idea to also learn about snow safety.  Supplement these mentored experiences will text primers.

Ed

2:05 a.m. on November 2, 2010 (EDT)
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I've only done a couple of trips-one with an experienced snow camper and the others on my own. If you can't take a class, which I recommend, then do as much reading as possible (Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book is a good start-most of it is about camping, not skiing), then find an experienced camper to go with.

http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Allen-and-Mikes-Really-Cool-Backcountry-Ski-Book/Allen-OBannon/e/9780762745852

Bill has laid out all the basics. It is a matter of taking the right gear, choosing good weather and not going too far from the trailhead for your first few trips. In my avatar, I am on the road to Glacier Point in Yosemite in bright sunny weather. I've also been snowed on there on two different trips, so being prepared for that is important, but nothing that you can't do with some preparation, the right gear and the right attitude.

It sounds like you have some of the right gear. If you don't have one buy a snow shovel, not one of those plastic ones either, a metal shovel like the Voile Mini or the Black Diamond Deploy-the smaller one. They are very handy for digging a platform for your tent, shoveling out a cooking area, digging out your tent or car if it snows, carving out a place to sit, etc.

Make sure you aren't somewhere where there might be avalanche danger and check the weather before going. You can do that on the NOAA website-

Example-

http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?site=hnx&smap=1&textField1=37.817083333333&textField2=-119.55375

Don't forget things like chains, map and compass, the usual stuff.

8:06 a.m. on November 2, 2010 (EDT)
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I would not underestimate the necessity for knowing how to "fly on instruments" -- that is, navigate by compass/map/gps.

And keep in mind: cold weather affects batteries on electronics. I know some people who were beginners who got nailed with two feet of fresh snow in the Sierra and had to use their GPS unit to navigate a white-out back to their car, which was less than two miles from the trailhead.

 

2:37 p.m. on November 2, 2010 (EDT)
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I would not underestimate the necessity for knowing how to "fly on instruments" -- that is, navigate by compass/map/gps.

And keep in mind: cold weather affects batteries on electronics. I know some people who were beginners who got nailed with two feet of fresh snow in the Sierra and had to use their GPS unit to navigate a white-out back to their car, which was less than two miles from the trailhead.

 

I would add an altimeter to your snow orienting instruments.  Your position on terrain can be more difficult to determine on snow, because terrain features are partially obscured, and your line of travel often will vary from the marked trails.  Knowing you altitude reduces this confusion.

Feel free to take electronic orienteering gadgets, but you should also have an old fashioned compass and altimeter as back ups should the batteries or electronics act up.

Ed

11:17 p.m. on November 2, 2010 (EDT)
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Second Gear, I'm in the process of what several here have suggested.  I have done a little "winter" camping ... a couple times "by accident" because it happened to snow while I was out.  And I went on one "car camping" trip in the winter to Sequoia NP.  I totally agree, that's the way to get used to how things work (or not), and you have an "escape hatch" if needed.

I haven't quite gotten myself to try backpacking in the winter, but hope to this winter.  Since (for me anyway) probably 75-80% of the battle is dealing with the cold.  The snow is the remaining ~20%.

So I have an idea it would be a good idea to go camping in cold weather but before there's much/any snow, if possible.  That way we get used to dealing with things like cuddling up with our water bladder (and boots/liners) in the sleeping bag to keep them from freezing.  And keeping our hands from becoming icicles.  And keeping the inevitable sweat from hiking from killing us when we cool off.  (I'm aware of the layering technique ... but, hey, some of us sweat when exercising no matter how little we're wearing)...

Once we're used to that, then the snow is just an added challenge (or bonus, depending on our perspective :)).  Actually right now I"m looking forward to snow as I want to do some snowshoeing :).

But it's the "being out in the cold" part that gives me pause.

Anyway, just more support for your idea, and another vote for the approach already suggested here in this thread.

Also, another thing I just thought of, depending where you are, is that you could take a "hybrid" approach to get started.  If you're in an area that has backcountry facilities that operate in the winter ... for example in the White Mountains of NH, you could snowshoe (with an overnight pack) in to a shelter that operates in the winter.  The last I knew, for example, Carter Notch Hut had facilities for winter backpackers.  There may be others.  There at least you have an indoor place to spend the night, but it's still quite rustic.  If that goes well, then you could take your tent the next time :).

3:20 a.m. on November 3, 2010 (EDT)
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For me, camping in cold weather without snow is pointless. I know, I've done it. With snow, you have the beauty and quiet, fewer campers (I've rarely seen any on my trips, just a few day hikers), an endless supply of water and good photo ops.  Just being cold for the heck of it pales in comparison. Also, you stay drier in snow. You wouldn't think so, but you do. Near freezing, you can get rain or snow and that is a bad combination.  In Yosemite, you can get both and that's pretty miserable.

4:02 p.m. on November 3, 2010 (EDT)
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Camping in the cold without snow is pointless?  That pretty much eliminates visiting much of the western deserts for a significant part of the year.  And the coastal mountain ranges of Southern California, Sierra Foothills, California’s White Mountains, and many other venues.  Some of these are most scenic during their cold season.  It also eliminates visiting the High Sierras for most of the year; likewise for the northern and southern latitudes.  But to each their own, I guess.

Dealing with some of the issues Bill (BHeiser) describes:

Dealing with cold.

The best way to be warm around camp is start with dry clothing, especially next to your skin, and having adequate insulation.  There are three sources of insulation from the cold: your shelter, your garments, and your sleeping bag. 

You don’t need to bring an artic wardrobe with you to be comfortable.  The best way to get warm in the snow is to make it your shelter!  Air temperatures fluctuate significantly between day and nighttime, while the snow pack temperature remains more constant.  Ignoring all other factors, this means the snow temperature would hover close to the average of the day and night temperatures.  The interior of a cave or igloo is usually measurably warmer than the night time air.  Warm bodies further heats the interior.  Additionally the earth radiates heat into the snow pack.  The deeper you cave, the warmer the cave will get as the ground temperature exerts influence on the deeper layers of the pack.  Lastly getting into a cave gets you away from the heat wicking properties of the wind.  The combined effects of these features will often make a cave feel warm enough to be comfortable lounging in a fleece top and long johns, while a the nighttime air outside is in the single digits.  An added bonus: caves are a heck of a lot quieter than a tent flapping in the breeze.

Many people think you need massive, expensive, insulating garments to keep warm in the cold.  But a well thought out layering systems need not be either massive or expensive, unless you are hanging out in the open in single digit temperatures, or below.  For example I am comfortable at 30 F wearing a windshell top and bottom, thick fleece top, heavy long johns top and bottom, heavy cycling tights, a balaclava and gloves. The secret to my warmth is the wind shell – stop the wind and you dramatically reduce the heat lost through convection.  Add a pair of down bib pants, a decent down jacket, a wool scarf, and  mittens, and I am good down to near zero F.  And this is standing outside of a tent.  Now perhaps I tolerate cold better than others, but the point is surprisingly little clothing can make you comfortable when used in a well designed system.

Ok, so suppose you find you are still cold, wearing all of your layers.  Get into your sleeping bag!  I believe there are a few pieces of equipment where cost should never take priority over function.  You bag is one of these items.  I recommend getting a bag rated significantly below the conditions you anticipate for three reasons: 1) Unexpected cold snaps will ruin your sleep, and perhaps start a cascade of circumstances that lead to a serious crisis; 2) Extended trips will degrade the warm of your bag.  Even the best cared for bag will accumulate moisture over the duration of a trip, resulting in reduced performance.  A higher rated bag will allow latitude for lost performance without resulting in a chilled sleep; 3)  You can never sleep too warm in the cold! 

One garment item worth describing separately is your footwear.  Some people use plastic tech boots or leather double boots, or a soft boot like Sorrels or mukluks; some use vapor barrier systems, and some augment their day time foot ware, switching to down booties when camp side.  All have their place and trade offs.  For example you may need to use crampons, in which case your boots need to be compatible with the crampons utilized.  Or you may be traveling on skis.  Most foot ware choices should include gaiters if you anticipate snow.  Extra socks are critical; Those utilizing vapor barrier liners should also carry spares in case of a tear.    

Another garment item worth describing separately is hand wear.  Bill S goes into great detail addressing this consideration;  I add whatever you choose to use, make sure the insulation layer can be removed or turned inside out so you can dry it out.

Lastly a major consideration to keeping warm is a meal regimen high in calories that is easy to digest.  You can’t stay warm if there is no wood in your furnace!

Dealing with moisture.

Another significant talent to dealing with the cold and snow addresses keeping things dry.  In a way snow camping is a chess game with nature.  You need to think three moves ahead, jump on opportunities as they present themselves, and mount a good defense to prevent Her from getting the upper hand. Wet equipment equates to getting chilled.  If you are exerting yourself, strip down!  I often ski wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.  If that gets chilly I don a wind shell. Other layers are added only if I am not sweating.  In any case I avoid wearing my down layers whenever possible, so sweat doesn’t get a chance to permeate these garments.  Often the snow pack in the Sierras is deep, thus necessitates digging deep trenches to assess conditions.  You may spend thirty minutes trenching down fifteen feet.  To keep from getting drenched in sweat we dig in relays, trading turns at the shovel every thirty seconds.  I prefer to wear minimal clothing during this activity, too, to avoid getting garments wet.

Should things get wet, use every opportunity to get them dry.  For instance hang damp clothing on the exterior of your pack, allowing the sun and wind to dry items.  It doesn’t need to be warm, even ice evaporates (actually the term is sublimate) below freezing under most circumstances.  When at rest, unpack your sleeping bag, place it in a large black trash bag, and lay the bag, on a foam pad, or suspended from a tree.  Compress the air out of the trash bag every few minutes.  The solar energy will evaporate the moisture, while compressing the trash bag will replace the resulting moist air with dry air.  You can dry your bag out in a similar manner even when under way, toting it in the trash bag on the outside of your pack, with your fellow hikers squeezing each others bags every so often.  Other more conventional drying methods are clothes lines, using space blankets to contrive solar oven-like dryers, wood fires, etc.  Remember to wring out excess moisture, or knock off accumulated ice before attempting to dry items out.  Some like to wear damp items in their sleeping bag to dry them; I try to avoid this option, since it results in accelerating the rate your bag’s insulating layer get leaden with moisture. 

Lastly keep dry items dry by packing them in plastic bags before stuffing them into your pack.     

Ed

7:06 p.m. on November 3, 2010 (EDT)
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I love winter camping, sometimes I go up to the mountains just hoping it might snow, or at least sleet, or maybe even ice over.

Sometimes it does snow, but it never fails to be a lot of fun.

I envy those of you who can go out skiing or snow shoeing close to home.

At least it doesn't get so cold here that you can't go wade fishing in the winter, to me that is the best time to have the stream to yourself, with the exception of the occasional hard core kayaker which I gladly watch paddle by with a friendly wave. No words have to be exchanged, you both know that winter is special, snow or no snow.

Some snow this winter would be nice though.

 

 

12:50 a.m. on November 4, 2010 (EDT)
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Just being cold for the heck of it ...

@Tom, is this really how my explanation came across?  I better check my wording to see where I went wrong.  I was trying to suggest that camping in the cold before it's also snowy would be a way to "ease into" full fledged winter camping.  That's what I meant by "So I have an idea it would be a good idea to go camping in cold weather but before there's much/any snow, if possible.  That way we get used to dealing with things like... keep from freezing..."

Anyway thanks for the feedback.

@Ed, thanks for the detailed suggestions.  These are all ideas I'm taking into consideration as I plan some winter excursions this year. 

1:26 a.m. on November 4, 2010 (EDT)
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Nah, that's just me. :)

I hate being cold, I wear a jacket even in summer in LA in the evening and my friends can't believe I go snow camping, so for me, being cold without the fun of snow on the ground, just isn't my cup of tea.

Doesn't mean I don't understand your reasoning or that there is something wrong with it at all. Many moons ago I used to live in Ohio where we had cold weather and none of the fun that should go with it, so maybe that's where I got that from.

On the other hand, why not go snow car camping? You get the experience of snow with the safety of the car and a campground that is accessible without the worry of being lost in the woods and all that goes with it in winter.

10:37 p.m. on November 5, 2010 (EDT)
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OK, cool :).  You know what, I don't like cold weather either.  In fact it was instrumental in my move clear across the country a dozen years ago.  But now I'm just trying to find way to push myself to go recreate regardless of the weather ... at least now I can forget about the cold and snow when I get home :).

And, yeah, car camping as an intro to winter camping is part of my strategy :).

10:39 p.m. on November 5, 2010 (EDT)
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So, Second Gear, what did you decide?  Did we influence you (or your husband?) :)

2:19 a.m. on November 6, 2010 (EDT)
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Bill, Since you are in SF, you should head up to Yosemite. That's where I've done most of my winter camping, except for one short trip to Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs. My photo was taken at Yosemite. Any questions about it, feel free to email me for details.

Yosemite is the perfect place for beginner snow campers-easy to get to, safe place to leave the car (Badger Pass Ski Area parking lot), easy access down Glacier Point Road, plenty of places to camp, you can ski or snowshoe down the road a mile or two, then find a place to camp off the road and you'd think you're in the middle of nowhere. Once the day snowshoers and skiers go home, you've pretty much got the place to yourself. The weather is usually warm during the day and at night,  between  cold and very cold, but not very very cold.

As I explained to Bill, my winter temperature rating system is this:

cold is 32F and 1 very = 16F.

:)

8:26 p.m. on November 6, 2010 (EDT)
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Yeah, Yosemite is a good idea.  I like the idea of being there when it's not crowded crowded as usual.

Based on your rating system, one "very" is about as cold as I can envision myself pushing it.  The coldest I've experienced (while camping) was in the mid teens on the south rim/GC trip I mentioned in another thread.   On those nights, sleeping in my Marmot Couloir (rated at 0F), and wearing thin + thick socks, hat, thermal underwear, and IIRC another layer of tops/bottoms ... I "just" stayed warm enough.

I kept warm around camp by dressing in numerous layers, and having a campfire, even in the morning (which was a first for me)... and using it frequently to warm my fingers.

I was able to keep my water liquid by storing a full 7 gal jug - though the spout did freeze repeatedly.  But at least I didn't have to deal with freezing a water filter, small water bottles, and a water bladder, like I would backpacking.  I'm still trying to figure out how I'd deal with all that (there'd hardly be room left for me in my sleeping bag :).

And I've never had a campfire while backpacking, only while campground or Jeep road camping.  Given the "use an existing ring" rule, how does one deal with that in the winter when the rings are hidden by snow?  And I guess even finding down wood could be a challenge.  And do you just dig thru 10 feet of snow to find the ground so the fire doesn't melt the snow and fall in?  Remembering that GC trip, I can't really imagine myself sitting in 15 degree weather making breakfast without a fire.

This must all sound pretty dumb :(

Hmm maybe I'm looking for reasons to NOT be out in the cold? :D

8:56 p.m. on November 6, 2010 (EDT)
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I teach winter camping, and start the course this way -

WINTER CAMPING IS FUN!!!

OGBO, do you teach adult winter camping courses, or is this just for the Scouts?

1:38 a.m. on November 7, 2010 (EST)
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No campfire for me in Yosemite, although the rangers told me I could have one in certain areas in winter. I think you have to bring your own wood though, which would mean dragging a sled.

It's not that bad really. I have a big parka and insulated pants, big gloves, balaclava, so once I have all that on, not that cold. My bag is rated only to +23F and I was fine with my bag and my parka over it. I also have an overbag, but left it at home on my last trip there.  I just used my BD Winter Bivy as I recall. it is nothing more than a very light cover, but it helps a bit.

It got down to about +15 someone told me. I'm a cold sleeper, but one thing to do is eat right before bed and keep something like an energy bar handy. If you wake up cold, eat half of it and pull your beanie or balaclava over your head. I even sleep with light gloves and down booties with big Patagonia expedition weight socks.

I would be leery of a fire getting a spark on my parka or pants.  If I was up North wearing wool and one of Kevin's (ECW) cotton anoraks, a fire would be nice.

12:55 p.m. on November 7, 2010 (EST)
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I teach winter camping, and start the course this way -

WINTER CAMPING IS FUN!!!

OGBO, do you teach adult winter camping courses, or is this just for the Scouts?

The course is for adult scout leaders. I sometimes go with the Troop for which I used to be Scoutmaster and give the youth (and adults) some hints on how to be more comfortable.

1:15 p.m. on November 7, 2010 (EST)
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... The coldest I've experienced (while camping) was in the mid teens on the south rim/GC trip I mentioned in another thread.   On those nights, sleeping in my Marmot Couloir (rated at 0F), and wearing thin + thick socks, hat, thermal underwear, and IIRC another layer of tops/bottoms ... I "just" stayed warm enough.

I kept warm around camp by dressing in numerous layers, and having a campfire, even in the morning (which was a first for me)... ..

And I've never had a campfire while backpacking, only while campground or Jeep road camping.  Given the "use an existing ring" rule, how does one deal with that in the winter when the rings are hidden by snow?  And I guess even finding down wood could be a challenge.  And do you just dig thru 10 feet of snow to find the ground so the fire doesn't melt the snow and fall in? ...

This must all sound pretty dumb :(

Hmm maybe I'm looking for reasons to NOT be out in the cold? :D

No, not dumb. You just haven't been mentored properly.

The coldest Barb and I ever were was in Cambridge when we lived in Boston. It was our first winter there, having moved from California. We had decided to go to the MIT Coop and had taken the MTA to what we thought was the closest station. Turned out we were on the opposite side of the campus. So we started walking. There was no snow on the ground, but the wind off the Charles was biting through my thin dress pants and windbreaker over a dress shirt (hey, university professors wore ties in those days), and Barb was in a dress with nylons. By the time we got across the campus, we were really getting chilled. So we ducked into a phone booth to get out of the wind (remember phone booths? Really dating myself here). After rewarming slightly, we quickly headed across the street and into the Coop. Our legs felt like coming out of a massive dose of Novocaine as they warmed - really painful!

Anyway, on the fire in snow - in most places, you need to take your wood with you, since cutting the trees or breaking off branches is forbidden and downed wood is under the snow (both are off limits by LNT guidelines anyway). The full description is too long, but briefly, build a platform of large logs and build the fire on top of that platform. Eventually, the platform will burn, but usually you get your meal done before that happens. Scatter the ashes widely (per LNT guidelines). Come spring, you would not notice the traces of the fire. In a summer campground, it is fairly easy to suss out where the fire rings are under the snow, so you can just place your platform and build the fire right over a ring.

Personally, I don't use a fire in winter (or summer, for that matter). Stoves are much more convenient, and I carry enough layers to stay warm. If you know what to look for, it is easy to get the clothing in the Big Box stores (WalMart and Target have lots of poly with plenty of insulation) and in Goodwill, Salvation Army, and similar "recycled clothing" stores at a pretty reasonable price (sometimes dirt cheap, and almost always barely used).

5:58 p.m. on November 7, 2010 (EST)
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@ Bheiser--I as I figured would happen I would get some really good beta info. Thanks to all for the insights.  My hubby and I have been insanely busy, so he hasn't had time to read the posts.

I like the idea of starting with a car camp approach for an easy out if necessary. I really do have all of the gear necessary per above posts to manage the snow just fine.

What I will probably try is going to Rainier. Cougar Camp Ground is open and I have snowshoed around in that area before, so both are familiar.  I invited my college age daughter to go on a 3 day-er over Christmas break. She nearly crawled through the phone at such a possibility. I know she is also interested in expanding her experience as well. She's a geology major with the hopes to get her doctorate in vulcanology. She will be spending lots and lots of time in the field, so this would be a great *starter* course for her :)

So, Paradise already has a pretty good bed of snow on the ground, so it won't be long before Cougar is socked in for the winter.

Bottom line, because I know my husband...if she and I have a really great experience, HE will be intrigued. I know he just doesn't want to be wet and cold.

Now I begin to strategize... :)

7:21 p.m. on November 7, 2010 (EST)
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SG, My son wanted to be a vulcanologist for years. You see, we celebrated his first birthday by setting off St Helens, so we had to do a lot of volcano trips while he was growing up - one summer tour was hiking Lassen, camp at Shasta, stop at the lava tubes just north of Shasta, camp at Crater Lake, ski on Hood, camp at Rainier, and so no. This was while St Helens was just starting to run their lottery to let 100 people a day hike to the rim and watch it smolder and feel it shake and rumble. Over the years papa and mama saw the PBS shows where the famous French couple were caught in a lahar, the famous Italian vulcanologist got buried in lava, a group of vulcanologists got gassed in South America. so we breathed a sigh of relief when, as he headed off to college, he announced he had decided against vulcanology. And what did he want to do? Atmospheric science! Great! What part of atmospheric science? The old folks fainted when he said "hurricanes and tornadoes, all sorts of severe weather!" One of the worst days came when he excitedly called home and announced he had had his checkout in one of the hurricane chaser planes.

Good luck with the vulcanology!

3:23 p.m. on November 9, 2010 (EST)
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Snow camping is great!Have done snow camping for years with more trips than i can remember.Good and proper gear are very important but so is the proper food.You can have the best tent,bag and clothing but if you dont fuel the furnace you will get cold.Alot of staying safe in the winter is also common sense.Please be carefull and maybe go camping with a group or club that has experiance your first few times.Enjoy

11:34 a.m. on November 18, 2010 (EST)
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Yes, from my exerience with winter camping it can be fun. Building an igloo is fun even if you don't plan to stay in it.

My winter camp experience was in January to May in Yosemite National Park. I had just spent two year living in Alaska and came back to the "Lower 48" in December 1979. After spending the Holidays with my folks in Arkansas and buying a pair of snowshoes, crampons, an ice axe, a -30 degree EMS down sleeping bag, a new 4 season tent and all the wool clothes, I made up my mind to return to Yosemite. I had been there in September 1977 for a few weeks and said I would be back.

I headed out on the bus from Arkansas to Merced and took the Yosemite Transportation shuttle up to Yosemite Valley. But when I was at the shuttle terminal, the girl working the ticket counter did'nt want to sell me a ticket,saying Yosemite had been just hit by a huge storm and was buried in snow. I had to assure her that I was a able bodied backpacker and was prepared for whatever winter had in store.

When I arrived in the valley, for sure it was a big winter! There was four feet of new snow. And in the Sierra, snow is called Sierra Cement, because it is the warm moist air from the Pacific Ocean just 300 miles away to the west. It falls heavily and clumps togther and freezes overnight into solid walk on top snow. Especially in January!

In Merced I had gone grocery shopping for a months worth of food and mailed it to myself in Yosemite Valley. It arrived a day after I did and I stayed in Camp Four/Sunnyside for a few days getting my bearing on what I wanted to do first. I decided after looking over the maps and talking to the BCO rangers that I wanted to see the rim trail.

So I packed up a couple weeks worth of food and my gear and took the Badger Pass ski shuttle and was dropped off at the Wiwona Tunnel on the east side at the overlook. Tourists there enjoying the view thought I was crazy when I told them I was planning to sleep in the snow and winter camp for the next two weeks around the rims of the valley.

I soon found the south rim trail and headed up. The trail was buried under lots of snow and I had to use the crampons and ice axe to climb the steep switchbacks. Then I put on my new snowshoes and learned for the first time howto walk on them. I had practiced a bit in the valley, but walking in meadows was nothing like walking on slippery steep and tree covered trails.

The rim trail was for the most part harder to walk on than other trails I had been on. It followed the edge most of the way and in places it was all I could do to keep from sliding down the slopes. My first day I walked about 3 miles and camped near some knife edge fins of granite. It was here I met another backpacker, Tad Cook. He was a local from Mariposa and spent 90% of the year backpacking the Sierra Nevada Mountains around Yosemite. He was a climber,hiker and loved the outdoors more than anything else. He had recently spent 20 years in the Air Force and saved all his pay. He now was hellbent on seeing all the backcountry the rest of his life.

In the morning when we were taking down our camp, he had laid his sleeping bag (in its stuff sack) on top of my tent poles as I had laid them on the ground. I did not see it and when I picked up the poles to collapse them, his bag rolled off and down the slope towards the rim. He said something as I looked up seeing it tumble down the hill. It went about 100 feet before bouncing over the edge. Tad quickly scrambled down the slope and soon also disappeared over the edge. In a bit he reamerged and came back up to the trail. He asked me if I had a rope, which I did not. So we tied and buckled all our straps and belts together and he went back down to the edge. His bag he said had fallen about 20 feet into the branches of a tree and he went down to get it. When he returned he said he was only able to climb down with the straps to about 5 feet of his sleeping bag. So he had climbed into the tree's branches and got his bag. He had been gone for about an hour because he had a hard time reaching back up to the strapline.

That day we continued on and made it to Bridaveil Creek upstream from the falls below. Tad and I climbed our way down and stood near the icy edge of the falls, getting a view not many others may had seen. After spending part of the day down there we headed back and camped at the creek above. That night another snow storm came in and in the morning we were covered by a fresh 3 feet of powder.

That day after digging out and breaking camp we found the Glacier Point Road and followed it onto Glacier Point. The road in comparison to the trail was by far a lot easier to follow,which is how we found it stumbling thru the trees trying to stay on the trail we came to the road. At first we didn't know what it was, maybe a long meadow. We decided to stay in this meadow which seemed to be going the same way we were. It didn't dawn on us that it was a road till we walked about 2 miles and found a sign saying Glacier Point 3 miles Ahead. Later on another hike I followed it from Badger Pass to Glacier Point, a 9 mile, two day snowshoe hike with a couple fellows from England.

At Glacier Point we decided to cut off the whole rim trail idea and hike back to the valley. We found the Four Mile Trail and soon were making our way down to civiliaztion. The view was spectactular from the point and Half Dome, and Vernal and Nevada Falls were something to see in the heart of winter.

Guess I rambled on about winter camping! But I had a great time, post holing thru deep snow, chopping ice in high creeks and lakes  for a half hour to get to water, learning to melt snow and not having enough water in the bottom of my hot pan and scorching the water making it taste burnt no matter what I put in it. There's nothing like the taste of burnt Tang!

But after Yosemite the only winter camping I have done is in the bottom of the Grand Canyon where winter temps are very nice comapred to the rims.

I hope you do try it, it can be a real learning experience!

10:42 p.m. on November 19, 2010 (EST)
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Three inspiring winter camping moments stand out for me.

One was an evening stroll along the Sierra Crest above Mono Pass (the Mono Pass above Tom’s Place).  The air was still and reeking of fresh snow.  The moon full, the temperature hovering just below zero degrees.  The snow pack was sparking like a mountain of diamonds, the valleys below to the east were illuminated, The White Mountains massif stood glowing on the eastern horizon, and the Sierra range stretched west to the horizon.  It was so quiet you could hear your companions breathing five yards away, or their steps squeaking in the snow from fifty feet.  The whiskey tasted especially sweet that evening.

Another moment was tooling around the Giant Forest area after a fresh dusting.  The big trees were particularly majestic in this setting, quite beyond description, but we did have to watch for snow dropping in large masses from the canopy above.

Lastly, while inspiring, I’d just assume not relive this event.  We were staging to climb Denali via the West Rib Route, via the West Ridge Col.  A large sérac formation busted loose from one of the ridges high above our second camp on the Kahiltna Glacier @ 10K.  The volume of ice, rock and snow let loose was stupendous!  There were two climbing parties present at the time, totaling 14 people; everyone scrambled to for safety.  I remember having a very sickening feeling as I sprinted off beyond the perimeter of the camp area we surveyed for crevasses, wondering if I was going to be buried alive, killed falling into a crevasse, or fall into a crevasse then get buried alive!  My heart was pumping so hard it felt like it was going to blow out my ear drums.  The slide stopped short of the camp, but the wind blast damaged half of our tents, ruining the climb even before we set foot on the mountain.  We spent the next few days slogging our stuff back to the base camp, and skiing the general vicinity until someone could fly us back out.

I still snow camp; nothing beats the beauty and the experience.

Ed

8:01 a.m. on November 20, 2010 (EST)
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On another site, I posted about whether I was crazy for wanting to camp out in the snow. Someone told me, not at all, it's just a sign of maturity as an outdoorsman wanting to experience all four seasons.

It's stories like these that inspire me to want to do it.

3:31 p.m. on November 20, 2010 (EST)
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I must admit, I backed off from this thread for a while because I started feeling discouraged.  I think it was the bit The OGBO explained, about needing to "carry my own firewood" that was the tipping point.  I'm starting to question whether winter backpacking is really for me.  But I didn't/don't want to say that.

The other thing is, I spent a ton of effort (and $$$) this summer to reduce my pack weight.  My summertime pack weight used to be around 65 lbs with camera gear.  I chopped that by 20 lbs.  Now what I'm hearing is I need "2 or 3 pairs of gloves, a couple hats, big heavy bulky clothes of every imaginable use, and even a sled to carry my firewood so I don't sit in the cold & dark for 4 hours after sunset each day, etc, etc.  So much for lightening my load! Is this (adding the weight all back again) really what I want to do?

I think I'll start off with some day trips, and maybe even car camping, see how that goes.  I know from experience that on any day trip I end up wishing I didn't have to hike back out at the end of the day.  I usually wish I had my tent so I could camp in some beautiful wilderness spot.  So maybe that'll motivate me to deal with all the weight again, the frozen water bottles, frozen fingers,  and all the many other issues I'm hearing with winter backpacking.

Meanwhile, with the current weather pattern, it looks like I better make a decision on some boots pretty soon so I can get out there for a day trip with my snowshoes :).

 

 

 

8:42 p.m. on November 20, 2010 (EST)
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This site has a lot of good winter camping tips and the links to Shug Emery's videos, which are pretty entertaining and informative.

http://www.wintercampers.com/2009/02/08/entertaining-winter-camping-videos-by-shug/

11:13 p.m. on November 20, 2010 (EST)
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I must admit, I backed off from this thread for a while because I started feeling discouraged. 

BH:

I see you already camp in the Sierras in the summer. If you are camping upper Tuolumne, and are prepared for unseasonable cold, you are carrying almost everything you need to stay warm.  (I have seen it snow and stick around a day or two in August camping in Virginia Canyon.)   I add to my three season Sierra kit two down sweaters, down pants, a scarf, a pair of camp gloves, a pair of ski gloves – or two extra pairs if doing technical climbing - an alpaca (wool) scarf, and ski goggles.  I am not a UL freak so I can’t tell you the added weight, but these items collectively weigh about four pounds.  I am good to 0 degrees F with this kit.  What does add weight is the four season tent, footwear (be it plastic tech boots, telemark double boots, etc. and sometimes boots for long dry approaches), snow shoes or skis, a shovel, an ice axe and crampons, (and rope and ice gear if you do that stuff).

As for a fire, do without!  (I love a fire too, but few venues allow it where I go.)  Instead I take a super bright led camp lamp; the new lamps are plenty bright for evening cooking and camp side chats.  If you want warmth, wear it, or dig a cave.  That is not to say downed wood is impossible to locate; the resourceful camper can locate it, even mid winter.  Unless you know from experience where this is feasible, however, don’t count on a fire.

I have seen folk hauling sleds in the BC (e.g. Tioga Pass Road, Giant Forest), but most of venues I travel often include traverses too steep to make a sled worth the hassle.  Nevertheless if I was traveling a relatively gentle route, I would gladly drag a sled.

As for frozen water bottles, that and other issues are avoided learning cold weather camp craft.  Find friends that can school you, or take an introductory tour or two from a guide service.  And by all means, learn about snow safety. 

In any case do some day trips in the snow.  You'll get hooked.  Its like dating women; you deal with many issues, and it costs money, but the experience compels you to come back for more.

Ed

11:59 p.m. on November 21, 2010 (EST)
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Ed, I may get there yet ... but I'm not sure yet.

When I backpacked (coincidentally out of Tuolomne) in August, I only had enough clothing to keep me warm into the upper 30's (it actually got that cold on my first night out).  But that was borderline.  Any colder and I'd have felt it.  But I did have my Marmot Helium (15F) bag, though, so if I'd gotten stuck somewhere I could have warmed up in there.  Minimizing clothing was one of the ways I reduced the pack weight by 20 lbs.

I'll certainly be doing some day trips, and will see how I feel ... if I can stay warm with just an extra 4lbs like you described, I'm good with that.

-Bill

5:14 a.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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I anticipated the warmth capabilities of your summer kit.  My summer High Sierra setup keeps me warm down to a slightly cooler temperature.  As I said you need only a few additioanl items to get you into the fourth season.  Your pack will weigh more, however, especially if you account for the other equipment I mentioned.  But it is worth it!

Ed 

10:01 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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For those who are still thinking about whether or not it's for me...GOOOO. 

A ton of great information has been shared here. Thanks everyone.

Don't force others to go, and don't go alone.

When planning your food for the winter camp, keep all meals simple. "Cook" only food that requires hot water. Whether or not you eat out of an instant food container there should  be little or no dish washing in the cold and snow.  High energy snacks and foods are extrememly important.  A high energy snack just before bed will help keep you warm during the night.

Hydration can be overlooked in cold temps because of the fear that cold liquids will cool down your body temp.  Any temperature of  liquid is good to maintain proper body temps for an active person.  A well hydrated person can function fully at the same time as warm up or cool down as needed.

My experience comes from over 20 years of guiding back country skiers in the rocky mountains and staying in tents, snowcaves, and cabins.

11:52 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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Keep your water bottle in your sleeping bag at night with you to keep it from freezing, stick it in a sock to keep it from feeling cold next to your body. Sleep in the least amount of clothing as possible, naked preferably. Clothing tends to soak up persperation and make you colder. I used a old Nalgene bottle for peeing in during the night, its much more heat efficent than having to get out of you bag and back in afterwards. Don't try to hold it in all night, urine in the body make your body keep it warm, reducing heat in other parts. Keep your mouth and nose on the outside of the bags hood, condensation can reduce the bag efficency.

I camped only one place where snow was all around in winter and that was Yosemite in 1980, after that I spent 20 years hiking in the Grand Canyon during the winter months, where inner canyon daytime temps were much warmer than up on the rims. And camping transient style in Flagstaff during weekend day labor work.

I use a propane/butane stove in summer and a Svea 123 white gas stove in winter, tho usually I substitute regular auto gasoline for its fuel. Be careful using either fuel for such a stove. Spilling it on your hands can cause frostbite more rapidly as it evaporates the natural oils from your skin. And spilling on nylon gear like tent and sleeping bag fabric can sometimes melt or weaken the material. In Yosemite I often had to use the fuel to help me light damp wood to make it burn. Once a used a small roll of toilet paper doused in gasoline to get wood in my camp on top of El Capitan to dry out and burn.

Building an igloo can be fun, but practice at home in the winter before trying it in the field. It can take about 3 hours or more to build a strong shelter and you'll get wet in the process, which makes you colder afterwards if you don't have a change of clothing.

Even obtaining water can be a chore. I once chopped thru 2 feet of ice in Yosemite Creek above Yosemite Falls for 30 minutes only to find barely 2 inches of water. Other times I found that melting snow or ice for water can be very time consuming. And you need to have at least enough water to cover the bottom of the pan or cookpot before adding snow or it can scorch and give the water and anything added a burnt taste. And it takes a lot of snow to make one quart of melted out water.

Never eat snow in winter as it lowers your internal body temperture. 

Experiment with cooking and water amounts at home, to reduce needed cooking and water needs in the field. Like say for Mac and Cheese, my favorite outdoor food, directions say boil 6 cups of water, add and cook pasta  for 20 minutes or until tender, then drain off excess water. In the feild I use about 2 cups at the most, bring to a boil, add pasta, return to a boil, remove from heat, insulate pot and cover ( usually in my extra Tshirt and on my sleeping pad, with something like a bandana to not melt the pad) . Let sit about 10 minutes, stir in cheese powder, cover and let sit another few minutes. I don't use the butter and milk outdoors. If any extra water remains I add crackers,instant rice, instant potatoes or something to absorb the water and eat.

If you boots get wet because the water proffness comes off they will freeze during the night. Either wrap them in a large stuff sack and put them in your bag to keep them warm or have something else to wear on your feet the next day. I once had to wear my down booties with my snowshoes cause I did not know this and my boots froze solid during the night and were useless the next day till I dried them out near my fire. Down booties are hard to walk in with snowshoes strapped on them!

Once on Lake Tenaya in Yosemite's high country, I woke one morning and took a walk out on the ice before the sun had rose. But it rose before I made it back to camp and the ice had melted  out 5 feet from shore. I had toleap as far as I could, luckily I am 6' 7" tall and have long legs. It was in Springtime around March and an hour later the ice was 15 feet from shore, had I stay out longer it would have been a deep wade back to my camp. The ice incidently acted like a lense, out in the middle where the lake was about 200 feet deep thru the ice it looked like less than 20 feet. 

Yosemite was my first real experience with winter camping, especially in deep snow. I had the best time of my life! It taught me a lot about myself and what cold weather camping had to offer. But after that January to May 1980 hike, I decided I would stick to spring, summer and fall hiking, except my winter hikes in the bottom of the Grand Canyon with inner canyon temps around 50-60, down here around Flagstaff's fairly dry winters and down around Tucson where winters are very much like summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

12:31 p.m. on November 23, 2010 (EST)
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One of the best rewards for the end of your snow camp is to have a full change of dry clothing at the end trailhead  or vehicle if you have to drive home some distance. Same applies if you are going to build a snow cave.  You'll want a full change of clothing to wear in camp after you are finished building your shelter.

1:53 p.m. on November 23, 2010 (EST)
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Snow camping is some of the best camping, period. Making fresh tracks, the quietude, the brightness of it all: three fine reasons to backpack in winter...

Also, it improves you backcountry skills. Making reliable fire in snowy conditions is an often difficult thing. As is keeping dry for an extended period of time. Gear is more specialized, and heavier; it's more taxing on the body, and so, a better "workout" for a given length of time.

2:30 a.m. on December 1, 2010 (EST)
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My guess is that 35 years ago in HS, he had insufficient equipment, wore lots of cotton, wore sneakers, the trip was being led by people who weren't REALLY campers but like to family camp occasionally, and was pretty much what he said: a miserable, cold, wet experience. 

Like you said, if you are prepared properly, I think you guys could rock out for a week no problem and he'd be hooked!

I'm getting my new AlpinLite Terraform III tarp this week, and can't wait for the snow to try it and my new JRB quilt out in the snow near Tahoe, hopefully Desolation Wilderness. Excited!!

Dug

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