what would you do - 1?

3:58 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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Suppose you are a summer camper and its December and you just gotta go camping. You have pretty nice summer gear, your sleeping bag is down, marmot and rated at 35 and you’ve found that its pretty cozy at 40 degrees in your long underwear when sleeping on a ¾ inch thick full length thermarester. You’re sort of skinny and the bag has plenty of room for you move around in it without being claustrophobic, and since it’s a marmot bag it does have a built in hood but maybe you’ve never really felt the need to use it. You’re summer tent has a screen door and a zip door up front and a vent at the rear with a cover that you stake out but no zippered cover. Lets say its a double walled free standing tent made of conventional materials. So you don’t have anyone to go with you on this short notice but the weather report for the mountains near you is a low of 32 degrees and you know a really nice spot on a lake about 2 miles in where you often camp in the summer. You call the ranger station and the road is open and there are no wood fire bans this time of year. You reason that if you take warm clothes, that down jacket that’s never been out of the closet, a cotton hoody, an extra pair of wool socks and a hatchet, that you’ll make it. You go to Trailspace and look at the ten essentials list and you’re pretty confident that you have everything you need, some cord to tie your food in a tree and plenty of matches, a pocket knife those fire starter things and the foam camp seat that yer mom sent you at Christmas last year. You grab some hot dogs, water, the fixins for your favorite hot drink, your summer compressed gas stove, flashlight, a pan and your other normal summer gear and at the last minute you throw in a bottle of Gaitor aid. You drive up to the lake looking forward to a fun time knowing that nobody else will be up there this time of year. You get there in plenty of time to walk the 2 miles to your favorite camping spot 2 miles away on the other side of the lake. You pitch you tent the required distance from the lake, you’re careful to not set it under any dead fall or tall trees that could drop a limb on you, and you’re kinds protected from the rear atleast from wind, though its open towards the lake. You pitch the tent on a level spot so the door can open towards the lake for the morning view. And since theres no snow you can use your regular stakes to secure it. You collect some wood, get a fire started and sit there watching the stars come out, which happens earlier in the winter. When you put the fire out water from the lake you notice a cool breeze coming up and you decide to put the down jacket on over your hoody and crawl into your bag. You figure it might already be near freezing. You wake up in the night shivering in your long underwear with a cold wind coming in the door from the lake and snow just starting to hit you in the face. What do you do?

4:23 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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You didn't check the precip forecast just the probable temps and it is already colder than what that said. Could be just cold from clear sky heat radiation and frost from lake. But why chance it since you don't know.

You have summer gear.

You are cold already.

You are solo.

Its snowing.

Time to bail - you probably have time to make it to your car before it becomes a winter fixture.

Since all you have is down and cotton, use your tent as a rain/snow cover if needed on the way out. Its probably less than an hour to hot coffee.

And you've already had a good trip, why chance a bad trip.


Family had a traditional Father's day backpacking spot at 10,800 in Southern Sierra. Forecast had storm front moving in on Monday - plenty of time away. Cool days and nights. Still lots of snow in berms an hour before camp and solid on trail from camp onward.

Arrive at lakes and while putting up tent, find that the rain fly is still on the workshop bench at home. Ah well, no big deal we have poncho's to keep any overnight condensations at bay and just planned to leave early Sunday to get down before the weather...most of it was to pass well far north anyway.

Next day son and I hike up to 12,000 pass and catch a bit of hard frost falling. By the time we glissade down a chute and hot foot it to the tent, it is snowing lightly but still warm. Meanwhile wife has stitched the 4 ponchos together with parachute cord thru grommets and had secured them to the tent stakes. We all crawled into the tent and take a nap. Wife wakes me around 5PM saying we have a problem. Snow was about 3 inches deep and wet and within last 15 minutes started a heavy covering with fluffy conglomerates the size of a quarter dropping straight down. You could hear it hitting and shuffling in the branches of the near by pines. Absolutely still air. One of those unplanned awesome moments in the mountains.

If we had had our tent fly, we would have hunkered down and waited for it to blow over perhaps the next day. It was obviously the weather forecasted -- but early. Since we were not prepared (this is the first time I had left behind a rain fly inadvertently in 15 years of back packing) we hurriedly packed up. I had carried that heavy cover for hundreds of miles and only used it a handful of times. In the few minutes it took to get stuff together, everything was soaked by the now very heavy snow fall - no wind. Also most of the trail was gone in about 6 inches of accumulated snow. Its not that we really needed it but the kids were 8 and 10. It was almost knee deep for our daughter.

By the time we got a mile below camp and all the way to the car at 9PM it was mostly a down pour and cold. Hopped in the car and headed the 5 hour drive home. Although wet, cold and tired the kids only whined the last mile or so because it was going to be too late to get a pizza.

Crawled into bed exhausted and awoke to the news of a significant snow fall from a 'freak' storm that had gathered speed with a jet stream pushing it way south -- had showed up two days early in force. They were now evacuating hikers where we were near with more than 4' of snow over night. High winds expected that night.

If I had the rain fly we would have been in line queuing up for a ride on a helicopter.

Go figure.

4:36 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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Edit: OK, I forgot the "what you do first in a survival situation," which is: establish warmth. So: go out and start gathering firewood and restart your fire. The exertion from this will warm you up, so you gather as huge a pile as you can, assuming you'll need enough to burn all night.

5:00 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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You don't have a problem yet, you can still spend a comfortable night there. Several of many options:

1/ Build a fire and use your tent fly staked out as a lean-to a short distance from the fire but with the back to the prevailing wind. If you are too close, the lean-to will create a back-draft and keep you choking on smoke, if too far away you won't have the radiant heat reflecting from the back of the lean-to onto you.

2/ Easier. Close the front door most of the way and the back vent a bit. You need ventilation or you will have severe condensation problems (also possible CO1 or CO2 issues). Now get out that inefficient gas stove and turn it on low. In minutes the tent will be cozy warm. Be sure you have ventilation.Be sure you have ventilation.Be sure you have ventilation. Heat some rocks over the stove - four or five - just until they are almost too hot to touch. Turn off the stove, place the rocks, wrapped in articles of clothing in your sleeping bag, and enjoy a nice sleep.

5:03 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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P.S. - Most three season tents will handle a one-inch snow-load. And most snow would be blowing off in that wind.

8:46 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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Get out the PLB and.....Oh, no that is not the responsible thing to do.

Considering the "camper" has made several mistakes in planning and gear set up, camp set up, and now has to make do with items at hand, this is what I would do If it were me.

I'm cold and need heat - Get out of the sleeping bag, remove that cotton hoodie that is damp with sweat from hiking & gathering wood. My boots / shoes are probably off at this point, so go ahead and change into those extra socks (10 essentials) just for good measure. I don't know if I have a cap or not but I'm finding something to insulate my head with. Get out of the tent and run around it a few times (with a light) to get the blood pumping and warm me up. Hopefully I was smart enough to stash some firewood and tinder out of the weather, but in any event I'm gonna start a fire even if I have to build a platform fire and put my stove under it long enough to get it going. I'm gonna get some water on the stove as well to prepare a hot drink even if it's Gatorade. In the meantime, I am going to use some of my duct tape (10 essentials) to seal that rear vent with no zipper. Maybe run around some more.

Fuel up- I'm gonna feed my body with carbs and fat from the extra food I brought (10 essentials) and make sure my body has enough fuel to work.

Consider leaving- The hike in was only two miles, but it's dark now & I don't want to leave my gear behind, so I would have to pack up in poor conditions, and I have too much pride to give up this easy anyway considering the situation is not that bad really.

Assess my campsite choice- I have pitched the tent close to the water it seems, lakes tend to be very windy and ambient temps run cooler near water, not to mention the wind chill factor, which is maybe the biggest problem at this point, considering the accompanying precipitation. The tent is free standing and depending on the density of the nearby trees it may be easy to pick up and move to a spot better sheltered from the wind. Even if I have to take the tent down I'm gonna weigh my options as far as getting some more shelter from the wind if possible. (11th essential, common sense)

Redo sleeping arrangement- After doing what I can to keep out the wind / snow, I'm gonna take stock of all items with me and come up with a better / warmer sleeping arrangement somehow. I'm assuming I have a backpack, so I'm gonna put the foot of my sleeping bag inside the backpack, I'm also looking for other items to put over the bag without compressing it, or inside the bag. I want to put a few items in the bag with me to keep them warm as well, water bottle (hopefully with hot water in it at this point), water filter if I brought one, flashlight & batteries, fuel canister, etc.

Tough it out!

Okay so not being a real snow and cold weather guy, what did I mess up? I also have no experience with down bags so maybe there's something I else i should have done with the bag.

9:21 p.m. on December 10, 2009 (EST)
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I'm only going to say at this point that this was actually almost exactly a trip that I made. I think Trouthunter is on the right track with "redo sleeping arrangement and assess my campsite choice". I did change somethings - more on that later after some non-senior peops have a chance, and I slept pretty warm with very little fuss. This Socratic method involves getting people to think, not instruction and I too am always open to learning what others would do.

I guess the question of rain gear comes in. I assumed the person had cotton clothes and a down jacket with an average shell and maybe good long underwear. I for one would not do anything to get that coat wet. Of course my Canadian friends would light a dead tree for warmth or throw another log into their stove and shut the door.

Jim S

12:45 p.m. on December 11, 2009 (EST)
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The difference is the location and physical condition

20 miles in or 2 miles in.

Strong and healthy or a disabling injury.

One can be an easy answer. The other is survival -- a bit more complex.

Toughing out any situation with little knowledge (or acceptance) of your real risk tends to keep SAR busy. But then there are the ones who garner additional experience from the time they spend improvising solutions to problems they have unintentionally created.

Those stories are sometimes told around future campfires tainted with the aura of being 'lucky'.

All that being said, given that you are going to tough it out, I think Trouthunter is on the right path, and a back stop reflective fire closer to sleeping and living conditions, sheltered higher up the hill away from settling cold air, and more insulation under my butt, would be a big help. And there is the thought by the on-the-edge ultralighters, that if you are not sleeping in everything you have brought along you are probably packing too much in -- or toast.

You really don't have to sleep when you are a few degrees off from what you were prepared for. You can get warmer by squeeze contraction exercise in a sleeping bag. Been a few times, after I got bored stomping around the camp to warm up, I put on the pack and kept warm hustling down the trail toward the next spot with the expectation of catching a nap during the warmer daytime.

If I were in the mountains of Colorado at that time of the season that unprepared in iffy weather and that close to a warm car...I wouldn't be :)

9:07 p.m. on December 11, 2009 (EST)
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Well I was hoping for some more beginer input but there sure are some good ideas in all of these posts. As in "what would you do #2" the first thing you do is zip the door and turn on the light and analyse exactly where you are, what you have, whether the S*** might hit the fan and what the options are, and do it in a calm slow methodical manner BEFORE doing anything else. The story of all those elk hunters trapped by big snow in Arizona is an eye opener. I always hiked or skied in from snow parks in the California Sierra and it was extremely rare that the road wasn't plowed out regardless of the weather so as soon as I made it to the truck, found the keys and got it started, the adventure was pretty much over. I guess if I was in a place where I didn't expect the road to be plowed after a big dump, it would have a big impact on my normal decision to figure how to ride it out in comfort.

I don't think our hypothetical camper had a big enough tool to build a real bonfire unless there was a lot of downed wood, and since he was in a groovey campsite by a lake I think we have to assume that any real wood would be pretty hard to find after dark in large enough quantities to justify getting wet collecting it. I would kill to keep that down jacket dry.

Also since he was camping alone with no help in case of an injury, unless he thought he wouldn't get out till Spring, trying to hike 2 miles along a lake shore in blowing snow and cold probably wouldn't be a real good idea. If he didn't make it and had to repitch camp in a lesser spot he might have been better off staying put till sunrise, then rethiking it.

Moving the tent might be a good idea since we said he was familiar with the area. I have grabbed my tent with everything in it and moved it 100 feet and restakes it in about 2 minutes, so a better location might be a good idea if he didn't get wet moving the tent.

I'm not sure about putting the sleeping bag bottom in his pack, people carry such tiny packs these days and we said he had his summer gear, that it would probably compress the down and maybe be a toss up...

As I said, this was really pretty much a description of a Spring hike I took into the Sierras on snowshoes and I had to cross a stream. I had an WM Iroquois bag, a jacket similar to a TNF Nuptse and my bibler tent. When it dropped to 28 degrees I closed up the tent, I had my balaclava on anyway, put on my down jacket and pulled up the hood and tied it as closed as I could, and tied a piece of cord loosely around the sleeping bag just above my knees. You can also tuck the extra bag under you, anything to reduce the air space inside it, but a loose cord preserves the maximum down loft and still reduces the air space. I used the foam chair thingy and my sleeping pad to get the most insulation under me and had a drink of water since the gaiter aid was empty, but later I peed in the gater aid bottle so I would waste the minimum amount of precious heat doing that. I closed up the hood on my mummy bag as far as it would and did the mummy thing breathing through the small hole. I did some muscle contraction exercises for a while to generate some heat and dozed off. I was a bit cool when I awoke but then so what? Freezing to death, being hypothermic, and being a bit uncomfortable are widely separated on the scale of "being cold". I have bivied at minus 40 and compared to that it was pretty comfortable.

Anyway the thing is there is always something you can do to be warmer with what you have, like tucking your long underwear shirt and pants carefully into each other and then into each alternating layer to build up some extra insulation around your waist, adding a spare pair of socks, deciding whether to put any extra stuff over your torso either in or above the bag depending and digging further into your bag. My wife is cold in a bed with an electric blanket because she never learned how to keep warm by bringing the blanket up under her to make the space she sleeps in smaller and thus warmer. People are careless thoughtless sleepers because our modern homes are so hot we never learned this art. Often when I get up in the night to go potty, I come back to bed and she is curled in a fetus position, blanket turned up to 6 and two inches of her back uncovered. I pull the blanket over her and tuck it under her. When I look at the Cabelas catalog with the ten pound -20 rectangular sleeping bags for hunters I can just hear them saying "I wanna be comfortable, I'm not sleeping in no mummy bag, AND I'm gonna get me a hot tent."

Maybe I've just put myself in too many survival situations and learned the hard way, but it surprises me how little survival instinct people have, of course its a modern world we live in and we weren't taught to sleep warm by our grand daddy.


10:01 p.m. on December 11, 2009 (EST)
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Jim...so you are saying in snowfall at around 20 - 30 degrees F the snow is gonna be wet, or will melt on the down jacket?

Um..I don't have much experience with down yet, mostly wool, fleece, poly-pro, and synthetic fills. So a shell would be required to keep the down jacket dry under those conditions?


11:19 p.m. on December 11, 2009 (EST)
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Near freezing is the most dangerous temperature. It could have been snowing on him at 34 degrees and thats really really bad. But yes you are right as the temps drop you worry less about getting wet, however rain shells are in my opinion very critical near freezing and he didn't have one I guess or he would have been warmer and maybe risking a "run for it" might have been more justified. I've been soaking wet in a down jacket that had a shell that was supposed to be "water reppelant" but enough heat came through it to melt the snow on my shoulders. I always reccomend jackets with completely sealed shells built in, it saves the weight of optional shells. My marmott 700 down winter coat has a seam taped goretex shell and thinsulite around the wasit for wearing a harness, high pockets so they don't interfere with a harness, a big thick down hood, snow skirt, bottom tie, and hand warmer pockets and I've been very warm and dry in it at minus 5 in a 50 mph wind and it weighs 39 ounces, of course its been discontinued...

but again yes - rain shells are critical to winter camping down to zero anyway, they keep you warmer, they keep you dryer if it warms up, they block the wind etc. I ski in long underwear with my packlite pants and jacket with a fleece jacket and all have matching pit zips. A lot of people like wool and if you are experienced with it then go for it. There are many paths to follow that work and many more that don't. You need your own system. Even my Canadian "fire camping friends" mostly have wood stoves INSIDE the tent and don't sleep in the open by a fire. Snow tends to cool the fire unless its a bon fire and the kid didn't have an axe or chain saw. Also if you had a tarp by a fire the wind would blow snow on you and the fire would melt it, maybe creating a survival situation.

However there are many paths, but you need the experience to KNOW that yours will work for you. I don't use any wool at all except now I like marino socks to wear near home (mountainous snow country) , but frankly I haven't taken them camping or skiing yet. I have always worn polyester socks in my ski boots. I've heard many people complain about the agony of putting on frozen boots yet I have never had a problem - put boot on, foot warms up, no cold. Maybe its the wool socks? You have to experiment, different body types and combinations work different. Goretex has never failed me, some swear at it. You should take too much and different types of gear and try it out in the field and learn whats right for you. If I bought a new piece of gear I still took the old one until the new one proved itself.


6:39 a.m. on December 12, 2009 (EST)
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This basicly happened to us 2 weeks ago. the weather forcast said warm w/o wind. Took my summer beach tent. Picked a spot without any shelter. Sometime during the night the wind picked up. We wokeup very cold. I told her to get dressed. We hiked the 2 miles back to the car. Stayed warm. Then had a wonderful day flying kites and cooking on the beach. #1 rule is to stay warm. Never let pride get in the way.

6:56 a.m. on December 12, 2009 (EST)
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I understand that in optimum conditions goose down probably has the greatest loft and insulation value per ounce. I've never used down in either clothes or sleeping bag; because forty years ago I saw what a sleeping bag looks like after a canoeist makes a mistake in some rapids. I knew I could wring out my Polarguard bag and use it an hour later (summer) but my friend with the down bag who wrapped his canoe, for a moment, around a rock, didn't have a bag to sleep in for the next four nights. Had that been winter...

I have been quite comfortable sleeping in a small tent for several months in Eastern Canada, finally moving into my log cabin in December. I used a 30 degree Polarguard bag, two thick wool blankets, and a tiny kerosene lamp, and generally had a warm night's sleep. Even winter camping in the mountains, I used the same well-designed tent and double bags on top of three feet of snow.

IMO, calm and common sense will usually allow a hiker to enjoy an outing in almost any weather. It doesn't take experience to make the right decisions, or expert advice, just a few synapses firing properly.

Unless I was missing something, your scenario didn't actually present danger or even discomfort to the hiker, unless he/she panicked. As you noted, it is the opportunity to overcome adversity that makes hikes memorable. It's not the idyllic balmy days by the lake that we remember and joke about years later, it's the storms. : )

1:58 p.m. on December 12, 2009 (EST)
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oveermy waders

Thank you - I also didn't find the senario to be life threatening nor worth major panic, jus a few smple adjustments.

If I was canoe camping I'd take a synthetic bag unless my down was secured, however - its not easy to canoe in the winter on frozen lakes and stuff. Down has its place, but it takes more skill to use it properly on anything but an overnight or weekend trip. Suddenly you have to get some synapses firing and learn things like pressing out the warm damp air the instant that you get of it and how to dry it in a tent in the sun etc. Bill will tell you the rules for boy scouts using down and leaders as well. Without 50 nights experience winter camping with down, it may not be a good idea in case the S*** hits the fan. For the experienced, down may be the only reasonable option going into a really intense winter or climbing situation.

Jim S

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