Camping Above Treeline. Advice?

12:06 a.m. on December 9, 2009 (EST)
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I will be headed to the White Mountains this winter. I intend on camping below treeline, but I am considering spending an evening above, weather willing.

I have a general idea of how to secure the tent (freestanding) in different conditions, what should I look for in a campsite?

11:47 a.m. on December 9, 2009 (EST)
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Mainly as sheltered as possible and as flat as possible. The Whites get a fair amount of snow, so you can level a platform (take a shovel, preferably one of the backcountry ski/avalanche shovels) and you can pile up a windwall. You can judge the prevailing wind direction from the appearance of the snow, so you can get into the lee of slopes (except - make sure you have taken an avalanche awareness course - the lee side is where "wind slab" develops, which can break loose - big trouble!). Anchoring the tent is easy enough - use the "deadman" technique. This is well described on the Princeton University Outing Club website. Basically, you attach the tent guy lines to something you bury a foot or so into the snow - tent stakes laid cross-wise, sticks, a "snow parachute" (available at REI and other outdoor shops), or even plastic bags that you fill with snow.

Big thing about camping in winter above treeline is the avalanche danger. As I already said, at least take an avalanche awareness course, and preferably Avy 1 and Avy 2 level courses. Below treeline is safer, since the trees tend to act as anchors for the snow. Stay away from "avalanche traps" (you will learn about these in the courses).

Oh, wait! I assumed you were talking about the White Mountains on the Calif-Nevada border. You might be talking about the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the White Mountains of Arizona, or ... Well, actually, the same comments apply. They are all beautiful mountains, and I have spent more than a few nights in the CA, NH, and AZ whites. The AZ Whites have a bit less snow, but still, same things apply.

All three of the Whites I named are beautiful in winter, but like any mountains above treeline, they do have their dangers.

10:26 p.m. on December 9, 2009 (EST)
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Hi dude. Looks pretty green around you on that avatar so I assume you mean the whites in the east. It can get pretty windy up there, but any good tent can take a lot of wind, just figure out which end should point into the prevailing wind - sometimes not so easy as it sounds. If your tent has tie outs on the sides - use them, it stabilises the tent in winds and keeps it from flapping so you sleep better.

Take realistic insulation to put under you. Youre 22 so yer pretty tough, but in snow you need more insulation especially with a lighter sleeping bag and since real winter bags are quite expensive you probably don't have one.

Getting in and out of a tent in blowing snow, or even not blowing snow can be an art. You have to slip into the tent sheding damp snowey layers as you enter so your tent stays dry inside, then you have to protect those layers so when you put them back on they won't be wet inside. Fold jackets so the dry part is against dry and carry a plastic bag to put that wet stuff in. Which brings us to boots, they have to be removed before you get into the tent, then they have to be put into a bag and brought in to protect them.

Finally melting snow and lighting a stove can be difficult in a cold wind. Sometimes above treeline I've dug a smini-snowcave for my stove. I've had to hold a BIC under the white gas cup to get the priming fuel lit. Yes I carry 3-4 BIC lighers always and keep a few in my pockets next to my body to keep them warm (and safe). Be sure you are knowledgable about melting snow - not as easy as it may seem - because without water you won't last long which brings me to water bottles. If you plant it upside down in the corner of your tent wrapped in your spare clothes or jackets, it will be available when you need a drink in the night. Much has been said about the value of a pee bottle - well when its storming out and you don't want to get out of your warm sleeping bag and dress up to go outside, it becomes a pretty nice thing to have. And well as regards canteens, drinking and peeing in a tent I recall a motto from when I was a boy scout "NEVER, EVER DRINK OR HAVE ANY LIQUID (OF ANY KIND) OVER YOUR OWN SLEEPING BAG EVER FOR ANY REASON UNLESS YOU WANT TO LAY IN IT AFTERWARDS".

Jim S

2:19 a.m. on December 11, 2009 (EST)
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Camping above the treeline means WIND!

Be prepared with a sturdy tent (tunnel or dome) that has a good sized, well-sheltered vestibule where you can cook.

And take a bendable, heavy foil windscreen anyway, as well as an insulating, fire resistant piece, like plywood painted W/ high temp paint, to put your stove on so it doesn't sink into the snow. Screw 3 aluminum door screen tabs in the plywood so they can swivel to hold your stove securely on the plywood.

Your stove should be a reliable white gas or kerosene stove. I prefer the MSR Dragonfly but the Simmerlite will do just fine. Iso-butane caniste stoves are NOT recommended for winter camping as they don't function well much below freezing.

All this emphasis on cooking & stoves B/C you'll need to melt a lot of snow. Always use a cup of water in your pot to begin melting snow or you'll scorch your pot with only snow touching the bottom.

Take extra tent cord to tie out the storm loops. And take extra stakes as well.

A candle lantern will add a surprising amount of warmth to your tent. Be sure to blow it out when you go to bed.

Pack the snow down with skis or snowshoes where you want to put the tent and vestibule. Let it sit 30 min. to set up and be strong.


BTW, The BEST winter camping book I've ever seen is "Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book", which is 80% about winter camping. Great cartoonish captioned illustrations by Mike Clelland.

1:32 a.m. on December 13, 2009 (EST)
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Take a look at Views from the Top, a NE website. Not sure it is taking new members, but you should be able to read the posts as a guest.

I am in CA, but am a member, just out of curiosity. From what I have read over the past couple of years, the weather in the Whites can be some of the worst weather in the country. I would be wary about winter camping in the Whites unless I had a good handle on the weather and whether or not my gear was sufficient. Some of the stories I have read about conditions there are pretty scary.

btw, Mt. Washington has the record for highest wind velocity recorded in North America.

11:35 a.m. on December 17, 2009 (EST)
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So where are you camping? If it is in New Hampshire, then you need to keep in mind that the wind in this area can be extreme. It has had some of the hightest recorded wind speeds anywhere in the world. I have done alot of winter hiking in this area, and know it well.

Plan your route. Talk to the park rangers for recommended tent sites. Look for a location that offers some protection (i.e. behind a hill or in a depression). You will need a strong tent. A good four season dome tent to camping above tree line on Mt Washington. Think Hileberg or something that offers alot of tiedown options.

Also, you need to secure your tent properly. It gets very icy on the ridge line, so be prepared.

Hope this helps.

9:20 p.m. on December 19, 2009 (EST)
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Yes, I will be headed to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.


1:14 a.m. on December 20, 2009 (EST)
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One way to learn winter camping is to go with others. AMC out of Boston runs week-end trips throughout the year.

On your own 9n NH, you can find plenty of areas to practice your winter skills not far from your car.

For example: The Moats overlooking N. Conway. From the south, hike up a short way and you will find above tree line areas to camp which offer an easy retreat if needed.

Another challenging area are South and North Baldface mts. out of Evans Notch east of Conway. The summit of South Bald is 1.2 miles beyond the shelter. You quickly leave the woods around the shelter facing a steep ledge and an open ridge over to North Bald. Plenty of winter challenge. Be sure you have crampons!

In winter, I like to hike in short distances, set up a base camp, day hike to the summits, then duck back into the woods to camp. In general, hiking and task just take longer in winter, so plan accordingly. Forget about big mileage. Check weather reports before you leave. Re-read info about hypothermia. Cold weather and winds dehydrate you fast. Dehydration is linked to hypothermia. Do you know about carrying your water bottle upside down?

I am rambling on at 1AM waiting for a predicted nor-easter to hit my home on the New England coast. It would be a perfect time to put on some winter clothing and head out with my tent to the backyard, a great place to practice winter camping!

Here is some pics of a winter week-end hike with AMC in NH.

Here's why one hikes in winter:


2:11 a.m. on December 20, 2009 (EST)
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Random winter tips:

When you select the area to pitch your shelter, stomp down on the snow first. Pack down the snow as best you can. if you do not, when you lie down to sleep, your body heat will slowly melt the snow to conform to your body shape. You will be nice and comfortable until you move. The area that you just rolled out of, even if you just moved slightly will harden up, freeze into nicely formed ice. Roll back onto that space and you might as well be trying to sleep on a pile of rocks!

As soon as you leave your car, put on liner gloves and do not remove them until you return to your car at the end of your hike. Bare finger tips can freeze up fast.

Around camp, (if the snow is deep enough), stomp out about a knee deep trench only two feet wide and say 5-6 feet long. Pack down the "ledge" area and you have a nice bench to sit on (your feet will be in the trench). Having a nice view and good company is a prerequisite.

If you have snow around home, put a pot of snow on your stove and see how much snow it takes to to get a water bottle full of water. It takes a lot of snow, so plan on taking extra fuel. Leave a bit of hot water in the bottom of the pot before you add the next batch of snow. That helps speed up the process a bit more.

Anyone a bit cold around camp? Get hot water into a water bottle and put the bottle between the legs of the cold one.

Since you want to gather snow for melting a good distance from your campsite, ie. away from yellow snow, it is handy to have a trash bag to move the pile of snow back to camp or to your melting area.

Examples of danger when camping alone in winter.
1 No one will be there to to recognize that you might be becoming hypothermic.

A friend of mine, a former army medic, was hiking with someone above treeline who stumbled then started mumbling something. My friend recognized these symptoms of hypothermia, gave his buddy an extra layer of clothing and quickly started retreating back down to lower ground. Warming up, the friend not only asked how come he had on the jacket, but had no memory of having stumbled or mumbled.

2 A lone hiker left his tentsite to walk down to a near-by stream to get water for diner. In the dark, distracted by his chore, he suddenly found himself lost, unable to find the tent or even his own foot prints. Luckily, he did find it eventually.

3 A lone hiker wet from wet snow, tired from a long day's hike with darkness approaching, started shivering. Fearing hypothermia, he looked for a place to camp. He struggled in thick woods trying to find a decent place to set a tarp. Early stages of hypothermia left the hiker unable to complete simple tasks such as putting on dry clothes or getting all the way into his sleeping bag. Fingers were too numb to tighten shelter ties, the shelter sagged to the ground. His dinner was cooked, but not eaten. Had the temperature dipped lower, hypothermia could not have been stopped. Luckily, the weather was kind. The hiker lived to be typing this story.

In NH winter there might not be the right conditions in the woods for making a eskimo-style igloo with blocks of snow and ice, but an effective snow shelter can be made by piling up snow and packing it down, making air holes and a tunnel entrance. (NB step #8 in the link below) It might take a couple of hours.

PS Read some Jack London stories!

In making the above shelter, poke ski poles into the mound handles first as you build it. Stick them in about as thick as you expect the roof will be. Then when you dig out the inner chamber, you will know you have cleared out enough snow when you see the handle ends of the poles. Later remove the poles and you now have the air holes.
Expect the snow chamber to be at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside temps.

10:04 a.m. on December 20, 2009 (EST)
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Overview of the Whit Mts. NH/ME:

From a knowledgeable White Mts. hiker: (Dartmouth College Hiking Club)

Learn about winter tent stakes and anchors. More than once tents have been blown away above tree line in NH, known for sub zero temps and gale force winter winds:

Note comments by "Gearjunky" in the following thread:

1:37 p.m. on January 25, 2010 (EST)
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Thanks for all of the input. We had really wonderful weather the 2nd two days of our trip to the White Mountains (NH). The 2nd night we found a well sheltered site (5000 feet, near Sphinx Col) with a good base of snow (>2 ft). It ended up being a warmer, quieter night that then the previous one below treeline, due to an incoming warm front. I woke up at 2 a.m. to a blistering 8 degrees (F).

4:09 p.m. on January 28, 2010 (EST)
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Wow, neat. Never been there in winter. Can't get much higher in the NH Whites (4959') What was your route? Any wind?

Sphinx Col in September.

11:17 p.m. on January 29, 2010 (EST)
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Looks great, and the weather sounds like it cooperated! a few thoughts to chew on for future reference.

-you already know this: plan for the worst and be flexible. Winds at or over 100 mph, big snowfalls, temperatures at -30 or worse, white-outs...not uncommon in the presidentials, i have experienced all of these conditions. If the wind approaches or exceeds 100, tenting above treeline can be risky business, even if you do a great job digging in.

-get a copy of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers Books. No substitute for experience, but it's a really great reference for winter camping/mountaineering.

-A snow cave can be a viable and fun alternative to a tent in the Whites if conditions allow. Bring the right tools and look for accumulations on the leeward side of big rocks or structures. Bring the tent regardless, in case snow isn't sufficiently consolidated to dig in.

7:58 p.m. on February 2, 2010 (EST)
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I would love to actually make a snow cave some time. I live in southern PA so, we dont typically get enough snow to really practice. Its one of those things I have read about, but like you said leadbelly, no substitute for experience.

I have an old edition of Freedom of the Hills, I would love to grab a new one, great book.

I meant to put up a trip report and havent done so, yet. I will try to get on that. The first day was dicey, 40-50 mph wind, subzero temps and low visibility, we stopped only half way through the day (in terms of mileage). While I realize that does not constitute bad weather in the Whites, it does where I am from. I gladly bailed to treeline.

Update: I did put up a trip report:

Rambler, the Whites sure do look different in September, I wouldnt have recognized it.

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