Getting into winter camping

1:48 p.m. on December 23, 2018 (EST)
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This post is to encourage folks who have not tried winter camping to give it a go.

PHASES OF WINTER CAMPING:

1. backyard or car camping (Always a safe way to get out of the cold if necessary)

2. one-night campout 

3. multi-day campout with a base camp

4. longer winter trek up to a week

The first phase is where you find out if this insanity is for you. (No bugs and no people are the plusses.) 

->If you have a 30 F. summer bag you can supplement it with long johns and puffy jacket and pants. OR long johns and a thick comforter over your bag. 

->You will need a closed cell mat under your summer mattress. The Thermarest Ridgerest is about the best.

->Good wool and/or synthetic clothing is a must - from the skin out. ("Cotton kills")

->"Sufficiently" insulated boots with a Vapor Barrier Liner (VBL) to keep the insulation dry are very important. You'll learn to get boots with removable liners so you can stow them in the foot of your sleeping bag overnight for warm feet while making breakfast and breaking camp. My favorite VBLs are 3 mm closed cell neoprene divers' socks with a thin poly liner sock.

-> Gloves AND mittens  Mittens are the backup "Plan B" and a safety item.

->warm hat (and a fleece balaclava for sleeping. Don't ask)

Many of you have 80% of this gear already. Borrow what you need until you are sure you want to continue with camping in "the other beautiful season".

Eric B.

(PM me if you have questions.)  I've been a Nordic and Alpine Ski Patroller for 16 years and a US Army ROTC Cadet winter survival instructor. I do know bit about  winter camping.

1:53 p.m. on December 23, 2018 (EST)
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Oh, yeah, I highly recommend "Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book" for the best book on the subject of winter camping. 

Don't let the title throw you, about 75% of the book is about winter camping. Perhaps 50% of the info is in the form of Mike Clelland's cartoon illustrations.

Eric B.

2:04 p.m. on December 23, 2018 (EST)
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Phase 5: Huts.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Call me a wimp.

2:48 p.m. on December 23, 2018 (EST)
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OK Red, huts, for those of us fortunate enough to get a reservation. It's a European tradition that is light on carrying shelter and heavy on libations of the alcoholic persuasion. 

Huts are somewhere between all-out camping treks and credit card camping. But most of the trails do require you to be in decent touring condition. After all you have to carry your sleeping bag, mat, clothes and that "libation".

Eric B.

5:34 p.m. on December 23, 2018 (EST)
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DSC00556a.jpgPreach it brother! Don't forget the importance of a good hat out there, Eric.

6:24 a.m. on December 24, 2018 (EST)
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Norwegian huts are quite different from the Alpine ones. Most of the 500+ huts are self-service, stocked with canned and dried food that you can buy and prepare yourself, or you can bring your own, which is what we do for price and quality. Wine and beer for sale at full service huts, and those are only full open in summer and during ±Easter week, otherwise they have a self-service annex and you're on your own for booze. Separate 2-4 bunk rooms for more privacy, and with quilts and blankets provided so you only need to carry a hostel-type sheet sleeping bag if you want go minimal (I have a ca. 200g silk sheet bag). Most have some kind of more or less comfortable/cozy sitting area, unlike the hard wooden benches in Alpine huts. In less travelled areas it's not at all unusual to have a hut to yourself. You can reserve rooms at full service huts, but it it is a rule that nobody should ever be turned away. I have seen huts in overflow mode only a few times -- the big, busy huts in Jotunheimen and similar areas have closets full of mattresses for people to sleep on the floor, mainly during Easter week. Given the exposed terrain and often inclement weather here, huts are an attractive option, especially in winter. But yeah, they'll cost ya, about $30-35 for a bed at today's exchange rates.

I know this thread is on winter camping, but it may be of interest to some to consider the alternative. Different in the Alps and US of course, but still probably a good choice for less hardy folks (like me and my wife...).

11:33 a.m. on December 24, 2018 (EST)
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I am aware of a few huts in the Sierra, and one in the San Gabriel Mountains that are rather rustic.  The huts in these cases are maintained by outdoor clubs, are generally hosted by a volunteer.  Reservations are almost always required. You need to bring a complete sleeping kit, as well as your own food and personal eating wares.  But they do have a cooking area, wood stoves, bunks and modest furnishings.  I am told there are some huts in the Colorado Rockies; I do not recall their accommodations.  There are also a few yurts in the Sierra and Rockies run by outfitters operations, and one up Rock Creek on the Eastern Sierra run by the Tom's Place Resort.  They require reservations and are equipped in a manner similar to the aforementioned wooden huts.  These accommodations are used by some as base camps, and by others for the first or last night of their BC ski treks.

Ed

2:18 p.m. on December 24, 2018 (EST)
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Thanks Eric, this is very cool. Any particular boot recommendations?

4:04 p.m. on December 24, 2018 (EST)
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Zal,

Here are my boot recommendations:

1. Sorel felt pacs or Cabela's felt pacs (W/removable liners) These are the warmest option and will get you through -40 F. with the aforementioned VBL 3 mm neoprene divers' sox (US Divers brand is the best) Buy a felt insole as well.

2. Scarpa T3 or similar telemark/backcountry ski boots (They have removable liners. Again use the divers sox VBLs.) Whatever backcountry ski boot you use they must have removable liners OR be kept in your sleeping bag all night, as liners would.

3. Insulated boots (Thinsulate, etc.) W/no removable liners (VBLs absolutely needed here) I'd recommend at least 200 grams insulation 1000 is the max

4. Over-the boot insulated GTX gaiters  (Thinsulate, etc.) these cover the entire boot and have rubber rands around the sole area. Difficult to find but fairly warm over a lightly insulated boot.

5. Surplus "Mickey Mouse" boots (no VBL needed except to make them warmer) The black boots are good in near sub-zero F. temps and the white boots good to -40 F.

Try #1 unless you plan to ski tour. Not expensive and ultimate warmth.

On numbers 2 & 3 GTX knee high gaiters always will add at least 10 F. of warmth. 

Eric B.

Lone Stranger, Yep, a good hat is very important. Head and neck vessels do not vasoconstrict as they do on hands and feet B/C keeping the brain warm is the body's priority #1. This area makes for a big radiator so keep it covered to stay warm.

5:07 p.m. on December 24, 2018 (EST)
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Fantastic, thanks!

11:17 a.m. on December 25, 2018 (EST)
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I started winter camping in the 1960s.  I like two sleeping bags for cold conditions.  Insulation is reallly important.  I bring a pad for my dog.  When it gets really cold I zip her up in a jacker. 

A snow shovel is very useful for making furniture and clearing sights.  I like to use a sled for the extra weight of winter conditions.  Some of the best trips have been on x-c skis.  I have used dogs to pull light sleds with good results. Then skiing is much less top heavy.

I was on a trip near Donner Pass and it seemed like there were a lot of people on the trail.  "We are headed to the hut" they said.  We veered off that trail and went overland over a ridge.  For the rest of the trip there were no tracks. 

4:43 p.m. on December 25, 2018 (EST)
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ppine,

Two sleeping bags are what most militaries do for deep winter conditions and it works well. I did it once for my youngest daughter when we slept in a quinzhee snow hut at -22 F. and it worked well.

As for a snow shovel I have a collapsable handle avy shovel that always comes along on winter trips. Great for digging out a vestibule cook area or an outdoor "kitchen" and if it snows hard you need it to dig snow away from the walls or even dig out your door area in the morning. That's why my avy shovel always stays just outside my door at night.

My backcountry XC skis are of varieties:

1. TOURING SKIS-> Asnes Combi Combat full metal edge actual Norwegian army skis. (Available only at Neptune mountaineering Boulder, CO) They are 210 cm long and good for flat to rolling terrain.

2. TELEMARK SKIS-> Atomic TM 22 (from 2002) Length is 190 cm, wider with a lot more sidecut and suitable for mountainous terrain.

Both pair have Voile' release bindings for 3 pin 75 mm bindings. I value my bones!

Eric B.

3:33 p.m. on December 26, 2018 (EST)
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I have a quiver of sleeping bags, the warmest good to -25⁰F.  That covers anything I wish to venture out in nowadays.  

Always bring a snow shovel - mine is one of those old school collapsibles with a wooden handle, modeled after the Swiss Army shovel.  It has a smaller blade than today's modern designs, but it suits this old man, as a large scoop would just wind me faster. The snow I camp in is always in steep, mountainous regions, so I also bring 12 point crampons and an ice axe.  I cannot utilize a pulk on most of my snow treks, as the cols to passes are too steep and many of the traverses are across steep side slopes.

I prefer XC skiing, vs snow shoeing or post holing.  My boots were full grain leather Scarpa, exped, mid height double boots.  VERY COMFORTABLE boots!  So comfortable I actually had them resoled when the glue holding the soles failed.  I recently updated my ski kit: now using a pair of Atomic skis, similar to what Eric describes, but somewhat shorter.  My new boots are Scott Excursion plastic touring boots.  My bindings are Voile 75mm Mountaineers - no safety release, but only the toe is captured by the binding.  Regardless, the mountaineers will release in a bad fall.  I have not used the plastic boots on treks that require some walking, so the verdict is still out if these will be suitable for trips with long walking approaches, or if I'll stick with my old leather boots.

Ed

7:01 p.m. on December 26, 2018 (EST)
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I did my bout with winter camping in the snows of the ierra Nevada back between Jan-May 1980, after having lived two and a half winters in Anchorage AK. I loved it and a couple years later I started spending my winters either here in Tucson or backpacking in the Grand Canyon, where nights are cold at 30 and days are in the 50-70s.

In Yosemite in the Sierra I used a -30 EMS down bag, a North Face VE-24 tent, wool clothing from socks and mittens to pants and shirts, and my balaclava too. I wore Gore-tex outerwear and long underwear. The only time I remember being cold was in the morning getting out of the minus sleeping bag and at night as I went to bed, cause I found sleeping nude was warmer than wearing clothing to bed, but I kept my clothing in the bag or under my head at night.

I ski traversed all over the high country for 5 months and had a blast. But when I started backpacking the Grand Canyon I only needed warm clothing on the rim while resupplying, once back down in the canyon I was in shorts and a t-shirt as I do down here in Tucson in winter. Yesterday was 70 as a high and today it was 55.

I also grew up the first 16 years of my life on Lake Ontario where winters were often long and cold. But as a kid I loved winter,snow and being outdoors all I could sledding, building snow forts with my friends and snow men.

11:22 a.m. on December 27, 2018 (EST)
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huts and shelters in the white mountains are pretty spartan, if they're open year-round. very few have heat (those that do have a wood-fired stove of some kind controlled by a caretaker - and 'heat' means the interior temp might get to 35-40 degrees in the winter), not stocked with food. basically, it's a place to sleep and cook without dealing with the wind. reservations are wise, but when real winter weather hits, rare to find these places full.  

1:42 p.m. on December 27, 2018 (EST)
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Gary,

I lived in Erie, PA for 35 years and know the Great Lakes snow and cold very well. But being an XC Patroller and racer I loved the snow.

Now here in the 'Vegas valley, like you I have to go TO the mountains to find snow. But thankfully it is there.

As for the Grand Canyon I backpacked it in Nov. '17, North Rim to South Rim in 4 days so I know the wide temperature range that you see with the big elevation changes. It was my second GC backpack.

Eric B.

11:09 a.m. on January 9, 2019 (EST)
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This is the time of year when I imagine what it would be like to backpack in Red Rocks near Las Vegas.

5:05 p.m. on January 10, 2019 (EST)
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Red Rocks area does not have the water so you'd have to carry all of it or go back to a campground or the visitor's center for some.

I'm heading up to the mountains to scout my winter camp site for mid- January. Gotta check the safety of the snowpack above 9,000 ft. I have avy training and the gear to test snowpack like snow saw, probe, thermometer, slope angle indicator, etc. 

Eric B.

P.S. ppine, yer welcome to camp with me. I have a -5 F. bag and Thermarest Trail Pro mattress for you and a 2 person Tarptent Scarp 2 tent. Or bring yer own tent and I'll take my solo tent. I also have MSR snowshoes for you B/C I use Tele skis & skins.

I also have a gazillion stoves. Take yer pick. 

9:30 a.m. on January 11, 2019 (EST)
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Thank you for the offer.  You are a generous person.  I don't go on trips with people I don't know. Sorry. 

12:02 p.m. on January 13, 2019 (EST)
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Back in the 80's in the adirondaks and upstate NY in various places..I haven't backpacked in the winter in over 15 years do it be like a new experience to me to be honest...I am older and would have to pick the gear very carefully to get the right mix.I started to last year be adding on this year for next to get out there....

3:26 p.m. on January 14, 2019 (EST)
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Heading out to the mountains Wednesday for a big storm rolling in Thursday. I love camping in a big snowstorm. I'll be at around 9,500 ft. and in a forest of Ponderosa pine.

Eric B.

February 19, 2019
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