Just because it’s cold and snowy out doesn’t mean you have to stop backpacking. Expand your comfort zone and start enjoying winter in all its glory. There’s no crowds, no bugs, and this experience is more achievable and enjoyable than most people think. I’ve taken roughly 7 newbies on their first trip in the snow, all of them wanted to do it again. Here’s a basic primer on the ins and outs of going snow camping for the first time. It’s by no means comprehensive, so leave us any additional tips in the comment section.
Finding A Place to Go
First off, you’ll need a place to go. Think about some of the shorter day hikes you would normally go on, these locations make for perfect first-time snow camping trips. Try to find something less than 5 miles in your first time to make things easy. This give you plenty of time to drive in on icy/snowy roads, hike/snowshoe/ski in, and set up camp to your liking on the very short winter days. Sno-parks make for the best access points, especially for your first time. Remember, if the cold or other weather conditions are unbearable (they won’t be with good planning) you can simply walk back to your car.
Appropriate Weather Conditions
Ideal snow camping trips are ones where the temps stay below freezing, with low winds, clear skies. The worst are conditions that creep into the mid-upper 30’s with either rain or mixed precipitation (this is the worst possible backpacking weather in my opinion). For your first time, avoid big snowstorms, high winds, SUPER cold temps, and temps above freezing (combined with liquid precipitation). If you’re camping in the mid teens to high 20’s you’ll learn a lot about how your gear performs and you’ll know about what you would need to push your limits into colder temps.
Stuff to keep in your car
While AWD/4WD is ideal for the snow (and little else in my opinion), not everyone has it. Bring tire chains and know how to use them. It sucks to learn in 30mph winds and driving snow with 18 wheelers zooming past you. Having studless snow tires is a bonus. Studded snow tires should be illegal (excessive road damage), and the owners sent to the gulag. If you have a truck, weigh down the bed with sandbags or farm implements.
Bring a window scraper and a shovel with you that stay in the car all winter. Consider purchasing a battery charger like this, you want something that’s gonna really do the job the morning you discover your battery is dead. I had read about these chargers, and hemmed and hawed on getting one. On one trip, I left my lights on all night and luckily a guy in the parking lot had one of these chargers the next morning. Someone could also jump you the old fashioned way, but if no one is around, you’ll be waiting awhile. Save yourself. Consider a hand saw/chainsaw if you’re in a particularly remote area with no road maintenance during winter.
Be sure that you can still drive OUT when you’re done. If you’re going out and get an 18-24 inch dump, make sure that roads gonna get plowed so you can get back home in time for work on Monday.
What to gear to bring
This seems obvious, but bring warmer layers. Winter backpacking is a lot of layer management. You heat up pretty quickly… shed layers ASAP. If your clothes are wet with sweat you risk being uncomfortably cold while stopped at best, to dead from hypothermia at worst. I find that on sunny days while snowshoeing, I’m all the way down to my base layer. However at camp, standing around, I put on all my warm layers for full comfort. Big parkas are expensive, so try to borrow or rent gear you dont have. If you like it, acquire the winter gear over a period of several seasons to help defray the cost.
You can use your normal 3 season tent for backpacking in the snow. The main exception is if you’ll be experiencing big snow loads, in which case bring something with steep sides. Otherwise the snow builds up, collapsing your tent or suffocating you inside. It is crucial that your tent breathes! Any tent with horizontal/low angle panels needs to go in the trash, they’re snow load death traps. Consider going fly-only if your tent has that option, you’ll have a lot more room inside for those long winter nights. Its fun to camp right on top of the snow!
Take your warmest sleeping quilt or bag, make sure its rating can handle lower than the temps you will be going into. For added warmth, throw another quilt on top and wear your clothes to bed. A fleece sleeping bag liner is good for another 5 degrees. Bring chemical toe and hand warmers, especially if you’re the type that gets cold easily when its below freezing (nearly everyone). Bring two sleeping pads, one CCF pad and one insulated inflatable pad. This will help insulate you from the snow, and the CCF is backup in case the inflatable gets popped.
Take your biggest backpack, nothing special is needed. Winter gear is bulky, and you’ll need the extra volume. A 60 liter pack is fine for this. An exception to this is if you are using a pulk. In that case load up the pulk, and put the bulky, downy gear in your backpack. Load the pulk up with anything heavy.
On a boot-packed trail you’ll often not need any type of traction devices, although I bring microspikes/trail crampons no matter what. I also bring snow shoes on every trip for off trail exploration and flotation on non boot-packed trails. I’m not skilled at using backcountry or cross country skis, but those are great options too if you know how. Bring poles of your choosing.
As far as clothing goes, bring whatever you think you may need. Its better to err on the side of overkill the first time out. The added weight and bulk are usually worth it your first time psychologically. You’ll learn pretty quickly what is useful and what is not.
Here’s a list of stuff you’ll need that you normally don’t have or need:
- Waterproof boots
- thick sleeping socks (or booties)
- mid-heavy weight base layers
- chemical hand/toe warmers
- Insulated pants for camp
- Big Parka for camp
- Waterproof shell pants/jacket (that can fit over your bulky clothes)
- thinner liner gloves
- Waterproof insulated mittens/gloves
- Goggles for storm conditions
- sleeping balaclava
- a stove capable of the temps you’ll be in
- avalanche shovel
- optional ice axe
Anything else you like to bring? Sound off in the comments.
In Part two, I’ll be writing about how to set up camp, cook, have water, make a fire, and how to sleep warm.