An Intro to Snow Camping
Think camping season has to end with summer?
Snow camping might sound frigid and dark at first pass, but there’s more to it than that: think no crowds, unreal – and practically untouched – alpine scenery and the chance to get out into the wild year-round, not just when the sun’s at its best.
“From my personal and professional standpoint, anybody who wants to get out there safely and responsibly should definitely consider four-season adventures, not just summer,” said Teresa Hagerty, founder of Cascade Mountain Adventures, a Seattle outdoor adventure company that specializes in outdoor activities for women and by women. “Winter can be pretty amazing.”
Snow camping definitely takes a different set of chops than heading out during the prime summer months. But with a little preparation, some beefed up gear and a great attitude, spending a night or two in the snow can be an unforgettable way to extend your outdoor adventures.
Camping in the snow isn’t wildly different than an overnight backpack in the summer. Obviously you’ll want a stout tent – three- to four-season, for sure – snowshoes if conditions call for it, a good sleeping bag, a stove and extra fuel.
It goes without saying that the 10 essentials are key, as is a map, compass, GPS or phone with extra batteries or a charger. And don’t forget to do some research on snow and road conditions to make sure your destination is accessible and safe.
But there’s naturally more to it than that.
Hagerty, who’s been leading guided trips professionally for seven years, said most people who head out for a winter overnight for the first time make a few common mistakes.
“The first one is failing to appropriately layer from the trailhead,” she said. “Be bold and start cold.”
That’s because once you get going on the trail, you’ll heat up fast, even if it’s cold outside. You don’t want to overheat and get sweaty on your way to your campsite. You’ll soak your clothes, and they won’t warm up.
At the same time, Hagerty said you also want to bring plenty of layers and full-coverage clothing: pants, long-sleeve shirts and neck and eye protection to shield against sun exposure.
Timing in the snow is key, as well.
“People overestimate the speed at which they’re going to travel,” Hagerty said. “Cut your travel expectations in half and calculate back two hours from sunset. Make sure you are set to arrive at your destination no later than two hours before sunset.”
To stay warm at night, Hagerty recommends a burly sleeping bag but, perhaps even more important, a sleeping pad with an R-value of at least 5. (R-value is the pad’s ability to resist heat flow.) While many pads with that kind of an R-value are pricey, Hagerty said R-values stack, so you can layer two sleeping pads on top of each other for added warmth.
And lastly, Hagerty said to leave your ceramic water filter at home for snowy trips. Cold water can freeze and crack the filter, rendering it ineffective. Instead, bring extra fuel and boil water for two to three minutes to make it safe to drink.
Places to Try
Paradise at Mt. Rainier – Relatively accessible in the winter and ripe with opportunities for easy overnight campouts, the Paradise area on Mt. Rainier makes a great option for an introductory winter camping trip. Hop on a trail like the Glacier Vista Trail, hike up a ways and then pick a spot that’s 300 feet away from the trail and located on at least five feet of snow. Hagerty noted that you won’t be far from an accessible restroom at Paradise, but it’s quiet enough in the winter that you’ll feel like you’ve got the mountain to yourself.
Skyline Lake Trail – Accessible from the Stevens Pass ski resort, this 3-mile roundtrip trail offers incredible alpine views and some ideal overnight spots. It’s great for snowshoers and beginning backcountry skiers, too.
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