Skitouring - Tips And Tricks Of Snow Camping

Tips And Tricks Of Snow Camping

Snow camping is great and not as cold as you expect. If you come prepared then there is nothing like waking up on snow with no one around except your group. These trips mean you must be self-sufficient. But there is nothing like being snug in your warm sleeping bag whilst it snows outside the tent. Then waking up to put some tracks in whilst the snow is still fresh.

Selecting your campsite and erecting your tent.

    • With a few exceptions, only a quality four pole dome tent facing into the wind can survive a blizzard without shelter. But there are plenty of ways you can arrange enough shelter for all but the dodgiest of tents. Try and forget most of what you've heard about campsites with good views. Instead look for shelter. Ideally you should camp on a fairly flat area below the tree line, away from ridge tops, on the downwind side of a ridge. You can cut blocks of firm snow using a snow shovel or skis and build a low wall to partially protect your tent from the wind.
    • Some where with wind break, better sleep if tent is not flapping, bigger chance of having a tent in the morning, camp around snow gums on down wind side, snow wall
    • Camp where you can get the morning sun straight in the tent door. At least, it feels warmer!
    • Don't camp directly under trees if they have snow on them or it is likely to snow overnight. They can be weighed down by a lot of snow and shed it in one big dump. This can break your tent poles.
    • If the snow cover is sparse, camp on a patch of grass. It is much warmer and more comfortable.
    • Snow is soft and malleable, but if compressed and left for a few hours, it will set relatively hard. This can be both helpful and annoying. First of all, it is important to have a firm, smooth base for your tent. If you don't take a few minutes to stamp down your tent site and scrape it smooth, you will have an uncomfortable lumpy floor and slowly sink into it over the night as your body weight compresses a human shaped dent in the snow.
    • Unless you are camping in a very flat area, be careful when you assemble tent poles prior to erecting your tent. They can slide away without warning and are very hard to find.  Tents with sleeves are a better design to help support a tent to stop distortion from the weight of snow.  Shake snow load off tent. Water proof, working zips to keep rain, snow, sleet out
    • Ordinary tent pegs don't work very well in the snow. Perhaps the best alternative for occasional snow campers is the wide, strong, yellow plastic tent pegs sold by Kmart. Only buy a few and use them at the ends of the tent. Elsewhere use sticks and ordinary tent pegs in well compressed snow. If you're a regular snow camper, buy long snow pegs made from curved aluminium sheet. They cost about $4 each at outdoor shops.
    • Alternately, try square plates known as "deadman anchors".  Stamp snow down.  Stamp peg in with guy on it, let freeze.
    • Without realising it, you are probably carrying a few things that make excellent snow pegs. Skis are long and broad and do the job very well, as long as you don't want to use them while the tent is standing. If you tie a guy rope to a billy, snowshoe or tree branch buried in firm snow, it makes an anchor which is very difficult to dislodge. A cord tied to a buried plastic bag full of snow also makes an excellent anchor.
    • Plastic golf-balls, used for practice, are very lightweight, hollow, and full of holes. They make ideal snow anchors. Tie some cord through the holes, poke a hole into the snow, and drop the ball in. However, they can be very difficult to remove in the morning.
    • Unless you are camped near a hut with a tank or close to a creek that can be safely accessed, water will be at a premium, so don't waste it. Old, grainy snow makes a great pot scrubber. Always try and avoid wasting fuel melting snow on a camp stove. It will take a while to melt, but a litre of snow packed into a billy should yield about a cup of water. If you have to collect water from a creek, be very careful as overhanging snow banks can collapse without warning, dumping you in freezing water.
    • Don't leave things out overnight or they may be lost under snow that falls overnight. Stand skis, poles and ice axes upright.
    • Wearing a beanie or balaclava to bed is one of the best ways to keep warm. On especially cold nights, wear a warm jacket and more loose fitting clothes to bed.
    • Tent with someone as two bodies keep warmer in a tent than one.
    • Many people carry a snow shovel and dig 25 cm deep pits in the vestibules of their tent. This gives a lot more storage space for things like snow encrusted packs, which you don't want inside the tent. In bad weather, it also gives you a fairly safe place to light a stove without much danger of the tent catching fire.
    • Finally, you can build things from blocks of compressed snow. While it takes four or five hours to build an igloo, you can knock up a wall of blocks to shelter a tent from the wind or even a table and chairs in only a few minutes work with a snow shovel. On a smaller scale, miniature igloos make good shelters for candles.


Tricks to stay warm in the snow

There are plenty of tricks to help you sleep warmer in the snow.

  • Stay warm by insulating yourself from the snow. One foam mat is often not enough, two foam mats are better, or one foam mat and one therma-rest. Carry two sleeping mats. Supplementing your normal mat with a light closed-cell foam mat, will give you a slightly softer bed, but it also provides a lot of extra insulation when you are sleeping 2 cm above the snow.
  • If you are using a 3/4 length Thermarest, put some light foam (3-4 mm is fine) under your feet - and any spare clothing. The high pressure your heels exert can squash padding and down flat, and give you cold heels.
  • A good dinner is essential of course. No food: no energy, no warmth.
  • 700 gms of good high-loft down for the snow
  • Do up the hood around your head straight away: you may not think your head is getting cold, but that is the last part of your body which will feel cold: all the warm blood will go there if necessary, away from your feet. Keep your head warm and your feet will be warm too.
  • You can also try sleeping with the hood on the top, pulled over your head. This is just as warm, but far less claustrophobic.
  • Use a good long silk liner inside your bag, and pull it right over your head when you get in. It will help keep your warm breath inside, warming you. It will also keep the inside of the hood cleaner, which helps.
  • All that waffle you see in some catalogues about extra insulation for your feet is pure marketing spin based on ignorance. Cold feet usually mean your head is taking all the blood supply away from the rest of your body. If your feet are cold, warm your head. Anyhow, adding extra insulation does not provide more warmth: your body provides the warmth.
  • If you sleep on top of the hood, use the neck flap to stop cold drafts from getting in, and if necessary wear a thermal top for the same reason. But it is much better to sleep under the hood, and to use the down you have carried up the mountain properly. Women may benefit from thermal longs as well.
  • Avoid any clothing which is tight: it restricts the blood circulation. Let your warm blood circulate!
  • If you want to carry a lighter sleeping bag, plan on wearing some of your warm clothing to bed. After all, if you are carrying this warm Polar tech fluffy jacket, why not use it when you are cold?
  • Warm up the bag when you get in. Pull your head inside the bag and breathe down into it for about 5 minutes. You won't suffocate, but all that lovely warm breath will really get the bag warmed up. It's as good as a hot water bottle, but weighs nothing. This happens automatically if you have the hood on top.


Frankly, the usual rule of burying everything gets difficult in the snow fields. Some books emphasise the need to dig a hole 150 mm deep in the soil without admitting this is impossible when there is a metres of snow on the ground. Bury it in the snow of course, but remember that the snow will melt in the spring. If there are trees or bushes around, try to be amongst them so the mess will at least disappear into the scrub when the snow melts. Of course, if you are near one of those little pit toilets the Service has installed, try to use it instead.

Equipment tips.

  • Arrange your pack so you can sit on it during breaks.
  • Another way to avoid a frostbitten bum is to sit on a neoprene mouse mat.
  • Keeping warm is something you can largely work out for yourself. Layering is the key to comfort in the snow. Take off a layer when you are exercising and add a layer when you are resting. In addition to normal hiking and ski gear, carry thermal underwear and a warm hat. Always have a few layers of clothes that you can easily adjust. If you have them, a down jacket, fleece pants and down booties are the height of decadence at night.
  • Gloves get completely wet pitching a tent in the snow, so it is worthwhile carrying a second pair. Some regulars carry oversize waterproof riggers gloves and wear them over thin inner gloves.
  • Batteries often seize up in low temperatures, so if your torch or camera isn't behaving, take out the batteries and put them in your armpits for at least five minutes. Equipment that previously showed no sign of life should be restored to robust good health... until the batteries cool down again.
  • Gas stoves with less than 30% propane in their fuel sometimes suffer from the cold too, the solution is to put the gas cylinder up your jumper for 15 minutes. Fortunately most brands of gas cylinders have a 70/30 butane/propane fuel mix, which shouldn't present any problems for cooking in slightly sub zero temperatures. For really cold temperatures you can get isobutane/propane canisters.
  • Fuel stoves the better stove for snow camping at high altitudes and cold environments. It goes without saying that you should avoid using a stove anywhere near a tent if it is at all possible. Never use a stove inside a tent. If you use the stove in the vestibule, it is better to light it outside then bring it in when the flame is stable.