Look, winter is a rough time of the year for many of us adventurers. Even with the new addition of resort skiing to our repertoire we still find ourselves languishing without frequent bouts of tent time. But I am here to tell you that a winter backpacking trip is NOT outside of your world of possibilities. Snow camping is not only easier than you think it is, it is a ton of fun. So, if you’re interested in spicing up your winter adventures follow along with Kyle and I on our most recent snow camping trip and I will outline some of the necessities for successful winter adventures!
Choose a good weekend for it!
I am not about to tell you to go out in a blizzard. That won’t be fun for your first snow camping experience. Last week Kyle and I were still debating over what to do this weekend. The weather was looking incredible and there was a bunch of new snow in the mountains. That meant a couple of things: everyone was going to be trying to get outside and avalanche conditions had the potential to be bad. Kyle and I don’t mess around with avalanches and neither should you. We don’t own beacons and we haven’t taken an AIRE course so until then, we stay out of avalanche terrain when there is risk of avalanche. As such climbing was kind of a no go. That left us with resort skiing or snow camping. We had already looked at our budget for the month and determined it couldn’t sustain another weekend of resort skiing, plus the resort was sure to be packed since the weather was looking good. That left us with snow camping.
Now, while this might have been an ideal weekend for anyone else we had one tiny little road block: we are currently doing the Whole30 (if you follow us on instagram you’ve already heard me talk about this). Whole30 is not exactly backpacking compatible. No sugar and no gluten rule out almost all of your best backpacking food. The thought of trying to eat Whole30 in the backcountry sent Kyle into a grumpy spiral. But I was not to be deterred, from the program or the camping. I managed to come up with a backcountry meal plan that, while less than desirable compared to our normal backcountry meals, kept us fed. So whatever you have going on that is acting as a road block to adventure I assure you – with a little creativity and determination you can probably get around it and keep moving.
Pick a place and know before your go!
Next up, trip planning. As I mentioned above it was important to us to pick a place that had extremely low avalanche risk (and no avalanche risk where we would be setting up camp) plus a good weather forecast. There are so many places you can go online to find good winter camping options by you. We poked around, went over places we had been before, looked at weather, and finally settled on Paradise up at Mount Rainier. It was important to us to have spectacular views and the weather at Paradise looked better than the weather at Mount Baker. With that decided we delved into winter camping at Rainier.
Always make sure you do your research before you go! A quick read of the Rainier winter camping website page let me know we needed to stop by the ranger station to grab overnight backcountry permits (which were free), have a plan for where we wanted to camp, and bring a bear can since the foxes at Mount Rainier are habituated to human food and will rip into your tent (please don’t feel wildlife). I also learned where we would need to park our car and when the gate from Longmire to Paradise would open. Without having done my research ahead of time we could have created a headache for ourselves and for the rangers at Mount Rainier. Always know before you go, even if you have to call ahead and ask!
Don’t just grab your summer gear…
Depending on how cold it is going to be you don’t necessarily have to own anything too crazy burly to go snow camping – but there will be a couple additions for sure. We were recently gifted new winter sleeping bags so we threw those into the mix but more important than a super warm sleeping bag is a warm sleeping pad. We don’t have a winter sleeping pad so instead we add extra insulation using thermarest z-pads. A super easy, $30 dollar solution to your winter sleeping set up.
We packed our four season tent because if you’ve got it, flaunt it, but don’t let the lack of a four season tent keep you from snow camping! As long as the weather forecast is looking clear and there aren’t supposed to be heavy winds you should be fine with your three season tent. Just make sure you bring some snow stakes instead of regular stakes. You can find snow stakes at REI or your local outdoor gear retailer. Instead of sticking them into the ground at an angle you will bury them in the snow. Make sure you get some paracord as well to cut into small pieces and tie onto your snow stakes so you can loop the paracord onto your guy lines and stake loops.
Another way to beef up your tent for snow camping is to make sure you are using a waterproof footprint beneath your tent. The heat from your bodies will try to melt the snow underneath you and draw condensation up through the floor of your tent! But if you have some sort of a waterproof barrier between you and the snow you can prevent this.
Your regular stove will do the trick unless you’re at a really high elevation, just bring extra fuel for melting snow! Other things we threw in our pack that you will need in yours were blue bags for pooping in (you cannot bury your poop in the snow, we all know how that is going to turn out in the summer when the snow melts), our headlamps and a luci light because it gets dark early, and extra layers. It is going to be cold out there so make sure you are ready to layer up with good gloves, a hat, warm waterproof shoes, and extra socks. A big puffy down goes a long way as well, but a windproof layer is often cheaper and will keep you warm as well. Remember to pack some luxuries like a book and some tea for when it gets cold at night. And of course, the ten essentials still apply so don’t leave anything out of your pack.
Last but not least – you will need a mode of transportation. If you tour then go on skis or a split board but for the rest of us there are snowshoes. REI and most local outdoor gear retailers will rent you snowshoes for the weekend so don’t feel the need to buy them, but they do make winter adventures way more accessible. Make sure your snowshoes are rated to hold not only your body weight but you + your full backpack!
You’ve made it to the trailhead, now what?
Ah yes, there is no trail. This is one reason that it is super important to pick a snow hike that is appropriate for your skill level. If you aren’t a super strong navigator using a compass and a map then make sure you pick something really popular where you know there will be lots of other people. And something where you won’t be straying far from the car. That way there is a well worn trail through the snow for you to follow. Rainier is a great spot for beginners because you can literally hike 500ft way from the Paradise parking lot and set up camp. Until you are comfortable navigating this is probably the level you should stick to.
We decided to get a little further away from Paradise and head up to Mazama Ridge and then toward the Ice Caves. I had done this snowshoe once and Kyle had done it twice – we both remembered the gently rolling terrain on the other side of the ridge as a great place to camp. After we got out permits we set off and sure enough, there were plenty of skin tracks and snowshoe prints to follow. Too many in fact and we ended up at a dead end, unable to cross two flowing creeks. We could see the tracks leading up the ridge on the other side but between us and them were ten foot drop offs into fast moving water and sketchy snow bridges. We backtracked until we found two snow bridges that we felt comfortable with and made our way across. If you don’t know a lot about snow bridges or snow travel in general this is the kind of thing you want to avoid. Falling into a stream could trap you under a snow bridge or chill you to the bone and give you hypothermia. Look for the most common way around!
Then we were on the up and up to the ridge, which brings me to my next tip: how to walk with these huge awkward things on your feet. Snowshoeing is pretty intuitive on flat ground but can get more complicated when the terrain gets more interesting. To start with, unless you are like me and you already walk like a linebacker, you will probably have to widen your stride a little bit to keep from stepping on the snowshoe. After you fall over a couple of times your body will probably do this naturally. Second of all, your goal is to distribute your weight evenly onto the snowshoe in order for it to do its job and keep you on top of the snow. This means you should avoid putting all your weight on the front, back or sides of the snowshoes, which will cause you to sink in more. All snowshoes come with some kind of traction on the bottom. This traction becomes essential when you start going up hill. Continue to try and keep as much of the snowshoe in contact with the slope as possible, even if it causes a strong stretching sensation in your calves. Same with going downhill, don’t plunge the front of your snowshoe into the slope, instead bend your legs deeply and get as much of your snowshoe on the ground as possible. Play with it! And pay attention to what causes you to sink into the snow and what allows you to skim above it. You will get the hang of it in no time.
Luckily for us there was a perfect little bench of a trail leading up to the ridge so we were cresting out in no time and staring into the stillness backcountry. We had gotten a fairly late start, leaving Paradise at 2pm, so most people were heading out as we were heading in. By the time we were looking for a campsite everyone else was gone. We headed towards the mountain for a bit before veering off the well worn path to find a place to set up camp 300ft from the trail. We found a perfect little platue with great views of the Tatoosh range and Rainier. There wasn’t supposed to be a lot of wind that night and we have a four season tent so we weren’t super worried about tent location, but if you are snow camping with a three season tent there are plenty of ways to choose more sheltered tent sites.
We set up camp, which is where the real magic of snow camping comes into play. After we had our tent up and staked down we dug out a trough beneath our tent door for our feet to go in. This way you can actually swing your legs out of your tent and sit up like you would in a chair to take your boots on and off! The luxury! Then we dug our kitchen, creating a sunken bench with a backrest and a flat table surface within arms reach. We lined it with our thermarest pads so it was nice and cozy and laid out cookware. By the time everything was done the sun was just starting to set and it put on quite the show. We sprinted around taking photos and looking at all the incredible views, ooing and aahing and giggling with delight.
When the sun had finally gone down we went back to camp and enjoyed dinner under a blanket of twinkling stars. The night was warm, almost like a summer night on the mountain, so we were wearing our thick downs more for the novelty of it. We sat in our kitchen, arms around each other, staring up at the night sky like it was a movie, sighing with contentment. Finally it was getting colder and our tea was all gone so we crawled into our tents and read until we fell asleep.
Do what makes you happy
Our alarms went off at 6:30, long before the sun came up. We had agreed the night before that we needed to see sunrise. Do what makes you happy. If that is sleeping in until the sun streaks its fingers up the side of your tent then do it. If it is venturing out into the cold, crisp air under a endless heaven of stars make it happen. Which is exactly what we did, heading closer and closer to the mountain looking for the perfect place to watch sunrise. And what a sunrise it was. We could hardly look away but we kept tearing our gaze from the skyline to stare back at the massive giant sleeping behind us. A soft pink lit up Rainier’s upper reaches before the sun had risen, reminding us that time can be so different but seem so close. The pink descended upon us until it washed over us and suddenly everything was bathed in daylight, just like that. We had watched every cloud in the sky turn pink and now they were white in the soft morning light.
We certainly returned from the mountains feeling lucky to have hit such an amazing weather window and refreshed after some much needed mountain air. Do you have any other questions about snow camping that I failed to answer? Feel free to shout them out in the comments below and I will get to them soon!