For several years, I led college students on a weekend winter camping adventure annually as part of a backpacking and camping course that I taught at a Wisconsin university. On one such occasion, we hiked to our campsite on bare ground with snowshoes strapped to our packs.
Students asked why we are taking snowshoes on our hike to set up camp when there is no snow. Previously, I checked the weather report and saw that a significant snowstorm was approaching that evening. And snow, it did! At one point during a white-out, I could not see my tent that was located about 75 feet from where we attempted to cook supper. But I eventually managed to locate it.
The following morning two women tapped on my tent. When I opened my rainfly, I saw that they both had on snowshoes and a big smile. They were thrilled to be shoeing from tent to tent in over a foot of fresh snow. This trip was truly a snowshoeing and camping experience for me and my students.
When camping in winter, there are some shelter options to consider, including thatch or stick shelters, snow shelters such as an igloo, quinzhee or snow pit, and tarp shelters. The most common winter shelter however, is a four-season tent like the one I used on this winter camping trip.
The Tent as Winter Shelter
I used my Sierra Design Omega convertible tent. By convertible, it is a four-season tent that can be used in the summer by unzipping the interior upper walls, and used in winter by zipping it up for added insulation. However, I unzip it slightly at the “V” on the ceiling, so that moisture can escape.
I have seen many winter and four-season tents that work well for winter camping. An adventurer I know uses a large canvas box tent that houses a small wood stove and cots for sleeping. But for most trekkers I know who winter camp, use a two or three person free-standing tent.
Rick Curtis of Princeton University provides good information on winter shelters in the University’s online “Outdoor Action Guide to Winter Camping.” When selecting tents for winter camping, Outdoor Action recommends some key factors that include:
- Strength… to withstand both wind and snow
- A roofline that allows snow to fall off
- A rainfly is a must
- A free-standing tent since they shed snow better
- Lots of room for bulky winter gear and space to spread out in the event of being snowbound.
Setting-up a Tent in Snow
For first time winter campers, camp out in your back yard or select a campground close to town. Once you have some experience under your belt, consider a two- to four-mile location for backpacking to a destination and setting up camp.
Once you decide where to camp, the first task is to find a suitable location to set up your tent. Look for an area that is not the lowest in a valley, since cold air falls. And do not select an area at the top of a hill either, since it will for sure be hit by cold winds. Also look for a location where there are no dead trees or branches hanging above…. called widow-makers. Consider an area that has some wind protection such as among a stands of trees, shrubs or other earth-made barriers. If in the mountains, stay away from potential avalanche areas. And finally, find a comfortable flat spot.
The second task when camping in snow is to stamp out an area where your tarp and tent will rest. Do the stamping with your snowshoes. Then let it settle for a little while (about a half hour), so that the snow becomes somewhat firm. Stamping rather than digging out the snow will provide snow-insulation from the ground, and be firm as to prevent you from sinking and making potholes that would freeze and become uncomfortable.
Then, place your tarp on the snow and setup your tent on the tarp. Be sure the entrance to the tent is away from prevailing winds. Once the tent is set up to your liking, place your gear inside. Your final task is to use a small portable shovel or your snowshoes to pile a 1½- to 2½-foot snow wall along the walls of your tent on all sides except the entry. Crawl inside the tent and gently push the snow pile away from the tent just slightly, so that the snow is not caving in your tent wall.
For an added feature, build another snow wall of equal height a few feet out from the entry of your tent to serve as a cold-air barrier to your shelter that will help block wind.
Snowshoeing From Your Tent
Backpackers that travel in snow to their destination, have ample opportunity to use their snowshoes to get to and from their campsite. But the car camper must put their snowshoes to use by hiking away from their camp.
Select a campground that provides hiking trails to be explored on snowshoes. Many county and state parks are filled with trails, and some have designated snowshoeing trails marked during winter. Check online for parks with trails in your area. Once awake and out of your tent in the morning, and following a breakfast cooked over a camp stove or campfire, head out on your snowshoes for an enjoyable day hike.
It is the experience of snowshoeing combined with camping in a tent that makes the adventure whole. Be sure to put your snowshoes to work, other than just building a snow wall around your tent. Find those nearby trails and venture out.
For information on winter camping, reference the Outdoor Action Guide to Winter Camping online at http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/winter/wintcamp.shtml. Two book references that provide good information are “The Winter Camping Handbook” by Stephen Gorman, and the National Outdoor Leadership School’s “Winter Camping” by Buck Tilton and John Gookin. All three of these references are packed with tips on this challenging winter sport.
On the night of that surprise snowstorm, I visited with students until around 9 p.m. The snow was heavy and the whiteout conditions continued. My tent was not visible. I estimated the angle from the campsite where I was visiting and began counting my paces. Surprisingly I could see the reflecting tape on my tent from the beam of my headlamp shimmering through the dense snowfall.
I brushed off snow from my body, climbed into my tent and took off my boots, jacket and cap. I organized a few things in my tent and then changed into dry clothes. My last action for the night was to crawl into my sleeping bag and zip it up. And that I did….and I fell fast asleep while listening to the sound of windblown snow pelting against my tent wall. What a night!