Winter Camping: Preparing the Camp and Getting Through the Night
From Ski Camping:
A Guide to the Delights of Backcountry Skiing. Copyright
1978 and 1989 by Ron Watters. With minor revisions made in 1998.
One of the most interesting campsites I've
ever experienced was set up unexpectedly after seven days of a trip into
the snow-shrouded Big Horn Crags in the Idaho Primitive Area. Four
of us were approaching a critical point in our traverse. The one
pass we were looking for was a low saddle between higher and more rugged
peaks. It was the only way to cross the backbone of the range and
reach the other side of the divide.
Snow swirled as we gathered around the map. We couldn't see any
landmarks, yet we were anxious to keep moving. We were convinced
that the slope ahead of us was the right direction and we continued climbing
higher and higher.
After an afternoon of climbing, we reached the top of the ridge.
If we had made the right choice, it would be an easy ski to the pass.
We dropped our packs and skied to the edge, only to peer over an abrupt
cliff that fell a thousand feet to disappear mysteriously in the clouds.
Obviously the wrong choice. After the clouds cleared enough we could
see our objective a half mile to the north across the basin.
Although it was somewhat unsettling to know we would have to make an
unplanned camp on an exposed ridge, it turned out to be the most spectacular
winter camp I've ever made. Eventually, the clouds began to lift.
Through the opening of our tent high on the ridge, we watched the framed
moving picture of clouds billowing and tumbling, now covering, then breaking
dramatically to unveil snow-burdened peaks.
Although high, exposed ridges can be dangerous during bad weather, they're
also one of the most scenic locations for a winter campsite.
Selecting a Campsite
When the weather looks kind, a camp in a high location overlooking the
surrounding scenery can make a trip. You are out there for enjoyment
and beautiful scenery and views should certainly be one consideration when
choosing a campsite. Other concerns are:
Wind protection. Trees, outcroppings, and a large pine all
provide protection from wind. Watch for loaded branches of snow,
and place the tent so that you are not directly under them.
Avalanche hazard. Avoid camping on any slope or at the bottom
of any slope that would have the remote possibility to avalanche.
Learn to check the surroundings for vulnerability below open areas, steep,
narrow chutes or overhanging cornices. It is always important to
learn the telltale signs of avalanche conditions.
Water availability. This is especially important. Having
a source of water from an open stream saves a lot of fuel and time melting
snow. Often, however, the streams are frozen or covered by snow.
On a recent trip through a wilderness area, we found running streams at
only two of the ten campsites.
Altitude. Avoid valley bottoms and low meadows. Cold
air will settle in lower areas and make a chilly, frosty camp. Benches
and platforms above the meadow or valley will be warmer.
Terrain. The easiest location for a tent is obviously a flat
area, but, if not available, simply make a platform by using the shovels
and digging out a place in the snow. This is one of the luxuries
of winter camping: snow can be moved. Once a site has been selected,
the members of the group should divide up the tasks of setting up camp,
putting up tents and making a kitchen area. The temptation might
be to sit and relax but it's important to get the heavy work over with
while still warm and energized. Work has the attractive advantage
of keeping you warm.
Putting up the Tent
You are probably used to setting up your tent, but there are few additional
considerations in the winter.
Stamp out a level platform with your skis on, and use them to compact the
snow. You can compact it further by stamping it out with your boots,
but it isn't necessary. You can make it level by shoveling out a
Place the entrance downhill. Cold air will flow into a tent facing
Place the tent ninety degrees to the wind. This will help keep the
tent door free from drifting snow.
With your skis on, stake out the tent. If you have a dome or tunnel tent,
put the poles in place and then stake it out. Throw everyone's pad
inside. Then, as you slip into the tent, the pads will cushion you and
prevent pits in the snow under the tent. After some time, the snow
firms up and provides a platform to sleep on. An unjustified fear
of those first trying winter camping is that the snow will melt on contact
with the tent, bodies or bag. That doesn't happen.
Skis and ski poles can be used for tent stakes if you've elected not to
bring any snow stakes with you.
In front of the tent door, dig a square hole one to two feet deep.
This will serve as a porch when brushing off boots or changing socks.
While some are setting up the tent, others can be constructing the kitchen.
If it is bitter cold, then you may dispense with the kitchen and do all
the cooking in the tent while wrapped in sleeping bags. In most winter
weather, however, cooking can be done outside. After one too many
spilled cups of soup on my sleeping bag, I avoid tent cooking whenever
The kitchen area can vary in size depending on how much time you have
and how energetic you feel after skiing all day. Ideal kitchen areas are
three to four feet deep rectangular holes shoveled in the snow. The
length should be five to eight feet and the width three to four feet.
A shelf should be made in the snow approximately one foot below the top
the hole where a stove can be set and all cooking is done. If you
are tired, a kitchen may consist of a small hole deep enough to stand in
and to keep the stove out of the wind. The nice thing about
such kitchens is their convenience. If deep enough, you can work
with the stove and do all of the cooking without bending or kneeling.
Most importantly, the stove is protected from the wind. Like kitchens
at home, they're places where everyone from the party congregates and chats
about the day's activities.
The most ambitious kitchen I've ever seen was about eight feet deep
and covered with a tarp. It had shelves, a cooking area, and
When the kitchen is constructed, get the stove out, fill it up, and
start melting water right away. A small ensolite pad placed under
the stove will help insulate it from the snow and keep it working more
While setting up the tent and constructing the kitchen, you'll be working
and keeping warm. But, sometime after those chores the activity level
drops and you'll need to be careful to put on dry, warmer clothing before
you chill. Most skiers change into a dry pair of socks and then pull
on a pair of down or fiberfill booties. Over the booties, a pair
of water-resistant overboots can be worn for walking around in the snow.
The bootie-overboot combination does the trick when it comes to keeping
warm while standing around in camp. It feels good to get out of ski
By the time members of the group have changed into warmer clothing and
laid sleeping bags in the tent, the water on the stove is likely to be
hot. First on the program is a hot drink for everyone. Cocoa, tea,
hot jello--whatever everyone enjoys. The idea is to start replacing
lost fluids right away and at the same time to provide extra heat to the
You should consume at least a gallon of water each day. Often
skiers only get quart of water during the day from their water bottles
if no open streams are available. That means another three quarts
will have to be consumed at breakfast and supper. Be aware of this
quantity because being thirsty isn't always a reliable indicator of being
dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, contributes to making
you colder, and can lead to hypothermia. Drink water whenever you
can and be conscious of your daily water intake. I try to keep drinking
liquids to the point of forcing it.
For the main course, cooking will be easy since you've taken care of
all the preparation before leaving on the trip. Freeze-dried foods
are simply dropped into the hot water and allowed to soak for a few minutes.
If you are preparing one pot meals with grocery store ingredients, all
the mixing and combining of ingredients has been done at home. All
you need to do is to add it to a pot. Put spoonfuls of butter or
margarine on the food to raise its caloric value. When supper
is finished, keep the stove going for more hot drinks.
Winter is as necessary a time as any to minimize environmental impact.
Vegetation that can be trampled and destroyed at summer campsites is well
protected under a layer of snow. The problem of winter camping is
human waste. One characteristic of freeze-dried food is that it keeps
you regular. The winter camper should take care to find a bathroom
site well away from any streams or drainage paths. If winter campers
are careless, the spring melt will wash all the preserved human waste from
the winter into the streams during a short period of time, fouling the
stream early in the season.
Pick up litter. Don't be conned into believing that the protective
white blanket will miraculously sweep away any litter. Particularly
be careful not to drop wax wrappers. If you bring oranges, carry
out the peels. Pine boughs should only be used for emergency shelters.
An abandoned winter campsite not properly cleaned up can look quite
ugly in its white surroundings especially if another party happens along
within the next few days. Out of courtesy, I throw snow over urine
marks and food spills before leaving. I have skied by winter camps
that were filthy. At one camp left by a large, commercial "winter
survival" school, a companion found unused tea bags, tops to cocoa packages,
and, next to a rather large pile of human feces, a dollar bill.
Stoves are dangerous if handled improperly. If possible, cook outside
the tent to be safe. It is not always possible, and some cooking
probably will have to take place in the tents. It may be also feasible
to use the stove just outside the tent door.
Whatever you do, treat the stove with caution. Stoves produce
carbon monoxide. Try to do any fuel filling out in the open.
A few points to remember:
For stoves which need to be primed, solid fuel or fire starter pellets
are the safest, especially when cooking in tents. White gas used
as a primer flares up violently while solid fuel burns predictably.
Avoid wrapping the stove in any kind of insulation. Use only insulation
under the base of the stove.
If the tank becomes so hot it can't be touched, turn off the stove and
let it cool.
Some stoves have a safety release valve in the cap. If too much pressure
builds up gas will escape out of the safety release. Usually the
escaping gas will ignite throwing flame away from the stove. Keep
the cap pointed away from you and outside the tent door.
Fill the tank before starting to cook. If you have to fill the tank
while cooking, allow it to cool off before fueling. A funnel is a
considerable help in filling.
Gas can assume the air temperature and can cause frostbite if spilled hands
during subzero days.
After filling, replace the cap on the fuel bottle and place it far away
from where you are operating the stove.
Because stoves produce carbon monoxide gas, always make sure your tent,
snow cave, or igloo is well ventilated.
In the winter when water surrounds you, it's surprising to be worried about
it. Yet, making sure you have enough of it is a constant concern.
If you're in an area where open streams or lakes exist, you'll have
a ready supply. Often, however, you'll find that all water
has to be melted. It takes time and fuel to melt snow, but avoiding
fatigue, headaches, and eventually dehydration is worth it.
Melted snow water in a pot never tastes as good as from a mountain brook.
You can help its taste and speed up the melting process by pouring a bit
of water left over from a water bottle in the bottom of the pan.
Allow it to warm and add snow, just enough that the snow doesn't soak up
all the water. If you're cooking inside your tent, pile up
bits and chunks of snow just outside the entrance, in order to have your
snow supply within reach. Bring plenty of juice mixes, cocoa, coffee
or tea to help disguise the pan taste.
To make your sleeping area more comfortable, position yourself in a desired
location, then bounce up and down jamming your buttocks into the pad, making
a depression for your hips. This will help keep the pad in position
as well as being more comfortable for sleeping.
To avoid confusion and accidents, it is best for tent mates to get in
the tent separately. Brush snow off clothing. Boots can be removed
while sitting in the tent and hanging your legs over the porch. Knock
snow off the boots before bringing them in so the tent doesn't get wet.
A candle can be tied to a tent's center pole or set on a pot.
Some skiers bring small candle lanterns to hang in the tent when arranging
and sorting equipment. I like to write in my notebook before retiring
at night and a candle gives enough light.
Those who have never tried winter camping may have steered clear of it
for fear of freezing during the night. It's an understandable
concern, but unjustified With a few simple precautions, no
one is going to be found a frozen zombie the next morning. While
the proper sleeping bag will keep you from freezing, here are some helpful
hints for staying comfortably warm:
The important first step is to get into the sleeping bag warm. Don't
expect the sleeping bag to warm you. It can, but you'll be ahead
of the game if you are warm when you first climb into the bag. If
you're not warm, drink lots of hot liquids or go for a quick ski to get
the blood circulating.
Eating something right before you hit the sack can help. It also
gets the blood circulating for the digestive process and provides a little
Keep sleeping bags close together in the tent. Take advantage of
some of your partner's heat.
Wearing clothing inside the sleeping bag is the most important aid to increasing
your comfort at night. If you're not warm enough, put on a hat.
Wear shirts and jackets if you are still chilly. Still more warmth
can be obtained by wearing down booties and mittens.
Keep the bag's hood closed up, leaving only a small opening for your mouth.
The hood drawn up in this way helps to contain heat from the head and neck
If you're still cold, get more insulation under your body by placing your
pack under the pad and any left over clothing under your bag.
If you happen to be sleeping outside and not in a tent, stay warmer by
finding a protected location out of the wind. Sleep under cover such
as under branches or build a snow shelter.
If you're still cold. think about getting a new bag and thicker pad.
Some of us have systems that simply can not handle colder temperatures
as well as others. If you become very cold, don't be afraid to wake
Boots in bed? Some do, some don't. If you don't, you can expect
stiff, frozen boots in the morning. While having them in the bag
can be a little uncomfortable, those who do will have toasty boots.
Place both boots in one stuff bag or each In their own bag and arrange
them someplace in the sleeping bag where it's comfortable. Moist
mittens and socks can be dried by placing them underneath your shirt next
to your warm skin.
Gaiters commonly freeze up. Before retiring, knock the snow off
and place them under your bag. Or put them in the same stuff bag
as your boots and take them to bed. If you have problems with the
zipper, rub on snow seal or candle wax.
The first person awake in the morning should bravely get up and fire up
the stove. He or she can get the others going by serving them hot
drinks in their sleeping bags. However it is done, the first thing
to do is to prepare hot drinks.
If I put the stove just outside the tent door, I can heat water in the
morning without leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Boots, which have been kept warm in sleeping bags all night, can
be tied together and hung around your neck underneath a jacket. This
will help keep them warm until you're ready to leave.
Keep drinking hot drinks after breakfast to start the day with a good
supply of fluids. Even while packing, pause and sip a little cocoa,
hot liquid jello or whatever.
The last thing to do after the tents are down and packs packed is to
remove down booties and put on your boots. The boots will be warm
from hanging underneath your jacket. Warm boots with warm feet is
the only way to start touring. Feet are one of the hardest parts
of the body to warm up. If they start to get cold, it may be a couple of
miles down the trail before they again feel comfortable.
<>Pack overboots and down booties, check to make sure the camp is clean,
and you're off for another day.
(More information on the book Ski Camping.
ISU Outdoor Program Links:
| National Outdoor Book
Awards | Outdoor Program
News | Classes |
Friends | Publications
| Dutch Oven | Outdoor
Informational Resources | Donations