Please enjoy this 2019 piece from AJ’s big giant digital archive of awesome stories. – Ed.
My very first snow camping experience was fraught with envy. I was taking an outdoor skills class at the time and was sharing a tent with one of the instructors who seemed to have everything dialed: a stack of warm sleeping pads, an expedition-weight sleeping bag, a pair of down booties, and even a giant freakin’ pillow. Being a newbie, my own setup was less than ideal: summer-weight bag, leaky pad that wheezed every time I so much as batted a frozen eyelash, a single pair of wool socks, and a clutch of stuff sacks rolled beneath my neck for “comfort.”
It got down to a balmy nine degrees that night, and I spent most of those cold, dark hours glaring at the cozy form snoring away next to me. That is, when I wasn’t huddled against it for warmth.
In the six years that have passed since that trip, I’ve upgraded my gear, mastered a few tricks for staying comfortable in the cold, and fallen in love with snow camping. I’ve also become an instructor for that very same class and it’s now mildly entertaining to watch my students make the same mistakes I did back in the day—and of course, even more satisfying to help them learn how not to screw up in the future.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help maximize your own snow camping stoke.
Know your numbers
As I learned while mooning over my instructor’s kit during that initial outing, gear selection is pretty crucial when you’re planning to participate in a live action version of Frozen. Things like ensuring that the R-value (insulation level) of your sleeping pad matches the conditions, or adding a closed-cell foam pad to bump it up a notch. Or, say, paying attention to the temperature rating on your sleeping bag—which, by the way, is a safety rating, not a comfort rating. I speak from personal experience when I say that even wearing all of your available clothing, wiggling into a flimsy sleeping bag liner, and kind of aggressively spooning your tentmate will not keep you warm if you’re using a 35-degree bag on a 9-degree night.
One year, I bunked with a student who rented a massive four-person, four-season tent for our backpacking trip. Not only did that sucker weigh a metric ton, but it was also a royal pain in the ass to set up. Even worse? It felt like we were sleeping in a giant, frozen geodesic dome; our body heat never had a fighting chance to even mildly warm the place up. Plus, our sleeping pads kept sliding around the cavernous space; by the time I realized we should have dug small shallows beneath our pads to keep them stable, the ground was frozen solid.
Of course, a too-small tent is also a problem. I once crammed three to a tiny, poorly ventilated model, then woke up in the early hours with my sleeping bag completely drenched, ice on the tent walls, and snowflakes drifting down from above. It was not unlike being stuck inside a nylon snow globe inflated with the hot funk of three sets of unbrushed teeth.
Moisture is the enemy
When it comes to dressing for the cold, I like to terrify my students by repeating the mantra: COTTON KILLS. But I also offer more gentle instruction on keeping things as dry as possible—shedding layers to ensure they don’t sweat through their clothes, always keeping a dry set of sleep clothes and socks tucked away, and lining their packs with trash compactor bags as an extra line of defense.
Of course, they don’t always listen. One year, I was positioned in the middle of the pack as we snowshoed around a beautiful Sierra valley. When I saw the student in front fall to her knees, I laughed because it’s funny when people fall in the snow. When I saw a second student sink down, I laughed again, because maybe I am a little bit of a jerk when it comes to this stuff.
Then I realized that both had broken through the snowy crust into a creek and felt very, very bad for laughing. I ushered them back to camp to change into dry clothes, except as it turned out, neither had much left in that department. I offered some of my own, then suggested they make hot drinks, cuddle up with a Nalgene full of boiled water, and zip into their sleeping bags while we set their wet layers into the sun to dry. Of course, the sky went grey as a blizzard ripped through a half hour later, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. They lived.
Keep ‘er moving
Every year, multiple times a trip, students who are standing or sitting completely and utterly still on a snow-covered surface blurt out some version of “I’m cold!” Sure, I suggest that they add more clothing, slip a closed-cell foam pad underneath them, or shove some hand warmers into various crevices—but it’s even more practical to tell them to just move around a bit. You know, maybe do some jumping jacks, take a walking bathroom break…or perhaps build something in the snow.
One year, when a student complained that he was bored and cold, I handed him a shovel and suggested he help carve out some seating and a small table; little did I know that he was basically the Frank Lloyd Wright of snow. He rallied his classmates to build two separate projects: a banquet table with room for twenty-five people, and a fire pit with stadium seating. He is obviously now an instructor for the class.
Stuff your face
One of my favorite byproducts of backpacking, especially in the winter, is that I can become a human garbage disposal, because obviously I need all those calories to survive. Many of our students are equally excited at the proposal of eating whatever they want, whenever they want. Cold in the morning? Eat a candy bar! Or ramen! Or mashed potatoes mixed with Fritos! Cold in the middle of the day? Chug some hot chocolate! Or some olive oil, if you’re freaky like that! Cold in the middle of the night? Keep some candy easily accessible to stoke your furnace!
Of course, everyone has a different approach to cold weather camp cooking. One instructor brought a steak to cook on the first night, the envy of every drooling carnivore in the bunch; another used to lug in a backpacking oven to surprise the students with fresh cinnamon rolls on their final morning at camp. And we’ve had students go gourmet, too—breakfast scrambles with fresh eggs and veggies, carnitas with slow-roasted pork and homemade salsa. But perhaps my favorite was the guy who melted a quarter-stick of butter into every meal, because he was worried that he was going to freeze to death if he didn’t consume enough calories. Needless to say, he ended up scooting off to the bathroom quite a bit.
Of course, no one’s perfect—certainly not me. Despite teaching this stuff, I still manage to screw up from time to time, like when I didn’t check the weather and ended up with an unplanned snow camp while on the Pacific Crest Trail. I laughed as I stomped out a platform in the snow with my trail runners, using my ultralight trowel, the only digging tool I had, to get it just right. Once my tent was set up, I changed into warm layers and boiled water for a cup of hot chocolate. Then I snuggled up in my bag, cradling the mug in my gloved hands as I admired the starry sky above and the sparkling ground all around. Sure, I had messed up—but in this case, I didn’t mind.