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Author: Mike Schoby
I was perched on the only flat spot available, which was more avalanche chute than mountainside, in the North Cascade Mountains.
I remember seeing a postcard from Alaska when I was a kid. It was of a dome tent, pitched on the snow with the Aurora Borealis illuminating the night sky. The vestibule of the tent was open and candlelight clearly depicted a backpacker cooking his dinner over a small stove.
The scene looked so peaceful, tranquil and surprisingly -cozy and warm. How impressionable are the minds of young boys.
Flash forward 20 years.
I was perched precariously on the only flat spot available, which was more avalanche chute than mountainside, high up in the North Cascade Mountains. The wind was howling so hard that the tent was threatening to fly away like a huge pair of underwear on a clothesline in a Kansas twister. I tried in vain to get my numb hands to thread slender carbon shock-corded poles through the small opening in the tent's roof.
After a long period of struggling and as I neared the point of both mental and physical exhaustion, the tent finally came together. Quickly, before it blew away, I staked down the corners best as I could and groggily spread out my pad and sleeping bag. Inside the tent, I was granted a reprieve from the howling storm; but the cold seeped through the floor until I felt more and more like a slab of beef in a butcher shop freezer.
Lying in my sleeping bag and shivering, I stuttered out a profane remark that was derogatory toward all photographers and postcard manufacturers. My partner looked over from his bag. Apprehension clearly showed on his face. "You OK over there?" The tone of his voice conveyed his concern that I was suffering from severe hypothermia and delusions. "I'm fine," I snapped back. "Just reflecting on my youth!"
The tent did gradually warm up and we made some coffee over a small Whisperlite stove. After a reasonably good dinner of dehydrated food, cooked with melted snow, I stepped outside to knock some snow off the roof of the tent. The wind had died. A million stars glistened in the clear mountain air. It suddenly hit me that the postcard's fantasy was not far from reality. Like any postcard or idyllic setting, the less than pleasurable points are always glossed over, but the essence of the sensation was definitely there. The isolation was tangible; the peace and serenity, penetrating. Sure, there were hardships such as the long snowshoe hike, the driving wind and record cold. But without these hardships, the sensual experiences of isolation, peace and serenity would be as flat and cheap as the proverbial postcard.
While snow camping may not be everyone's cup of tea, I would recommend it to anyone who has a desire to really experience the outdoors in winter. However, to finally achieve the tranquil scene so often pictured in the mind's eye requires a fair amount of preparation and planning. The difference between having an excellent, long lasting memory or a terrible, long lasting memory is small, but if you plan carefully, it is easy to avoid unpleasant experiences.
Planning and Preparation
I know it sounds like a sales pitch, but this is one outdoor sport that absolutely requires good gear. As can be imagined, clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. Unlike stationary cold weather activity, winter camping generally involves quite a bit of strenuous activities. All clothing should be waterproof and breathable. Layer your items of clothing so that different layers can be taken off as you get hot and at the same time layer items so that moisture will be wicked away from the body. A good example would be expedition-weight Polypro long underwear, fleece middle wear, then an outer garment of GORE-TEX or similar breathable/waterproof material. Fleece hats, balaclavas, waterproof gloves and boots are also a necessity.
Tents should be lightweight, strong and designed for four-season use. In country where temperatures can drop way below zero, winds blow to gale forces and snow storms can dump a foot or two during the night, three-season or summer tents are simply asking for disaster. Wind is your worst enemy in the winter. When selecting a site to pitch your tent, keep in mind that protection from the wind is your most important part of the comfort equation.
Thick semi-inflatable sleeping pads are every bit as important as a good bag for insulating your body from the snow beneath the tent. Most importantly, your pad should be long enough to cover the full length of your body, keeping your feet off the cold floor tent. Sleeping bags should be mummy style, with hood and comfort rated to below zero.
Your cooking and water heating will be done on small backpacking stoves. Several good brands are on the market, but regardless of the brand, be sure to include a couple of very necessary items such as a heat reflective shield, a windscreen, extra bottles of fuel and spare parts for field repairs. For light in the tent, the small camping candles enclosed in brass cases are hard to beat. Not only do they put out plenty of light they will also heat up the inside of a tent considerably.
Winter snow camping can be difficult, cold, strenuous, and ripe with hardships but when planned correctly the experience is unique and of a rugged quality that is seldom matched today...except in postcards.
Snow Camping Tips
1.) A urine bottle inside your tent will be most appreciated at 2 A.M.
2.) Heat Packets or handwarmers can warm up a cold sleeping bag quickly.
3.) Keeping water thawed for a quick drink in the morning is easily accomplished by putting a bottle of water at the foot of your sleeping bag.