Back country – Winter Camping
February 11, 2004
Winter camping requires much more preparation but the rewards are plentiful. There are many great resources to help you prepare for your time in the mountains. Preparation and research are two of the most important factors when planning a winter camping excursion.
In the Rockies winter and snow are synonymous. It is why we live here and why people visit in the winter. But camping in the snow? Anyone who has gone car camping or climbed a Fourteener in the summer knows the woods are getting crowded and the popularity of hiking and camping in Colorado is growing. No one heads into the wilderness to meet new people or spend time waiting in line. Winter camping is a great way to ensure you find the solitude and serenity the wilderness has to offer. This is not an activity for the inexperienced. Before heading out in winter conditions everyone in your party should have considerable time in the backcountry in warmer weather. The weather in the mountains can change rapidly and prove fatal if you are unprepared. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Keeping warm when exposed to winter conditions can be a challenge and should be your primary concern before and during your trip. The secret is layering. Anyone who has spent time outdoors in cold weather knows the chill you can feel in your bones when you are not dressed properly. Once the cold has settled on the inside there is no shaking it. Hypothermia can set in rapidly as your body temperature drops. Multiple layers of wool, fleece and thinsulate combined with a waterproof/windproof layer are essential. Avoid cotton layers at all costs. Remember the saying: “cotton kills”. It is important to be able to quickly remove and add layers as your activity level and body temperature change throughout the day. A hat, gloves and warm socks are no brainers.
Bring plenty of both. High protein, high carbs are best. Meats, cheeses, rice and grains will give you the energy you need to keep going. Sugars are good kick start but burn off quickly. Oatmeal, tea and gorp should also find their way into your pack. DON”T EAT SNOW, yellow, brown, green or otherwise. It requires a lot of energy to transform snow into water which drains your body’s resources for other important tasks like setting up camp. Bring plastic utensils-metal gets cold on the hands and in the pack. Each person should carry their own spoon and a thermal mug.
Make yourself very familiar with the area. Winter trails are often unmarked and blowing snow can quickly cover your tracks. At least one person in your party needs to be able to navigate using a compass. Carry multiple maps and disperse them with different members of your party in case you become separated or someone has to go for help. Leave an itinerary with at least two people with an estimated return time. Have an alternate camp spot picked out in case traveling takes longer than planned. Remember, everything from walking to cooking and using the bathroom takes twice as long in the winter.
Consult local guides and check in with the ranger station and leave them a copy of your itinerary. While you are there check the daily avalanche reports. If you have not taken avalanche courses and are not carrying beacons and avalanche probes be sure you are traveling and camping in a flat, avalanche free area.
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A four season tent is essential for winter camping. Three season tents are not constructed to support the extra weight of snow. Be sure to have a rain flap and remember to face the doorway of your tent away from incoming weather. Choose a flat spot and pack it down thoroughly with your snowshoes or skis and let it settle before you set up tents. This will help avoid post holing as you move around your campsite. Igloos and snow domes are also shelter alternatives but require practice to build properly.
A great online resource for camping preparation and outdoor winter survival can be found on the University of Princeton web site.
For general avalanche info from aspenalive.com