Introduction: Snow Backpacking - Stay Warm and Have Fun!

Do you think backpacking is just a summertime thing? No way! In the wintertime the mountains hold incredible sights and untouched beauty. Learn how to have an enjoyable snow backpacking trip, without freezing to death, or getting eaten by a sasquatch.

Step 1: You Want to Do What??

Whether your already savy about the outdoors, or a complete beginner, you should definitely try this.
But if you're new to it, i suggest you consult many other resources on the subject as I won't provide a comprehensive guide in this one instructable.
As with everything in the outdoors, you need a good dose of common sense. Make sure you research this topic more on the internet, maybe get some friends who know what they're doing, and really get a good idea of what is involved. Start small and work your way up to longer trips.

As always, I'm not responsible for whatever you do with this information, or how you interpret it.

I'm going to concentrate on six main areas to help you have a fun (and safe) trip.

1-How to get there.
2-Choosing a site
3-Shelter (Spending the night)

Step 2: Getting There.

Before you leave make sure you get a weather report, and let some friends know where you're going, and when you plan to be back.

I don't normally hike very far in... maybe a mile or two at the most (you might have to book it outa there). It can be a bit more strenuous than hiking on dirt, and you have to get used to snowshoes and a backpack.

Make sure you have decent snowshoes, and remember to buy a heavier rating than for your weight as you will be packing in about 40-50 more pounds.

A sled is nice to have if you have a ton of gear, and is perfect for the rare case of a sprained ankle or whatnot. It's really awkward to pull though, unless you have a hip belt rig.

On the hike in you really have to regulate you sweating. If you start to sweat, open your vents, or remove layers, even if you get a bit colder. If the moisture builds, you will get really cold from evaporation as soon as you stop moving.

Step 3: Choosing a Campsite.

There are several things to look for when choosing a campsite.
You want it to be sheltered from the wind, have a good supply of firewood, and not be in danger of avalanches. Basically don't set up at the bottom of a steep bare slope covered with snow.
You don't want to be paranoid, but look out for things like unstable trees, lots of Sasquatch tracks, and sloping ground. One really nice thing about snow, is that you can pile it anywhere, and make a perfectly flat pad for your tent! You'd be surprised at how hard it is to find a flat spot in the summertime...

If you want to make a snow cave, you need a minimum of 5 feet of snow, and if you want to sleep under the stars, a big rock is nice to snuggle up to.

My last trip, we got lucky and found a big slab pile a few feet from where we pitched the tents. Unlimited dry wood already cut into pieces! (I know I know, that's totally cheating...)

Also look for a good place to build a fire. Sheltered, but without too many dry branches above. (forest fires start in snow too)

Step 4: Spending the Night - the Tent...

Whether or not you plan on using it, you should always bring a tent. (find out why in the next steps)
Make sure it's a good backpacking tent, with a FULL rainfly. Also, don't use a tent that is significantly bigger than the number of occupants. It takes forever to warm all that airspace up.

Ideally, you should go with a four season tent (thanks Vautikos). They are built a lot better, and are intended to withstand snow and extreme winds. Three season tents are meant to not get too hot in the summer, but still withstand rain. Obviously you don't care about getting too hot, so if your tent has a lot of netting, and large gaps for snow to blow in, consider upgrading.

As you can see from the pictures, it is easy to make a perfect pad for your tent. In that first pic, we were on about 4 feet of snow. Once you get it packed a little, you rarely sink in and can walk around in your boots. Every once and awhile though, your foot decides to go south, and suddenly you're up to your crotch, with one leg running around on the top...

Step 5: Spending the Night - Sleeping Under the Stars...

This is personally my favorite way, and if you do it right, you can stay warm all night long.

-Note- Mother Natures Son has an excellent 'ible along these lines right here.

First you need to build a sort of bed that is sheltered, but higher than the ground. (cold air settles)
As you can see from the pics, I basically built a raised bed beside a rock. The area was pretty sheltered, so that worked out fine. The cold air didn't settle on me, and the snow insulated me from the bottom. I guess I got pretty lucky having never done it before... I seriously didn't expect to sleep at all.

The most important thing is to stay dry. As you can see from the pictures, I put a tarp and an insulated pad down, then folded the tarp over my bag, and then some more plastic on top. Things really shifted around in the night, but I woke up nice and toasty with the sun.

Here's a link to a better snow trench guide --> Click Here

Step 6: Spending the Night - Snow Caves!

I'm definitely no expert on this topic, but I'll include what happened on our first ever trip.
It was me, my dad, and another dude and his dad.

I really wanted to build a snow cave so I read up on it a bunch and decided that it must be pretty easy. Right? Well we got a late start, and it was getting dark by the time we chose a site, but we commenced digging two snow caves anyway.

Trust me. It takes A LOT longer than you would ever imagine.

After about 2 hours, I had what sorta resembled a snow cave. I remember just thinking about how nice and warm it would be, when it promptly caved in on me. I made it out alright, but I had to dive back in to recover my head lamp :P

Fortunately, we brought tents, and abandoned further igloo madness. I still really want to spend the night in one someday....

Step 7: Food

Honestly, whenever I've been backpacking in the snow, the main things we actually did around camp were cooking, standing around the fire, sipping hot beverages, standing around the fire, cooking, and standing around the fire.

We always plan on taking a hike, or trekking off somewhere, but for some reason, we always end up just chilling by the fire. (no pun intended)

Thankfully this leaves a lot of time to get a little gourmet with your meals and beverages. I'm not into the ultralight thing, and usually pack my food with the water still in it. Don't ever go light on your food in cold weather, and always bring enough for a few extra days just in case.

Basically, you want to have a good balance of Carbs, Sugars, Proteins, and fats.
All the varieties will provide body heat for you after certain periods of time. Fats and sugars create short term heat right away, while the carbs and protein will keep you warm all night long.

It's amazing how normal things taste superb after you've been hiking in the cold for a while.

[TIP] -- Try roasted cinnamon bears instead of marshmallows. It's da bomb!

(While some large animals are hibernating during the winter, you must still take measures to keep your food out of their reach. Hang it in a tree at least 10 feet high, and don't bring food with you into your tent. Ground squirrels and chipmunks are notoriously thieving. I was sitting right next to my pack one day when a mouse ran up and started chewing through my pack to get at my peanuts!. *grabs large frying pan*)

Step 8: What to Wear.

Follow these simple steps and you will never get cold.

1 - Avoid Cotton.
When cotton gets wet, it tends to hold the moisture in forever, which eliminates any of its insulation abilities. Stick with synthetic, or wool.

2 - Layer, Layer, Layer!
Make sure you have a bunch of different layers to use depending on the weather. Start with a lightweight, insulating, and wicking shirt. (like Under Armour), and build up from there. Always end with a waterproof and windproof outer layer. Whatever is in between these can be adjusted depending on the conditions.

3 - Don't sweat it.
If you start to sweat, unzip your vents, or remove layers immediately. You may think it's nice, because your really warm, but as soon as you stop moving, you will cool down unbelievably fast.

4 - Use your head.
Always, always, use a hat of some sort. Especially when sleeping.

Step 9: Fire Good!

A good hot fire is ABSOLUTELY essential when snow backpacking. If you're packing into a wilderness area (at least in the US) fires are not allowed. So unless you want to huddle over your tiny stove, then stick to the National Forest. In addition, a bright fire really helps keep the Sasquatches away...
'ible for an excellent fire starter

Assuming you already know how to build a good fire (instructions here) here's some tips on how to do it in the snow.

You will get wet on the trip and the fire is all you have to get you dry. Dry = Warm
It's really cool, you can just hold your wet clothing near the fire, and soon you will see steam coming off of it.

Pro Tip - DO NOT HOLD ANYTHING TOO CLOSE TO THE FIRE. I have already sacrificed a sock and part of a boot to the fire gods.... :P One second my sock was getting nice and toasty, and the next, it was a shriveled, melted, blue glob. (fortunately it wasn't on my foot at the time..........)

Probably the biggest factor here is to find some awesome firewood. As most of the firewood is covered with snow, you need to look for dead trees with low branches. After you get it started with the good dry stuff, you can use wood from under the snow as long as its not too saturated.

It seems strange, but you can build your fire right on top of the snow! Keep in mind though, that the fire will burn down through the snow, so you have to anticipate that when you choose a spot. You can kinda see that in the second picture.
Other than that just use common sense and remember that forest fires can still start in the winter!

Step 10: So Are You Hooked? I Am!

Don't let the cold keep you from the mountains!

With all the politically motivated trash flying around, and talk of impending economic doom, why don't you take time some weekend and get out of the city, away from the exhaust, and DO SOMETHING!

The clean air really cleanses you, (do I sound like a hippie yet) and the wild outdoors triggers something inside of you. Something that makes you stand a little taller. Makes you embrace your challenges.

Try it.

I dare you....

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