Updated: Jun 3, 2019
There's been a recent push for discovering the (somewhat frozen) joys of snow camping, and there is a lot to be said for getting out there and braving the cold! It's so important, though, to make sure you're adequately prepared. Mother Nature is not one to mess around with, and this is certainly no exception. Make sure ahead of time that you know what you're getting into so you can enjoy (and survive) it out there! One of my friends has been looking into joining on some snow camping adventures lately, and his questions on the topic gave me the idea of writing this "quick start" article on it. This is by no means an all-encompassing article, but here's some things you should have and do when looking to get out there.
To Have (Before You Embark)
1. The Ten Essentials
Always, always remember those same ten essentials. As a refresher, those are: (1) Navigation (map, compass, GPS system); (2) Sun Protection (sunglasses, sunscreen - yes, even in winter); (3) Insulation (jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, waterproof boots, thermal underwear); (4) Illumination (flashlight, headlamp, extra batteries); (5) First Aid Kit; (6) Fire (matches, lighter, fire starters); (7) Repair Kit and Tools (duct tape, knife, screwdriver, scissors); (8) Nutrition; (9) Hydration; and (10) Shelter (tent, space blanket, sleeping bag, etc.)
Remember, you're engaging winter, so some of these items will need to be adjusted accordingly. Your shelter and clothing, for example, will need to be able to hold up under greater extremes. This is a key difference between 3-season tents and 4-season tents: ability to protect you in more extreme conditions. 4-season tents are generally heavier and sometimes more expensive, but they're more able to withstand the icy demands of the season. (Trade-offs...always trade-offs....) Winter camping with a 3-season tent can still be done up to certain extents and conditions, but make sure you have other materials to compensate (like an especially warm sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and layers). (You can also snow camp by making a snug snow cave to shelter you, but that's a subject for a different article....)
It's also a good idea to make sure outer layers of clothing and boots are insulated and waterproof, too. Hats and warm gloves can also make a world of a difference (and the latter is essential for keeping your fingers protected!) Keep in mind gear like snowshoes, spikes, or an ice axe can prove useful and appropriate as well.
2. Avalanche Gear (Shovel, Beacon, Probe)
It doesn't matter how low you think your chances are of encountering an avalanche; you should have this gear on hand. A shovel, a beacon, and a probe are essential to have and know how to use in case of such an event. There's other gear that's useful like snow testing kits, but at bare minimum you should have these three items. Beacons and probes can help to locate someone quickly in the aftermath of an avalanche (when every second matters), and a shovel allows you to dig out. You should know how to use these items, too. There are a number of avalanche courses you can take to gain more knowledge on this - go have a look!
This is key: make sure you have the proper knowledge to embark on your adventure and/or that you're with people that do. Watch the weather for where you're planning to go and check the avalanche forecasts (the Northwest Avalanche Center, for example, often has good updates and recommendations). Know the route that you plan to take and be aware that the general landscape may look very different: trails may not be visible and markers or even trees that normally provide visual cues on a familiar summer route may be obscured or buried. Keep an eye out for avalanche dangers and hazards like tree wells. Have back-up plans. Know your snow and know what to do if conditions go awry (there are avalanche safety courses you can take where you can learn how to read the snow and landscape for signs; as a basic snow adventurer, you should be checking the avalanche forecasts and aware of avalanche danger areas on your route to avoid - park rangers can often help with this).
In other words, stay RAD: know the ROUTE(S), know the general AREA, know the DANGERS (and what to DO if disaster strikes). That may be cheesy, but whatever works, right?
4. A Buddy
Buddy system! It's arguably not always possible, but there is safety in numbers, and during winter it can be especially valuable to have a friend around. You can keep track of each other; it's better to have a buddy in case of avalanche, tree well falls, or other emergencies; and you can even share body heat if needed (I was once on a camping trip where we encountered unexpectedly frigid temperatures, and we stayed warm by managing to squeeze all four of us into one tent!)
To Do (Once You're Out There)
1. Set Up (Snow) Camp Many of the same rules for camping in warmer months apply, but with some caveats. One beauty of winter camping is that often you can find or make a space to set up camp almost anywhere - you can dig and/or smooth out an area for it. If you're securing a tent, you can usually do so by burying the tent stakes in the snow. (Note that if it gets cold enough, these may be iced over and hard to dig out, so make sure you have a shovel or ice pick to retrieve them when it's time to pack up!)
2. Leave No Trace Always, always practice good leave no trace principles. Don't leave any food or trash behind in the snow, and stay aware of the impact you're having. As awkward as it is, you'll also need to think about proper human waste disposal out there.
3. Take Extra Precautions and Be Smart Keep an eye on the weather and remember how quickly it can change; bring your water into your shelter with you so it doesn't freeze overnight; don't underestimate the toll exposure to really cold temperatures can take on your fingers, toes, and nose; and be cautious around ledges or cliffs, because there may not be any solid ground underneath that last protruding mound of snow after all...
4. Savor the Moment
As overwhelming as it can all seem at first and as seriously as you do have to take safety, snow camping can be an absolute blast. Though icy temperatures may take some adjusting, don't forget to stop and really savor all aspects of the experience.
If you find yourself intimidated by all the information and caution, don't be. You can't know what you don't know until you do, and then more knowledge is power! Now that you're started, you can go out there and tackle it better, and having the boxes checked on those other items means you'll be better equipped and able to enjoy it out there!