Snowcamping 101

Tim Kohler, December 4, 2001

Tim runs a snowcamping class

Typically 100-120 people per season, 5 outings, 25 people per outing, 5 guides, a food group per guide. 5th outing is for families.

They go to Bear Mountain, Lake Tahoe, and Lassen

The Sierra Club also has a site for snowcamping

Reasons to snowcamp

  1. Beautiful
  2. Challenge
  3. Very quiet (if no snowmobiles)
  4. Good skill to learn if you are trapped outside
  5. Don't have to clean off gear when you are done
  6. You can travel over trees and logs in deep snowpack that you would not be able to travel over in the summer.


It is much drier in winter, so you need to consume more water. Typically drink 2 liters per day. Sources of water

The hole in the snow down to the stream can be many feet down, so you should use a string attached to bottle so you don't fall in.


There are three types of shelters:


You can use a regular tent, as long as it has a good rainfly, and a good supporting structure with 2 poles.

A pyramid tent is made for snowcamping: The 4 edges are staked out, and the center is raised with either a pole or a suspended wire. If using a pole, need to bring a tuna fish can as a base for the pole. Pyramid tents can be pitched quickly. A regular tent can also be used as a floor or roof in a trench or cave. A-frame tents are good at allowing snow to sluff off.

Set the stakes using a dead man stake: dig a hole where the stake is going, and lay the stake sideways, attached to a tent rope. Use a trucker's hitch. That way, when you take down the tent, you can just pull the rope. Use Christmas tree branches for the stakes so that you can leave them in the ground.

A tent is the coldest type of shelter.


You don't get as wet making a trench as you do a cave. Be sure you don't walk on someone's trench: they can get covered with snow at night. A trench is warmer than a tent (but colder than a cave)


There are several types of cave:

  1. Igloos. Igloos are very time consuming.
  2. Quinzies. Used in cases where there is less snow on the ground, and if the snow is dry. Pile up a lot of snow, let it congeal, and then dig a cave. Make the quinzy 1 foot taller than the tallest person. You can pile your packs in a heap, then pile snow on top of it, then dig out your packs to form the inside.
  3. Snowbank: dig out a snowbank

A cave will start to melt if the temperature is > 40 degrees. A cave is the warmest kind of shelter.

Use a shovel with an extendible handle. If the snow is just right, cut a T in the door: it makes it easier to dig out snow. Snow has a lot of air, so you should not suffocate. If the cave does ice up and you do start to suffocate, you will have breathing problems, wake up, and know to get some air.

To make an above-ground shelter, start by packing down the snow: it will pack down a foot or so.

You can dig out a hole in the snow right outside your vestibule, so that you can sit in your vestibule doorway and hang your feet down outside.


You can go up very steep terrain in snowshoes. If you are carrying a large backpack, you need a larger snowshoe. Some snowshoes have attachable extensions: You can put on the extension when trekking, and then take them off when walking around camp. you can use snowshoes with any kind of boot. there are two ways to go:

  1. Waterproof rubber boots with a liner. You can put the liners in the bottom of your sleeping bag when you sleep, so that you wake up to warm liners.
  2. Leather boots. Use nix wax to seal the boots. Then you need to use plastic bags as a vapor seal: put on a sock liner, then a plastic bag over that, then a thicker sock over that, then a plastic bag over that. The problem is that your feet are always soggy. Not the way to go.

Initially, you will have to walk around camp in snowshoes or skis, but as the snow becomes compacted, you can switch over to regular boots.

Get snowshoes with a sturdy decking and grips at the toe for steep climbing. Snowshoes also have teeth on the side for lateral support. Tubbs and Atlas are good brands.

Wear gaiters to keep snow out of your boots. Make sure the gaiters fit over your shoes before you buy them.


Skis are faster on flat sections, but cannot go up steep hills. You need to bring skins to allow uphill trekking. It takes a lot of practice to get good at skiing with a heavy backpack. for walking around camp, it is nice to have snowshoes so that you don't have to keep putting on your skis to get from one place to another.


Backpacks for winter camping are larger, typically 5000 to 6000 cubic inches. You need more fuel, more food, and more clothing. Backpacks range from 25 pounds to about 50 pounds max. The average is 40 to 45 pounds.


You run your stove constantly from when you setup camp (around 4 pm) until when you go to bed. Snow is about 10% water, so for every pot of water you need 10 pots of snow. If you cook in your shelter, cook near your door to allow for ventilation and to prevent the snow from melting. You can create a table by digging a kitchen and leaving a section of snow for the table. Be sure to insulate the stove from the snow. You can use a trivet, or a license plate, or Masonite. You may need to wind-proof your kitchen. You can make breakfast nooks or cabinets in the snow for food items so they don't get snowed on. Avoid metal utensils because they can stick to you. Keep forks stabbed vertically in the snow otherwise you can lose them. Make sure you bring an insulated plastic mug to keep foods warm. Wrap duct tape around metal utensils to keep them from sticking to your skin.


Avoid foods you have to soak in water, like beans. Bring hot drinks that have sugar. Hot jello is great. You need lots of calories on a snow camping trip.


If you are outside, sit on an insulated pad. Bring a thermarest, an insulated pad, and cut up insulated pads to use as pillows and padding when you sleep. Get a full-size pad (not 3/4 size). For sleeping, put down a tarp, then the insulated pad, then the thermarest on top.


It gets dark early in winter: bring a headlamp. The longevity of any batteries goes down in the cold, so try to keep them warm. For the Sierras, you can use a regular 3-season sleeping bag. You can put your sleeping bag in a bivy sack, which is a waterproof sack that goes around your sleeping bag. Bivy sacks come in breathable Gore-tex. You can dry your clothes by wearing them when you are sleeping: your body heat will dry them out (your sweat will go through all the layers and through your sleeping bag). The temperature in the Sierra usually does not get colder than 5-10 degrees. Try to get really warm before you climb into a sleeping bag so that your heat is trapped. you can also go for a jog before you sleep. Down booties are fantastic at night. They have a rubber sole so that you can walk around camp in them. You can boil water before going to bed, and take it to bed in a Nalgene bottle for heat. Nalgene bottles are generally indestructible.


Don't use a Coleman stove: The fuel relies on warm temperature to vaporize, and it does not work at all in winter. Instead, use white gas, which uses your pumping action for pressurization. You need one bottle of fuel per night per stove. You need 2 stoves per 4 people. Fuel can get much colder than freezing: If you spill it on you, you are likely to get frostbite. Avoid pouring fuel. When snow camping, you can eat more fat, because you burn more. Also, perishables stay cold and preserved.


In winter, you cannot always see the trails, so it is important to know how to use a map and compass.

Get a compass with:

A GPS can help in white-out conditions.

Tim recommends the Silva Ranger for $48.


Avoid cotton: it gets cold when it becomes wet. If you are wet, you are better off being naked than wearing cotton: in the presence of wind, wet cotton will actually suck heat out of your body faster than without the cotton.

The key is layering:

When you exercise, you may even want to take off the polartec layer. At night time after dinner, you may want an additional polartec layer on top of your 2 base layers. Gore-tex works well. However, Gore-tex will not keep up with your sweat production. Get a hood on your jacket to keep snow off your head. Get a full length zipper on the jacket. Non-breathable waterproof clothes are OK as long as you get a zipper with it.

Down is worthless when it gets wet. If you have a down sleeping bag, keep it from getting wet. Keep all down items in a waterproof bag. Also use a breathable bivy sack over a down sleeping bag.

Fiberfill is the alternative to down.

For gloves, you can also layer:

Forget wool: it gets soggy and stays soggy when it gets wet.

Buying stuff cheap