SALT LAKE CITY — Snowshoers and cross-country skiers see and experience amazing things when they take day-long treks through the snowy woods, but when they extend their snowshoeing trip overnight they experience an entirely new winter outdoors.
But who would want to carry all that gear through the snow, only to spend the night freezing in a tiny tent? Because the rewards of an extended stay in the snowy outdoors are absolutely amazing! Here are some simple, but often overlooked tricks, to help you stay warm and prepared for your next snow campout.
When you go snowshoeing for just the day, wearing ordinary hiking boots on your snowshoes is usually good enough. However, if you’re going on an overnight snowshoe expedition, you’ll need some more heavy-duty snowboots — something with an insulated liner, such as Sorels. They should be comfortable and waterproof.
A common problem snowshoers have is that their heel strap falls off their heel, and then their snowshoe falls off. To prevent this, bring some tiny bungee cords and run them over the top of your snow boots and attach them to the snowshoe’s heel straps. This will prevent the heel strap from falling off your heel.
Carry your gear on a sled, not in a backpack
Between your tent, sleeping bags, camp stove and food you’ll have quite a bit of gear. Carrying all that gear in your backpack is just going to push you and your snowshoes deeper into the snow. And that’s exhausting.
Tie your gear down to the sled with parachute cord. Lace the cord back and forth over the top of the gear like shoelaces. Attaching carabiners along the edges of the sled, and running the cord through the carabiners, makes this job much easier. Don’t pack the gear loose. Pack it inside a backpack, or duffel bags and strap those to the sled. To carry all your gear you’ll want a sled that’s 5 to 6 feet long.
You will pull the sled behind you so make sure the cord is long enough that the sled doesn’t ride up onto the backs of your snowshoes. I recommend getting a cord that's 6 to 8 feet long.
You can use a harness to pull the sled, or, if you don’t have a harness, you can loop the cord under your armpits and around the back of your neck. If you use this latter method, you may want to pad the cord with a towel or extra shirt to keep it from rubbing your neck raw.
Preparing the campsite
After you have reached the place where you want to camp for the night, use your snowshoes to pack down the snow in the spot where you’re going to pitch the tent. Don’t waste your time trying to build an igloo or snow shelter (unless you’re just doing it for the novelty of it). Just use a tent.
Don’t try to dig through the snow and pitch your tent on the ground, just pitch it on top of the snow. You will need a four-seasons, free-standing tent because due to the fact that you are camping on snow, you won’t be able to stake your tent into the ground. Put your gear inside the tent to weigh it down so it won’t blow away.
Try not to get in the tent while wearing your snowy boots. Whatever needs to be arranged inside the tent can be done while kneeling in the entrance of the tent, with your boots outside.
Lay down a tarp at the entrance of your tent as your front porch/staging area. When you’re ready to move into the tent for the night, remove your boots on the tarp. Bang the boots together a few times and knock as much snow off them as you can. Bring the boots inside with you and store them inside the tent overnight. Sometimes the extra warmth inside the tent is enough to keep them from freezing. Frozen boots are very difficult to put on the following morning. But sometimes the nights get cold enough that your boots will still freeze, even inside the tent. So after you’ve taken off your boots, loosen the laces and spread the boots open as much as you can. This will make it easier to get your foot in the boot the next morning, if it’s frozen.
You may want to light a couple candles inside the tent. Now, a couple candles aren't enough to warm up your tent to a good temperature, but they will warm it up enough to take the edge off the chill. Be sure to place the candles on something solid to prevent any accidental fires.
Make a campfire
If you’re camping on land where campfires are allowed, go ahead and build a fire. Build it right on top of the snow. As the night progresses, your fire will slowly sink into the snow as it melts.
Bring some Vaseline-coated cottonballs as fire starters. First, melt some Vaseline in a pan. Dip a cotton ball into the pan until it’s saturated with melted Vaseline. Pack the cotton balls into a small container. Film canisters are perfect – you can fit about 30 Vaseline-soaked cotton balls into it – but they are hard to find these days. Do this at home before leaving for your snowcamping trip. Use two to four cotton balls at the base of a kindling pile and light.
How to sleep warm for the night
You will want a sleeping pad. This acts as an extra insulative layer between you and the snow. And to dry out your wet clothes, put them under your sleeping bag, and on top of the sleeping pad, while you sleep. Your body heat will dry them out during the night.
Have a good winter sleeping bag. You’ll want one that’s at least rated for zero degrees. If you’re going snowcamping someplace particularly cold, like Yellowstone or Minnesota, get one that’s rated for negative 20 degrees. Also, wear a fleece layer inside your sleeping bag when you go to bed to help keep you warm. Also wear a beanie or some type of head covering when you sleep to help your body heat from escaping.
If you go snowcamping with your spouse use separate sleeping bags. You might think it’s a good idea to get a double sleeping bag and share it to double the body heat. However, you are actually colder because you can’t close the gap at the top of the sleeping bag between your bodies. Every time one of you moves a draft of cold airs comes in through that gap.
Keep some hand warmers in the sleeping bag with you. Or, before you get into the tent, warm up some water on the camp stove and fill a water bottle or two with it. Keep the water bottles inside the sleeping bag with you.
Snack throughout the night. Your body creates heat when it digests food. Snacking keeps your inner furnace stocked. Keep your snacks simple; something you can keep nearby that won’t spill or get messy.
Remember to check the weather forecast before planning an overnight snow camping trip and always check avalanche conditions. As long as you are prepared you will have a great time and stay warm enough to enjoy your trip.
Steven Law, a native Utahn, has been exploring the back corners of Utah in every season his entire life.