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Backpacker Magazine – Fall Gear Guide 2009

Winter Camping: Camp & Trail Skills

Learn how to choose between a tent and a snow cave. Plus the best ways to travel in the snow.

by: Kelly Bastone, Illustrations by Supercorn

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Answer these questions to determine your ideal winter shelter.

The shelter of choice for short trips, thin snow, and claustrophobes

Follow these steps to ensure a comfortable night:

Stomp down a platform two feet wider than your tent with skis or snowshoes, or pat it down with a shovel. "Wait an hour before pitching the tent to let the snow solidify," says Kereszti. That keeps ruts from forming when you sleep and kneel on the snow.

Stake it out with skis (if breaking camp the next morning), or use snow anchors to secure guylines. Fierer packs 2-by-2-foot fabric squares that he fills with snow, attaches to the lines, and buries at least six inches deep. Also useful: trekking poles, ice axes, and sticks. All are lighter and more effective than snow stakes. Let the snow harden around the anchors, then tighten the guylines.

Build a wind-blocking wall out of snow blocks or a pile of snow. Leave a three-foot gap between it and your tent so blowing snow collects in that space rather than on the fabric.

Shovel snow from your tent during big storms to prevent collapse. "Be proactive," advises Fierer. "When you see snow piling halfway up your tent, you've waited too long."

Store sharp equipment (ice axes, snowshoes, and poles) away from the tent, in one central location, says Fierer. "That way, if they get buried in snow overnight, you'll know where to dig and can recover them all more easily."

Close all zippers before taking down your tent, and stuff the rainfly and body separately–measures that make it easier to pitch the tent next time. "When you unroll everything at once, the wind can easily blow part of your tent away," says Fierer.

Snow Cave
A simple, 90-minute plan for a cozy, bombproof shelter

When basecamping for a few days, nothing beats a snow cave if you don't mind tight quarters: It's warmer than a tent and more customizable, since you can sculpt its dimensions to suit your needs–right down to carving shelves and tables.

Prep the foundation: Select a snow drift (look on the lee side of boulders and downed trees) and probe it from the top and the sides to make sure it's at least 6 feet deep and free of hidden rocks and small trees. If the snow is soft, stomp on and around it with skis or snowshoes to consolidate it before you start digging.

Dig from the downhill side of the drift so you don't have to throw snow uphill, and create a 3-by-3-foot doorway as close to the ground as possible. Tunnel one foot into the mound, then angle the hole up to create a heat trap (a low door traps warm air inside the cave). Pile excavated snow on top of the mound.

Probe the snow from the inside to gauge the thickness of the ceiling (one to two feet is ideal). Before digging, shove two-foot sticks into the mound: You'll know the roof's thickness when you hit them from inside.

Mark the hollow area you're creating with branches or rocks to avoid stepping on the roof. Using ski poles, punch four to six vent holes into the ceiling.

Smooth the inside with your hands to create a steep-walled dome. This will encourage condensation to trickle down the walls instead of dripping from the ceiling. Cut shelves and seats as desired.

Keep a shovel inside for digging out, and mark the entrance clearly.

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Randy Givens
Jan 05, 2010

your comment implying snowcaves as 'tight quarters' as opposed to tents is nonsense. Tents, if anything, are tight quarters. Snow caves can be enlarged and expanded again and again provided enough snow exists. Some of my elaboate caves had individual bedrooms, a dinning room and formal entry with room to stand erect. When it gets dark by 5p there's not much to do outside, so work on the inside.


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