Winter Camping Tips: The Perfect Tent Pitch

How and where you should set up your winter tent for maximum comfort and shelter longevity.

During my years on Mt. Rainier, I've seen many tents destroyed or blown away because of improper pitching. Here are some secrets I've learned:

  • Location, location, location. When above treeline, select a tent site that offers protection from the elements, such as the lee side of large rock outcroppings or snowbanks. Stay away from areas that are obviously wind-scoured, collect snow during windstorms, or are near environmental hazards such as icefalls and crevasses. Look for clues to the general weather pattern and set up your tent to maximize its aerodynamic design (low end into the wind).
  • Perfect your pitch. Stake out the tent body according to the instructions, and tie guylines tightly. In high wind on snow, use sturdy anchors that you can plunge or bury deep (ski poles, ice axes, skis, snow pickets, or specialized snow stakes).
  • Build walls for protection. When camping on a glacier or open slope, use a shovel or snow saw to cut blocks of snow to stack around your tent. Your snow wall should be about a foot thick, the same height as your tent, and 4 to 6 feet from the sides of the shelter. Leave a small opening in windward and leeward walls to prevent the site from becoming a snow trap.
  • Tend to your tent. Stakes and guylines often loosen during storms, and snow walls can fall over. Depending on the severity of the storm, you may have to hop out every few hours to tighten and rebuild. While you're out, brush snow off the tent and shovel drifts off the lower walls. This reduces pressure on tent poles and keeps air moving under the rainfly.
  • Collapse your tent. If you're departing basecamp for the day and the weather looks threatening, collapse the tent to reduce the chances of wind damage. Pull the pole ends from their grommets, but leave the fly attached and poles in their sleeves. Put a few rocks or snow blocks on top to hold the tent down.