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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.
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The safest and most efficient techniques for conquering common terrain obstacles.

Steep climbs

Packed snow "Switchbacking is usually the most energy-efficient method," says Kereszti. Choose an uphill angle that lets you climb easily: If you can’t maintain a conversation, your approach is too steep. Where the slope angle or terrain make switchbacking impractical, bootpack up instead: Kick your toe into the hill to create a solid platform beneath the ball of your foot, then step up.

Soft snow Kick the toes of your snowshoes into the slope to create a solid platform. Pause a moment to let the snow set beneath your foot, then step up. Deep powder might require an extra stomp or two.

Steep descents
Packed snow Extend one leg downhill and hold it stiff as you plunge your heel into the snow, creating a platform to rest your weight on.

Soft snow Lock your knees and land as solidly on your snowshoe’s heel crampons as possible to avoid skidding downhill.

When traversing an untracked slope, soften (or roll) your ankles to let all of the snowshoe’s teeth bite into the snow–not just the ones on the uphill edge–and shorten your uphill trekking pole. On packed snow or ice, you may need to use crampons and point your toes slightly downhill for the best traction; in these situations, carry your ice axe in your uphill, arrest-ready position.

Consider the previous weeks’ temperatures (if you don’t know, ask rangers or local outfitters). A cold snap could mean the ice you encounter is safe to cross; warming trends might signal dangerously thin ice.

Don’t cross near lakes’ outlets or inlets, or near tributary streams, where the current creates thinner ice. Avoid embedded objects, like logs and rocks, which can radiate the sun’s warmth and weaken the ice around them.

Tap ice to gauge how solid it is, and listen for a hollow sound, which indicates thin ice.

Keep your skis or snowshoes on to distribute your weight. Spread your group out as well, leaving plenty of space between hikers: Should one person fall in, he’ll have others on solid ice to help. (Don’t get too close–instead, throw a rope or line and pull him out.)

Fire, Guaranteed
A five-step guide to a low-impact winter blaze

"Even when conditions don’t require it, I generally build a fire," says NOLS’s Marco Johnson. Campfires leave little trace when constructed atop snow-covered ground–but they require a few special techniques to keep the flames from melting the snow and sinking out of sight.

Pack a base Use a trash can lid or metal cookie tray as a base under the fire.

Dig a seat The fire will gradually melt the snow under and around the pan, so shovel an area around the fire to sit and stand on. Otherwise, you risk falling into the fire.

Gather dead wood Strip small twigs and branches to use for kindling, and break large ones into foot-long pieces.

Build small to large Put tinder on the base (firestarter, birch bark, or twigs splashed with cooking fuel) and lean a few tiny pieces of kindling against it. Light it with a lighter or waterproof match, and as the flames grow, slowly add larger pieces of wood, leaving plenty of space for air to circulate.

Burn it all Don’t leave charred wood behind, and scatter ashes far from camp.

Cold Comfort
Full Winter Camping Guide

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