The Manual: Deluxe Winter Camping

Don't let frigid temps keep you inside. Here are five tips for deluxe winter camping.

Pitch Your Tent | Build a Snow Wall | Construct a Kitchen | Reflector Oven | Personal Touches

Pitch Your Tent

Snowy site? Here’s how John Gookin, coauthor of NOLS Winter Camping, stomps out a perfect camp:

1. Flatten an area twice the size of your tent’s footprint with your skis or snowshoes.

2. Lay out the tent (but don’t pitch it yet), then dig trenches for deadman anchors. Make the trenches six to 12 inches deep, a foot away from each corner. Gookin’s deadman of choice is a smooth, two-foot-long stick because you can pull the line and leave the stick behind (stakes, trekking or ski poles, and snow-filled stuffsacks also work). Place them perpendicular to the line of pull.

3. Tie a trucker’s hitch (easy to work with when frozen) around the anchors, making sure to keep the knot above the snow’s surface so you can adjust and untie it later.

4. Bury the deadmen and stomp snow on top.

5. Let them settle for about an hour. Before pitching your tent and piling in, you should be able to stand or kneel on your site without snowshoes or skis. The longer they sinter (consolidate into solid snow), the harder they’ll freeze–so sink the deadmen right the first time.


Pitch Your Tent | Build a Snow Wall | Construct a Kitchen | Reflector Oven | Personal Touches

Build a Snow Wall

Sculpt your own windbreak for extra shelter and warmth (but keep your shovel handy for clearing any drifts that form if it snows). Here’s how:

1. Pile snow into an arc around the windward side of your tent (a curved wall is more stable than a straight one). If the snow is wet and packable, “You can just pick up snowballs,” says Gookin. Otherwise, shovel it (he prefers a lightweight scoop like the Voile Telepro Avalanche; $40,

2. Build the wall about as high as your tent for maximum protection. For every foot the wall is high, site it a foot away from the tent–for example, a three-foot-high wall should be three feet away from the tent.

3. Spray water from your mouth onto any soft spots. It’ll freeze and prevent the wind from eating holes into the wall.

4. Windy, but not enough snow? Randy Keller, owner of Alaska’s Isuma Guideworks, advises building a lean-to out of branches and boughs, then packing snow into it. “If it’s windy, it’ll fill in on itself,” he says.


Pitch Your Tent | Build a Snow Wall | Construct a Kitchen | Reflector Oven | Personal Touches

Construct a Kitchen

Choose a site that’s protected from the wind and faces east (you’ll get morning sun with your coffee). Pack down an area large enough to fit a counter or table, plus benches, for everyone (minimum: the size of your tent’s footprint) and wait an hour. Dig in: Make a table by shoveling around its perimeter, leaving the top at snow-surface level. Use loose snow to sculpt a counter and benches. Gookin even cuts cubbies under the counter for storage and toe space. “If we go really nuts, we build a spice rack,” he says. Stick skis or snowshoes into the backs of the benches to serve as backrests.

Pitch Your Tent | Build a Snow Wall | Construct a Kitchen | Reflector Oven | Personal Touches

Bake With a Reflector Oven

Don’t just warm your hands around the campfire–use the heat to whip up fresh treats. “You can bake cookies, cornbread, pizza, coffeecake–and it only weighs a couple of pounds,” says Keller.

Made of lightweight aluminum with collapsible panels, these old-school, box-shaped ovens reflect campfire heat toward the baking tray using two slanted interior surfaces. (Try Svante Freden’s line, available at Here’s how to do it right:

1. First, build a high, hot fire (don’t let it burn down to coals). Keep plenty of dry wood stacked nearby so you can feed the flames, maintaining a constant temperature while your food bakes.

2. Put your dough on a baking sheet or piece of foil on top of the oven tray. Place the oven about a foot away from the fire to start. Check your dish periodically and move the oven closer or farther (using thick gloves!) if it’s baking too slowly or burning.

3. The treats in the front of the oven will cook faster than those in the back: Rotate the baking tray as needed so your food cooks evenly.

Pitch Your Tent | Build a Snow Wall | Construct a Kitchen | Reflector Oven | Personal Touches

Add Personal Touches

Dig a two-foot-deep pit in your vestibule. Now you have space to sit while you put on boots.

Cut a rectangle into the snow outside and sculpt shelves. Line the bottom with a piece of closed-cell foam and place water bottles on top. Put food bags on top of that, then seal with a block of snow; the insulation will keep everything from freezing.

Sleeping platform
When you slide into your bag, bounce up and down a few times to create a small depression for your hips and butt in the snow beneath you.

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