Trip Report: Winter Camping Guided Tour
Snow coated and bent the branches lining our route. Snowshoes shushed through new-fallen snow at a slow pace, pausing often to admire the stillness and beauty of the winter scene.
Our backpacks looked enormous, towering up and sticking out the sides. The packs were bulky, but not not as heavy as they looked - insulating foam pads are mostly made of air. Expect to carry a little extra weight when you go winter camping, but it shouldn’t be too much more than what you are used to for summer backpack trips.
We only covered a few miles before we found a level spot to set up our tents (good old Wilderness Technology Denali 2s). The snow was thin, and the ground was frozen, so we couldn’t use stakes in the standard way. We buried the stakes horizontally, piled more snow on top and then stamped them down to firm up the snow.
Once camp was established, we began work on constructing our snow shelter. There were about six inches of new snow at our elevation, but the snowpack base was less than two feet at its deepest (out in the open - there was no snow under the trees). We used a tarp and snow shovels to move snow into a pile to make a quinzee.
After a few hours of moving snow, we patted and tamped it down to work-harden it. Letting the snow set before excavation is important, so we took a break and enjoyed hot beverages in camp.
Then the excavation began. The “mole” wears little more than a base layer with a waterproof shell. It is hard work digging, especially in cramped spaces, so the mole will sweat — it is best not to get your insulating layers wet when winter camping if you can help it. The others have it easier, taking turns moving the snow away as it gets thrown out the opening by the mole.
When the snowpack is deep, then the ideal snow structure would be a snow cave. No piling up snow before-hand, just find a good vertical surface and dig in. When snow is five to fifteen feet deep, you can excavate a palace with enough time and person-power.
A quinzee is basically a snow cave for when the snow is not deep enough. You just have to make it deep enough to dig and crawl into.
An igloo, by the way, is not the ideal snow structure to build in most Cascade winter conditions. They require below-freezing conditions and chunks of ice or very hard snow. Hardly what we usually find with our temperate climate.
It took us about four hours of cooperative effort to build our quinzee. It was almost tall enough to sit up in, and could fit two comfortably (and four in a pinch).
We returned to camp, had dinner and watched the stars come out. The moon was bright and full, so we set out for a moonlit snowshoe. The moonlight dazzled on the snow, illuminating our path. Headlamps were optional.
Back at camp, Greg and Drew demonstrated how to build a small, low-impact fire. The wood was wet, so it took some huffing and puffing before it got blazing. We roasted marshmallows and had s’mores, talking around the fire until we all retired to our tents.
The wind blew that night, and the tents flapped a bit. It is much quieter in a snow shelter than in a tent.
The next morning dawned clear and beautiful. Coffee, tea and oatmeal made for breakfast. We took a short stroll west along the Fanton Trail to a view of the wilderness.
Then we prepared to set out on a snowshoe hike. Greg had set up a tarp under the trees the night before, and the participants asked about it. Greg replied that he had seen the weather forecast, and that rain or snow could fall sometime that morning, and it was good to be prepared. A participant pointed at the blue sky over head and laughed. We set out on our snowshoe hike. About twenty minutes along, someone turned around and said that the sky was awfully purple. A few minutes after that, it started to sleet. And then snow. And snow and snow and snow!
By the time we got back to camp, there was already an inch on snow on the tents. And it just kept dumping down more snow on us, big globs of flakes that piled up fast. We struck camp and took down our tents, gathering under the tarp. Everyone appreciated the tarp at that point. The importance of being prepared for harsh winter conditions was well-demonstrated.
The kept falling until we set out to backpack/snowshoe out. The way out was mostly downhill, and we dawdled along, enjoying the green trees transformed into a winter wonderland. We returned to the van for the return drive to Next Adventure with a feeling of accomplishment and having learned new outdoor skills to make winter camping a warm, dry, safe and fun experience.
Said one participant of her experience snow camping:
I would like to thank NextAdventure for the excellent Winter Camping Overnight trip. With no previous winter camping, snowshoeing, or backpacking experience Greg and Drew were able to guide and teach us what we needed to know to make it an amazing experience. They were knowledgeable, upbeat and very patient. Mother Nature cooperated with a close to full moon for a great moonlit snowshoe hike, and a change in weather the following morning that dumped 2" of snow while we were breaking camp. Our guides thought of every detail from necessary equipment to the campfire and s'mores! Thank you for an unforgettable adventure.
That’s about it for the winter season. Higher elevation resorts are getting feet of snow this week, but more warm weather and rain is to return next week.
Next Adventure Outdoor School’s winter season has ended. Our summer schedule of hikes and overnight backpacking trips will be posted online soon.
See you out on the trail!