Written by Auri Clark
Snow camping is one of my favorite ways to spend time in the outdoors. Just
evaluating a site and safely and creatively constructing camp is one of the best parts
of an expedition in my opinion. But do it wrong, even one little part of it, and your
entire trip can have an undertone of stress and discomfort.
Before leaving on the trip, make sure your tent (and the rest of your gear of course)
is good to go. Unpack it and set it up even if you know it hasn’t been used since it
was inventoried after it was last used. There is nothing worse than finding out your
zipper is broken or tends to pop, there is a tear in the tent wall, or you are missing
cord on several of the tie down points on day one of your trip.
Once you arrive to the general area of your camp, make sure you are in a safe spot.
Look for a zone of compression if camping on a glacier, as a zone of tension will be
much more likely to have crevasses. Stay away from possible rock fall or ice fall
zones that could come from above your camp. Be sure you are far enough away
from avalanche slopes by measuring the alpha angle of the slopes around you. The
alpha angle determines whether you are in a potential avalanche run-out area. From
your camp, measure the angle from where you are to the top of the avalanche slope.
For a melt-freeze snowpack, you want the angle to be less than 21 degrees and for a
soft and cold snowpack, less than 17 degrees.
Once you have established a safe zone for your camp, start probing it out. Make sure
your entire camp is on solid snow/ice, and mark the perimeter with wands so you
can comfortably walk around your camp without being on a rope. At this point, pick
out a tent site, a kitchen area, latrine, pee corner, water collection area, and a place
for your sharps pile.
Our Wrangell-St. Elias camp. This was after our first night of camping (notice the wind walls are just barely taller than the tents). Our kitchen also has wind walls and is organized so we know where to find things should they get buried in a storm.
Tent site: Start by digging down a bit and leveling out the tent pad as much as
possible. Compact it with your skis on, and if you start sliding forwards or back,
well…your tent pad is not level. It is critical to do it right the first time when the
snow is soft, because once you’ve spent a night with your warm tent on the snow, it
will become a hard and icy plane that is much harder to shovel out. Then set up
your tent, with the length of the tent parallel to the prevailing wind direction. Be
sure the tent strings are tight to avoid too much flapping in the wind, but not so tight
that the zippers of the vestibule frequently pop open. Wrap the strings around an
object and bury it deep to create a deadman anchor. Use a trucker’s hitch on the tent
strings so tension can easily be adjusted in a windstorm.
Once the tent (or tents) is set up, begin work on the wind walls and vestibules.
Again, determine the direction of the prevailing wind and build a U-shaped wall
around that side of the tent. It helps to take blocks from in front of the wind wall to
create a sort of “double-wall”. Keep enough room between the tent and the wind
wall to be able to shovel out snow, but not so much room that the wall is ineffective.
When building out your vestibules, the vestibule kitchen needs to be constructed on
the side away from the wind. This is the chance to be creative with digging out as
much or as little as you want, depending on the purpose of your vestibules. You can
dig out half of a vestibule to create a kitchen and a table with standing room; or you
can dig it out completely to give yourself room to stand and take off your boots
before entering your tent; or for more gear storage. You can also build mini wind
walls around your vestibule to help keep snow from blowing into your boots at
Kitchen, latrine, and pee corner: There is no one way to build these, but obviously
you don’t want them right next to each other. Have an area to pee that is close to
your tent for the middle of the night or middle of a storm bathroom run, but you also
want to make sure it is no where near the area you collect snow to melt for drinking
water or the kitchen. The latrine is nice to have far enough away from the tents and
kitchen that you can have a little privacy, but not so far that you refuse to leave your
tent to use it. Other than the obvious guidelines, be as creative as you want with
your kitchen and latrine. It is critical to build wind walls around these too, otherwise
they will be completely buried after a storm.
Our kitchen had shelves for storage, a level counter for cooking, benches to sit on,
garbage bags full of clean snow to use for drinking water, and high wind walls.
The most important part of snow camping: stay organized! If a storm rolls in
bringing loads of snow and wind, your stuff WILL get buried. Be certain everything
is anchored down and easy to find under a foot or more of snow. Keep a shovel right
outside your tent so you can find it immediately in a storm to shovel your way out
of your tent. Keep all of sharp items together (ice axe, crampons, skis, probes, poles)
and attached if possible, so once you find one, you have all of them. Have your food,
fuel and cookware in an easy to grab spot so you can cook in your vestibule during a
storm. These strategies allow the team to get moving as soon as the weather clears
and you aren’t spend half a day trying to find gear under the feet of snow that fell
during the night.
Our camp on the last day: the wind walls are now about two feet taller than the tents and our pile of skis is now within the wind walls. The wind walls will melt and compact over time, so they need constant maintenance and refortifying.
If you can’t remember all of these tips and tricks, the best way to learn is by experience. Make one of these mistakes once and you will never make it again!