VIDEO: How To Build A Backcountry Winter Campsite
We asked our resident expert, Danny Ozment—an AMGA Ski guide and OR employee—for the run down on how to camp comfortably when it's cold and snowy out. Here are his five tips for building the comfiest winter camp.
1. Selet a safe, rad spot—then prep it.
Make sure to select a site that is safe, considering proximity to trees, exposure to avalanche terrain and how your chosen site is affected by weather. Once the appropriate site is selected, most of the time you will want to work to harden the snow you’ll be using for your shelter. This usually involves stomping down an area big enough for your shelter with skis or snowshoes at first, and then compacting down the snow with just shoes/boots on. This ensures a nice, flat surface and snow that’s easier to sculpt into what you want for your shelter.
2. Don’t go too big.
For the shelter, I like to use a square tarp with a center pole, sometime referred to as circus-tent style. It’s easy and requires moving less snow than a snow cave or igloo. You can lay out the tarp and mark where the edges are going to be, but I do not like to set it up first due to the ease of ripping tent fabric while shoveling from the inside. Have a plan when you start to dig your trench as to how you want your livable space to be arranged on the inside, and then begin by removing less snow that you think you need to remove. Once you are two or three feet down, you can set up the shelter on top, anchor it out well and begin removing snow from the inside and throwing it out of the door. If your initial trench, usually in the shape of a circle or horseshoe, is not too big, you should be well within the confines of the edges of the shelter fabric and protected from the elements.
3. Build furniture.
Because snow is a medium we can mold into almost anything, we can make life as comfortable as we want and even get a bit creative. This really just depends on what your end goal is, how long you will be using the shelter and how much time you want to spend on construction. The column of snow that the center pole of the shelter sits on can be left large enough to be a good surface to cook on—or for playing cards, benches can ring the inside of the shelter and can be made big enough to work as beds for sleeping. A good set of stairs are great for making life easier getting in and out of the shelter, and if the weather is pleasant, a couch outside the shelter—strategically located with a good view—is nice. These are just a few ideas, and people seem to get more elaborate and creative the longer they are using a site!
4. Plan For Weather
If you expect bad weather or the forecast is uncertain, it’s best to plan for the worst. When putting up your shelter, make sure to bury whatever you are using for the anchor deep—I try to go about a foot down. As you fill in the hole that the anchor is in with snow, work to compact each shovelfull around the anchor. Mound snow up about six inches to a foot above the snow surface on top of the anchor to prevent the anchor from melting out with sun exposure or rain. If high winds are expected, use blocks of snow stacked on top of one another to build walls about 3/4 the height of your shelter on any side the wind is expected to blow from. This could mean going around the entire tent. Do not make the walls too close to the shelter—about three feet out is good—or they will have the reverse effect and catch snow and bury the shelter. Remember, you’re trying to redirect the blowing snow, not catch it.
5. Leave No Trace
Even though snow melts and goes away in the spring, anything that we leave behind does not. There are ways to make it easier to lessen our impact on the environment that we are spending time in, and keep it pristine for the next users. Digging a dedicated bathroom privacy hole down hill and 20-30 feet away from your shelter goes a long way for making it easier for people to feel more comfortable going to the bathroom outdoors and keeping contamination away from where you live, cook and get snow for melting into water. The Blue Bag system is great packing out solid human waste. Bringing along a small strainer is great for filtering out food particles to pack out when cleaning dishes, and it can be reused on future trips. More information about Leave No Trace can be found at https://lnt.org.