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snow camping

who says it's a summer thing?

December 2014

Written by
Patrick Winter


Snow CampingWhether visiting Lake Ingalls or summiting Gothic Basin, the North Cascades offer ample opportunity for snow camping. But be warned: you will need extra equipment, extra sustenance, and more importantly, a drive to conquer and a will to brave the cold.

Where to Camp:

The Pacific Northwest’s backcountry offers hundreds of trails to some of the most spectacular winterscapes and campgrounds in the country. In fact, choosing just one might be the hardest part of planning your trip, but a few popular locations include Lake Ingalls, Mount Pilchuck State Park, Gothic Basin and Mount Baker National Recreation Area.  

What to Pack:

Don’t stress if you’re organizing a snow camping trip for the first time—and don’t break the bank to do it. REI Seattle rents a variety of gear perfect for braving the cold.  To get up the mountain, you will need all the typical essential camping gear, plus the following list of suggested equipment from the Washington Trails Association website:

Heavy extra clothing: Pack plenty of layers made of materials such as wool or polypropolene that wick sweat and moisture away from your body.

Headlamp or flashlight: (and extra batteries) This tool is especially important in the winter, since days are short and night comes quickly.

Plenty of extra food: When it is cold, you burn more calories, so bring along extra food and keep your energy level high.

Plenty of water: You may not feel as thirsty as you do when it is warm, but it is just as important to keep hydrated by drinking often.

Emergency shelter/sleeping bag: Seriously consider carrying these in case you have to spend a night out there. They could save your life.

Portable shovel: Going where there is snow? A shovel is a critically important winter survival tool, which will assist you in digging snow caves in which you can survive a bitterly cold night. Also, it’s nearly impossible to dig someone out of an avalanche without a shovel.

Avalanche beacon: In avalanche country, consider carrying an avalanche beacon. And know how to use it properly.

When to Eat:

There are some basic guidelines for eating when snow camping and hiking. You burn significantly more calories when you are hiking in the snow, so eating often, about every two hours, is very important. Not only will this help keep your energy up, but also it will help keep you warm. In fact, if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night with a chill, you can eat a snack to rev your metabolism and create heat. Additionally, cooking meals can be tricky in the snow, but the reward of hot mac ‘n’ cheese at the end of the day is well worth the effort and great for morale.  The best strategy for a hot meal is to plan for a one-pot dish.

When to Hydrate:

Along with safety, staying hydrated on a snowy mountain is of the utmost importance. To get ahead of the game, start drinking plenty of water the night before as well as the morning before your journey begins. Adding electrolytes to your water can help as well. 

For Your Safety:  

Each year there are many reports of unprepared hikers getting into serious trouble while navigating the snow. So while it might be tempting to just go with your normal camping safety gear, make sure to pack the few extra things that could save your life: an avalanche beacon and shovel. If you don’t want to invest in purchasing these things, head over to Feathered Friends, located across from REI Seattle. They rent GPS devices, beacons and shovels for minimal costs. But even more important, when you are out there, remember common sense.  If the trail is becoming harder and harder to follow, turn back. It’s not worth the risk.

other cold weather tips:

• There’s nothing worse than cold hands. Pack more than enough hand warmers to stuff into your boots and gloves.
• If you’re hiking to your campsite, carry an extra shirt to change into when yours gets wet with sweat.
• Pack a hot drink, like tea, in an insulated vacuum bottle to make taking a break on the mountain more enjoyable.

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