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Snow Camping Guide: How To Camp On Snow

Most big mountaineering and ski touring routes are best in the spring and early summer, when high-elevation terrain is still covered in snow. Of course, that means that for any multi-day trip, you’re probably going to be camped on snow.

Camping on snow isn’t hard, but it is a little bit different than setting up camp on bare ground. With a little knowledge and preparation, you can easily avoid the beginner mistakes I made when I first started mountaineering that left me shivering through the night.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how to camp on snow comfortably.

Setting Up Camp in the Snow

Setting up your camp correctly is key to a successful night in the mountains. Here’s how I approach the process.

Choosing a Campsite

Safety should be your first concern when evaluating whether an area will make a good camp. Never camp in avalanche terrain, and always be attentive to potential overhead hazards like ice and rockfall. Remember that a flat spot can still be in an avalanche path, especially in unstable snow conditions. If you’re in the woods, don’t set up your tent directly beneath dead tree branches.

As a photographer, I often find it tempting to camp on a high point or a pass to get the best sunset and sunrise views. But these areas also tend to be windy and cold, so you’re better off looking for a sheltered location like on the leeward side of a rock wall or a band of trees. South-facing terrain is warmer than north-facing terrain and the sun will hit your tent earlier in the morning.

Setting Up Your Tent

One of the neat things about camping on snow is that you’re free to reshape the landscape. Before you set up your tent, stomp out a rectangular area in the snow to create a flat platform. Make sure loose snow is really compressed, or else you’ll end up with divots when you start moving around inside your tent. You may also want to dig down a foot or two so that your tent platform is sunken within a snow wall for wind protection.

When you’re ready to start setting up your tent, the first thing to do is stake down the corners. You can use snow stakes for this, but I think deadman anchors work better and don’t require you to carry dedicated tent stakes. Just tie a piece of cord to your tent corner and loop it around your ice axe, skis, snow shoes, or poles. Then stick your gear into the snow or even bury it in a few feet of snow to guy out your tent.

If you do use deadman anchors, I recommend keeping at least one ice axe free. I’ve found I usually need to chip away frozen snow to get my equipment back in the morning, and using an axe makes the process go much faster. You’ll also want to keep a shovel free because it’s helpful to have around camp. Don’t knot the cord where it’s looped around your gear, as the knot can freeze overnight and then it’ll be difficult to undo.

Some mountaineering tents let you set up the tent fly first, which can be a huge help when it’s raining or snowing. If your tent doesn’t have this feature, do whatever you have to do to get the fly on as quickly as possible. Keeping the inside of your tent as dry as possible is critical to keeping your sleeping gear dry.

Also be sure to set up your tent so that the doors are at 90 degrees to the wind. This helps prevent drafts through the thinnest part of your tent. If it’s really windy and powdered snow is blowing into your tent, you can use your snow shovels to create blocks of snow and build a wind wall around your tent. You may also want to dig out a small pit beneath each vestibule, which makes it easier to get your boots on and off while you’re sitting in the tent.

Camp Cooking in the Snow

Cooking on snow can either be incredibly fun or completely miserable. A lot depends on the weather, but how enjoyable cooking is also depends on how you approach it.

Setting Up Your Camp Kitchen

If the weather’s good, it’s a fun idea to build a snow kitchen. Use your shovel to dig out a pit to stand in, leaving yourself a waist-high kitchen counter in front of you. Throw down a foam pad on the snow behind you to give yourself an insulated seat.

If the weather’s not good, it can be extremely tempting to shelter in your tent and cook in the vestibule. I’ll admit that I’ve done this once or twice in extremely cold conditions, but it’s not a good idea. Your stove gives off carbon monoxide and your tent fly is flammable. Cooking in the vestibule is a recipe for disaster.

Instead, put your stove just a few feet away from your tent. You’ll still be able to watch the pot from the comfort of your sleeping bag.

Choosing Your Meals

I’d advise against bringing elaborate, multi-part gourmet camp meals when your kitchen is on snow. Simple, one-pot recipes are the best because they’re quick and don’t require you to sit next to your stove if it’s cold and windy out. For breakfast, when I’m reluctant to get out of my warm sleeping bag, I usually opt for hot coffee and cold food so that I only need to boil a small amount of water and there’s no cleanup to worry about.

One great thing about camping on snow is that you can bring some mountaineering food that isn’t normally available. For example, when it’s cold out, I always add a stick of butter to my packing list. It goes well with almost any dinner, and the fat calories do a great job of keeping you warm throughout the night. Coconut oil also works well. In addition, I usually bring cookies or a chocolate bar so that I pack in as many calories as possible before bed.

Bring the Right Stove

Always use a liquid fuel stove for camping on snow. Personally, I use the MSR Whisperlite because it’s incredibly reliable and easy to fix in the field. You’ll probably need to pump the bottle a lot more than the manufacturer recommends.

While a canister stove might be great for summertime adventures, it’s awful when the temperature drops. The canister doesn’t pressurize properly when it’s cold and isobutane is inefficient when in cold temperatures.

Making Water

Making water is by far the most time-consuming part of camping on snow. Put someone on the task as soon as you get to camp. Designate an area of clean snow away from your tent as the snow for water so that no one steps in that spot. Pack your pot as full as possible, compressing the snow to eliminate air. Then add a little bit of water if you have it so that the bottom of your pot doesn’t burn.

A full pot of snow will only make about one-third a pot of water, so you can drop in more snow as it starts to melt. At least in theory, you should fully boil water made from snow to kill any bacteria. In practice, that takes far too long to be practical.

If you have 3 or more people, it may be worth bringing two stoves so that you can make water more quickly. Typically, I like to make all the water I’ll need for the next morning so that I can break camp quickly at sunrise.

If there’s running water anywhere nearby, you’re much better off getting water and filtering it than trying to melt snow. Just keep in mind that your water filter will be damaged if it freezes, so sleep with your filter in your sleeping bag overnight and keep it in your jacket the rest of the time.

If you have a base camp, you can also give yourself a headstart on making water. Pile snow on top of a black garbage bag or in a water bottle wrapped with black duct tape. Then just leave it in the sun all day to melt while you’re out climbing.

Staying Warm Overnight

Your sleeping bag, pads, and extra layers should be enough to keep you warm—assuming your sleeping bag has an appropriate temperature rating for the conditions. However, they can’t do their job properly if they’re wet. Make sure you don’t track snow into your tent, and open up as many vents as you can to prevent condensation on the inside of your tent.

Don’t bring any wet clothes into your sleeping bag, either. In my experience, putting wet socks and shirts in your sleeping bag doesn’t dry them, it just makes your sleeping bag wet.

Depending on how thick your sleeping pad is, you may want to bring two pads. Closed-cell foam pads are much more effective than air pads, although they are bulky. I like taking just enough foam to make a seat, and at night I put it under the middle of my air pad.

You can also take advantage of all that water you melted during the evening. Bring water for the last bottle you’re going to make to a boil, then throw that hot water bottle in your sleeping bag to prewarm it.

On really cold nights, you can even do some jumping jacks right before you climb into your sleeping bag to kickstart your metabolism.

If you have to pee during the night, don’t hold it. Your body uses a lot of heat to keep that excess water at 98.6 degrees. It’s no fun to get out of bed, but you’ll sleep better and warmer if you pee as soon as you have to go.

Using the Bathroom

If you have to use the bathroom at camp, make sure you pack out your waste—including toilet paper—with a blue bag. Burying waste in the snow doesn’t do any good since it won’t decompose in the cold. In fact, it’ll become exposed as soon as the snow starts to melt.

Summary

Camping in the snow can be a lot of fun and open the door to more early season adventures in the mountains. These tips can help make your experience more comfortable, but it’s up to you to figure out a winter camping system that works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means being a little cold for a night or two.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.