Alpine camping or winter camping is a great activity for outdoor enthusiasts. In my opinion it can be more comfortable than camping in summer, as you can always bundle up more whereas in the summer there is not much you can do about a muggy tent. My aim with this article is to give an introduction to the basics of winter/alpine camping to set yourself up for a safe and fun experience.
Much of your preparation will depend on the trip itself, as proximity to a car or civilization in general will determine how light you can pack and how careful you plan. I’m writing this article mostly for trips where escape to a car during a storm is impossible, such as a backpacking trip or a multi day climb of a mountain covered in snow.
Choosing a Campsite
Picking a safe campsite is very important in winter conditions, especially on mountains. Being carried away or buried in an avalanche in the middle of the night is a risk you want to eliminate as best you can. I will give some general tips, but an avalanche safety class would be recommended to anyone in steep terrain.
Safety From Avalanches
-Look up the slope-
Slopes of less than 25 degrees will be much safer than slopes ranging 30 to 45 degrees. Pack an inclinometer to measure the slope angle. Ridges are also a good way to avoid avalanches.
-Look at the trees-
Young saplings are often seen where avalanches have wiped out sections of forest in the past. Tall old trees are a good sign that there has not been avalanches in an area in recent years.
-Look at the weather-
New snow pack may weigh weak layers underneath, greatly increasing the likelihood of a slide. Letting snow settle after a storm will help mitigate avalanche risk. Wind scoured slopes are generally safer as well.
When in glacier terrain make sure to probe for and mark crevasses; I won’t be able to cover the necessary information for glacier travel. It is important to take a class on this before traveling on glaciers.
Flat surfaces can be made more easily in the snow than they can in rocky or grassy terrain, as you can dig a flat surface. Using igloo like blocks of snow on the wind side of the tent can help protect the tent from wind damage and keep the inside of the tent warmer.
Practice setting up your tent at home right before going on a trip. It would be best to practice it multiple times to become very efficient in setting it up if there is a storm or you are dealing with wind. You should have a 4 season tent, as most cheaper 3 season tents will not withstand a winter storm.
You would think that you want snow to come up to the base of your rain fly, to insulate the tent. This is a mistake however as moisture will build up on the inside of the tent causing it to rain or snow inside your tent during the night soaking your sleeping bag and face. It is very important to keep your tent ventilated as best you can.
Securing Your Tent
Snow stakes or anchors are required for winter camping. Regular stakes do not have enough surface area to grip the snow in a storm; they will be very weak. Snow stakes will freeze into the snow during the night making them very strong even when placed a few inches down into the snow (although deeper is better). Anchoring the tent properly is very important so you don’t blow off the side of the mountain.
If you know a storm is coming, you can strengthen anchors by burying rocks, ice axes, or climbing packs to strengthen your tent (on the windward side). Often times in storms you could be stuck in the tent for days, so checking these anchors periodically will be important. If it is raining on your tent, your stakes may melt out of the snow; this could cause your tent to blow away with you inside. If raining, it is best to use trekking poles, ice axes, your climbing partner’s backpack or things with more surface area as snow anchors. You could also bring mesh snow anchors if you think this situation could arise instead of snow stakes.
To attach the stakes to your tent, use a taut line hitch, ideally higher up on the line so it can be adjusted even if it snows and covers the regular tightening device of the tent.
Here is a general sketch of considerations for your tent:
1. Vestibule is dug out to provide more space and comfort when putting on and taking off boots
2. Tent is properly ventilated on the bottom
3. Taut line hitch – higher up so it can be adjusted easier
4. Wall to block wind (if deemed necessary)
5. Stakes properly buried
6. Vestibule opening opposite wind
Digging a Bathroom
When spending multiple days at a location, it may be more comfortable to have a bathroom dug out to protect for wind and provide privacy. When in most mountain environments it is important to pack out all waste. Otherwise the next team using the campsite either this year or even in 10 years may find a surprise when digging out a spot for their tent.
If you are spending multiple days or are in a large group, it may be a good idea to dig a cook tent. It is really nice to be able to stand up fully (usually you can’t do this in your sleeping tent) in bad weather, and a good place to spend time with others.
Here is a general sketch of considerations for your cook tent:
1. Shelf for cooking
2. Plate used to increase surface area of tent pole
3. Place to fully stand up while cooking/eating
4. Stairs in/out
5. Ventilation (don't cook in a fully enclosed space)
6. Stakes buried
7. Bag filled with snow for melting accessible while cooking
Winter camping/alpine camping is a great activity which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys the outdoors!
Written by Aaron Konichek
Brfur Brand Ambassador