Snowshoes – check! Warmest layers I own – check! Snow stakes – check! The packing list for the Snow Camping 101 course with the Tahoe Rim Trail Association was a bit different from my usual backpacking list, but not by much. With the exception of snow stakes, I was able to adapt or use gear I already owned. Here are a few snowy lessons I learned:
I didn’t even need the snow stakes! While I will fully admit that the snow stakes worked much better than the regular stakes I brought, a stick buried in the snow horizontally worked like a charm. I wasn’t planning on using the deadman anchor, but the snow ate one of my stakes – someone is going to have a ground score in a few months! Watch Backpacker’s Winter Skills: Make Deadman Tent Stake Anchors for a visual on how to use a regular tent stake (a stick uses the same concept) for an anchor.
Hiking the same distance, setting up camp, boiling water, coaxing yourself out of your toasty sleeping bag all take longer in the snow. We learned a hard lesson after using our fuel to boil water for dinner and tea the night before, only to hear the stove give one last hoorah before sputtering out when it was time for breakfast. Thankfully we were off the trail in time for brunch in Kings Beach. Pack more fuel than you think you’ll need!
Snow opens up so many options for tent pads that would normally be too inclined – be picky about campsite selection. Basil and I were ogling the lake view and decided to make a platform for our house on a hill out of the snow. We were advised against taking shelter under trees though, since the extra weight from snow could crack a branch unexpectedly.
In an ideal winter, food storage wouldn’t be an issue and you could cuddle up with your oatmeal and chocolate bars at night without a bear care in the world. However, as most Californians know, this winter has been far from ideal… While some of our classmates still slept with their food, Basil and I opted to use a bear canister. With one key difference, we spun the top shut until it was almost latched. Based on how hard the plastic was the next morning in the frigid air we wouldn’t have been able to open the canister. I realize this defeats the purpose of a canister, but I feel like we put in an effort to keep critters out of our food while avoiding a furry cuddle buddy in the middle of the night.
Weather.gov has been my backpacking weather forecast of choice for years. Apparently, there’s a whole detailed layer to checking the weather I didn’t know about! Visit www.weather.gov, enter the name of the nearest city, use the small Google map to pinpoint your destination, scroll to the bottom and find “additional forecasts and information.” There are charts for weather, wind chill, and my new favorite for the summer – chance of thunder. Wait, we were talking winter backpacking…it also shows chance of snow and other precipitation.
I have poor circulation to my fingers, causing me to fumble with the simplest tasks in cold temperatures. In order to combat this issue I got a pair of convertible wool mittens so I could complete dexterous tasks and then quickly hide my fingers away in the mittens again. The cold still managed to creep into my fingers from time to time and I’d stave it off with large arm windmills, forcing blood back into my finger tips. Windmills are a girl’s best friend!
Snow camping may seem like a lot of work, but this course helped me realize you don’t have to hike far to get winter solitude and snow camping isn’t as hard as I thought it would be.