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How to camp above the snowline

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August 2019 Issue

Experienced snow camper and Christchurch Tramping Club committee member Joshua Johnson shares his tips for camping in the snow.

Select your site

Avoid avalanche zones: Learn to recognise the risks and check the avalanche forecast for your area. Work with the weather: “If it’s possible, pitch your tent on the lee side of a slope, so you’re not hammered by the wind,” Johnson says.

Look for landmarks: A heavy snow can make your tent site hard to find – take time to study your surroundings.

Seek morning sun: Pitch your tent where it will catch the sunrise – it’s worth it for the views and the head start in drying your damp gear.

Look for running water: Melting snow will deplete your gas quickly.

Point your door downhill: Cold air sinks, and you don’t want to catch it as it flows downhill.

Sculpt your sleeping spot

Dig down: In windy weather, you may want to dig a shelter for your tent, and “in extreme conditions, you might have to build snow block walls to make a perimeter around your tent,” Johnson says.

Compact your site: Pack your tent site down with your boots or a shovel. The process is called sintering, and it causes the snow to harden into a firm platform. “You can also dig your vestibule out so you have more space,” Johnson adds.

Anchor your tent

Pick your pegs: “Conventional tent pegs don’t work at all in most snow conditions,” Johnson says. Snow stakes can be effective if you have them, “but you make do with what you have”.

Make do: Hiking poles, ice axes, ice tools, and stuff sacks can make good alternatives, as well as rocks and branches. If your tent’s anchoring points aren’t long enough, Johnson recommends extending them with a DIY sling to make them more suitable for snow use.

Combat the cold

Layer up: Your tent floor will offer little insulation from the snow, and uncovered floor space will allow cold air to creep into your tent. Johnson recommends using a footprint if the tent floor isn’t robust and bringing an extra thin foam mat (around 3mm) to lay beneath your sleeping mat.

Pack pyjamas: An extra pair of dry sleeping clothes can make a difference to warmth, Johnson says, and placing a water bottle filled with hot water inside your bag “helps immensely”.

Deny the drips: Condensation can be hard to avoid, so a well ventilated four season tent is a must (see p76 for buying tips). For wet walls, Johnson suggests bringing a small sponge to remove morning moisture.

Pack extra food

Whiteout conditions can make travel (and rescue) impossible, so ensure you have enough food up your sleeve to last. Carbs – and particularly warm carbs – are a vital source of warmth, so ensure you pack the right – not just the light – foods.