While it may be spring in the lowlands, there is still 14 feet of snow on the ground at 5,000′ elevation in the Pacific Northwest. A brief 2 day weather window provided a great opportunity to test a lot of snow camping gear and ideas. How do lightweight backpacking solutions translate into this environment? Are the solutions still lightweight?
As the Black Diamond Mega Light tent project progressed, I started a planning spreadsheet to see what the weight penalty would be adding a 4th season to comfort light backpacking. The answer looked like it might be about 10 lbs. But there were questions. Would I be warm enough sleeping? Could I use an alcohol stove to melt snow?
Snow cover transforms the wilderness experience. Summer trails exist only in concept, sometimes continued between storms as well used trenches. But otherwise you have freedom to go elsewhere. Camp sites are no longer limited to established locations. Adequate snow depth provides opportunities for creative site preparation. And of course, in nice weather the scenery is stunning. But the level of commitment is higher. Weather windows and daylight hours are shorter. Travel is slower and cold is the ever present concern. None the less, my friend and I felt we had done our preparation well and were ready for some field time.
I continue to be indebted to Mike Clelland’s expanding library of outdoor skill references. “Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book” served as a gold mine for ideas and tips. Don’t leave home in winter without reading it. If you play in the snow a lot, check out “Allen & Mike’s Avalanche Book”, “Glacier Mountaineering” and “Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Telemark Tips”.
I sleep cold. A rainy trip last fall, with nighttime temperatures in the low 40’s or below, demonstrated the limits of our “3 season” sleeping arrangements. My winter camping assumption was that I could add a summer weight bag as a liner to my quilt. A backyard test in the upper 20’s disproved this. An REI closeout sale solved the issue with a -20 deg. rated down winter bag – not cutting edge lightness or down quality, but a good answer at a good price. It tested well at home. A compression sack reduces its volume to fit nicely into the bottom of my pack.
The Black Diamond Mega Light tent is set up well for winter. My bathtub floor stays home. I hook up 8 fabric snow anchors and line tensioners to the perimeter stake loops. Four more lines and anchors are attached to my new mid panel tie outs. The insect mesh skirts added to the tent now serve as snow flaps. Packed weight in this configuration with the carbon fiber pole is 2-1/2 lbs. Pitching it taut for wind takes time and practice. The bungie loops on the mid panel tie outs worked well absorbing wind gusts. In the morning we were reminded of the need to have something sturdy for digging snow anchors out of hardened snow.
Once the tent is up, the interior is contoured with a sleeping shelf and a “basement” for sitting and low headroom standing. My LumenAid solar lantern fastens on the pole with a Klemheist hitch for evening lighting. Winter camping requires more ground insulation. I use a folding Therm-a-rest waffle pad first on the snow. My insulated air mattress goes inside a bivy sack, under my down bag. This combination provides protection from snow and condensation frost in the tent and keeps me from wandering off the air mattress and pad during the night. Nighttime temperatures were in the upper 20’s with some wind. I was cozy sleeping in long johns, a lightweight merino wool top and a Ray-Way insulated hat.
For cooking I took my 1 L. Snow Peak pot and Trail Designs Caldera Cone. I added some foam insulation under my normal aluminum foil bottom shield. Melting snow for water takes time and typical alcohol stoves hold only a maximum of 1-1/2 oz. of fuel. I use a Trangia Sprit Burner, which will take over 4 oz. of fuel. It is heavier, 2.5 oz. if you leave the cap home, but it is rugged and performs well. In 20 minutes I produced 48 oz. of water using about 3 oz. of fuel. I have now cut a snuffer for the burner from the bottom of a 12 oz. beer can. I used another 4 oz. of fuel cooking dinner and breakfast and heating water for drinks. Winter camping is definitely more fuel intensive, but otherwise alcohol works.
Rainier National Park requires hard sided food storage in popular areas, primarily to prevent feeding the local Cascade Fox population. I used a 1 gallon paint can. At 14 oz., it is lighter than a bear canister.
In our pre-trip discussions, my friend suggested that down booties would be really nice in camp. This was an item on my acquisition list. After reviewing product options, I chose a pair of synthetic insulated Baffin Base Camp Slippers. At 11.5 oz., they are heavier and bulkier than down models, but at half the price. They seem to be a good choice for our maritime winters. I wore them around camp in the morning, making breakfast and packing up and was pleased with their performance. They were as warm as my boots. Comfort light should also try to be budget light.
All this extra gear and weight moves me out of the range of my 3 season lightweight pack. My winter solution is a 55 L Gregory Z at just over 3 lbs. It was still full.
We both moved to modern MSR snowshoes this winter. I have a pair of Lightning Ascents. He chose Revo Ascents. We have used them for a number of snow outings, including some high angle peak bagging. We continue to be very pleased with their performance in all respects.
Bottom line? The trip was a total success. My leaving trailhead pack weight was about 34 lbs, with fuel, food and water, a shovel and snow saw. This compares to summer weights of maybe 21 or 22 lbs. There is probably a pound or two of comfort related discretionary items that could be left home.