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The Joy of Ski Camping


By Ron Watters

It was one of the most memorable camps I’ve ever had—and we were lost. We had been trying to find a pass over a mountain ridge. It had been snowing all day, and like four blind mice, we had wandered off in the wrong direction. Finally, as the day’s end neared, we abandoned our plans to get over the pass, stopped, stamped out a platform and staked out the tent.

Quickly climbing into our sleeping bags, we got the stove started, melted a pot of snow and settled in for the evening. Suddenly the tent brightened, and through the opened door, we watched awestruck as wisps of shredding clouds unveiled the snow and ice-encrusted ridge across from us. It was like a grand, living and breathing Thomas Cole painting: in front of us an ancient and twisted whitebark pine was cast in white, then in red as the sun filtered through the swirling, broken clouds, and gradually everything blended into a dusky blue mist.

The view out the tent door that night is a scene I’ll never forget—and it’s those sorts of visual memories that make ski camping such a special, rewarding activity.

Many think of ski camping as something for the experts. Yes, it does require a bit more moxie than summer camping, but if you’ve done some backpacking and you know how to cross country ski, then you can ski camp.

Picking a Time and a Place For your first ski camping experience, you should choose a month when the winter temperatures have moderated. In December and January, most snowy areas experience some of their coldest temperatures. With winter camping, it takes a few initial experiences to learn all the little tricks to help keep yourself warm and comfortable in the cold environment. Experimenting with it during the coldest time of the year may often lead to unpleasant experiences: cold hands, cold feet and chilly damp nights.

Instead, start out with some late winter trips, around late February or March depending how long winter lasts in your area. What you’re trying to do is to go during a relatively warm part of the winter. As a guideline, temperatures in the upper teens or warmer are comfortable with the proper equipment and ideal for the first few trips.

Pick some place that you’re comfortable with—a state park or favorite hiking area. If you live near the mountains, stay away from steep, rugged country and select an area where the terrain is gentler. Sharply angulated terrain is dangerous from an avalanche standpoint while gentle mountainous areas are much safer. Winter expands the number of places that are suitable for camping. Many places that don’t seem particularly appealing in the summer are transformed into places of beauty with a layer of snow.

Don’t try to cover too much ground on your first couple of ski camping trips. That’s the approach that my wife, Kathy, and I followed this last winter. Anxious to get out of town, we drove to a foothill area that we knew wasn’t used by snowmobiles and followed a narrow, snow-covered road for only 2 1/2 miles. The snow was deep and unconsolidated, and the distance turned out to be just right. We set up camp on a little rise, spent the night and then went for a little tour the next morning. It was a wonderful time, and we came back refreshed and ready to go for another week.

Equipment and Clothing. Herein is the key. If you can stay warm and comfortable, you’ll be happy—and that’s what ski camping is all about. For clothing, all the basic principles apply—dress in layers so your body temperature can be kept at a comfortable level by adding or subtracting clothing. Stay away from cotton and stick to wool or synthetics. Everyone has their favorite clothing combination, but let me tell you about what’s worked well for me. My basic wardrobe consists of thin polypropylene long johns and a short-sleeved undershirt, wool pants (from the Army-Navy store), a wool shirt and a pile jacket. When it’s windy, I use a wind shell with a hood. I also have a down jacket which I use when we reach camp and no longer can depend on exercise to keep me warm.

For my hands, I wear pile mittens covered with a nylon overmitten shell. And on my head proudly rides my trusty yellow stocking hat that’s admittedly a bit worse for the wear after being manhandled by our cat a few years ago. Speaking of my hat, I’ve always thought it would be great fun to organize a fashion show of ski camping clothing. Can’t you just imagine the Victoria’s Secret girls doing their strutting sort-of walk, parading down the walkway to enthusiastic applause, wearing wool pants, pile jackets and stocking hats? As they say in the fashion business, it would be brilliant, darling.

You can use a range of cross country skis for winter camping. The late Ned Gillette who pioneered many long, epic ski traverses used narrow skis—as narrow as you might use on prepared tracks—and very lightweight boots. I’m happiest with slightly more width to the skis, generally preferring skis that are in the midweight category of touring skis (around 55 to 65mm in width). For years I used waxable skis, but I had an epiphany after a trip late last winter—in which the waxing conditions went from hard purple wax to red klister and back and forth, sometimes three times a day—and I’m proud to say that I now own my first pair of waxless skis.

For ski camping, I like to wear a beefier leather boot. What works good are boots made for backcountry norm bindings or old style leather 3-pin boots. I look for a boot that is solid and warm, something that looks and feels like a sturdy pair of hiking boots.

You’ll need a good sleeping bag, of course. Generally synthetic bags are the best in the winter since they absorb little water. Moisture is something that you’re always dealing with on ski camping trips. Water may condense in sleeping bags from frost forming in tents during the night and from the large amount of water the body gives off when sleeping.

A sweet way of keeping your bag dry from body moisture is to place a waterproof liner inside the bag. My experience is that the liner will increase the warmth of the bag by at least 15 degrees. The important thing is not to get so hot that you sweat. If you get warm, open the bag and ventilate it.

Another hint about keeping warm at night: use a thick pad (or two pads) under the sleeping bag. When you get cold at night, invariably it will be your underside that will feel it first. That’s because the insulation of your sleeping bag becomes compressed underneath your body. This last winter, I used a two-pad system that worked quite well: a lightweight Therma-rest pad combined with an Ensolite pad.

Camping Techniques When you arrive at a campsite after a day of skiing, you’ll be warm from skiing. To preserve your body heat, take care of all energy-intensive chores first. One of the first projects is to construct the kitchen. If the snow isn’t deep, just dig out a place to sit and smooth out a cooking counter for the stove and pots. To protect the stove from wind, cut snow blocks or pile a little snow around the edge of the counter. With greater depths of snow, you can create a cooking shelf high enough that you don’t have to bend over while cooking. And, if you really want to get fancy, and you have plenty of snow, you can create a dinning area with chairs and a table—and, for that special romantic touch, finish it up with a candle. While someone is digging the kitchen, other members of the party can set up the tent. Begin by stamping out a platform in the snow with skis. Keep the skis on to prevent making holes in the snow while you lay out and stake the tent. When the tent is up, lay sleeping pads on the floor first, before anything else. This will help prevent depressions and holes caused by knees and feet when tent mates go in and out of the tent. Outside, dig a porch one or two feet deep in the snow, a place to sit and brush snow off boots and clothing before getting into the tent. Within 20 minutes or so, the disturbed snow on the tent platform will begin to harden into a secure base for sleeping.

After the kitchen is dug, the chef can immediately get the stove going and begin melting snow for water and hot drinks. As the camp set-up chores come to a close and the activity level drops, you’ll begin to cool off. Now is the time to change out of wet clothing and add layers to maintain a comfortable body temperature. One of the nicest pieces of gear for camp use is a pair of down or fiberfill booties. To make them even more versatile, you can pull on a pair of overboots. Two waterproof stuff sacks can work as a substitute for overboots.

Overboots keep snow from wetting down booties and enable you to walk around the campsite while your feet stay comfortable and toasty. (They’re also handy for those inconvenient calls of nature that send you scrambling out of the tent in the middle of the night.) The down booties—with or without the overboots—are the key to enjoyable winter camping. Cross country ski boots are moist at the end of the day, and when your activity level drops, your feet will get cold. Not so, when you have booties to change into.

While food is being prepared, keep drinking hot liquids. Not only do they keep you warm, but they also help replace body fluids lost during the day. While skiing during the day, liquids are limited to the contents of your water bottle, and, thus, loading up on water at night is essential to prevent dehydration.

Before you climb into your sleeping bag, put your ski boots in a stuff bag and slip them in the sleeping bag with you to prevent them from freezing. In the morning when you first get up, tie the shoestrings of the boots together and place them around your neck and underneath your outside jacket. While wearing your down booties and overboots, cook breakfast, clean up the campsite, take down the tent and assemble your pack. The very last thing to do is to remove your down booties and put on the ski boots. They’ll still be warm–and, voila! you’ll begin another day of your trip with warm boots and feet.

© Cross Country Skier: February 2005, Vol. 24 Issue 4