Discovering how to camp in the snow can be a steep learning curve. Snow is interesting stuff. It can help hold in heat, but it can also leach away heat before you realize what has happened.
Furthermore, injudicious positioning of your campfire can lead to your life-saving blaze being doused by snow from overhanging branches. Snow has weight and that needs to be taken into consideration when setting up a tent or a shelter.
How to Set Up Camp in the Snow
Here are some of the top steps you need to take:
1. Create a Shelter
This could be a tent, a forest-built wikiup, or a hole dug into a hillside. It could even be blocks of snow or large snowballs.
It should be strong enough to withstand both a build wind and snow buildup.
2. Think About Heat
In a small igloo-type snow building, your own body heat can be enough to keep you warm through the night. An igloo’s thick walls keep wind and moisture out, and heat generated by the human body.
Unfortunately, igloos only work where the weather is cold enough to keep them from melting. In less frigid climates, wind plus water can quickly leach away body heat.
In less impermeable shelters, added insulation such as a sleeping bag or even a thick mat of leaves is essential to keeping warm.
3. Lean-to or Tent, Plus Campfire
A snug lean-to shelter made with a tarp or with logs and thatching of branches and leaves can keep you and your gear dry in snowy weather.
Ideally, the lean-to should be set up so that the back of the shelter is toward the wind. This helps keep your shelter from flying off in a stiff breeze, and it encourages smoke to blow away from it.
To keep the heat from your fire from blowing away with the wind, create a reflector wall behind your campfire to direct the heat toward your lean-to or tent which is great if you camp in snow.
4. Insulation Under Your Sleeping Space
This is important. The frozen ground will quickly pull heat away from your body. You can solve this problem by first digging and sweeping away all the snow you possibly can from the floor of your shelter. Add a springy layer of limbs or even a row of logs on top of the frozen earth.
On top of that, add an insulation layer. This could be leaves, straw, or an insulated sleeping mat. Place your bedroll or sleeping bag on top of the insulation layer.
The limbs will help prevent your bed from getting wet if a sudden thaw causes water to run under your tent. If you opt for a camp cot, place at least half of your bedding underneath you since cold will leach up through the underside of the cot.
5. Hot Tents and Camp Stoves
A hot tent is a commercially made tent that is specially constructed to be flame resistant up to 572°F or 300°C.
They are usually equipped with a special flap that will allow you to run a stovepipe from a small, wood-burning camp stove out through the wall of the tent.
There are some nifty little stoves on the market that have a narrow pipe designed for use with tents, including a spark inhibitor at the top of the chimney.
Propane heaters are also an option, but you want to be very sure that you have excellent ventilation when using them. Never sleep with a propane heater running. A hot tent with a stove can keep you snug in extremely cold weather.
6. Use Snow to Make Walls or Windbreaks
There’s a good reason why people who live in cold areas have many words for snow. There are many different kinds of snow. Some kinds make good snowballs, while other sorts more closely resemble cold sand.
Snow does a good job of acting as insulation if a lot of it is packed together or built up. That’s one reason why igloos work so well. But not all types of snow will pack. However, with that said, a strong roof over your shelter with a dense layer of snow will help keep it warm.
You can also heap up walls of snow around a lean-to shelter if you camp in snow to act as a windbreak and added insulation on the sides and back.
Just be aware that a spring melt could create a stream down the middle of your shelter. See notes above about keeping your bed off the ground.
7. Plan Ahead for Your Fire
Develop a fire-starter kit that includes a striker, fine tinder, and perhaps a little kindling. This will be valuable in situations where most of the wood in the forest is wet.
If this isn’t a planned camping trip, or if you left that kit at home, you can often find tinder and even a little kindling on the underside of dead logs or in hollows of dead trees. If you dig past the top layer of leaves, there’s sometimes some drier material beneath.
Areas where flint rock abounds will provide ready-made strikers that can be used by hitting them against a knife. Or you can resort to friction using a spinning stick placed on top of the tinder.
8. Do Not Make Up Your Bed Until You Are Ready to Get in It
An open bedroll or sleeping bag will absorb moisture. That will force your body to work extra hard to warm your sleeping bag to a cozy temperature.
9. Place Tomorrow’s Clothing in the Bottom of Your Sleeping Bag
You will sleep warmer and more comfortably if you strip to your skivvies before climbing into your sleeping bag.
By keeping your clothing inside the bag with you, they will be toasty warm to pull on the next morning. If you need a little extra warmth for the upper part of your body, wear a sweater and place a cap or scarf on your head.
Camping in the snow can be an invigorating experience. The right equipment, plus planning ahead, will make it a warmer, more pleasant experience.