Backcountry winter camping: a sport not championed by many. The frigid temperatures, unpredictable weather and desolate solitude can make even the most experienced backpackers turn their poles toward warmer places.
Despite the downsides, backcountry winter camping has countless draws and benefits, and is something all outdoor enthusiasts should look into. Even in the easily accessible reaches of Hyalite Canyon, there are glittering ice caves, majestic frozen waterfalls and a vast expanse of wilderness and untouched snow.
The key to winter camping is to be prepared. There are numerous lists online that give advice on what to bring.
Here are some of the essentials:
The most important thing, and it cannot be stressed enough, is layers, layers, layers. Interestingly enough, one of the most important tips to survival is to not become hot. Hot means sweat and, when you stop moving, that sweat will lead to serious conditions such as hypothermia. Multiple layers provide the ability to remove a layer if you are too hot and throw one on if you are too cold.
So when it comes to your layers you will want 1-2 pairs of thick wool socks for hiking, a pair for camp and another pair that never leaves your sleeping bag. Cold, wet feet means discomfort, tears and trenchfoot.
After socks, you will want two long-sleeved base layers on top: one midweight for hiking, and one expedition weight for the camp. Try to stick to synthetic materials or wool as the two materials will dry quickly and keep you warm even if they get wet.
Wool is warmer when wet, it does not get smelly, and it is generally the most wonderful fabric in the world. The advantage to a synthetic material is the price — you will not have to pay as much to purchase a top. For the heavier-weight, top-heavy fleeces and puffy down or synthetic jackets are acceptable (even preferable).
For bottoms, the requirements are: one lightweight long-john bottom for hiking, and an expedition-weight for camp. If you get cold while sleeping, you might even want two pairs for night. In addition to the long johns, you need a pair of synthetic, quick-dry pants for hiking. If they are lined, you may not need the long johns underneath.
A pair of synthetic or wool underpants of your choice, and a synthetic or wool bra are the final necessities.
For tents, you want a high-quality tent that can take a snow storm in a pinch. For backpacking in normal winter conditions, a three-season tent works. For any type of gnarly wind or snow you will want a four-season tent. They are heavier and more expensive, but considerably warmer and sturdier. My two favorite brands are NEMO and Big Agnes, for a cheaper tent check out REI’s house brand.
As far as a backpack, you will probably want at least 50 litres for all of the equipment and heavy stuff you will be carrying.
Sleeping bag: this is really important. Check the weather of where you are going beforehand to see what the temperature will be. A zero-degree bag will probably be fine in many places around Bozeman. However, if you are nervous, there are lightweight sleeping bag liners that can increase a bags’ warmth up to 25 degrees.
Once again, this highlights the synthetic versus down debate. With a good tent in combination with a good sleeping pad, your bag will not get wet, so the question should be quality versus cost. Down bags last 3-5 times longer than synthetic bags, and are 2-3 times lighter. On the flip side, a good zero-degree down bag can cost $300-500.
The last gear item is a device with which to walk on top of four feet of snow without sinking. Thankfully, the ASMSU Outdoor Recreation Center has a 3-day nordic ski rental package for $12 and snowshoes for $10 available for MSU students.
Finally: accessories. Always, always bring a light source (headlamps are preferable), something to make fire for cooking, heat or an emergency (a stove), extra fuel (cold and elevation kill fuel), hot drink (either bouillon cubes, cocoa, tea and maybe a little bit of whiskey), a lightweight camping shovel (for digging out your campsite), sleeping pad with preferably a 3+ R rating, and a camera. Now get on your adventure pants, because you are going to have an awesome time.