Alpine winter camping  Setting up camp in the snow

There is nothing quite like the the silence of the mountains in winter, the clarity of the Milky Way in the crispy cold air, or an alpenglow on a snowy ridge.

Camping in the alpine regions in winter can be a daunting prospect. Cold temperatures, high winds at ground level and poor tent stability in soft snow can be complicating factors. And yet, if done properly, camping in the snow is a rewarding and enjoyable experience. There is nothing quite like the silence of the mountains in winter, the clarity of the Milky Way in the crispy cold air, or an alpenglow on a snowy ridge.

In this first post in a series of three, we will look at how to set up camp in the snow – selecting a suitable tent, digging in and anchoring your tent.

But first things first…

No matter what your plans are, whether you are spending a night out or going on a day-trip, camping or staying in a hut, there is one item you should always carry with you when travelling in the alpine regions in winter: a snow shovel.

You might need to dig your mate out of an avalanche, or dig out a hut buried to the roof in snow. If you are really unlucky, somebody didn’t shut the door properly, then you’ll have to dig out snow from inside the hut, too. Or rather less dramatically, you might just want to set up camp in the snow. A snow shovel is essential.

Snow shovel

Wind in the alpine regions

Wind is the movement of air particles. The closer these particles are to the ground, the more obstacles they encounter. As a result, wind is always slower close to ground level, faster high up – which is why wind turbines are mounted on top of very tall poles.

Wind speed increases exponentially as a function of height above ground level. Just how steeply the exponential curve goes up depends on the coefficient of roughness of the ground (also known as Hellmann exponent). Shrubby ground offer lots of obstacles to moving air particles, and as a result wind speed close to the ground is low. A smooth snow-covered surface offers next to no obstacles to moving air particles – wind speed close to the ground is high.

The graph below shows the wind speed as a function of height above the ground for vegetated terrain (red line) and for snow (blue line), when wind speed is 80 km/hr at a height of 10m above the ground.

5cm above ground level, wind speed will be 58km/hr over snow, 28km/hr on vegetated terrain.

50cm above ground level, wind speed will be 67km/hr over snow, 44km/hr on vegetated terrain.

Wind speed as a function of height above ground, in 80km/hr winds 10m above ground level

What does this mean? On snow, you have nowhere to hide from the wind. Unless you dig in. And you’ll want your tent to be strong.

Selecting a tent

It is not the purpose of this post to review different brands or models of tents. We will instead focus on features a tent should have to do its job.

For any structure to be able to withstand lateral forces (e.g. wind, or the shaking from an earthquake), it needs cross bracings (intersecting diagonal supports). In a tent, cross bracings are provided by crossing poles. A tent with crossing poles is always, intrinsically, a stronger structure in windy conditions compared to a tent with parallel poles, or with a single pole.

In the picture below, the yellow tent in the foreground (a typical tunnel-shaped tent) will offer lots of head space, but will collapse like a card castle in high winds. The green tent in the background is a dome with crossing poles, and will be better able to withstand high winds.

Campsite on Corner Peaks, Takitimu Mts. The tunnel shaped tent on left is an intrinsically weak structure compared to the tent with crossing poles on right. Photo D Hegg

You will also find that in snow more than on other types of terrain, having multiple guy ropes will make it easier to solidly anchor your tent.

One feature that strong alpine or arctic tents have is a snow skirt, also known as snow flaps. This is a skirt made of tent fabric, part of the tent’s outer shell, to be buried under snow or rocks, thus preventing the wind from blowing under the tent’s outer shell and lifting the tent off the ground.

The picture below shows a strong alpine tent with crossing poles, snow flaps (covered with large rocks) and lots of guy ropes. We spent two nights at 2200m on the main ridge of the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges, in winds strong enough to knock us off our feet. And yet, we had no hesitation leaving the tent up while we set off to climb the mountain. The downside? Other than the cost, the weight is a whopping 4.5kg. Not everyone is strong enough to carry this load up a mountain.

Tent with snow flaps in snow storm on Te Ao Whekere, Seaward Kaikoura Range. Photo D Hegg

Weather and site selection

General advice on weather and site selection when camping in the alpine regions applies year round, in winter just like in summer. It goes without saying, camping in the alpine is only suited to fine weather conditions. If you are on a multi-day trip and a storm is approaching, drop down low, and if you can’t, build a snow cave. If it’s windy, look for a sheltered site on the lee side of a ridge or behind a rock. At the same time, beware of shifting winds – a site that was sheltered when you pitched your tent might be exposed to the wind a few hours later.

Digging in

Rule #1 when setting up camp in the snow: before pitching your tent, use your snow shovel to dig a trench (approx 50cm deep or more), or to build a shelter wall, or both. A tent pitched on the surface of the snow is a doomed tent.

This rule applies to all weather conditions. If it’s calm, do not assume it’s going to stay calm through the night. Conditions in the New Zealand mountains are known to be fickle. Wind can pick up any time, or change direction suddenly. A tent you thought was solidly anchored when you went to sleep in calm conditions at nightfall can turn into a mess of mangled poles and torn fabric before dawn.

Campsite below Blockade Peak, Olivine Ice Plateau. Tents are pitched in trenches dug using snow shovels. Photo D Hegg

 

Campsite on Corner Peaks, Takitimu Mountains. Tent pitched in a trench, and protected by an additional shelter wall. Photo D Hegg

The picture below shows how not to pitch a tent on snow. It looks pretty, yes, but it’s a lazy job, and a very vulnerable campsite.

An example of a poorly set up campsite on Mount Ruapehu’s Summit Plateau. Photo D Hegg

Anchoring a tent

Tent pegs are of no use in snow – they are too small even to be buried horizontally as T-anchors, and are best left at home. Much more useful is additional string to extend the tent peg eyelets and anchor the tent to larger objects.

Walking poles, skis, ice axes, snow stakes and snow shovel shafts all make great tent peg substitutes. A walking pole that disassembles into three segments will provide three anchor points; just make sure there are no internal parts of the locking mechanism that are going to come off and remain buried deep under snow.

Snow shoes and crampons can be tied to guy ropes and buried horizontally under snow. Large rocks also make for great anchor points if you can find them. And probably many more objects in a tramper’s pack; there is no limit to imagination. The advantage of burying natural anchors (when available) is that, when the time comes to take down camp, one can often just undo the knot (above snow level) and pull the line through, rather than having to dig out the deadman.

If the snow is wet, it is not unusual for any anchors to be firmly frozen in place the next morning. Extraction of deeply buried objects can be difficult to say the least. It pays to keep one ice axe out to cut through the frozen snow. The easiest way to extract a frozen ice axe or other peg is to actually tap on it with another ice axe, thus breaking the ice that holds it in place. The peg will then slide out effortlessly.

Safe alpine camping

Some general advice to make your winter camping experience safer:

  • Before you go out, always check weather forecasts and avalanche bulletins.
  • Leave intentions with someone trusted, and carry some means of emergency communication.
  • Go with friends. If you have never camped in the snow before, it might be a good idea to learn from someone experienced.
  • Join a club. Many clubs teach winter camping skills as part of their basic snowcraft courses.
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