Camping in the winter for my youth and me has always been challenging. Getting the right tent or making a good igloo can overwhelm campers in the dark. For example, one evening we took our coed Venturing group to a nearby canyon. The boys in the group, many of whom had winter camping experience, insisted on making modified snow caves under some fixed picnic tables in the campground. There was nearly four feet of snow, so it seemed like a good idea.
I encouraged the girls to try making several such shelters, but they had brought tents from home. Snow was falling, so they quickly pitched their tents. I tried to show them how to make deadman anchors, but by 2 am their tents had all collapsed.
The female adviser and I spent the rest of the night in my 3-man tent with six girls singing, telling stories and giggling. The boys on the other hand were snug, except that I had to re-punch their air holes as we gathered the girls. It was an interesting experience.
The Fieldbook suggests: “those without much winter backcountry experience can ease into it with nights spent in secure, reliable shelter such as a cabin. Expand to greater challenges of sleeping in tents and test out the techniques of full survival camping.”
Progression of Learning for Winter Camping (from Fieldbook p.248)
|Type of Shelter||Cooking, Melting Snow and Warmth|
|Beginning: Cabins, Huts or Yurts||Stoves or Fireplace|
|Basic: Four-season Tents||Stoves|
|Advanced: Snow caves, Igloos, Quinzees||Stoves|
|Survival: No Shelter, Clothing and Food to Maintain Warmth||No Stoves; Body heat melts snow; No-cooking foods|
Shelters for Snow
- Cabins: Besides my first time at Camp Tracy, I never really knew the comfort of a cabin while camping as a boy. (It by no mean was comfortable.) Then, as an adult, my folks built a cabin. This opened the door to many winter nights for both the neophyte and more experienced Scouter. Scouts stayed in the cabin, tents or snow caves. It provided many good learning experiences and individuals could immediately retreat to the warmth of the cabin, if needed. Many Council Camps offer cabin rental during winter which allows for outdoor winter experiences. For example, for the new year our family rented the Clyde Lodge and two cabins at Maple Dell Scout Camp, but any Crew, Team or Troop could have done the same.
- Yurts and Huts: The US Forest Service, and other companies, offer yurt rentals. (A yurt is a circular tent with canvas walls.) They also offer rental historic cabins which provide a bit of solitude for camping, a dose of adventure on skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles, and a lifetime of memories.
This yurt in the Ashley National Forest, near Vernal Utah, requires skiing three miles just to reach it. But, when you do, you will find a wood-burning stove to warm and cook your meals. It handles 10 campers and has a sledding hill nearby.
- Four Season Tents:
This is where most of my winter camping has been. I have used my springbar tent repeatedly while winter camping without any trouble. Section Hiker explains what you need: “The chief differences between winter tents and three season ones are wind resistance and the ability to withstand heavy snowfall. Consequently, winter tents typically come with an extra rigid exoskeleton and have steeply angled sides.” This statement pretty much describes my trusty old tent.
However, sleeping in tents has always been a problem for campers when trying to stay warm, especially with the the BSA policy of “No Flames in Tents.” No matter what we did to prepare, our Scouts all got too wet and stayed cold through the night. I’m sure it built character but not much passion for winter camping. Our solutions became snow caves or quinzees.
- Quinzees and snow caves (like the one pictured above): TroopLeader.org explains: “A snow cave provides terrific protection in the worst winter storms. The drawback is that it takes a good deal of time to construct.” That’s why we made ours in advance.
On our meeting night, we’d head up to camp to make snow mounds. Over the next few days, the mounds would naturally set. When we got to camp on Friday, all we had to do was tunnel in, shape the cave and add a few touches. It was still plenty of work but served us well.TroopLeader.org says “there are four main steps in building a snow cave:
- Choose the site.
- Tunnel in.
- Shape the cave.
- Add finishing touches
Troop Leader Resources gives great instructions on how to build these (just scroll down a few screens to get details).
- Igloos: This, the best-known snow shelter, is a brilliant use of engineering and resources. Its simple dome made of snow blocks is both strong and versatile. Arctic cultures such as the Eskimo and the Inuit developed it, and over time they came up with a hundred tricks to make the shelter more comfortable and sturdy. Their ideas included making the entrance small (to help keep heat in) and melting the inside of the dome and letting it refreeze (for increased strength). The Fieldbook pp 252–254 offers very good details on creating an igloo, but this quick set of instructions from Boys Life may help:
- Diameter: Not to exceed 10 feet. Anything bigger would require a perfect dome, which is next to impossible to construct in the field.
- Materials: Top layers of dry powder won’t work. Pack mounds of snow until they harden, or cut blocks of snow from the depth where your feet stop sinking.
- Entrance: Build a door in the ground, about 18 inches lower than the ground inside the igloo, and tunnel below the wall into the igloo. For proper ventilation, never seal or close the entrance.
- Walls: Cut the blocks into a spiral layer, leaning one block against the next. Keep the interior wall smooth so moisture can run down the side of the wall, instead of dripping from the ceiling. Include a vent hole to allow for better circulation.These next three suggested shelters are from the Fieldbook p 255
- Tree Pit:
The area beneath the branches of a large evergreen tree can be nearly free of snow. To use a tree pit as a temporary shelter, crawl underneath and remove any snow from the tree pit floor—bare earth radiates some heat so clearing away snow will keep you a bit warmer. Lay a ground cloth and a foam pad on the floor of the pit to provide insulation.
- Snow Pit:
Where snow is deep enough, you can dig a long, narrow pit for an emergency shelter. Insulate the floor of the pit with a foam sleeping pad if have one. Form a roof by stretching a tarp or ground cloth over the top of the trench. Weigh down the edge with snow, stones, or branches, and then cover the roof with several inches of snow to provide insulation. Tunnel into one end of the pit and when you are inside, fill the entry with snow to keep out the cold. Poke a few ventilation holes near the entrance and check them occasionally to ensure that they remain clear.
- Snow Trench: Build a snow trench using the same design principles as an igloo entryway. Cut blocks of snow to shape a 36 inch-deep trench that tapers from 24 inches at the top to 36–48 inches as the base. Place the blocks on the edge along the side of the excavation, and then lean them against one another to form a pitched roof (as pictured here.)
Other posts in this series:
- Cold Weather Camping—a Real Adventure
- Thinking About Camping in the Cold—Staying Warm
- Food and Fluids
- Snow Shelters
- Winter Sleeping Systems
- Moving Gear in Snow
- Cold Weather Emergencies
- Winter Leave No Trace Camping