Pitching a Winter Tent on Snow

If you’re properly prepared, camping in winter is a lot of fun. But pitching a tent in winter, particularly on snow, requires some different gear and technique.

The first thing you need to focus on is site selection: make sure that you are not in an avalanche zone. Next, find a fairly level spot and take a hiking pole or ice axe and probe the snow underneath it. If you’re below treeline, you want to avoid sleeping on a spot that has voids underneath it. For example, if there’s a lot of snow on the ground, you way be sleeping at a level above many small trees or bushes. If you’ve been hiking past trail blazes that are at ankle height and not head height, it’s quite possible that the snow under your tent might collapse at night into a void and suck you into it. That might not kill you, but it could be a drag if it happens when you’re asleep.

If you’ve finished probing around and think you’re on solid ground, the next step is to create a solid level platform to sleep on. You can do this by stomping your boots or snowshoes on the place where you want to pitch your tent to pack down the snow.  However, a better technique is to dig a shallow platform using an avalanche shovel that’s big enough to pitch your tent in. If it’s very windy, you can pile the snow on the sides of the hole to help break the wind. After you’ve prepared your platform, let it harden for about 30 minutes before you pitch your tent.

Pitching a free standing tent on snow is a lot easier than pitching a tent that must be staked down, as long as it’s not too windy. Either way, if you try to use stakes, they often won’t hold in snow the same way that they will in regular ground. Another option is to use SMC snow stakes. To use these, loop your tent guylines through the holes in them and secure. Next dig a small ditch in the snow and either push the stake in vertically or lay it down horizontally. Next fill the hole back up with snow and compact it with your boots. When the holes hardens you can trim your guy lines to get a taught pitch. To get the stake out of the ground the next morning, just use an ice axe to chop a hole.

SMC Winter Tent Stakes

In lieu of snow stakes you can also substitute skis, poles, snowshoes, or any object (a rock, stick, piece of gear, or stuff sack filled with snow) that can be tied off to a guy line and buried in the snow where it will freeze into place.

Additional Resources

Winter Camping Checklist

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  1. Good tips. Reusing stuff sacks is a good idea to reduce the extra supplies – and every oz counts in a winter backpack weighing over 50lbs.

    Aside from stakes, I've had good luck with Mountain Hardware Snow and Sand Anchors, and I've tested them in both snow and sand. At about 1oz each, they don't save much weight, but they are much easier to pack, and I've found them to hold stronger than stakes in those conditions.

  2. Several years ago I pitched a tent on about 6 inches of wet snow in the North GA Moutains. The temperature warmed up during the night and it rained really hard. Needless to say all the snow melted. The inside floor of my tent was very wet. Would a ground cloth have prevented this and do you recommend the use of a ground cloth for winter camping in the Southern Appalachian Mts? Or removing all snow from the tent area before setting up? I never use a ground cloth while camping on snow during Mt. Climbing trips out west.

    • The reason your tent got wet is because the floor leaked. You need to seam seal it and that will keep you dry. Footprints tend to pool water when they get wet and leak into tents. They’re really meant to prevent abrasion to the bottom of the tent on sand or gravel, but are probably overkill for 99.9% of people.

      • The wettness was more like extreme condensation on the floor. I am pretty sure I seam sealed it properly; however, I will give it some more seam seal. I was just thinking that maybe given the circumstances there is not much you can do to keep the floor dry. It never leaks camping high on Mt. Rainer or the other Pacific NW Volcanoes. I plan on doing some winter camping in the Smokies. I do not want to run into another instance of a wet floor. I never use a ground cloth.

      • It could have simply been condensation overload as you say. Stay dry!

  3. I bring some binding twine. I’ll loosely wrap it 2 or three times around a firewood size chunk of wood and tie it up. I bury the wood as a deadman with the twine sticking out. I loop my tent cords through the loop of multiple twine layers.

    If you bury a fancy stake sometimes it gets so frozen in that you can’t remove it when breaking camp – sometimes even pulling the tent cord out of the ice is next to impossible.

    With the wood and hemp, if you can’t dig it out you can just leave it. In the spring it is just a chunk of wood laying around and the birds and mice will pick apart the sisal and use it in nest building.

  4. What to do with bears? We’re going to the area with the high possibility of bear presense for hiking and tenting. Do we have to stay awake beside the fire all the night?

  5. what would you do in cold-dry conditions with several feet of snow?….dig down to a frosty layer then stomp out?…I see so many people on youtube digging out 5-6 feet of snow to the ground….it can take many hours…I am hoping that a 2 foor dig then wait for it to freeze like you mentioned will be the ticket….can anyone confirm?

    • The reason you would dig has largely to do with wind protection or the desire to create “furniture” like beds or a table that you’d pitch a tarp over.

      I rarely dig a hole for my tent, but either 1) stomp out an area with my snowshoes and wait a few minutes or 2) just pitch my freestanding tent, inflate my sleeping pad and get in without bothering to let the surface harden. It will eventually with me just lying on top. It kind of depends on the circumstance and snow/wind conditions. Of course, it really helps to have a freestanding tent for this purpose.

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