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.
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.
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