There's no camping like snow camping
It's not hard to sample winter camping in the Northwest, but training is key to staying out of trouble.
Special to The Seattle Times
If you go
Several groups offers snow-camping, winter travel and survival courses around Western Washington. A sampling:
• The Mountaineers. The Seattle group's offerings include "Winter Camping," "Snowshoe Winter Skills" and "Snowshoe Light." With several Puget Sound branches offering winter-skill classes, check for one near you. See www.mountaineers.org and click on "Branches." Seattle office: 206-523-3470.
• Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol. The public is welcome to sign up for courses such as "Level 1 Avalanche" and "Level 1 Mountain Travel and Rescue." More info: www.cascadebackcountryskipatrol.org.
• Washington Ski Touring Club. Cross-country ski events, including some overnight trip options. www.wstc.org or 206-784-8741.
• REI, www.rei.com. Check individual stores for winter travel and related classes.
• Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, www.nwac.us or 206-526-4666. Click on "Education" for links to classes and more.
• "Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book: Traveling & Camping Skills for a Winter Environment" by Allen O'Bannon and Mike Clelland (Falcon Guides, revised 2007)
• "Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard" by Jill Fredston and Bill Fesler (Alaska Mountain Safety Center,1999)
• Backpacker Magazine has a number of useful winter hiking and camping articles on its Web site: www.backpacker.com. Search for "winter camping."
Hot tips for cold nightsBellevue's Rich Lawrence, a winter camping instructor with The Mountaineers who has explored snowy backcountry for 30 years, offers strategies for staying warm at night in the snow:
1. As you prepare your evening meal, boil an extra liter of water and fill your water bottle. Put it in a stuff sack to use as a sleeping-bag warmer. When you're thirsty in the night, it's better to drink the warm water in the bottle than cold water (that's possibly frozen).
2. If you wake up cold at 3 a.m., eat some high-energy food. A candy bar will kick-start your metabolism and warm you up in a hurry.
3. Chemical hand-warmers are a good addition to your pack.
4. Drape a space blanket over your tent, igloo or snow cave.
5. Always put on dry clothes to sleep in, especially the base layer next to your skin. You work up a sweat building snow structures!
Snow Sports 2008
Snow in the mountains doesn't mean you need to pack away your tent until next summer. For many outdoor lovers, this time of year is one of the best for getting out into the backcountry. Think solitude, quiet and night skies spilling over with stars.
Some basic but essential skills, a way to travel over snow and the desire to try it are all you need to give snow camping a go. And you don't need to go it alone. There are a number of winter-wise groups in the Puget Sound area ready to help you make your first cold-weather campout a success.
"If you're an experienced camper and know how to carry a tent, you can do this," says Dick Willy, who teaches a mountain travel course with the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol, a regional leader in avalanche rescue and mountain-travel training.
And you don't have to invest in a whole new set of gear to get started.
"It's easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest, but you don't have to spend a lot of money to be comfortable," Willy said. "You may have to pay a weight penalty and lose some style, but there's nothing wrong with a pair of NATO military-surplus wool pants and a $40 coated nylon rain jacket. There are lots of breathable fabrics that don't have the cachet of Gore-Tex, but still get the job done."
And don't fret over the cost of an Everest-expedition-quality tent. Winter-skills courses typically teach a range of shelter options, including how to build snow caves and igloos, make do with a tarp and a tent pole, or adapt your summer tent to winter needs.
Youth not required
Willy, a Boeing retiree who started cross-country skiing at age 42, is testimony to the fact that this isn't just a sport for 20-something triathletes. Washington Ski Touring Club vice president Deborah Dickstein, a 30-year snow-camping veteran who works in research ethics at the University of Washington, agrees.
"You don't have to be a super-duper young kamikaze mountaineer to enjoy this," she says. "It's not necessary for you to be an extraordinary athlete or to be extraordinarily fit. There are things about it that require skills, knowledge and fitness, but it's not something beyond the reach of normally active people who enjoy being in the mountains on the snow."
Dickstein points out another often-overlooked fact: Winter camping and snow camping are not synonymous.
"In the Northwest we usually have abundant snow pack well into the summer at higher elevations. May, June and sometimes July are the best months for snow camping," she said. "It's gorgeous, there's almost no one out there, the days are long, it can be warm and sunny, and you have the benefit of being able to ski right from your tent door without being subjected to the long, dark, cold nights."
Use your brain
Winter-camping experts agree that proper training is essential to safe backcountry snow travel. They strongly advise taking classes or going with an experienced snow camper your first time out.
Carey Gersten, a business and marketing consultant with Microsoft, teaches the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol mountain-travel course with Willy, and says it's essential that people hone their camping skills to meet the rigors of the much harsher winter environment.
"People sometimes overestimate their abilities. They think it's no big deal, they've seen it on TV or they've played too many video games and think they can get away with things," he said. "More than likely they'll be OK, but they won't necessarily be comfortable."
Gertsen says the top three things people need to know are how to make and use a shelter (exposure is the No. 1 concern for cold-weather campers), have a basic understanding of avalanches and avalanche terrain, and know their equipment and how to fix it.
"The most important piece of equipment you can take along is a working brain," said Gertsen, explaining that you need to know your physical limitations and how to read the weather and terrain for signs of danger so you can make good calls about when it's best to turn back or otherwise change your plans.
Balancing the hazards and the cold noses, there are definite "up sides." What these snow-camping enthusiasts remember most is the sound of a pack of coyotes howling in the night, the clarity of the freezing air, the fun of carving their own custom snow kitchen, the hush of snowshoes on virgin snow and skiing around a frozen lake under a rising full moon.
Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to NW Weekend.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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