Braving the chill, knowing the risks
Date posted: January 6, 2014
SHERIDAN — For some, snow means cozying up by a fire, under a blanket, with a cup of hot cocoa. For others, the snows of winter are an invitation to hike deep into the mountains and set up camp where the word “quiet” takes on a whole new level of meaning in a land hushed beneath a blanket of white.
For local outdoor enthusiast Kameron Condos, winter is the best time to camp. It provides an extra challenge over summer camping, but more than that, it provides true escape.
“It’s so pristine, and crisp, and beautiful,” Condos said. “You can hear every sound around you because it’s so quiet. You can look backward and see your own tracks in a big, white expansiveness, and it’s just…”
His voice trails off.
“I’m sure there’s poetry written about that.”
As spiritual writer Baba Ram Das has said: “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
Condos started camping in winter when he was a child and considers it almost second nature now. On his first trip, his dad took him and his brother and sister to the warming shelter near Sibley Lake in the Bighorn Mountains. They cross-country skied to the hut, built a fire in the 50-gallon drum stove and slept beneath the full moon.
“My dad was the driving force behind getting us into the secret world of dead-of-winter sports. It can be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s worth it when you look around and put your phone away,” Condos said.
As he grew up, Condos amped up his winter camping, tackling Cloud Peak and, eventually, Denali (Mount McKinley) on a 40-day excursion in Alaska in 2012 in which he and three friends traversed the entire mountain north to south.
But, Condos said, you don’t have to be a hard-core expert to get out and enjoy one of this region’s most beloved summer activities in the winter months. Go with someone who has experience and enjoy some time away — way away.
You don’t have to buy the most expensive gear out there, but it is a good idea to have a few essentials and know how to use them, Condos said.
• Snow shovel. A good shovel is critical, Condos said. It is used to dig platforms for tents, walls to go around tents, or, if forgoing the tent, to dig a snow cave. He recommends aluminum because it is lightweight and can cut through wind-packed snow.
• Shelter. Snow caves are an option, but otherwise a good winter tent is crucial. Winter tents are double walled to provide extra insulation. Condos recommends a tent with a vestibule to store gear and use for cooking if it’s just too cold outside.
• Ground pad. Get a little space between you and the frozen ground. Condos recommends a closed-cell foam pad that will reflect your body heat over one that fills with air since the air will get cold and make you cold.
• Sleeping bag. Winter bags have warmer foot boxes and extra insulation. Condos uses a down bag because it is warmer and lighter and he doesn’t mind drying it out in the sun if it gets wet. However, Learn Outdoors Executive Director Julie Davidson recommended avoiding down because she finds it discouraging to have a wet bag. Synthetic technology is slightly bulkier but is improving and is less susceptible to wetness.
• Guy wires and parachutes. The wind tends to blow in the mountains in the winter, so having ways to anchor your tent is important. Parachutes are squares of nylon cloth with holes on the edges that can be attached to the tent with guy wires, filled with snow and buried to provide anchors. Condos digs a hole 2 feet deep, fills a parachute with snow, buries it and stomps the snow down. Stomping the snow denatures the ice crystals, similar to compressing a snow ball in your hands to make it more solid. If there is more than one tent, guy wires can be strung between tents to provide an anchor. Condos also recommends one person be designated solely as tent holder when setting up camp to prevent the tent from blowing away.
• Sleds. These are optional, but if you’re hiking any distance, having a sled to stash gear and pull is an energy saver. Don’t forget snow shoes or skis for trekking through deep mountain snow.
Befriend the snow
While cold, icy crystals may seem like enemy number one against your personal heat and comfort, they’re not. Snow is your friend in winter camping. Learn to use it to your advantage.
• Clean slate. In her classes, Davidson often stumps her students by asking where it is okay to camp in the winter as far as leaving no trace. The answer is to travel and camp on durable surfaces — and snow is a durable surface.
“You can go absolutely anywhere and not worry about having a negative impact. Use snow to your advantage that way,” Davidson said. “You don’t have to stay on trails or follow a path. You can go places you wouldn’t normally go.”
• Protect your camp. In winter, bad weather can hit without warning, so it is imperative to protect your camp, Condos said. Use snow to anchor your tent. Cut 12-inch by 24-inch blocks of snow and build a wall igloo-style around your tent to provide shelter from the wind. You will need a snow saw for this. Make the wall as high as your tent to provide the best protection and expect set-up to take three to four hours. Use powdery snow to “caulk” the cracks between the blocks. Pile snow around your tent if you don’t have time to build a wall. It will still help.
• Drink it. Condos said one of the most common questions he gets asked about winter camping is how to find water. He reminds folks that they are surrounded by water in the winter. Melt clean snow for cooking and drinking.
The old adage remains true: dress in layers for the most warmth. Davidson recommends synthetic fabrics because they are “almost as warm when soaking wet as when dry.”
• Wick. Wear a polyester base layer that will wick moisture away from the body. Avoid fabric with a high Spandex content, Davidson said. Spandex is swimming suit material, and we all know how (not) quickly swimsuits dry.
“It’s better to spring for a decent pair of long underwear and scrimp on the outer layers,” Davidson said.
• Layer. Wear water-proof pants over the long underwear. On top, put a puffy layer of insulation such as fleece or polyester over the base layer and finish off with a wind and water resistant hard outer shell.
• Accessorize. Good gloves, hats and scarves are a must, and they can add a splash of color, too. Make sure the hat secures tightly over your ears and the gloves are waterproof. Condos recommends layered gloves with a thin layer to keep on for cooking, etc., and a thicker outer glove for hiking and working with snow. Good wool or synthetic socks are crucial. Make sure to pack extra pairs of socks and gloves in case they get wet.
“Expect the worse,” Davidson said. “As long as you are staying warm, you will have fun. The worst thing you can do is not pack enough clothing and be cold the whole time.”
While the mountains are beautiful in winter, they are also dangerous. Be sure to arm yourself with some survival knowledge (Learn Outdoors offers a winter survival course each year).
• Be avalanche aware. Avalanches do happen in the Bighorn Mountains, so make sure to learn what to look for and what to avoid.
• Locate yourself. Carry a GPS unit, a compass and a map — and know how to use them. Batteries can fail, so it’s a good idea to know how to use a compass and map for orienteering, Davidson said. Also, always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
• Mark your trail. Condos carries small, neon-colored flags to mark his trail. These can be stuck into the snow to mark the way you came in or even areas around camp, such as the bathroom site. Visibility can disappear within seconds in a blizzard. Just make sure to “leave no trace” and remove the flags when you depart.
• Beware carbon monoxide. Cooking in your tent may be preferable to stay warm and dry, but it can be dangerous, too. Camp stoves release carbon monoxide gas, which can be deadly to humans if too much is consumed. Don’t cook in your tent where ventilation is scarce. The outer tent vestibule can be used, but with caution and good ventilation. It is best to bundle up and cook outside. Just remember that cooking under a tree with snow on its boughs is tricky, too. Heat from a stove or fire can melt the snow, which will fall down — onto you, your meal and your warmth.
The world of camp cooking has had books written about it, so there are myriad options. Both Condos and Davidson recommend consuming lots of calories. Doing anything in the snow and cold burns energy that needs to be replaced.
• Fatten up. Winter camping is a good excuse to consume sausage and cheese. Really. Both fatty foods, sausage and cheese tend not to freeze and they provide the fat needed to stay warm and energized. Nuts are also an excellent option.
• Pick proteins. Foods high in protein are also crucial.
• Think warm. Hot cocoa, coffee and tea are a must for staying warm — and the sheer enjoyment of drinking something warm on a frigid day. Melt that snow and make it something warm and yummy.
• Hydrate. Water thins blood and helps it get to your extremities. It is crucial to stay hydrated to avoid frostbite and hypothermia, Condos said. Beware Camelback water systems, though. The drinking hoses can easily freeze in cold temperatures. Condos carries water in Nalgene bottles with insulater sleeves.
To boost the fun and comfort factor, here are a few extra tips.
• Give your toes some extra care after all that winter walking with down or synthetic booties to wear in the tent and even around camp.
• Bring a mini whisk broom and dust pan to get cold snow out of your tent and away from your gear.
• Wear sunglasses to protect from the sun’s reflection off the snow. Goggles are good for guarding your eyes from blowing snow.
• Beware the sun. When the sun is reflecting off the snow, you can get sunburned in unlikely places — like the roof of your mouth. Keep your mouth closed and wear sunscreen, Condos said, speaking from experience.
• Pack battery operated gear like cameras and GPS units close to your body where your heat can prevent the batteries from wearing down.
• Fill Nalgene bottles with warm water and pack close to your body for extra warmth.
• Get educated. Call Davidson at 674-6446, ext. 8350 to learn about Learn Outdoors programming. Check out the book “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills” for a good read on all things outdoor.