Winter in the mountains of British Columbia is one of our favourite times of year to go camping. To see the brilliant hues of light at sunrise and sunset cast across an unbroken blanket of alpine snow is beautiful. Not to mention the challenge. To simply get out there and brave the elements is very rewarding. Problems in life always seem more insignificant after a weekend spent out in the mountains. You gain a perspective of what is truly important in life.
We mentally prepare for these experiences. We might not enjoy every part of it, but we accept it has its challenges and rewards. We recognize seeing the beauty of golden light at sunrise across a pristine blanket of snow is worth the tingle in your fingertips and toes. Or the struggle of pushing through thigh deep snow is worth being able to listen to the vast, calming silence that engulfs the mountains in winter.
The biggest factor you will be dealing with is, obviously, the cold. It took a few attempts at winter camping before we could refer to our experiences as going smoothly. Like the time when we brought six fresh eggs for breakfast and realized they froze overnight when we tried cracking them into the frying pan. New experiences like that are just part of the learning curve.
We primarily camp along the southern coast in British Columbia so we don’t have to deal with temperatures as cold as the interior of BC. Our advice will be based around this type of winter camping, where the temperatures don’t dip much below -15′celcius. It’s also worth noting we are not just referring to the calendar months of “winter” but rather winter conditions of snow, short daylight hours and temperatures below 0′celcius. In BC we can experience these in the mountains from the middle of fall well into late spring.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at winter camping, read on. We’ve outlined a selection of our tips (some hard learned) to help make your first winter camping experience more enjoyable.
First and foremost, you must have a proper frame of mind. Getting to your destination is going to be slower and harder because you might need to break trail. You are going to feel cold frequently. Your fingers will numb when you stop to eat a snack and then sting badly as warm blood rushes into them when you start moving again. Being prepared for this helps to offset the experience.
Modes of Transport:
Winter camping requires the ability to move on snow, and there are a few ways of varying difficulty to do this:
1. Snowshoe: Easy to use but slower.
2. Ski: Harder to use but much faster.
3. Crampon: Moderately difficult to use but can be as fast as hiking given the right snow conditions.
I started out with snowshoes. They are easy to learn on and often available to rent at local sporting goods stores for relatively cheap. They do have their limits though. If the snow is firm it can be difficult to walk down or traverse a slope.
But quickly, as I watched others glide uphill on skis and then let gravity do the work for them downhill, I made the decision to transition to skis. I’ve found skiing to be a lot more difficult than snowshoeing, but the rewards have been worth it. I took lessons at a local ski resort and have slowly been making the transition to ski touring in BC’s backcountry.
Crampons have specific uses and if you imagine you will need them then you should get instruction by a mountain guide or join one of the many Mountain Clubs in BC. Crampons are used for firm to solid snow conditions, sometimes ice. They are used on glaciers and steeper snow where a ski or snowshoe aren’t as efficient.
Tips to Stay Warm:
Feeling warm is crucial to your enjoyment while winter camping.
Having a fire is generally not an option. Many popular winter camping destinations will not allow fires. They also tend to quickly burn down through the snow and lose their heat. And if you plan to camp above the treeline, there will be nothing to burn anyway unless you bring your own wood.
There are other ways to stay warm:
1. Bring plenty of clothing layers to trap air and reduce the loss of your body heat.
2. Puffy jackets are a must, preferably ones filled with down feathers.
3. Stoke your internal fire; keep well-hydrated and eat well, this will aid your body’s ability to generate heat.
4. Go to the bathroom before getting into your sleeping bag. If you don’t, this can actually make you get colder quicker.
5. Get into your sleeping bag warm; do stomach crunches or jumping jacks before hopping into that bag.
You have many options for a winter backpacking shelter depending on your comfort level: Some of the ways we make a shelter are:
1. A winter tent: This will raise the ambient temperature a few degrees. Generally they are single walled and can trap moisture from your breath which will turn to condensation on the walls during the night.
2. A snow pit/cave: Snow caves can actually be quite insulating and warm. They take longer to construct but utilizing them means you don’t need to carry a tent.
If we are going on a quick winter trip into the backcountry we will usually just dig a small pit in the snow and pitch a light tarp over it. This works well if you want to keep your pack weight down. If the weather is calling for wind or snow, we will use our winter tent. It is built to hold up under heavy loads of snow and to endure strong winds. It is also made from a material that insulates better than summer tents.
The beauty of the mountains in winter belies how hazardous they can be. It can be bitingly cold so you need to watch that exposed extremities don’t become frostbitten. Cavities can form below the surface of the snow near trees or between boulders which can break when you walk on them. Then there is always the danger of avalanches on slopes you are moving on or below.
If you want to enjoy the mountains in winter, then taking some form of instruction on how to go about it safely is necessary. We have taken an Avalanche Safety Training course and spent a lot of time with experienced Mountaineers in BC who have helped us transition into winter camping.
For Avalanche Training we recommend checking out the courses at your local ski hill. For getting out with experienced mountain goers we’d highly recommend joining any one of the established Mountain Clubs in BC. You can find a full list of them here: Mountain Clubs of BC.
Why it’s all worth it:
I hope this post and our pictures alone have convinced you that winter in the mountains of British Columbia is extremely special. There are so many amazing mountain ranges and parks to explore here — why just stop at summer?
Note: our list is by no means exhaustive; if you think we left out any important tips and tricks then feel free to leave them in the comments section below, we’d love to hear them.