This was one of my favorite clinics I gave each fall when I worked at REI. So many outdoor people want to overnight camp in the winter time but they always had serious reservations about it. I believe with the right gear and a few times out, it becomes second nature. My first snow camping experience when I was 12 was with the boy scouts on Mt. Rainier. I wore blue jeans and had a sleeping bag from my mom who used it growing up in Southern California! I didn't get a bit of sleep that night in the tent shivering to keep warm. My cloths were soaking wet from an attempt at a snowcave that day. In the morning, I grabbed my pants and they were frozen solid. Imagine me skiing out of camp with my frozen pants tied to my backpack with the legs going 2 different directions.
I've come a long way since then, having learned from doing the wrong things at a young age. I knew I had graduated the winter camping skill after spending 30 nights on Denali and all it's ugly weather.

Snow Shelters vs. Tents

Tent
Easy to set up
Can make camp anywhere
Gets warm if sun is out
Can be noisy when windy
Snow Shelter
Doesn't make noise
Usually warmer
Not affected by new snow
Takes time to build
Need enough snow depth

TENTS

Single wall tents
These are made of rainproof breathable fabric; keeps the weight down because it doesn't need a rainfly. Disadvantage: condensation and cost
Double wall tents
Usually warmer because of two fabric layers insulating.
Look for:
Aluminum poles not fiberglass
Freestanding (doesn't need stakes)
Loops on fly to attach guy lines
Two entrances
A vestibule
Inside pockets and loops for hanging things
Depending on where you camp, you may be fine with a 3 season tent saving you considerable amount of cash. If your campsites will be below treeline and out of the wind, a nice 3 season tent could work out fine. On the flip side, I've seen these tents crushed by heavy snow fall or snapped poles from strong winds. Most four season tents have an extra pole making the tent much more durable.
Three or four season tent?
Clothing
Layer 1: Ventilating Layer
Layer 2: Insulating Layer
Layer 3: Protective Layer
Liner Socks
Long Underwear
Liner Gloves
Wool Socks
Pants (wool, fleece, etc.)
Shirt (wool, fleece, etc.)
Gloves/Mitts (wool, fleece, ect.)
Hat or Balaclava
Waterproof Parka
Rain Pants
Waterproof Overmitts
Gaitors
Waterproof Boots
Gear List
Backpack
Sleeping Bag
Insulation Pad
Extra Clothing
Headlamp/Flashlight
Matches/Firestarter
First Aid Kit
Sunglasses
Sunscreen and Lip Balm
Compass and Map
Waterbottles
Watch
Snow Shovel
Optional Items
Camera
Sun/Rain Hat
Handwarmers
Garbage Bags
Snow Saw
Sit Pad
Bottle Carriers/warmers
Pocket Knife
Weather Radio

Cooking

Stove choices
Where to get snow/what type?
Where to cook?
Stove platforms
In tent cooking hints:
Light the stove outside
Cook near the door
Keep the tent ventulated
How much fuel should you bring?
Where to buy food?
Freeze dryed food?
Helpful Hints
A) Hypothermia is your enemy.
B) Layering is the key.
C) Pack all items in waterproof bags.
D) Don't let anything get wet.
E) Be prepared for change in the weather.
F) Eat and drink every hour.
G) Don't get into a sleeping bag with clothing
wet from perspiration or snow.
H) Don't breath into your sleeping bag.
I) Store clothing and boots in bags at night due to
condensation in the tent.
J) Stand all equipment upright outside of shelters.
K) Make sure your sleeping pad is full length
Whatever stove you have, you'll need something to cook on. The heat will melt the snow below...usually on one side until suddenly, you're scooping your dinner out of the snow.
The boy scout rule is "no flames in tents" but since you're not on a scout outing you can cook inside the tent if the weather is really bad. I try to avoid this whenever possible and at least cook under the vestibule if my tent has one. My preferred method since it's usually dark when I cook is to cook outside my tent door from inside. If your tent does catch fire don't worry, it only takes a few seconds before you'll be sitting out in the elements cooking without having to move.
If you're already a backpacker then you've got a stove...use that. The real choice is between a stove that takes liquid gas or a canister type. For 99% of the people, a canister type is the easiest and cheapest. Much more can go wrong with the stoves that take liquid fuels as they have a lot of parts. Many might say a canister type won't work as well in higher altitudes or the cold but I've seen them in use at camps as high as 19,000 feet.
Avoid yellow snow....that's for sure. You'll probably do some snow melting unless you bring in all your water. Find a place just outside of camp where nobody goes, skim off the top layer of snow and fill up a bag full of snow. Bring the bag to your cooking area and start melting. Put a bit of water in your pot first or you'll "burn snow". People say it's impossible to do that but I swear that's what is happening if you don't.
I hate cooking, some of these dinners taste pretty good and you only have to boil water....no dishes.
Just bring food you know you'll eat. I get tired of things, so now days I just sacrifice the weight and bring some food out of a can. If your on a short trip, there is no rule that a warm dinner is required although it does help keep you warmer....maybe mentally. I do love hot chocolate when camping on snow but never the rest of the year.
Snowcave profile

Snow Shelters

Snow shelters are great to sleep in but a pain to build. Daylight hours are short in winter so unless you plan your day around building the shelter, you'll probably be digging into the hours of darkness. Although many will claim they can build them quickly, I've rarely seen this happen. Most people take a long time and spend considerable energy.
A very nice 12 person sitting cave we built on Denali during some bad weather. Note: we brought 4 different kinds of snow shovels, 2 with metal blades and 2 with plastic. The blades of the plastic ones broke.
During extreme weather, it's nice to have built snow walls around your tent. Also notice the guy lines anchoring the tent. With these guy lines, we had attached about 1 foot of heavy bungee cord on each line to absorb the shock of the wind and cause the tent to be much quieter for us.
A properly built snowcave will have its entrance below the main sleeping area to retain the heat.

Intro to Winter Camping

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Snowcave on Denali Winter camp Camping on Denali
Outdoor Information
Snow stakes
Snow stakes are specific stakes for anchoring a tent in snow. They are curved and the holes are there to freeze ice between each side making them stay in place.
Go Far with marmot at Altrec Outdoors
Snow saws and shovel
A snow shovel with a metal blade is better than the heavy plastic ones. One that collapses to different sizes is even better. If you plan to build snow blocks or an igloo, you�ll need a snow saw. The top one in the picture was made by a friend who has a small metal shop in his garage. The bottom one was found during spring in a popular winter camping area.
Winter camp at South Sister Oregon
Ski poles, skis, snowshoes, ice axe, pickets, trekking poles, wands, etc. can all be used for staking out a tent or marking the area of danger around a snow cave
inside_snow_cave.jpg
Bad placement of a snow cave by some of my scouts, those are trees protruding from the walls.
Digging a snowcave
Where to start the snow cave is often the key to a successful cave or a long night
Digging a snowcave Winter camping at Paradise
Working on the cave into the night
The easy way out
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Rock Mountain Snowking Mountain