Snow Camping

In a typical season, the MNSC activities calendar includes snow camping trips. These range from beginner to advanced standard.

This is a chance to really get the feeling of being out there in the mountain environment, to enjoy the landscape and the untracked snow, to tour among the snowgums and (if you are into it) to try some backcountry downhill.

snow tent

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Snow Camping

Away from the Madding Crowd

Typical questions asked by first time snow campers concern gear, clothing, food and the skiing standard required. This page is intended to give some guidance on these things for members considering participating in club snow camping trips. If you are worried about the adequacy of your gear or skiing ability, ask the trip leader. In addition to the things discussed here, you will want to bring your own personal stuff (toiletries, etc.) and you should know best what is required in this regard. As with everything, weight is critical, so think carefully about what is really essential to your comfort. To some extent, you only discover this by trial and error.

Caution: The comments refer to snow camping under Australian (typically Victorian) conditions and are based on many years of experience on the part of Melboune Nordic members. They should not be taken as a guide to snow camping in other parts of the world where conditions may be more severe.

Skiing Ability

Carrying a pack on skis will put your skills to the test. It is definitely not the time for fancy footwork and it is not an activity for a beginner skier. You don't need to be an expert (for most of the trips on the Melbourne Nordic calendar), but you do need at least a few seasons of skiing experience. You should be at the point where you can confidently snowplow on a moderate slope and you should be confident at side-stepping or herringboning up a hill. If you are more accustomed to track skiing, don't forget that you will be on heavier skis. They may not be fast gliding, but they will be more forgiving on the downhill.

Gear

The following tables can be used as an annotated checklist for things you need to bring.

Table 1: Key Items Everyone Needs

ItemRequirementsAlternativesComments

Sleeping Bag

In Victoria, a -10oC comfort rating should be OK. For the Main Range in NSW, a -15oC bag is safer.

Down is lightest. Synthetics perform better when wet, but are heavier (for an equivalent temperature rating).

This is one the two most important pieces of gear you need for a safe and comfortable trip. See next comment.

Sleeping Mat

Thermarest, Ridge Rest or two blue closed cell foam mats. (Should be Full Length)

Some people combine a short Thermarest with a full length closed cell foam mat or Ridge Rest for greater comfort where it counts most (upper body). Inflatable down pads are OK, but tend to be bulky.

This is just as essential as a good sleeping bag. Without an effective insulating layer under your bag, you won't stay warm at night. Lack of an adequate combination of bag and mat can be a serious safety issue. If you rely on an inflatable mat, bring a repair kit.

Pack

At least 85 Litres.

For obvious reasons, you need to carry more gear for snow camping than for summer, so a decent sized pack is necessary.

Skis

Reasonably wide touring skis or Telemark skis.

Typical examples:

Karhu Pavo or Orion.

Fischer Sbound or Outtabounds.

Classic track skis are not adequate. They don't have enough flotation and they are not strong enough. The extra weight of a pack can break them.

Boots

Solid three pin leather or (better) plastic Telemark boots.

If you don't have down boots (see below), you can wear the removable inners of a pair of plastic Telemark boots in the evenings.

Poles

Touring length.

Telescopic poles are great if you have them.

Head Torch

The sun goes down pretty early in winter and early spring. You almost always end up cooking and/or eating after dark.

Water Bottle

Hydration bags can be used if they are easy to fill (eg, from a creek) Other types of water carrying bags are available. Empty wine cask bladders are OK.

You need a good supply of water for cooking and you don't want to go off to the creek for more water in the middle of things.

Sunscreen (and lip balm)

30+ spf (or higher if you can get it).

You will be out in the weather for most of the daylight hours. The higher the altitude, the worse it gets. The sun on Main Range (NSW) can be savage.

Food utensils.

Trangia type stoves usually come with plates and bowls, but you will still need a cup and cutlery.

Plastic Bags

Great for keeping things dry and you'll need at least one for rubbish (cooking scraps etc.)

Whistle

Cow bell (but keep it quiet unless you are lost).

Helps people to find you if you get lost.

Day Pack

Some packs have a removable day pack built in.

Most trips involve touring from a base camp. A daypack that can be folded up very small to fit inside you pack is ideal.

Table 2: Essential Gear That Can be Shared Between Two or Three People

ItemRequirementsAlternativesComments

Tent

Four Season with strong poles (preferably aluminium) and a decent sized vestibule.

Bivvy sac (for very hardy types!)

Most people carry 2 person tents. A lot of people like to have a 2 person tent to themselves, so they can spread their gear out, but of course this is a heavy option.

Snow Pegs

Should be at least 30cm long. Typically aluminium.

Sand pegs are cheaper and work OK, but are bulkier to carry.

Ordinary tent pegs don't hold in snow. Snow pegs are longer and wider.

Stove

Trangia style methylated spirit burning or MSR style Shellite burning.

Too many types of fuel stove to list.

Avoid butane fuelled camping stoves. They are not reliable at low temperatures. And make sure you always have some dry matches. Stashing boxes of matches in various places in your pack in case others get wet is a good strategy.

Fuel bottle

Aluminium is best.

Bring plenty of fuel in case it is necessary to melt snow to supply water. This can be necessary if there is no open creek near the campsite. In a particularly good season, open creeks can be hard to find near some camp-sites.

Snow Shovel

Should be metal.

One shovel between four is enough, but one per tent is best. Plastic shovels used for digging cars out of fresh snow are not generally effective for firm snow.

Essential Items at Least One Member of the Party (usually the Trip Leader) Should Carry

Clothing

Table 3: Essential Clothing Items Everyone Needs

Some things like ski pants are obvious and you know about them from track skiing and/or day touring. It is good to always keep a spare set of dry clothes for wearing around the camp site (and for emergencies).

ItemRequirementsAlternativesComments

Thermal Underwear

Various types are available.

Polypropylene has fallen out of favour. It smells bad and shrinks dramatically if you accidentally wash it in hot water.

Waterproof Jacket

Goretex shell type is standard.

Other similar membrane materials.

Jackets with padding/insulation are not ideal. They are bulky to carry.

Waterproof Overpants

Goretex shell type is standard.

Other similar membrane materials.

Pants that can be put on and off with ski boots on are ideal. This usually requires some kind of zip system. Downhill skiers overalls are not ideal. They are bulky to carry and often too hot.

Sunglasses

You will be out in the weather for most of the daylight hours. Don't risk eye damage or snow blindness on a sunny day.

Down Jacket

Two or three fleece layers or extra thermals.

For wearing around the camp-site in the evenings.

Waterproof Gloves

Fleece gloves plus waterproof overmittens work OK.

Keep some spare gloves dry in your pack. You will appreciate them at the camp site.

Beanie

Fleece

You will really need this in the camp-site, even if the day has been warm.

Table 4: Additional Items that Make Life More Comfortable

ItemComments

Down Boots

For wearing around the camp-site in the evenings. Removable inners of plastic ski boots can be used, but are not as warm.

Goggles

If you have to ski in bad weather, goggles make it much more comfortable.

Fleece pants

For wearing around the camp-site in the evenings. Alternatively put on some extra thermals.

Foam Mats

Cut up a cheap closed cell foam mat into pieces about 30cm long and bring one or two to sit (or cook) on at night.

Waterproof Pack Cover

If you can get hold of one, these covers help to keep r&*%$# and snow out of your pack when you are skiing.

What Food to Bring?

Cooking in the snow can be a little difficult, so it is sensible to bring foods that are easy to prepare and cook. In particular:

On the up side, since your food will stay cool in your pack, you can carry things that would not keep well on a summer bushwalking trip. Of course, things like fresh meat are heavy to carry and can be messy in your pack, so make sure you pack them carefully. Freeze dried camping meals are fine, but simple one pot meals involving fast cooking ingredients can save money and suit your own particular preferences. It is good to carry high energy snacks in a water resistant bag in a pocket or easily accessible pack compartment.