Heading out of the resort and into the backcountry for the first time can be a daunting enough prospect for any snow lover or budding adventurist. Heading out for your first multiday touring mission that involves snow camping can be an even more daunting one. In this post I am going to let you know what essential items you should be taking when venturing out for a few days camping in the snow. We might touch on some of the optional extra luxury items in another post.
I like to break the “essential items” lists for multiday adventures into two categories - camping and clothing. I’ll start with camping. Here it goes…
Having a trustworthy shelter is not only a great point of comfort on your trips but also one of safety. You want to know that should the weather quickly turn as it so often can that you have a reliable place to bunker down and ride the weather out and that is why it is vitally important not to comprise on quality (you really don’t want to be one of those people requiring and evacuation because their $50 K-MART tent blew away in the wind whilst they were our skiing for the day). Winter camping is often associated with requiring a four-season tent. Whilst a four-season tent is ideal it is not required. A common misconception is that a four-season tent will keep you warmer than a three-season tent. The truth is that they will keep you just as warm! The advantage of a four-season tent is that it will deal with sustained moisture much better. If you are smart with where you pitch your tent (look for well frozen hard packed snow instead of a slush pit that gets plenty of water run off after its been sitting in the sun all day) and carry a non-permeable drop sheet you will be just fine with a three-season tent. Just make sure that if you are using the three-season option you go out and purchase yourself some snow pegs (usually between $3 - $5ea) so that your shelter remains firmly attached to the snow pack at all times (four-season tents should always come with snow pegs but it doesn’t hurt to double check your gear).
Packing light is ideal in the backcountry so choosing a compact adventure tent is the best option. My two-man adventure tent weighs in at around 2.3kgs so use that as a rough guide for a good weight. On our current expeditions out into the NSW main range this month Rhythm Snow Sports has lent us one of the tents in their backcountry hire range. It’s a three-man tent made by Wilderness Equipment. We found it fantastic! Plenty of room for three people, warm, well ventilated and extremely quick to set up. This tent only required the three poles to be put into place and then pegged into the ground as the tents fly is already secured to the base of the tent. It also packs down really easily and is extremely small once packed for a three man tent.
Three things come to mind when searching for a sleeping bag to take into backcountry – warmth rating, size and the weight. Sleeping bags filled with duck or goose down (goose down is warmer) are definitely the go on all fronts when compared to a sleeping bag stuffed with a synthetic filling. Down bags will be significantly smaller and lighter for the warmth value you are getting from the bag. A down bag suitable for the backcountry generally weighs in at around 1.1kgs give or take a little. My down bag rated at -9 degrees Celsius packs down to the same size as my 0 degrees Celsius synthetic bag… it’s insane. Knowing what warmth rating you will need in your sleeping bag for snow camping is really subjective because everyone’s body reacts differently to the cold. However, as a general rule of thumb a comfort rating of -5 degrees Celsius is a good rating to have for males in Australian conditions whether it is the middle of August or the end of October. Females will generally need to seek out a bag a few degrees warmer than men because they notice the cold more. If you want to add warmth to your sleeping bag I would highly recommend a thermal sleeping bag liner. Sea to Summit make a fantastic range of liners (as well as bags) that vary in the added warmth they provide.
Just like the sleeping bag I look for warmth rating, size and weight in a sleeping mat. For snow camping in Australia you would be completely fine with a mat that has an R-Value of 3.30, which is just a number placed on the warmth of the mat. These mats are insulated which means they prevent the cold from coming up through the ground and help you get a nice constant sleep. A good weight for an inflating sleeping mat for the backcountry is around about 400 grams. Sea to Summit make a really good line of mats with specific models designed to cater for alpine environments. On my first adventure out snow camping I slept on a foam yoga mat… it was a bad idea and I am much happier with my current mat which is insulated to -6 degrees Celsius (R-Value of 3.30) which is perfect for Australian conditions.
Do you take the bare essentials or the whole kitchen sink? Some people can honestly take out 100 litre packs for their multiday touring while others can pack their kit into just 50 litres. I like to keep my packs around the 50-60 litre mark BUT I look for packs like the Geehi pack by Wilderness Equipment that have loads of clips and hangers on the outside to store things like a shovel, poles, probe, ice axe, helmet, camera tripod and so forth. It is also important to have a pack that is durable enough and capable of carrying skis and boards that have sharp steel rails on them when boot packing it out of a line. Wilderness Equipment make fantastic backcountry specific packs. We recently had the opportunity to test out the aforementioned Geehi pack that Rhythm Snow Sports provided for us and we were stoked on its performance. It had comfortable weight distribution and really efficient ways of storing gear both inside and outside of the pack.
You have two main options to consider when looking for a stove to take out into the backcountry – a butane stove or a trangia stove. The butane stoves use pressurised gas canisters for fuel and the trangias use liquid fuels such as use liquid fuels such as mentholated spirits. It is well understood that the trangia stoves work much better at higher altitudes and in colder temperatures (however, four season fuels can be purchased for the butane stoves) but that being said the butane options are significantly more affordable. I use a butane stove and have used it during snowfalls up on the NSW main range without issue to this point. If you choose the more affordable butane option but are worried about under performance in harsh conditions remember that you can always cook in the vestibule of your tent where it is sheltered from the weather.
Having a base thermal layer is really important in regulating body temperature when winter camping. It’s a good idea to use thermal pants, a thermal top and thermal socks. During our time in the mountains this season we have been using the Oyuki Merino Thermals and the Sumo Sox merino socks and we cannot fault them. This Australian company has produced a range that is extremely comfortable and warm and has far exceeded the performance of many rival brands that we have used. You want your thermal layers to be a nice snug fit and there are a few different material options to choose from. The two biggest materials in the thermal range are merino and polyester. Whilst they are a more expensive option a merino thermal will provide unmatched quality in both comfort and warmth and most importantly will keep you warm even if the garment is wet. Additionally, a merino thermal is antimicrobial which means that you can wear the garment for multiple days without washing it and it will not become smelly or irritating to the skin. Merino thermals also regulate body temperature much better than a polyester thermal which means you won’t overheat once you become active and get the blood pumping!
A non-insulated shell jacket and pants combo is a must when considering outerwear for the backcountry. They will be waterproof and windproof but will not overheat you when you are skinning, snowshoeing or hiking like your regular ski jacket and pants would. Remember that if you are cold you can always layer up underneath your shell layer to create warmth. When looking for these items myself I try to find garments with air vents and taped waterproof zippering.
After a long day in the mountains I get back to camp and put my insulation layer underneath my shell jacket. My preferred insulation is a duck or goose down hooded jacket because they can pack down really small and fit nicely in your pack but also because their warmth is unmatched and they are comfortable to sleep in. There is also a really good range of fleece and soft shell jackets on the market for insulation if down isn’t your thing. I would recommend investing a good insulation layer because it is what will keep you warm once the sun has gone down, a regular hoodie or standard garment just isn’t going to cut it.
If you have any questions regarding backcountry camping equipment or the range available for hire or purchase at Rhythm Snow Sports please do not hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curious about the backcountry? Check out the first video by Simple Livers, the Australian Backcountry at its best
Until next time,
Mitch from the Simple Livers.
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