A Guide to Snow Camping in Australia
A little bit of know-how combined with the right gear and snow camping can be just as good (if not, better) as camping in the warmer months. This guide offers a starting point for making the most of the Snowy Mountains in winter.
Tents and Setting up your Tent in the Snow
Ideally, a 4-season hiking tent is the best option for overnighting in the snow. However, depending on weather conditions and whether the area you are camping in is alpine or sub-alpine, a 3-season tent may suffice. In a sub-alpine area, the tree line does provide some protection. You can also dig your tent in or build a snow wall for additional protection from wind. And don't forget your snow pegs. In exposed areas or when the weather is predicted to be wild, a 4-season tent is the safest option.
If you are camping in an exposed area like the Kosciuszko Main Range, you'll get a better night's sleep if you dig your tent in or build a wall of snow to provide some protection from the snow. Hence, a shovel is always good to bring. Plus, you can use it to dig in a foot well in your vestibule, creating a space for cooking and storage. Stomp down the soft first layer of snow before pitching your tent, leaving a nice flat area. Keep your skis/split-board/snowshoes on to make the stomping more efficient.
When snow camping, you'll have to be disciplined with looking after your gear. Stand your skis/split-board/snowshoes/poles up to prevent them from being buried by snow overnight. Also, don't put them where they'll fall over in the wind and potentially leave a hole in your tent.
Layering System and Staying Warm
An effective layering system is crucial to your safety and enjoyment while exploring the mountains year-round, especially in winter. We have a guide to layering for outdoor activities that you can read and watch here.
In cold conditions, it is essential to have all the correct layers. It is equally important to know how to use them correctly. For example, if you are skinning up a hill on skis and putting in the hard work, you'll start to sweat and heat up. This is when you remove your static mid-layer and outer shell if the weather permits. Don't wait until you reach the top as you'll be sweaty and wet, making you cold. Put your static mid layer on when you stop moving and at camp. Be proactive towards staying warm rather than reactive.
The biggest thing worrying people about camping in the snow is staying warm during the night. Typically, Australian conditions are pretty mild compared to those in Europe or North America. As a general rule of thumb, an insulated sleeping mat with an R-value of 5 will suffice. An insulated sleeping mat with a lower R-value can be used with a lightweight foam sleeping pad (for example, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite) to bump up the R-value. Learn more about sleeping mats here.
A winter-specific sleeping bag is your best option for snow camping. Look for features like a draught collar, hood and a mummy shape. And, always buy the sleeping bag that is warmer than you think you need. Learn more about buying a sleeping bag for winter here.
Stoves and Melting Snow
A reliable stove for all conditions like the MSR WindBurner or Reactor is Chris's go-to for windy overnighters in the alpine. Melting snow can be a slow process, but a trick to speed it up is to start with water already heating up in your pot, then add snow. This prevents the snow from boiling off and evaporating.
Now you've melted your snow, make sure it doesn't freeze again. Any water left around overnight is likely to freeze over. To prevent this and keep your water drinkable keep your water bottles in your sleeping bag overnight. If you have a Nalgene bottle, pour the hot water straight in then you have a hot water bottle to fall asleep with.
On a clear, sunny winter's day, sunscreen is vital. Remember to cover your neck and underneath your chin as the glare reflects off the snow. A buff or neck gaiter will also ward off the UV rays. During spring, consider wearing a lightweight sun top, usually worn in summer for activities like fishing, that'll keep you cool and protected. You'll be surprised how warm it can get on a sunny day, even though you're in the snow.
Drying Out Gear
Obviously, it would be best to keep everything dry. Realistically, things go wrong and things get wet. Do your best to keep crucial gear like your sleeping bag and the inside of your tent dry and use dry sacks to organise your gear and keep dry things separate from wet things.
There are a few tricks to dry things out should things get a bit wet. On a clear sunny day, you can spread your sleeping bag over your pitched tent to help dry it out. Damp socks and thermals can be worn to bed with your body temperature drying them out overnight. If something is really saturated, best not to have them inside your sleeping bag as you don't want to risk making everything else cold and wet. Some huts have designated fireplaces which makes drying out gear (and staying warm) easy.
As always, carry a PLB or similar with you, and if your trip requires navigation, a GPS, maps etc. Always tell someone where you are going and if your trip is in backcountry Kosciuszko fill in a trip intention form with National Parks. If relying on your phone for navigation and communication, know that batteries and cold weather don't get along. Be diligent about keeping your phone and any batteries you may have in a warm spot like your pocket or sleeping bag. Cold conditions tend to drain batteries pretty quickly.