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Snow campers brave elements for icy wonderland

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN

A group of snow campers in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.
A group of snow campers in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Most winter sports enthusiasts scoff at frigid temperatures and frozen appendages. Snow-matted facial hair and nose icicles serve as a testament to their commitment and rugged determination.

After a day spent carving out snowy trails on mountains, most avid skiers and snowboarders crave the warmth of a roaring fire and a soft bed.

Snow campers, on the other hand, are a different breed.

They eschew the comforts of home and hearth for nights spent braving the elements in tents and snow shelters.

They battle frostbite, hypothermia and dehydration to experience nature in all her snowy brilliance.

"People who don't do it think it's nuts," says Chuck Ford, a teacher at Tamiscal High school in Larkspur, California, who leads expeditions of students on snow camping trips every year. He's been pursuing the polar pastime for more than 30 years.

"I think it is fun," he says. "If you go in with all the right stuff you can be really comfortable."

Hauling lots of extra dry clothing and a tarp for emergency shelter or to transport snow is essential says Karen Sykes, a freelance writer who pens a regular hiking column for the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

"Even though you may feel dry (once you are inside your shelter) you are probably not and need to change clothes immediately," she says.

Don't forget to bring several extra pairs of gloves, Sykes says. Keeping fingers warm and dry is very important in avoiding frostbite.

Sykes also recommends campers carry one or two sleeping pads or insulated mattresses to protect themselves from the cold floors and a warm sleeping bag, preferably with a Gore-Tex shell.

Snow camping is not much different than summer hiking, says Chris MacIntosh, a Sierra Club volunteer leader who teaches seminars on snow camping in northern California.

She cautions, however, that snow camping should only be attempted by seasoned hikers who have had training in snow camping survival.

Multilevel snow caves

Using snowshoes or cross-country skis, campers travel into national parks along traditional hiking routes.

They make camp by pitching tents or digging snow shelters out of the fluffy drifts that accumulate around bushes or ridges in the landscape.

"You can make a hasty shelter in about 30 minutes if you find yourself in a bad situation," says MacIntosh.

Navigating snowy trails like this one on Skyline Ridge in Washington  can be tricky and requires the use of a compass or GPS device.
Navigating snowy trails like this one on Skyline Ridge in Washington can be tricky and requires the use of a compass or GPS device.

"You want to be out of the blowing or falling snow. Just throw a tarp over a snow bowl that surrounds a bush ... if possible, insulate yourself from sitting in the snow, and don't panic," she says.

If weather and time permit, campers can construct elaborate multilevel snow caves.

"The easy way to build, assuming you have a lot of snow, is to burrow into a hillside," says Ford.

He advises digging down and then changing direction to burrow up so as to give the snow cave a natural wind block.

Next, campers hollow out the cavern and dig a hollow "sink" area at the bottom where cold air will collect. The warmer air will rise to the flat, layered area where campers can carve out makeshift beds, he says.

A hole should be made in the snow shelter ceiling to allow for fresh air.

Snow caves are warmer than tents, but they stay damp and have to be constantly dug out to remain viable shelters, Ford says.

Snow campers who choose to zip up tents rather than carve out snow shelters should smooth out an area of snow before making camp and pitch heavier tents that are made for winter camping, says Sykes.

Also, the stakes used to hold down a tent in the summer are virtually useless in the snow, she says.

Instead, snow campers should buy tent pegs that can burrow deep into the snow. This type of gear is available at most mountaineering shops, says Sykes.

In an emergency situation snow campers can use tree branches, rocks or even ice axes to anchor their tents.

But Sykes cautions that snow camping tents should never be left unattended.

"Even a well-staked tent has been known to have been blown away while its occupants were outside hiking or climbing," she says.

'Bowl of stars'

After their labored breathing slows and the snow shovels are put away, campers reap the benefits of their hard work.

"What I love the most about snow camping is the sheer beauty of the mountains in winter," says Sykes.

Having to pull on your boots and coat in the middle of the night to answer nature's call can be annoying, she says, "but then you look up into a vast open bowl of stars and the beauty is so incredible it is overwhelming. Despite the hardships involved, you ... know it is a privilege to be there."

"Everything was just blue and white and sparkly," says MacIntosh remembering a morning in Yosemite National Park near Half Dome where she and three other friends were snow camping several years ago.

"We woke up in the morning and I unzipped my tent door ... and the only sound I could hear was a woodpecker pounding. We were the only people camping, and it was one of those beautiful mornings where everything sparkled. Bill Gates couldn't buy a view like that," she says.

Like any winter sport, snow camping is not without risks.

Ford says his students come face to face with survival lessons and learn quickly not to take anything for granted when snow camping.

Staying hydrated, well fed and dry is a constant challenge in the blistering cold, and snow campers must also know how to rely on navigation tools like a compass or GPS device instead of visual landmarks to stay on path.

Avalanches are also a danger in the backcountry, and Sykes recommends carrying avalanche beacons if venturing into the wilderness.

Novice snow campers should take a mountaineering course, a winter travel course or a snowshoe course before heading out, she says.

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