Snow Camping in the Western Cape (Part 1)
By: Gerrie Nel
We have all seen the pictures. A small mountaineering tent, pitched high up on a mountain, snow everywhere. With the advent of the Instagram era there are certain stereotypes for rousing severe outdoor jealousy. And the "wilderness-camp-in-snow" is definitely a top contender.
Aren't they cold? The weather report said its -5 up there and I am freezing while walking to work in the morning. Aren't they lost? I looked out the window to the high mountains and it looked miserable. Who are these people? Are they all relatives of Mike Horn?
In a bid to help demystify this dark art, I wrote a two-part blog series about snow camping, where I share some of the basics to this unique and (potentially) fun activity. Grab your mittens, we're going snow camping!
What gear would I need?
I am not planning to provide you with a complete gear list, but will point you in the right direction. The most important items on any wilderness hike gear list are the following: tent, sleeping bag, mattress, boots. And with snow camping you can add: a reliable stove.
Because you may need to melt snow for water, and because gas canister stoves lose their efficiency in cold (and at altitude), you will need enough gas (a lot of gas) and at least two stoves in your group. A malfunctioning stove could lead to a very bad time, or worse.
The most ideal stove for these conditions is a liquid fuel stove, like the MSR Whisperlite or the Optimus Polaris. These stoves are made to withstand polar temperatures and high altitude. But you can make do with a normal gas canister and a lot of gas. For a single overnight trip, I would recommend taking two 230g gas canisters to be safe.
As for tents, you don't necessarily need a four-season tent. These tents are made for high winds and are well-waterproofed, but also include snow flaps. This means that the tent flysheet extends low to the ground, so you can put snow over it and hence make the tent a bit more "airtight". This is only important when camping in a real snowstorm, where "spindrift" could enter your tent. Spindrift is basically snow that managed to wangle its way inside your tent via strong winds. Then you wake up under a layer of snow. Not good.
But spindrift will only be an issue in areas with "real" snow dumps and people going out in "real" conditions. Not an issue for spending a single clear cold night on Matroosberg. The snow flaps also make ventilation worse, which makes condensation inside the tent worse, which brings its own issues. So you don't need a four season tent. But you do need a reliable and windproof 3 season mountaineering tent with taped seams, aluminium poles, and enough space to fit yourself and your gear inside the tent.
When it comes to the sleep system, you will need a warm sleeping bag (duh) and an insulated mattress. Do not trust the sleeping bag's temperature ratings, or the temperature ratings of sleeping bag liners. Rather - gradually test them in real conditions, slowly increasing the severity of conditions. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Two different people could have wildly different experiences when it comes to temperature, and the variance from the comfort rating of the sleeping bag in my experience is 5-10 degrees. Which means, one person would be comfortable in a sleeping bag with a comfort rating of 2 degrees, while the other would need a sleeping bag with a comfort rating of -7 degrees.
Another cool trick with sleeping bags for a once-off snow camp is to "double-bag". This means that you would use two sleeping bags, one inside the other. It might not be the most efficient option, but it works. I use a ultralight summer sleeping bag inside my usual bag when sleeping in cold. And I might even throw in a sleeping bag liner for good measure. This is a heavy option, though, but would work if for a single overnight snow camping experience.
The next thing is insulation from the cold ground. Because you are essentially sleeping on ice, insulation from the bottom becomes quite important. You can use an insulated sleeping pad, or use a foam mattress in combination with a non-insulated sleeping pad. Also consider putting a survival bag or reflective material under your mattress. A space blanket could work, but is very noisy. But there are other options on the market, e.g. the Coghlans Emergency Blanket which works well.
The last way of ensuring a warm night, is having a tent buddy. It is highly recommended to share a tent with another person for the extra heat (if you know what I mean...). One caveat is however to make sure both people and their gear will fit inside the tent. If you touch the sides of the tent, you may get wet (and cold).
As for clothes, I would recommend doing day hikes in snow first to see how much clothes you like wearing when its freezing. But the basics are as follows: preferred tops and bottoms to walk in, rain jacket, rain pants, thermal underwear, down jacket, fleece. Gloves, beanies and socks also become very important. I would recommend taking two pairs of gloves and wearing double wool socks. And having waterproof boots. Feet and hands will get cold when wet and they very quickly become numb, or even worse very painful. Your limbs become useless appendages if you cant keep your hands and feet warm and dry.
A trekking pole (or two) is also helpful in deep snow. You will figure out why. And you will appreciate a pee bottle / pee bucket. Its kind of unpleasant to leave your tent for a pee if its -8 outside. A Nalgene water bottle works well for men. Not sure how ladies would handle the “peeing in your sleeping bag” scenario, but I am sure its possible. Google it.
A Nalgene bottle also makes a great hot water bottle. Not the bottle referred to above, however. Preferably a different bottle. You can fill it with hot water and keep it inside your sleeping bag.
Now that you have your equipment sorted, the next step is getting to know the conditions and to better prepare for the experience itself. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.