A Beginners Guide to Back Country Snow Camping in the Aussie Alps
So you want to go snow camping! I’m going to go through this in relation to the Australian Alps, different terrain is going to bring different challenges and requirements. The knowledge I go through will be applicable to different areas but you might need to adapt some of them. If you have any questions about how to adapt this knowledge for you feel free to get in touch with me on insta at @flynn_does_adventures. Before taking any of this knowledge back country I’d recommend heading out with a guide to test your skills to make sure you can stay safe. Check out K7 or SMBC for more info
There are many ways to go about shelter in the back country depending on what sort of mission you are going on, where you are planning on camping and the expected weather conditions.
The most important tool in your back country shelter kit is your shovel. It is an essential safety item, you can use it to level your tent platform, dig an emergency shelter if your tent blows away, create a snow wall to protect your tent from the wind and much much more. The things I like looking for in a shovel are a solid handle and a wide square blade for cutting blocks of snow to build with. Some people take out snow saws to create larger blocks. These are excellent, but for me I find the shovel is all I need.
The easiest recommendation shelter wise is to go for a bombproof 4 season tent such as the Exped Venus II extreme, Mont Epoch, or Dragonfly. It will enable you to make the most mistakes and provide you a safe space in most conditions you could pitch it. The downside of these shelters is that they tend to be a little heavier than their 3 season counterparts, notably the Mont Epoch at kgs. The Venus II however is only slightly more and really quite light for a bomb proof tent. For your budding back country enthusiast, the tent will probably be the biggest purchase but don't forget that if you have friends this cost could be shared between two.
Tip: dig a hole in your vestibule to give you a space to store your boots and take them on and off.
There are a few other options to consider. For fast and light backcountry missions in relatively good weather (or bad if you like suffering) a bivy such as OR’s Helium Bivy is an excellent option as it provides excellent shelter in the worst weather and is super easy to pitch. The main drawbacks being condensation inside, claustrophobia for some and the fact that you don’t have a shelter to cook inside which isn’t ideal for bad weather conditions.
Another option to consider is taking your 3 season tent into the backcountry. There are a number of caveats here but lots of them can be overcome by a snow shovel and some elbow grease. A big issue is weather protection. 4 season shelters will be designed to withstand high winds and snow loading, a few ways to mitigate this are to pitch lower down on the mountain amongst the treeline to give your tent some extra protection being wary of branches, you can also build a snow wall to reduce the amount of wind your tent gets hit by, making sure you peg out all possible guy lines will also help. Snow loading can only be mitigated by regular removal of snow from the top of the tent. Another issue that often arises for 3 season tents is spindrift coming underneath the fly sifting through the mesh and covering you in a dusting of snow, the main way to manage this is by packing snow around the fly to make a seal between it and the ground.
Make sure to take out the correct number of snow pegs for your tent.
Cold Weather Sleep System
We will go through the sleeping bag first then talk about sleeping mats
For Sleeping bags in the Aussie back country I generally recommend a temperature rating of -10 to -15. You can get away with less if need be or if you’re going on a particularly warm set of days but you want to be prepared incase the weather turns with extra layers. If you don’t want to buy a winter specific bag you can always layer two bags to gain the required warmth, this is always going to be a bit of a guessing game on the temperature outcome but can be a big cost saving if you’ve already got them. If looking at a new bag it's worth thinking about one with a waterproof face fabric to keep snow from melting through it into the down such as the Mont Brindabella or Spindrift
Tip: I like keeping my sleeping bag in Sea to Summits compression dry sack to make sure it is dry and small
In regards to sleeping mats we are looking for roughly an R value of 5-7 depending on how warm you are as a sleeper to provide us enough insulation against the snow below us. There are two ways to go about this, one is with a super warm mat like the Exped Dura 5R, 6R or 8R which will cover your bases. Another way to go is looking at a mat with an R value of 3-4 (exped Ultra 3r) to make it more versatile for 3 season use then adding on a foam mat like the Thermarest Zlite Sol. I love these as you can be super rough with them and I often take them out of my tent and use them as insulation when i'm sitting outside cooking up dinner or brekky.
Tip: put your down jacket in a stuff sack and use it as a pillow
People are drawn to sleeping bag liners big claims of adding warmth to their bags. I would take these with a large dose of skepticism and only expect them to add at most 5 degrees to the temperature rating of your bag.
For more indepth info on sleeping bags and mats check out our article https://mountainequipment.com/blogs/buyers-guides/sleeping-well-in-the-outdoors-the-sleeping-system
Back Country Cooking
The most important part of your cooking setup is your stove. For on snow use you are generally making a tossup between an integrated gas stove such as a Jetboil and a liquid fuel like the MSR Whisperlite. Gas stoves are excellent for 3 season usage but one of the big concerns is the pressurized gas inside the stove passing its boiling point and turning into a liquid which causes the stove to stop functioning. Depending on the gas canister this generally happens between -1 and -12. This is where liquid fuel stoves come in as they use a pump to pressurize the fuel and force it out of a jet where it is turned into a gas and ignited allowing them to operate at -40 and below. These stoves are heavier, bulkier and require more faff to get started but have very strong flames once going, are incredibly fuel efficient and make simmering a breeze compared to a jetboil. If you decide to go down the liquid fuel route practice lighting it at home and get very proficient before taking it on snow.
Tip: you’re going to use more fuel than normal melting snow for water so plan accordingly with gas
If you’re going to be heading out and want to take a gas stove because you already own one or like the idea of the convenience I would make a few recommendations. One is to take an integrated model if you can, they are more fuel efficient and work at lower temperature because they can function well on less fuel. Two is to look for a winter canister with isobutane or propane in the mix, these have lower boiling points and will function better in the cold. From my experience MSR cans seem to function for the longest before chilling out. The last little tip is to keep the gas can near your body in your jacket before cooking to get it warm and if it freezes you can put it back in your jacket to warm it up and get it going again.
Tip: Put the stove on your shovel blade when cooking so it has a flat stable area.
Pots, pans and cookware will mostly depend on what you want to cook. I bring a 2l pot for melting snow in and do all my cooking in that as I am generally cooking up simple meals. I like keeping it simple so I don't have too much to do after a big day out and can eat quickly as I’m often pretty keen to get the feed in my belly.
Tip: For freeze dried meals put your beanie over them to keep them warm while they are rehydrating. They cool off surprisingly quickly especially if you leave them for 15-20 minutes.
Doing yo business
We dont poo on snow. We always carry our waste out with us.
There are a few options to go about this, If you want life to be easy check out Wag Bags (https://www.mont.com.au/search?type=product&q=wag%20bag*)
For the dirtbags snap lock bags are just as effective, some people toss in some fine wood chips to reduce the smell. I personally double bag them.
To pack it all out I use a heavy duty Ortleib dry bag but another convention is to use a sealed pvc tube with a lid