Camping or backpacking in the snow appeals to anyone who enjoys the beauty and peacefulness of a pristine winter wonderland. There are no bugs or crowds, and who doesn't enjoy playing in the snow? With a little preparation, you also might be surprised at how comfortable it can be.
Snow camping? Why the heck am I talking about snow camping at an ultralight backpacking site? Two good reasons, actually. First off, weight is still something that can be safely pared down for a winter backcountry trip (though the safety margin needs to be MUCH wider than a typical 3-season trip). By paring down that unneeded weight, you can enjoy the same benefits that 3-season ultralight adventuring can bring you. Second, odds are if you're interested in ultralight backpacking, you probably have a good number of miles/days under your belt and may well be ready for exploring another dimension of the backcountry experience.
Snow camping brings on a whole new set of challenges and rewards. First and foremost is extra attention to safety. Under other seasonal conditions, you can hike out of nearly any bad weather situation if you have to. When a sudden winter storm hits, however, you may well be stuck for awhile. A long while. Under extreme conditions. Forgetting some gear on a summer hike can mean a wet, cold night. Forgetting gear on a winter backcountry trip can mean a quick end to your life. Or a long, drawn-out one....
I don't recommend anyone try a winter backcountry adventure unless they, 1) Are already skilled at "fair weather" backcountry travel, and 2) Have a good amount of winter weather experience (via nordic skiing, snowshoeing, snow camping in the backyard, etc.). Come to think of it, snow camping in the backyard is an excellent way to get a feel for what snow camping can be like. Also, seek training in winter safety, such as how to recognize and avoid avalanche conditions. They are a very serious threat that most folks simply don't take seriously. At least until they find themselves entombed in an ice-cement hell. For more information, see "Why on earth would I worry about avalanches?".
So why on earth would anyone bother? The total solitude, incredible beauty and deafening silence that you can only find in a snowy wilderness. No logging in the distance, no trails clogged with fellow hikers, no crowds at a prime backcountry campsite, even at the most popular national parks. (Though I'm told the snowmobilers at Yellowstone have overrun a few spots....)
Until you've experienced a perfect sunlit morning overlooking a snowy meadow, the mist clinging above a small creek while a gentle breeze fills the air with diamond-dust sparkles of dry snow, you simply can't imagine how incredible it can be. Until you've weathered a major winter storm on a lonely mountainside, snug and warm the entire time, then dug out the next morning to find several feet of fresh powder for you to play in, you may not fully appreciate how great simply being alive really is.
Winter Camping Tips from The Lightweight Backpacker™:
When planning a winter camping trip, especially if snow camping, remember that travel will be much slower than in the summer. Reduce your mileage goal by 50% to 60%. Daylight hours are fewer in the winter, which will also limit your time. Normal activities around camp take longer in cold weather.
Three-sided A.T.-style shelters can be used comfortably in the winter by hanging a tarp across the open side to block the wind. The result is a roomier and sturdier place to sleep, cook, and pack. Tarps are much lighter to carry than winter tents. These shelters are usually not used much in the winter so finding space is not much of a problem.
A snow cave can save your life or it can kill you. Let me be clear: parents who send their children off into the snow with the admonition "If you get lost, just dig a snow cave and you will be OK" are creating a false sense of security that can be deadly.
Parents should say: "Don't get lost, 'stay found' - you can't depend on following landmarks or your foot prints back to safety - stay together with your friends and know how to get back. Don't get wet from sweat or the from the outside because if you have to stop, you will be in danger of getting hypothermia even in 50 degree weather. Be especially mindful of the wind because it can drag your temperature down very quickly if you are wet and without hat, gloves and a wind/rain jacket and pants. Wear your wool, not your cotton and be sure you have the Ten Essential Systems in your day pack! Know when you need to return, but don't wait until you or a friend start to get really cold."
No, I have not found statistics on deaths in "snow caves", but I recall the report of the 14 year old boy who crouched in a "snow cave" for several days out of bounds in California and died in the hospital from his cold related injuries and the woman hunter in Eastern Oregon with a twisted ankle who recently lost her lower legs after a week in an "emergency snow cave". Recently, an Olympic Hockey player lost both feet after staying in an emergency snow cave. The best advice is stay with others, stay found, stay dry, keep out of the wind and keep eating, drinking, awake and moving your muscles to avoid hypothermia. Read on and you will see why a snow cave may not be a good option.
Need to build an emergency shelter in the snow? Or are you intending to camp out in the snow on a ski trek? Are you a kid and want to have the best fort on the block? Regardless of your reasons, snow is an amazing insulator against the cold and makes a fantastic shelter.