Montana’s wilderness areas are a hubbub of activity each summer, but when the first snows start shrouding the world in a pristine blanket of white tranquility, the forests assume a whole new level of splendor. As most of the crowds retreat home to relax in front of a cozy fire, Montana’s lofty mountain settings beckon winter enthusiasts to step away from the indoors and experience Montana in a whole new way. While winter camping is certainly not everyone’s idea of a great outdoor experience, the sport is catching on across the Rocky Mountain West. Whether you’re on a cross-country trek, snowshoeing along a mountain ridge, or climbing a frozen waterfall, winter camping provides the opportunity to extend your trip and awaken your senses to the winter beauty of Montana. Winter campers, however, must be prepared for a variety of situations and should adhere to the following guidelines for the safest possible trip.
Before setting out on any winter camping adventure, recreationists should spend plenty of time in the planning stage. This includes planning out your route and accounting for the variety of skill levels that may be present among your traveling companions. It also means studying snow levels (shallow or deep), snow and trail quality (powder, packed, breakable crust, avalanche danger), and your mode of travel (skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing). During the planning stage, never underestimate Mother Nature’s power or cut yourself short on time. Winter travel in the backcountry takes approximately twice as long as a normal summer hike, so give yourself plenty of time to arrive at and return from your destination. Last, but certainly not least, make sure a family member or friend knows your travel plans and route. They can serve as a lifesaver and notify authorities if you do not return when expected.
Gear & Clothing
Once you’re ready to begin your winter backcountry adventure, your gear and clothing play a vital role in how comfortable your trip will be. The key to staying warm in the winter is a layered clothing system. Select wool or synthetic layers that will keep you warm but also wick away moisture. Always wear long underwear and a windproof/waterproof outer shell, and avoid wearing cotton and jeans if at all possible. Boots should be tall enough to provide proper ankle support, and thick wool socks are noted for keeping feet warm for hours. Protect your hands and head with gloves and a stocking cap...you lose the most body heat from these extremities, so do all you can to conserve that important heat energy. Although it may be winter, the sun still shines brightly in Montana and the reflection off the snow can be blinding at times. Sunglasses and sunscreen are highly recommended.
In addition to warm, moisture-wicking clothing, winter campers must be outfitted with the proper gear. Most wilderness areas do not feature pre-made shelters, so outdoor users must be prepared with a four-season tent. Make sure the tent is strong enough to handle both wind and snow and is capable of shedding snow so your roofline doesn’t cave during the middle of the night. Never underestimate your need for room. You may be able to store your gear outside during the summer, but with winter camping, you’ll likely want to store your backpacks and clothing inside the tent. Account for this need when selecting a tent. You may also wish to bring along a frost liner to hang inside your tent. The liner allows condensation created during the night from your breathing to pass through to the tent wall. The liner then acts as a barrier between you and your ice-covered tent wall. Whether or not you opt for this handy barrier, make sure all ice particles created inside your tent during the night are swept outside each morning.
Food & Water
Winter camping is hard work, and your body is going to need plenty of refueling. Although you might assume that treking through the snow would increase your appetite, the reverse is actually true. Despite your body’s need for increased food intake, winter activity inherently reduces the body’s appetite for food. In packing your food, be sure your meals sound appealing while bringing along a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Hot meals should be prepared with campstoves instead of campfires, and snacking along the trail throughout the day is highly encouraged. You may feel energetic without eating much food at first, but don’t let your body fool you. You need food in order to persevere on the trail and make it safely to and from your destination.
Just as with summer backcountry travel, never assume that your water source is pure and clean. Always boil your water or pack along iodine tablets or a water filter to treat one of your trip’s most precious commodities. Although it may seem like a good idea at first, melting snow as your water source can actually be a tedious process that eats away at time you could have spent wandering through the beautiful outdoors. Select a different water source if possible.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Frostbite and hypothermia are often the greatest dangers for winter campers. Make sure you know how to recognize the signs of each condition as well as how to deliver preliminary treatment before the person can be transported to a medical facility. Never travel alone, and always be alert for avalanche conditions.
The pristine atmosphere of Montana’s wintry outdoors is certainly beautiful and capable of creating one-of-a-kind memories. Winter camping, however, is not worth losing your life. So protect yourself and the lives of those joining you, and plan ahead. With the right gear, food, and outdoor knowledge, your Montana winter camping experience could be one of the best trips of your life!