Snow Camping at Mount Rainier National Park
Every year the amazing and wonderful Teresa Hagerty from PNW Outdoor Women hosts a couple of free beginner snow camping events and this year I was lucky enough to be able to attend one! If you identify as female and live in the PNW, I highly recommend joining the PNWOW Facebook group so you can get in on awesome events like this and meet a bunch of awesome outdoor women!
When Doris asked me if I wanted to sign up for the snow camping event with her, I must admit, I was super on the fence. I had car camped with her in the North Cascades in October and spent a miserable night freezing in my car in 19-degree temps. My initial thoughts were, why would I willingly sign up to cry in a sleeping bag again…? Doris assured me she would help me figure out a better sleeping system and that it would be fun so we reserved our spots (these events fill up super quickly!) and I anxiously awaited the arrival of this weekend.
We arrived at Longmire at 8:30 am to pick up our group permit from the ranger station and when they opened the gate to the park at 9 am we all convoyed up to the Paradise overnight lot. We arrived at Paradise to the most glorious weather and, “hiked” about a quarter of a mile to our group spot behind Paradise Inn. Everyone got to work digging out their snow platforms and setting up their tents. After we finished setting up our tents a group of us went down to dig out our group “kitchen" area (a U-shaped trench with a mound of snow in the middle to serve as a table) After some icebreakers and informational talks on all things snow camping we packed our daypacks and left to do a group snowshoe on the Alta Vista Loop.
We all took pictures and enjoyed the view before a few of the PNWOW ambassadors gave some avalanche safety demonstrations. They were very upfront that their demonstrations in no way substituted for formal avalanche training, but it was good to get a basic understanding of what to know! I definitely want to sign up for some avalanche safety courses next year when budget allows, but for now, I will stick to my plan of avoiding avalanche terrain during the winter.
We stayed at Alta Vista for sunset which turned out to be amazing! Doris and I got a little cold so we elected to hike down before the sun finished setting, but we ended up stopping around 20 times to get photos of the colors from different vantage points.
When we arrived back at our tent we changed out of our wet socks and into some warm dry ones and added waterproof layers for sitting down in our communal, “kitchen” area. This was the part of the evening where I got the coldest. We hung out around our snow table making food and chatting and I could feel my toes slowly turning into little popsicles. When it got to be unbearable I got up and made the trek to the bathroom to try and warm them up. Doris really wanted to try out night photography but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it that late since I couldn’t stop dreaming of my sleeping bag. By the time we got back to our tent from the bathroom, my feet had warmed up so Doris was able to convince me to take night shots with her. We spent the rest of the evening before bed taking photos of our campsite and the night sky.
I was obviously worried about sleeping in the cold after that horrible experience in October, but I was toasty warm in my sleeping bag and my only issue was my own insomnia. It doesn’t matter how tired I am when camping, I always seem to struggle to fall asleep until about an hour before the sun comes up *shrug*
The plan was to wake up for sunrise and more photos, but I poked my head out of the tent around 7 am and saw a grey flat sky and promptly fell back asleep. The sun eventually came out that day, but a beautiful sunrise just wasn’t in the cards for us. We spent the morning in the kitchen making breakfast and chatting before we all packed up our tents and headed our separate ways.
Clothing I brought to stay warm while Snow Camping:
I hate spending a lot of money on things, so you will always find me trying to make the cheapest option work, or repurposing items meant for other activities. This is what I wore and it (mostly) kept me warm all weekend long!
Helly Hansen Lifa Half Zip Baselayer (I found mine brand new at a thrift store for $5!)
Patagonia Down Sweater (bought secondhand from a friend)
Three pairs of wool socks (including one pair knee height skiing socks)
Arcteryx Beta SL Hybrid Jacket (bought with a friends employee discount)
My Snow Camping Sleep System:
The reason I was so miserable that fall night in the North Cascades was a lack of preparation. I didn’t expect it to be quite so cold and relied on the temperature rating on my sleeping bag a little too heavily (there are a lot of factors that go into those ratings so do your reasearch!) I came way more prepared for this trip and all of these items kept me warm at night!
Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair (laid out flat under my sleeping pad for extra insulation and buckled up/used as a chair when we were in our “kitchen” area)
Things I will change for next time:
I actually bought a new sleeping bag after I returned from this trip. The Marmot Trestles is a synthetic bag and while it kept me warm enough it packs up too big for my liking. I just ordered a Patagonia bag since I had a Friends and Family discount and will be testing that out and reporting back on how I like it!
I saved the hand and toe warmers Doris brought for sleeping with, but the coldest I got was actually when we were sitting around making our dinner. Next time I will bust those bad boys out way sooner, or bring more so I don’t feel a need to hoard them until bedtime.
Winter hiking boots. I just used my usual waterproof hiking boots with a lot of wool socks but I definitely suffered from popsicle toes a couple of times. Next winter I will purchase a pair of winter hiking boots for snow camping adventures.
Replacing my snow pants. Snow pants are such a struggle for me. The ones I have apparently have a “relaxed leg” but I struggle to get them over my thighs with all of my layers on and they have about 5-6 extra inches in the waist area so they kept sliding down while I was sitting. I wore them to dinner then ripped them off the second I got into my tent because I was so frustrated with them. If you know of a brand that makes snow pants that fit a curvy girl's legs PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
My face was cold in my bag and I struggled with that for most of the night. Early in the morning, I got up to use the bathroom. When I came back to my sleeping bag I didn’t zip it up all the way and wrapped my Costco puffy blanket around my head and shoulders. Even though my bag wasn’t completely zipped up and my face was still exposed, I felt much warmer with this setup. I wish I would have figured that out sooner so I could have slept a little more soundly!
Taking a Benadryl or Melatonin before bed. Falling asleep while camping is always hard for me. It doesn’t matter how tired and cozy I am, my brain is amped. In the future, I will definitely be helping myself fall asleep on these adventures.
Bringing more food! I had enough to eat thanks to Doris bringing a lot, but I definitely didn’t pack enough snacks or plan out my meals well. Even if you aren’t hiking as much to get to a snow camping spot, don’t underestimate how many calories you will burn trying to keep your body warm. If Doris hadn’t been a much better planner than me I may have turned into a hangry rage monster and eaten everyone around me on this trip.
I had such a great time snow camping and can't wait to do it again! I am grateful I have friends that push me outside of my comfort zone and the opportunity to learn how to do these things from a group of knowledgeable and supportive women!