Our Boy Scout troop had its annual snow campout at Camp Raymond this last weekend. It was the first snow camp for me and my son, Paul. Most of us camped Saturday night although four campers came up for Friday night as well. Seven adults and 11 scouts participated.
Camp Raymond is at 6,700 feet above sea level and roughly 20 miles west of Flagstaff. It’s in a Ponderosa pine forest. The Camp had received a good amount of snow over the last month although none within the last week. Still, we had a base of six inches of snow and ran across drifts 2-feet deep. Recent daily high temps have been in the 40s (°F) and the lows in the teens or less. After the sun goes down, you’re at freezing or below. The low temp Sunday morning was 13.
I’ve been in temperatures close to zero before, but never camped overnight below 25°. Knowing that the temp would be in the teens was intimidating. Paul and I had decided to wimp out this year, but then he changed his mind after hearing that a snow campout (or simply cold-weather?) was necessary for the camping merit badge, which in turn is necessary for Eagle rank.
After arrival on Saturday, one group of us took a hike up a hill while the others explored Camp Raymond and played around a frozen lake. Later, the boys had snowball fights with each other and another group of scouts. The adults sat that out.
The key to surviving the cold temps is to come prepared. In particular, it’s important to stay dry. Once your feet get cold and chilled, you’re starting to lose the battle and will be miserable until you turn it around. Wool socks and other clothing may be ideal, if you can afford it. You need specific cold-weather gear:
- multiple pairs of socks (you always want a dry pair available)
- multiple pairs of gloves (if you plan on getting your one good pair wet)
- thermal underwear
- good cover for the your head, neck, and face (a balaclava may be ideal)
- coats and sweaters
- boots (ideally waterproof; best to bring two pair in case one gets wet)
- snow pants like skiers wear
- something to keep you off the snow when you sleep (some of us had “thermal pads,” others didn’t)
If you attempt a cold-weather campout, do your own thorough research beforehand or you could die.
You’ll want to dress in layers. For instance, during the sub-freezing evening, I had on thermal underwear (top and bottom), a non-cotton T-shirt, a cotton long-sleeved knit shirt, a sweater, a balaclava, and a coat. My lower half had the thermal underwear, my scouting pants, then snow pants. For my feet, I like a thin “liner sock” (non-cotton) under a thick wool or wool-blend sock.
The problem with cotton is that it loses it’s insulating property when it’s wet with sweat, rain, or melted snow. This is where wool shines. Don’t get wet if you can avoid it!
You can buy or rent winter-grade tents, but we just used our usual tents. Theoretically, a smaller tent might retain more heat than a larger tent. With our thin-walled tents at 13°, I question whether that works.
This was an expensive trip. We spent several hundred dollars acquiring clothing that would keep us alive with all our fingers and toes. I’m sure we’ll use this clothing again.
I slept in a synthetic-material mummy bag (rated for zero degree weather) which I had put inside a rectangular bag rated for 30–40 degrees. Furthermore, I started out with most of my clothes on. By morning, I had removed my thick socks, snow pants, and sweater. Turns out I just needed some socks, thermal underwear, my scouting pants, a cotton knit long-sleeve shirt, and a hat that covered my head and ears. I slept on a 4–inch thick air mattress, which was fine.
It took me at least an hour to fall asleep, and I woke up every hour or two. Maybe slept three hours for one stretch. This was a typical pattern among the four adults I surveyed. My problem wasn’t the temperature. I think it may have been the altitude, wearing too much clothing, or anxiety about freezing.
A camp caretaker told me she had seen bear tracks recently; a female adult and juvenile are in the area. So much for hibernation. An experienced hunter with us said the bears would be bedded down at night at these temperatures.
The only interesting wildlife we saw on the trip was a bald eagle eating roadkill. Saw plenty of elk tracks.
It was a great trip and I’m proud of the scouts for facing and overcoming the challenges.