Tips for keeping warm, hydrated and frost-bite free

Winter ski touring doesn’t have to be a sufferfest. In fact, with knowledge, preparation and the right gear, backpacking on skis in the dead of winter can be quite comfortable, says Mike Schwartz, an experienced winter camper and owner of The BackCountry store in Truckee. “I think ski touring in winter is actually a lot more comfortable than people think. Usually you don’t have to ski very far to feel like you’re deep in the wilderness — although skis can get you back to the car quickly if you do. Then you climb into your tent and sleeping bag and you’re warm and comfortable.”

Hot Water Bottles

The key is staying dry, Schwartz says, or if that’s unrealistic, knowing how to get dry. He recommends putting wet socks and gloves into your down jacket pockets and then your sleeping bag. “Filling a Nalgene bottle with boiling hot water will not only keep you toasty for hours, but speed up the drying process,” he adds. “I bring two. Camelbak-type bladders don’t help in this critical task.” You should be able to do most of your cooking and snow melting right outside your tent door, in the open or in a vestibule with ventilation, while still in your bag and down jacket. “Bring enough fuel to melt water and make sure your stove works well beforehand,” he warns. “If you’re using butane fuel canisters, they fi zzle out in the cold when they get low so just stick them in your jacket to warm them up. And protect your stove from the wind as best as possible to use less fuel.”

Cooking Inside?
Though not recommended by tent manufacturers for obvious liability reasons, Alpine Skills International, the venerable Truckee-based guide service, teaches students how to safely cook inside their tents using a hanging stove, and in the process provide some ambient heating. “The key is having good ventilation,” says ASI guide Logan Talbott, to protect against carbon dioxide buildup. This means at least two vents to provide cross ventilation, ideally one high and one low. The stove provides enough ambient warming that bulky insulation layers are usually not necessary to bring, helping to keep packs lighter and slimmer, he says. “We’re trying to keep weight down to a minimum so people can tour more comfortably and efficiently, and enjoy down skiing along the route.”

Bring a Garbage Bag
Another component of ASI’s interior-stove cooking and heating system utilizes a sturdy plastic garbage bag. Rather than going in and out of the tent to fetch snow to melt, ASI teaches campers to collect all the snow they’ll need for water and cooking in the garbage bag, compact it and bring it in the tent. By condensing the snow in the bag you get more water from it during melting, rather than heating air particles, saving fuel and weight through efficiency.

Photo by Josh Beddingfield

Over more than 30 years of guiding people in alpine environments around the world, ASI founder Bela Vadasz has found that the importance of having a steady supply of water and warm beverages without wasting too much fuel in the process cannot be
underestimated, not only for comfort, but for performance when climbing and skiing. When you’re at altitude in a cold, dry environment, performance and warmth are highly dependent on adequate hydration.

Camp Site Prep

When setting up a tent in the snow, ASI teaches students to dig out a platform and use the excavated snow to build a snow wall around the tent or at least on the windward side. This helps protect the tent in nasty weather and keeps it warmer and calmer inside. Trying to sleep in a wind-battered tent is challenging, to say the least, and potentially dangerous.

Tents need to be guy-lined to the ground or snow anchors, says Schwartz. Extra stuff sacks, filled with snow and buried, work well as “deadman” to guy your lines to. “Be prepared to dig a snow cave if you think it could really storm,” he adds. “Believe it or not, you will be warmer under the snow as you can expect it to be 32 degrees down there. And have good shovels and goggles to dig the hole. Probe around before digging to make sure it’s deep enough.”

Dreaded Wet Boots
For comfort the next morning and to guard against frostbitten toes and digits, ASI’s Talbott reiterates the importance of drying out your boot liners, socks and gloves in the tent or in your sleeping bag overnight. Even if not completely dry, at least they won’t be frozen solid when you stick your feet and hands in them. Bring some cheap VBLs (vapor barrier liners) — plastic bread bags work great — and put those over your socks before jamming your foot into your boots if your feet tend to sweat so much that it’s impossible to dry out your liners overnight. Wet boots, especially, will kill your motivation to get out of your bag in the morning and ultimately turn you off winter camping quicker than just about anything else. ASI teaches these winter camping principles, and many other tricks discovered and honed from decades of experience in the elements, in their backcountry ski and snowboard programs.


Their two-day Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley tour, in particular, is designed to introduce clients to ASI’s “high and light” ski camping system and serves as the ultimate prep for longer multi-day ski touring in the High Sierra and elsewhere. The Sugar Bowl to Squaw tour costs $365 and will be run on weekends in February and March this season.

See for more information or call their winter office at the Backcountry Adventure Center at Sugar Bowl at 530-582-9170.

For gear needs or advice, as well as recommendations on where to go in the Tahoe region, call or stop by The BackCountry in Truckee (530-582-0909 or 888-625-8444), or check out their Tahoe Guidebook and Backcountry Forum at

Pete Gauvin