Winter camping, Mt. Rainier

It’s the middle of winter, as you’ve probably noticed, and I have one question for you: who wants to go camping?

Contrary to popular beliefs, my own included, winter is apparently an optimal time for camping on mountains like Rainier, provided you have a zero degree (at least) sleeping bag and lots of wool clothing.

Rule number one of winter camping, according to South Puget Sound Community College alum Tess Ramsey, is absolutely no cotton.

“You don’t get cold unless you get wet,” said Ramsey, who has gone winter camping innumerable times with family and friends.

Ramsey was camping in snow and sleeping in snow caves as early as middle school, and she still considers it a top-of-the-line winter adventure.

Obviously, Washington has a bevy of snowy mountains from which to choose for aspiring or experienced snow campers. We’ll take one close to home example: Mount Rainier.

When Ramsey goes to Mount Rainier to snow camp, she drives up to the Paradise area, usually stopping around Reflection Lakes. Not surprisingly, Ramsey cautions, you can only drive so far up the Mount Rainier roadway without snow tires. The National Parks Service website tells it a bit differently—they are clear that chain-free vehicles are not welcome at Mount Rainier during the winter months.

Also Ramsey recommended some essential snow camping supplies: bring a snow shovel, for sure, she says, along with a zero degree sleeping bag, a tent for anyone wary of snow cave sleeping, a camp stove, and wool or polyprophelene clothing.

Snow shoes are important as well. “We usually rent snowshoes from Alpine Experience,” Ramsey said, adding that they aren’t too expensive.

The snowshoes can be imperative for the hike up to your camp site. The National Parks website is quick to mention that Mount Rainier usually receives more than its share of snowfall in the winter.

Before you put on your snow shoes, Ramsey recommended taking advantage of the bathroom and shower that are provided right outside the parking lot, as a last ditch opportunity to bathe in warm water before trudging into the snowy backcountry.

The hike to the campsite, isn’t really that far. It does start with a hill, which Ramsey estimates heads up at about a 30 degree angle. This is where the snow shoes come in, and also where it gets fun, balancing in unfamiliar footwear with a heavy backpack on top of several-feet-deep snow.

It takes about a half hour to get up the hill, and then you are walking on a flat, albeit snow covered, road until you get to Reflection Lakes.

You can tell when you’ve reached the lake, she says, when you see a wide clearing of snow. The lake itself, of course, is covered under 15 or more feet of that snow, which is why a vegetation-free clearing is the best sign that you’ve reached the lake.

Once there, “you are almost as tall as the trees because there’s so much snow,” said Ramsey.

If you want, you can keep hiking off the road for twenty minutes of so after you reach the lake, which is what Ramsey usually does—that’s where you find the best views, she says.

The whole hike is about two hours long, which really isn’t much at all for back country camping.

Setting up camp in the snow can actually be fun, especially if you get creative with it. Ramsey and her friends usually make a table first, out of snow of course, for the camp stove and other supplies. Underneath the table, it’s no problem to dig out space in the snow for a refrigerator; Ramsey often makes her “refrigerator” big enough to fit several people inside, and equips it with snow benches, so it can take on the dual persona of food and beverage cooler and sweet hang-out den.

To sleep, you can also dig a snow cave for yourself, the specifics of which are really best understood via drawings. Basically you use a hillside of snow, and dig down into the hillside. Dig out a shelf on which to sleep, with ample free space above it, and leave the snow for a ceiling. Ramsey recommended putting a tarp underneath you, to protect you and your sleeping bag from nighttime condensation.

And, on the day or days in between hiking in and hiking out, you can have whatever Calvin and Hobbes-esque adventures you want. “We usually build things in the snow, and hike up peaks with our snow shoes,” said Ramsey.

Just make sure you remember to get rid of—meaning kick in—your snow cave before you leave. Otherwise, hikers that come along later in the season, when the snow is softer, could easily fall into it and hurt themselves.