Welcome to my blog. I'm an outdoor writer and photographer with a passion for wilderness and mountains. Use the links above to find out more about me and my books and walks. Click on a blog heading to see any comments or to add your own. -Chris Townsend

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Twenty Tips for Winter Camping

A winter camp high in the Cairngorms

Another one from the archives. This piece was written for TGO over ten years ago. The advice still stands though so here it is again, with a few modifications (stoves designed for use with inverted canisters didn't exist then, nor did e-readers, smartphones and tablets). Apologies for the wonky formatting - there's a limit to how long I can stand trying to get Blogger to align things!

Winter camping might seem a pursuit for the hardy, the ascetic, even the masochistic. Severe cold, blizzards and long dark nights sound most unattractive. With the right skills and equipment winter camping can be enjoyable though, especially when the frost is sharp, the mountains white with snow and the skies clear with bright stars shining in the blackness. Lying in a warm sleeping bag with a mug of hot chocolate watching the winter world is a wonderful experience. In fact freezing weather is the best for winter camping. It’s easier to keep warm when it’s dry and cold than when it’s wet and cold. In Britain wet cold is more common of course and when it rains rather than snows winter camping can seem just like summer camping, only with longer nights and cooler temperatures and, a major factor, no midges. 

1)   Remember that keeping warm is easier than getting warm. When you stop to make camp put on  
      warm dry clothing before you start to cool down. 

 2)  Valley bottoms and depressions are likely to be chillier than hillsides as cold air sinks. Flat areas on the sides of hills are the warmest places to camp.

A good winter camp site
3)   Wind whips away warmth. Look for sites protected from the wind by crags, boulders, banks or trees. A snow shovel can be used to build snow walls on the windward side of the tent and to heap snow round the base of the flysheet to reduce the effects of wind. 

4)   When camping on deep snow stamp out a platform then leave it a short while to harden before pitching the tent. This helps prevent the snow from giving under you when you get in the tent, which results in a lumpy bed. If you have a snow shovel – which I recommend carrying when there’s more than a thin cover of snow – then it can be used to flatten the snow.

Moonlit winter camp with skis and poles used to support tent
5)   Standard tent pegs pull straight out of soft snow if used as normal. Instead tie the guyline round the peg and bury it horizontally, stamping the snow down on top. Lengths of cord can be attached to pegging points without guylines. Better than standard pegs are long wide curved snow stakes, though these are only worth buying if you snow camp frequently. Buried pegs will freeze in place and can be hard to dig up. An ice axe helps with this, though be careful not to damage the tent. An ice axe can also be used as a tent peg, as can trekking poles and skis. 

6)   It’s very important to keep moisture out of the tent. Brush off snow before getting in and strip off any wet garments in the vestibule.

7)   Condensation can be reduced by leaving vents and, if the weather permits, tent doors open. The tent will be cooler but moist air will be able to escape.

8)   A candle or gas lantern can help dry out condensation and also gives off a little warmth. The soft light is soothing too. Make sure that any burning light is kept well away from tent fabric or any other flammable items. Keeping a lantern in the vestibule rather than the inner tent is wise.

9)  Winter nights are long and dark. An e-reader, smartphone or tablet for music or radio, paperback book or a pack of cards helps pass the time.

A comfortable winter camp
10)  Your sleeping bag can make an excellent warm garment. If you feel chilly get in it and pull it up under your armpits, using the shoulder baffle or hood drawcord to keep it in place. In sub zero temperatures you can cook, eat, read, write and watch the landscape while in your sleeping bag.

11)  Hot food and drink warms you up so eating and drinking immediately before going to sleep can help ensure a warm nights sleep. Fatty foods are good as these release heat slowly and so keep you warm for longer than sugary ones. Eat plenty too. If you’re hungry you’re more likely to feel cold.

12)  If you feel chilly during the night and your sleeping bag is fully done up don some dry clothing. A warm hat and socks can make a big difference. If there isn’t room in your bag for bulky clothing such as insulated or heavy fleece jackets spread them over the top.

13)  Most heat is lost to the ground, especially when it’s frozen or snow covered. If you feel cold where you touch your mat put clothing under you. If your mat is only a three-quarters length one put clothes under your feet. Mats that are warm most of the year may not be thick enough when camping on snow or frozen ground. Two mats are often better. A foam mat under a self-inflating one is a good combination.

14)  When you wake in the morning bring your clothes inside the sleeping bag to warm them up before you put them on. 

Insulating a stove from the snow

15) Insulate your stove from the ground with a piece of closed cell foam, the blade of a snow shovel or even a book. If the fuel canister or bottle is separate from the stove insulating it is more important than insulating the stove.
16) Butane/propane gas doesn’t vaporise well in below freezing temperatures so many gas stoves can be very slow or even not work at all. The best for winter use are ones where the canister can be inverted to turn them into liquid feed stoves. With other stoves heat output can be increased by warming cartridges inside clothing or your sleeping bag. You can warm them by putting your hands round them when they are being used too – it’s best to wear thin gloves when doing this as cartridges can get very cold. Heat exchanger pots also speed up boiling and snow melting times. Meths, petrol and paraffin all work fine in the cold though the first can be slow when melting snow.

An inverted canister stove

17)  Avoid melting snow whenever possible, as it takes a long time and uses lots of fuel (as much heat is needed to produce a litre of water from snow as to boil that water). Dig down to a stream or pool if the snow is really deep or look for open sections. Carrying water a half mile or so is still quicker than melting snow. Take care not to fall in when collecting water.
18)  When melting snow put a little water in the bottom of the pan first. Otherwise the pan may scorch and the water will taste burnt. If you haven’t any water start with a small amount of snow and stir it rapidly until it melts. Don’t pack a pan tightly with snow – this will soak up any water and then the pan with burn.

 19)  Water will freeze overnight unless insulated from the cold. Fill thermos flasks in the evening so you don’t have to melt snow in the morning. Water bottles can be insulated by wrapping them in clothing and keeping them off the ground. In your rucksack or in your boots are good places. Standing bottles upside down means the mouth shouldn’t freeze even if some of the water does. Wide mouthed bottles are best in winter as any ice that forms can easily be shaken out. Insulating covers for water bottles can be made from duct tape and closed cell foam. If the snow is deep burying your water bottles in it will stop the water from freezing as snow insulates well. Fill pans with water during the evening. If the water freezes just pop the pan on the stove to thaw it out. Breakfast cereals like porridge oats or muesli can be added to the water in the evening and then cooked in the morning.

20)  Use a pee bottle so you don’t have to leave the tent during the night. Make sure it’s marked clearly so it isn’t mistaken for a water bottle. When you pee into snow cover the place up as yellow snow looks unsightly. Digging through deep snow or frozen ground to make a toilet pit may not be possible (though an ice axe can break up the latter). Consider packing out faeces in doubled plastic bags. If you do leave faeces on the ground site your toilet well away from any water sources (check with the map if these aren’t visible), anywhere someone might camp and any footpaths. Burn or pack out toilet paper or else use snow.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

In The Bleak Midwinter

Snow & Sky, December 19, Strathspey

The storms continue, grey clouds sweeping the landscape, driven by cold, skin shrivelling winds. Snow last night, today, tonight. A monochrome landscape with barely a touch of blue in the sky between the clouds. The hills hidden, the woods stark and silent, the meadows rippled with snow, half-buried grasses bending with the wind.

The forecasts say it will continue, up to and over Christmas, another week at least of storm after storm. More snow tomorrow, then a big thaw, as we had two days ago, for just one day before the snow returns.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Findhorn Sunset

After sunset, Findhorn Bay

Days of storm and snow followed by rain and thaw. The clouds low and dark, the wind bitter and strong. December in the Scottish Highlands is usually challenging and fierce and so it is this year. Escaping the savage weather for a while we headed away from the hills to the coast, to the flat sands and vast skies of Findhorn. Here the wind was less severe and less chilling. The coldness was in the grey waters rather than in the air. 

A vast sense of space

Across the stony beach the sea rippled and surged but without the crashing waves of winter storms. Ragged clouds streaked across the sky above. Oystercatchers whistled past and darted over the sands. A long rising and falling melancholy call rose above the sound of the sea. Out on a sand bank the dark shapes of seals were lying at the water’s edge. Across the mouth of the River Findhorn more lay on the beach below Culbin Forest. Their almost-human haunting cries followed us as we wandered round the sand spit to the vast tidal basin of Findhorn Bay.

Findhorn Bay

A lone eider duck floated on the ebbing waters. Wild cries overhead marked the passage of a large flock of geese. The low sun sank behind the dark pines of Culbin Forest and the sky was soon streaked with pink clouds that were reflected in the shimmering water. The first lights were appearing in Findorn village as we left the bay.

Shimmering light, Findhorn Bay

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Pacific Crest Trail

Siberian Outpost in the High Sierra

Following the publication of my book on my Pacific Crest Trail hike, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, I've been asked about the trail and what it's like. Of course the way to find out is to read my book but in the meantime here's a piece I wrote for The Great Outdoors a few years ago with some photos taken on my walk.

One sunny April morning nearly thirty- four years ago I took my first steps north from the Mexican/USA border. I had begun my walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, a walk that would end 174 days and 2700 miles later when I reached Canada. En route I would walk through deserts, forests and mountains and watch a vast wilderness unfold. I would see black bears and rattlesnakes, moose and coyotes, strange Joshua trees in the deserts and giant firs and pines in the mountains, smoking volcanoes and bubbling mud pots. I would experience searing heat, deep snow, tremendous thunderstorms and dangerous creek fords. I would learn to carry a gallon and more of water in the desert, the hassle of hanging my food to protect it from bears and the need for snowshoes or skis when hiking through deep, soft snow. My pack would be heavy, my feet often sore and my skin burnt and frozen but at no point would I wish to be anywhere else. The beauty, tranquillity, power and magnificence of the landscape would overcome all difficulties and discomforts.

Since hiking the PCT I have undertaken many other long distance walks and hiked in wild areas in many parts of the world from the Arctic to the Himalaya. But if there is one route, one experience, that sings in my mind above all others it is the PCT. Maybe because it was the first big walk in real wilderness, the first one outside the UK, but mostly, I think, because it is such a superb route with such a wonderful variety of landscape and terrain. 

Desert Mountains

The PCT runs through the States of California, Oregon and Washington, following the line of mountains that rises up east of the Pacific Ocean, hence the trail’s name. In Southern California this long chain of mountains breaks up into little ranges split by big sections of desert. Here there is heat and a lack of water, even in April. Cacti and rattlesnakes are everyday companions and the location of water sources is key to comfort and safety. Only when the trail climbs to cross the east-west running steep Transverse Ranges – the Lagunas, San Jacintos, San Bernardinos and San Gabriels – is there shade and water and coolness. This splintered section, forever changing between flat desert and steep mountain, ends with a crossing of the Mohave Desert amidst the weird Joshua trees, which are giant yuccas rather than real trees.

From the Mohave Desert the PCT climbs into the glorious Sierra Nevada mountains, which it follows for 1000 miles. The name means the Snowy Range and it was appropriate for my PCT hike as the mountains were still deep in snow when I reached them in mid-May, the previous winter having been exceptionally long and snowy. For the 500 miles of the High Sierra, the highest part of the range, I plodded through the deep snow in the forests on snowshoes and climbed icy slopes to high passes on crampons in the company of three American hikers I’d joined for safety in this winter mountain wilderness. The trail was buried and hidden but we could follow the rough line, though we walked across frozen lakes rather than round them and crossed one ridge by the wrong pass. The wilderness was empty and we saw no other people or any tracks for the twenty-two days it took to cross the high country to Yosemite National Park. The high point, literally and emotionally, of this snow trek was the ascent of 14,494 foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous States. In summer you need a permit to climb Whitney as the mountain is so popular. In May we were alone.

In the Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon
In the Yosemite backcountry the snow began to melt and there were many swollen torrents to ford either with a safety rope or by crawling along wet slippery fallen trees. The week spent here was the most hazardous of the walk and probably the most dangerous seven days I’ve ever spent in the wilds. Beyond Yosemite the snow slowly melted away and the terrain was lower and less remote though still magnificent. The Sierra Nevada fades away too, into the southernmost Cascade Mountains, a range typified by the string of massive volcanoes that stretches all the way to Canada. In Northern California I went through Lassen Volcanic National Park where I saw my first geysers and bubbling mud pots and then passed lovely Mount Shasta, its shining white cone prominent in the views for many days.
After 1500 miles the PCT leaves California for Oregon, where the walking is perhaps the easiest of the whole route, with many level forest trails. The volcanic landscape is still impressive though, standouts being the pristine blue waters of Crater Lake, set in the huge caldera of an ancient volcano; the spiky rock fangs of Mount Washington, Mount Thielsen and Three-Fingered Jack; the rippled peaks of the Three Sisters; and the bigger volcanoes of Mounts Jefferson and Hood, the former set in beautiful timberline meadows. Oregon ended with a descent to the Columbia River via spectacular Tunnel Falls where the narrow trail is cut into the side of a deep gorge and passes behind a tremendous waterfall.

In the North Cascades
The final section of the PCT, through Washington State, is the most rugged and steep and has the stormiest weather, a fitting finale. From high pass to deep valley to high pass the trail threads its way through the North Cascades, a dramatic tangle of alpine mountains clad in glaciers and snowfields. The big volcanoes are still here – Adams, Rainier, Baker – but not as dominant as further south due to the welter of other impressive mountains, especially Glacier Peak, surrounded by flower meadows and tree groves. Then there is the last splendid high level walk along the Cascade Crest in the Pasayten Wilderness. All too soon Monument 78 on the Canadian border arrives and there are just the last few miles to hike to the nearest road. The PCT is over.

Pacific Crest Trail Association  http://www.pcta.org/