Friday 8 December 2017

The Joy of Winter Backpacking

The roaring wind is bringing great waves of snow to the Cairngorms. This is the biggest storm of the winter so far. When it calms down I'm looking forward to my first high camp of the season. In the meantime here's a piece on winter backpacking I wrote for The Great Outdoors two years ago, along with some photos of previous camps. I hope I have several more like this soon.

As I write this the hills are quiet and the snow deep for the first time this winter. After weeks of storms and freeze-thaw cycles the weather is more settled, the temperatures cold and the snow looking as though it’ll last more than twenty-four hours. A crescent moon hangs in the sky and the stars are bright. Whilst many may shiver and turn to indoor warmth, especially at night, I have the opposite reaction. This is real winter! This is exciting! I’ve been waiting for conditions like this, waiting to camp high in the hills on frosty nights and skim over the snow on skis. When it’s like this winter backpacking is truly wonderful.

Thinking of a first high level winter camp my mind turned to ones from the past, glorious camps on the Cairngorm plateaux, on Creag Meagaidh, on other Munros and Corbetts, and on lower hills. The starry skies, the vast expanses of snow, the distant horizons are what matter, not the particular hill. One of the freedoms of snow camping is that you can pitch your tent anywhere. There’s no need for flat ground or terrain into which tent pegs can be pushed. Stamp the snow flat for a comfortable pitch even on a slope or a boulder field where you would never camp when it was snow free. Skis, snowshoes, poles and ice axe can all be used as long secure pegs. Normal ones can be buried and stamped down. You don’t need to camp near a stream or pool or carry water either. Snow melts.

Whilst long evenings watching the stars and the pale hills can be deeply satisfying my real delight is in the dawns, is in waking warm and snug in my sleeping bag and looking out to see light return to the land, to see the hills turning from shadow to brightness, to watch the last stars fade and the sun turn the horizon pink and orange before it bursts into view with golden brilliance. Reach out a hand and light the stove. On with the down jacket and warm hat. Tighten the sleeping bag round the chest. Steam appears, clouds of it swirling in the frosty air. The hot drink – chocolate or coffee or a mix of the two – sends heat surging through my body. A pan of frozen muesli, set out the evening before, melts and starts to bubble. Soon there is thick warming fruity porridge for breakfast. Fortified by the food and drink it’s time to finish dressing and venture outside, crunching over the icy snow and stretching my arms to the heavens to welcome the new magnificent day. The distant white peaks beckon now. It’s time to pack and set off.

Backpacking over snowy hills can be arduous if you’re on foot and the snow is more than a few inches deep. That’s when skis or snowshoes make an astonishing difference. Especially skis. Gliding over the snow and swooping down slopes is exciting and liberating. With snowshoes you’re still walking but on the surface rather than sinking in with every step. Of course sometimes the snow may be so soft and deep even skis and snowshoes sink in but even then progress is easier than it would be on foot. At other times ice and hard snow may mean crampons are more secure (I always carry these) and the skis or snowshoes have to go on the pack. All these tools give a freedom that isn’t there for the walker without them. For me they’re part of my winter backpacking kit.

Also vital is a snow shovel, a hugely versatile item. Snow is extremely malleable. Wind shelters can easily be constructed for lunch stops, tents protected with walls, trenches dug in porches so you can sit up, snow shelters dug if the weather becomes stormy, snow gathered for melting. Shovels make good tent pegs too. 

The winter mountains under snow. Just glorious for backpacking.


  1. A great read. Lots of really useful advice and encouragement for winter backpacking. I'd add that in reasonably calm conditions the long nights present an opportunity for reading, relaxing and thinking, as well as getting an early night. Lovely!
    Dave Porter

  2. Its amazing how technology has changed my winter camping experience. A Kindle, podcasts, music to occupy those long, dark evenings.