Five Degrees of Winter Camping

Snow camping is a popular winter activity for sturdy Boy Scouts. Every year, thousands venture into snow covered fields and conduct a variety of maneuvers, all designed to prove that they can survive and thrive in cold conditions that cause their parents to mutter about hot tubs and hotel rooms. However, while cold weather outings can be challenging, not all winter outings can be called snow camping, no matter what your leaders tell you.

Winter is a great time for Scout outings.

Snow camping requires, at a very minimum, that Scouts build shelters in the snow and sleep in them. These could be tents, Ice or Hop Houses, Quinzies, Snow Trenches (sometimes called Ice Coffins) or the most popular of all – the classic Snow Cave. Anything less than spending the entire night in one of these shelters is just a winter outing with snow involved.

To clear up any confusion, here are the degrees of snow camping clearly defined – from easiest to most difficult.

Zero Degree: Staying in a cabin. Gentlemen, this is not snow camping. No matter how many times you go outside and walk around in snowshoes or how cold you get making snow angels wearing only your boxer shorts, it’s not called snow “camping” when you sleep in a “cabin.” Even your little sister knows this. Give it up and try again next winter.

First Degree: Car Camping. Adults drive you up to the mountains and park near the snow. You get to pitch tents or dig snow caves right next to the cars and keep all your shovels, extra tools, snacks, water, and tarps in the trunk, grabbing them as needed. Adults sit in a Winnebago preparing hot chocolate and there is no need to dig out a cooking area because there is a propane stove in the back of the truck. Often you have KYBOS nearby, but you have to be brave enough to use them, partly because of the frigid temperature inside.

Second Degree: Tent Camping. After arriving, Scouts pack up their equipment and leave the parking area to find a campsite. Travel from the cars can be via snow shoe, cross country ski, or by booted foot. Upon arrival at a suitable location, snow is cleared or smoothed and tents are erected with “dead men stakes” covered by snow. Gear is stowed in the tents and the group works together building a common kitchen area and latrine before heading off to explore the frozen lake. After dark, Scouts climb into their tents and hope that the temperatures outside do not drop below 30 degrees or that it doesn’t snow too much. If it does, they shiver in their sleeping bags and think about digging real snow caves next time.

MD Snow Cave
Digging a Snow Cave is much more difficult than just erecting a tent - but is usually more comfortable.

Third Degree: Cave Camping. Scouts load their backpacks, fasten on their snow shoes, and carry all their equipment across the snow and away from the parking lot until the desired separation is achieved – usually when the weakest camper drops from exhaustion. (The longer the hike, the more adventurous the outing.) After testing the snow with an avalanche probe for hidden large rocks and other surprises, Scouts spend hours sitting or lying on tarps digging caves using snow shovels, saws, and their gloved hands. During the afternoon, volunteers takes turns sculpting a kitchen area near the shelters. Someone makes sure the cooking stoves are constantly lit and that snow is being melted into drinkable water. After dinner, everyone climbs into their cave, lights their glow stick, and settles into a soundless trance until morning.

Fourth Degree: Cave or Tent Camping as part of an extended trek. This is full metal jacket snow camping and only for the strongest and most prepared youth in the Council. In addition to carrying a heavy backpack full of food and supplies across the snow on snow shoes, Scouts have to get up early every day

MD Snow Camping Levels of Difficulty
Leaving the vehicles for several days is the most challenging kind of fourth degree winter outing.

(when it’s really, really cold), break camp, and start moving so they arrive in camp in time to create new shelters and melt snow for drinking water before it gets dark. On top of the significant physical and psychological burdens, everyone has to navigate across a frozen and alien geography where trails and landmarks are covered in snow, rending most maps almost useless.

Of course additional “manly” points can be earned when something difficult happens an any of these outings. For example, when a storm unexpectedly dumps two feet of snow on your shelters overnight collapsing tents or forcing campers to dig out of their caves in the morning. Likewise, when adults inexplicably insist that everyone buckle their snow shoes after dinner for a night hike in sub-arctic temperatures.

Now that you have a snow camping barometer, what kind of winter camping does your unit do?
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1 thought on “Five Degrees of Winter Camping”

  1. A timely, well written blog. One should keep in mind that manliness points can be just as easily lost as they are gained on snowcamping trips.

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