Snow Camping in Paradise
Winter is over, I realized as I bent down to photograph a blooming Trillium during one of my most recent ventures. Trilliums here in the Pacific Northwest signal more sunshine. Longer days. Beginning of backpacking season. I have always liked Trilliums. And the youthful beauty of this perfectly white bloom nested in a bed of the verdant forest floor was striking. But it meant that the winter was over…and I had barely touched the snow. I wasn’t ready to surrender to the reign of spring. Not yet. I needed at least one snow camping adventure. And so I went to Paradise.
How do you prepare for a trip like that? What do you pack? I received those questions after I posted photos from the trip on Facebook. You’re able to just hike that way and put your tent down?
Paradise is a series of meadowlands on the South side of Mt. Rainier NP. I chose it deliberately. The bears were still hibernating, or at least I hoped. The foxes that are frequently seen in the area wouldn’t eat me. The forecast called for a calm, uneventful night. It was also the place where many long years ago I slept on snow for the first time in my life and it felt right to experience my first ever solo snow camping trip here as well.
I left work shortly after 1:00 p.m. to beat the rush hour. Apparently I was not the only one with the brilliant idea. An hour later I was still stuck on I-5 through Seattle.
“There is a fifteen minute slow down ahead,” said the voice of my GPS just when the lanes started to move somewhere. “But you are still on the fastest route.”
The fastest route gave me an opportunity to listen to my favorite album three times before I reached the National Park boundary. I got there just in time to obtain my backcountry camping permit from the ranger station located inside Henry M. Jackson visitor center and at 5:00 p.m. sharp I was on my way up the meadows to find my perfect camping spot.
In terms of logistics, here’s the steps I like to take when planning my winter trips, or pretty much any trip. Winter backpacking requires more attention to the weather and conditions but otherwise there is not much I would do completely different for my summer trips. Please remember that this is not a comprehensive guide by any means, but merely few tips to consider. You can find 5 people who successfully snow camped and with them 5 different ideas of how to carry the trip out.
- Destination – Ultimately more things play role when picking where to go in the winter, including weather forecast, avalanche conditions, road conditions. I never choose my winter destination too far in advance. Often times I make my decision on Thursday evening or even on Friday morning before the trip in order to work with the most current information available.
- Special Considerations – Are there any restrictions I need to know about before arriving at the trailhead? For example: Does my destination require overnight camping permit? If so where do I obtain it and how? What are food storage requirements for the area I’m planning to camp at? Do I need to bring my bear canister or is hanging my food bag an acceptable option? Those of you who hike with four legged friends might also need to find out if Fido is allowed, as some trail, especially those in National Parks have a No Dogs policy.
- Food Planning – I carry the same amount of food I would at any other time of the year. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and two snack for each day I’m out there. I like to pack extra hot chocolate though because when the sun goes down, nothing feels better than a cup of steaming goodness. (Except maybe for a cup of steaming goodness with a shot of peppermint schnapps added to it).
- Navigation – I like to carry maps of the area I’m adventuring at with me year around. In the winter when trails are buried under snow, navigation can be especially challenging. I always have detailed maps preloaded in my GPS app (and if available a track to my destination).
- Gear – The objective is to stay dry and warm (at least for the part of the day I am actually camping, there is nothing wrong with feeling the elements a little while I am moving and generating enough body heat not to worry about hypothermia). The objective is also to stay safe in the terrain I will be moving through. I bring what I feel will get me there giving the conditions predicted for the trip which sometimes means just switching to a 0 degree sleeping bag, sometimes it means bringing full on winter gear including down pants, down boots, several extra layers of clothing, crampons, ice axe, body warmers, etc. Gear choice is a very subjective matter and so is everybody’s tolerance range. There would be no point in me telling you to bring this or that particular item because there is no guarantee that this or that item would do the trick for you the same way it does for me but to give you at least a starting point, I will put the gear list for this particular trip at the end of the post. Please feel free to give me a shout if you have questions about any of the items I bring.
- Am I still good to go? – At this point I am pretty much packed and ready to go on the adventure, however conditions can change quickly in the mountains, especially during winter months so re-checking forecast and conditions once more, just before I head out, is a must.
- In case of emergency – accidents can happen. Accidents do happen. No matter the amount of planning and preparation. I always leave my itinerary with somebody I trust would know what to do should I fail to return at the scheduled time.
I walked about a mile through the snow covered Paradise. The parking lot disappeared from my view. So did the building of the visitor center. It was just me and the Mountain, and hundreds of climbers on their way to Camp Muir. The next morning they would climb the mighty glaciers towards the summit of Mt. Rainier. I stopped to chat briefly with some of them, wished them good luck. I wished I was climbing too.
At around 7:00 p.m. the foot traffic eased. Everything fell in complete silence. It felt like I was so far away from the cares of the everyday life, though in reality I hardly even left the civilization. I was now facing the hardest part of my snow camping trip – finding a place to pitch my tent. In Paradise, you can camp anywhere where there is a snow coverage deep enough to ensure the fragile meadow underneath would not sustain any harm. Anywhere means choices. Too many choices even. I wandered around for good chunk of time before settling on a spot that offered unsurpassed view of both Mt. Rainier and the Tatoosh Range. It was perfect. Of course it was. After all, I was in Paradise