Equipment advice: a night in the snow

Photo: 4-Seasons
A winter’s night outside is the supreme discipline amongst outdoor enthusiasts. Good preparation is half the task, the equipment will take care of the rest. Markus Gruner spotlights his packing list for a New Year’s Eve under the stars in Saxon Switzerland.

Markus, I’m already cold when the temperature drops below ten degrees. Should I risk going on a winter camping trip?

A magical winter night amongst Saxony’s spruces. | Photo: Archiv Markus Gruner
Sure! The air is crystal clear, the forest is covered in snow. The landscape presents itself in a new light, and often it is all yours – do you want to miss that? And on top, snow and ice offer new possibilities to travel: you can glide through the landscape on skis and jump around in deep snow wearing snow shoes. You don’t have to shiver. The Inuits say if you’re cold, you’re either lazy because you don’t move, or stupid because you’re not dressed properly.

So, let’s pack the clever way. Do we have to bring a mountain of equipment to spend New Year under the stars?

You could do a winter camp using a a 45 litre backpack. I prefer to take a little bit more equipment with me because I like comfort. And compared to the ultra-light style in summer, winter represents a heavyweight game. I usually travel using a sled because you can easily put all your luggage onto it and use the snow to glide forward. My sled is light but tough. Basically a plastic tray for the luggage sits on two skids – 50 kilos is a realistic load. You – the “cart horse” – connect up to the sled via a special frame with a cushioned harness similar to the waist strap of a backpack. Thanks to the rigid connection, the sled is very responsive and cannot run into you when going downhill. The best thing about the sled is that the gap between the skids is the same as the gauge on classic cross-country ski-runs.

So you go on skis?

When on prepared firm winter hiking trails, you could walk in hiking boots but in deep snow you need snow shoes. For me, skis and a sled are the perfect means of transportation. To start with, you could use a classic cross-country ski. For a more challenging area, you rather need a special back-country ski with a steel edge. In every case, you should take length-adjustable sticks with snow baskets with you. They’ll stabilize your steps and enhance your propulsion.

Propulsion - now I understand what the Inuits mean with warming movements...

Temperature management depends on your activity: When you move, you need breathable clothes rather than warming ones. When you sit around, you need a layer of insulation. It is important to find the happy medium during the day. When you sweat, the lower layers of clothing get damp which makes you freeze quicker during a break. You need to be able to adjust your temperature, so you need to put on several layers of performance clothes. 

Which material do you use?

I prefer to wear underwear and the immediate layers on top made of merino wool because these items promote the best body climate and don’t begin to smell so quickly. I vary fabric thickness: On an ice-cold day, I wear 200er or 400er shirts on top of each other. If it gets too warm, I peel a layer off. I use this system of layers of clothing made of merino from my jumper to my socks.

How do you get your sweaty socks and shoes dry again?

I don’t let that happen, I wear vapour barriers on my feet. 

A vapour barrier on the feet? How does that work?

If you want to dry something in winter, when camping you can only use the sleeping bag as a heat chamber. I don’t want to have to share it with ski boots though. So I put 6-litre freezer bags on top of ultra-thin merino socks, and then another pair of socks. The plastic bag prevents the sweat from getting to the thin socks and shoes. The thin merino socks dry easily at night in the sleeping bag.

What do you wear on your upper body above the merino layers?

If needed, a quilted jacket with an insulation made of synthetic fibres. Even when wet, it is warming compared to down feathers, so there’s no problem when you are moving and sweating.

And the outside layer?

If the weather demands it, for example when it’s sleeting, I wear a hardshell jacket. It must be of a sturdy material because the stress is higher in the cold. Even the best membrane breathes worse in winter, so you need to have ventilation zippers. It should be possible to shape the hood to fit your head, so that the air can accumulate in front of your face – referred to as a standing wave in physics. That creates an insulating cushion which protects your face from the cold. The trousers should have gaiters and cuffs. And zippers on the side make them easier to put on and off when wearing boots. 

So, the hood is enough to keep face and head warm?

I also have a mouth mask, beanie and a balaclava which I combine depending on the weather. Hands get cold quickly, that’s why I take several pairs of gloves with me. 

Do you actually wear several layers of beanies and gloves?

Photo: Globetrotter Ausrüstung
No, the issue is a different one. First of all, it is about redundancies. It is not funny if I loose one pair of gloves and don’t have a second pair with me. I could seriously freeze my fingers. And secondly, I like to change them, for example when the balaclava gets wet from sweating. During the night, I dry everything again in my sleeping bag. 

The big question: full-fingered gloves or mittens?

You have a more sensitive touch with full-fingered gloves, for example when you insert tent pegs or when you light the stove. Mittens, however, keep you warmer. I use both depending on the situation and the weather. I really recommend the full-fingered gloves “Super Alpine Glove” from Mountain Equipment. The palm side is non-slip for a responsive grip. By the way, I also wear merino gloves as the first layer on my hands, which can also dry in the sleeping bag at night. 

That brings us to the night camp. Don’t you freeze the most camping at night?

It shouldn’t be a problem with good warm clothes. However, even the thickest clothes can only warm in a passive way. When you already feel cold while getting dressed, they don’t help much. You could, however, go for a quick run before you get changed. Then, quickly take off your hardshell and get into a mixed down jacket. I don’t move about a lot on camp, that’s why I prefer the better insulation provided by a down jacket in comparison to one made of synthetic fibre. 

Do you really need a mixed down jacket in a German winter? 

Often, a hardshell above a cushioned jacket and trousers is enough. However, we want to be really warm at midnight to enjoy New Year’s Eve. 

What makes a good camp ground?

It should be in a beautiful location and protected from the wind. The snow should be hard but not icy. It’s tricky without snow, because you won’t get a peg into the frozen ground. Simply trample down an area of snow with ski or snow shoes. Then pitch the tent.

Can I use a summer tent?

I don’t recommend that. Winter tents have crucial details that differ from the summer models. They are more stable, so they can also hold heavy snow on top. You can completely close ventilation slots. The outside tent goes all the way to the ground and, in the best case, it has snow flaps you can hold down with extra snow so no wind can blow underneath the outside tent. Winter tents offer a lot of space for the equipment, they have a big apse. The most important difference lies in the inner tent: Winter tents have sealed fly screens so no snow powder can come through. 


4-Seasons Info

Markus Gruner ...

... (30) has been a customer at Globetrotter for ages. He switched sides in 2011 and now sells boots and skis at Dresden’s Globetrotter store. He has been on several winter tours. 


How do you pitch your tent?

First of all, it is important that I don’t use other tools as anchors, like the snow shovel. It’s better to only work with snow pegs and snow anchors. I discovered a super light strategy for the anchors: tear-proof plastic bags which I fill up with snow and bury. On the side of the tent facing the wind, I use the more stable strategy depending on the conditions i.e.: anchors for soft snow and pegs for hard snow. 

So, the tent is pitched. Let’s furnish it.

First of all, I put down a big foam mattress covering the bottom of the inner tent entirely. The sleeping mat is the most important aspect of any winter camp because the cold comes from the ground. I love the down-filled air mattresses like the “Downmat 9” from Exped in the biggest size. The combination of air cushion and filling creates a special sleep comfort with the highest degree of insulation.

What’s the perfect sleeping bag?

You need to check that the size of the sleeping bag fits your body size and weight because people of slight build feel cold quicker. Make sure to adjust the manufacturer’s temperature level to our own body weigh and gender because this is an individual matter. Similar to the freezer bag vapour barrier, I also put another layer into the sleeping bag. The body’s moisture goes into the down of the sleeping bag. The dew point is somewhere in the filling which basically means your sweat freezes on the down and impairs the insulation. I prevent this happening with the help of a vapour barrier inlet like the “Exped VBL-Linerbag”.

So you get up wet in the morning?

Photo: Globetrotter Ausrüstung
Of course I will leave the sleeping bag a little damp, but it dries quickly. I also wear merino base layers including socks while sleeping which feels nicely on my skin.

Can I wear several sleeping bags together to get warmer?

You could, yes. The outer sleeping bag must be big enough to have space for you and the other sleeping bag. And when you use down and synthetic fibre, you should put the synthetic sleeping bag outside. The dew point then lies in the synthetic one which handles moisture better than down.

What’s the best way to slip into the sleeping bag?

As fast as possible and when you still feel warm, because the sleeping bag only warms in a passive way. Another tip against the chill at night: When I cook food in the evening, I usually boil an additional litre of water. I fill up a bottle and put it at the end of the sleeping bag – like a hot-water bottle. It also gives me tepid water for my muesli in the morning. 

What do you eat on winter trips? What’s our New Year’s Eve dinner?

Let’s stick with packet food during winter. Thanks to the snow, there is always water nearby. It only needs to be melted with the stove, so you will need much more fuel than during summer. In winter, I use petrol as it offers more power in the cold. I try to only set up the stove once a day. I store pre-heated water in thermos flasks. It is important to put the stove on top of something, otherwise it will sink into the snow with the pot.

Do you have special advice on how to look after your body?

Markus in motion. Preferably with skis and a sled. Kids can take a seat too. | Photo: Archiv Markus Gruner
Because of the cold, your skin gets dry quickly. The sled harness can make you a little sore. So I use fatty cream. Personal hygiene is a minimum. Wipes are good enough because you sweat less than in summer. It is important to listen to your body needs, no matter if you’re hungry, need to go to the toilet or have reached your power limit. 

What do I do if something breaks?

It can mean the end of the winter tour. For example, if you have a sleeping bag which is not made for bivouacking, and your tent frame breaks, you can not simply improvise with a tarp. I always take tools with me which is not essential, but can rescue at least some sort of comfort level. You can fix a broken tent pole with a repair sleeve from Tatonka. It is never wrong to take a multi tool, sewing kit, carabiner, laces, a few pieces of string and tightening straps.

Okay, I’m well equipped now. Only my girlfriend is missing. How do I convince her to come with me?

Show her that a winter trip does not necessarily mean a lack of comfort. I always give my best equipment to her on such tours. You should also take her worries seriously. Feeling cold is quite a subjective issue. The tour should be right for you both. In winter, you should put sporty challenges aside. If you keep these things in mind, you will have a brilliant start to the New Year.

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11.03.2013ArtikelEnglish Articles

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