Hiking Chain Lakes Trail

The final trail in my little ‘Fall hiking in Washington’ series is the Chain Lakes Trail that leaves from the ski area at Mount Baker. Me, Lien, and Emily had visited the previous year in March to snowshoe Artist Point and were totally awed by the views, so we decided to come back in the fall for a different view. It was Thanksgiving Weekend in October 2019, just one week after me and Lien had hiked Yellow Aster Butte. This time we were joined by Emily and my friend Amy, who flits in and out of my life every now any then. We never really know when she’s going to appear and disappear again, but it’s fun to hike with her!

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We had Thanksgiving dinner at my house on Sunday night and then made an early departure on Monday morning to cross the border. Traditionally, me and Brandon have always gone on a Thanksgiving Monday hike (3 years running), but this year he went on holiday and bailed on me, so I had to console myself with my other companions. I really liked both Yellow Aster Butte and Chain Lakes, but of the two, I would definitely have to give the edge to Chain Lakes. At 11.5km, it has half the elevation gain of Yellow Aster Butte, just 375m. The trail starts in the backcountry parking lot at the ski hill. Be sure to get and print out the parking pass online before you go because there’s no where to get it on the mountain. It’s only $5 and I’m told you can get it at the visitor center at the bottom before you drive up, but I’ve never once seen it open on the weekend.

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Chain Lakes is one of those rare trails that is scenic the ENTIRE trail. You’ve already driven up most of the elevation gain to get to the ski hill and from there, the trail continues up to the summer parking lot for Artist Point. In the summer, you can drive almost the whole way up to Artist Point, but at some point in September they close the road. Hiking up the road is the least scenic part of the trail, but still has really nice views looking down into the big bowl that’s popular among backcountry skiers. We decided to skip the Artist Point viewpoint since we’d already done it and instead continued down the other side of the parking lot into the backcountry. I think it’s a bit of an understated part of the trail, but it was one of my favourite parts. You hike right across the slope of Table Mountain, looking out towards Mount Baker.

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From the Skyline Divide Trail, I felt like I was so close to Mount Baker that if I continued hiking I would eventually reach it (you can reach the foothills, but then the trail ends). But from the Chain Lakes Trail, you really are on the trail that goes up to the top of Mount Baker (albeit this is only for experienced mountaineers). It looked like if we just crested a few more hills we’d pretty much be there, but of course, it’s further then it looks as the size of the mountain dwarfs everything surrounding it and can be a bit misleading. Once you get to the end of Table Mountain, the trail turns to continue around the mountain and over to the chain lakes part of the trail. You can also hike along the top of Table Mountain, which may have to be an adventure for another day.

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The first lake you come to is Mazama Lake. You can camp there, but it’s pretty small and not the most scenic, so if you’re overnighting, I’d recommend one of the other lakes instead. After Mazama, you come to Iceberg lake, which is the biggest and has staggering views looking up at the steep cliffs that surround the lake. This is where we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy the views before starting our climb back up the pass to the top of the trail.

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One of the awesome things about Chain Lakes, in addition to the fact that the entire hike is scenic, is that it’s a loop trail, so you don’t have to do any return on the trail. It starts to climb around Iceberg Lake until you reach Haynes Lake, which is where I’d recommend branching off to camp. From there it gets really steep. There’s some great views looking back down the trail at Iceberg lake and you continue climbing to the top of the pass before starting to descend back into the bowl we were looking at from the start of the trail. It seemed like most people were doing the trail in the opposite direction as us, starting with the steep climb up the bowl. I’d recommend going the same way as us though because then you get to finish the hike with what was, in my opinion, the best view.

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The view from the top of the pass is really unreal. The mountains stretch out around you in every direction and as you climb up the side of the Mazama dome, you really feel like you’re on top of the world. We’d already had lunch, but we decided to stop and have a break to make tea so that we could enjoy the view for a little bit longer! Even though we still had a few kilometers left to go, from the top we could pretty much see the trail down to the bottom almost the whole way there. We continued from the pass and started the long descent down the bowl to the parking lot. We were basically undoing all of the elevation from the rest of the hike in this stretch, which is why I recommend doing the hike from the other direction, that way the ascent is more gradual, with a few flat parts in between as you climb up. The descent down the bowl though is hard on the knees, so something to take into consideration as well.

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The trail switchbacks for a while until you finally reach the bottom. It weaves through the valley and you pass by a few more lakes and the most quaint little rock bridge. Seriously, there’s no part of this trail that is not scenic, and even a few minutes before the parking lot, we were still stopping to take pictures of things. Except for Emily, who was badly in need of a washroom and sprinted the last 15 minutes of the trail to get to the outhouse.

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Sadly that was our last adventure in the North Cascades. I returned the following winter with Carolyn and Brandon to snow camp on Artist Point, but unfortunately with Covid, we haven’t been able to return. I was hoping to do a few hikes in the summer and fall again, but sadly I’ll just have to wait until next year (hopefully). Either way, if you’re from Washington, I’d definitely recommend hitting up the North Cascades, and if you’re Canadian, put in on your bucket list!

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Hiking Sentinel Pass

It’s been almost a year now since I visited the Rockies, but I never found time to post about the 2 hikes I did last August, so it’s time to feature them now! Hopefully it will be helpful if you’re planning to visit Banff this year. Sentinel Pass was my first hike in Banff National Park and I really feel like I started at the absolute best that Banff has to offer. Seriously, this hike was unreal! It’s not too challenging and it has the most amazing views – I loved every second of the day hike.

So first things first, let’s talk about how you get to the trailhead because it’s definitely worth talking about. Two of the most popular sights in Banff National Park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Lake Louise tends to get most of the press attention, but for those in the know, Moraine Lake, located just up from Lake Louise, is the real shining jewel of the park. But if you want to experience it, you have to get there early. Lake Louise has a huge parking lot and on summer weekends it usually fills up by 8am. On week days you can probably get away with showing up by 10am, but likely it depends on the weather. I believe you can usually shuttle up to Lake Louise from the village or overflow parking lots, but the shuttles are currently not running because of Covid.

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Moraine Lake is located 14km away from Lake Louise on a direct access road up to the lake. The parking lot for Moraine Lake is much much smaller and once it’s full for the morning, park staff will block off the access road to limit traffic up there. So you can’t bank on showing up late and just circling the parking lot – you won’t even be able to get up there. Same as Lake Louise, there is a shuttle bus that runs to the lake, but it’s not running this year. So if you want to visit the lake, your best bet is to come really early or really late. I read online that you need to be at the road by 6am to get a parking spot, which is probably true on a weekend, but we got in around 8am on a weekday. They will periodically open the road up again later in the day, but lucky timing is really everything if you decide to wait.

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Once you make it to Moraine Lake, the world is your oyster! This is seriously one of the most beautiful alpine lakes that you can drive to. Canoeing is really popular on the lake – it’s first come first serve for bookings, but I suspect it’s probably not too difficult to rent this year with the limited traffic and shuttles not running. I would love to canoe up around the lake, but on our visit we had other priorities.

From the lake, there are tons of hikes to explore! The most popular trails seem to be the Rockpile Trail and the Moraine Lake Trail. Rockpile is located right at the parking lot and I regret not doing it because it’s pretty short and I imagine it gives you a great view of the lake. Moraine Lake Trail is about 3km long and goes up to the end of the lake. We had planned to do this trail at the end of our hike up Sentinel Pass, but ended up skipping it because Sadie was really tired. There’s several other trails leaving from the lake, but the other two main trails are Sentinel Pass and Eiffel Lake/Wenkchemna Pass. I’ve heard Wenkchemna Pass is also amazing because it hikes into the continental divide, but it’s a bit longer, so we opted for Sentinel, of which I have no regrets.

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Sentinel Pass starts off with a climb up the mountain to get into the alpine. It’s steep, but nothing too crazy and the trail just switchbacks up and away from the lake. The advantage of starting early was that the temperature was still chill, so it wasn’t too bad climbing up there. After about an hour, you pop out of the woods into the alpine meadows, and from there the rest of the hike is super scenic. There’s some more climbing through the meadows before you come to a large meadow with two lakes, known as the Minnestimma Lakes, and the most amazing view looking back at the ten peaks surrounding Moraine Lake. It was especially beautiful when we visited in early August because the meadows were filled with wildflowers! I have a real weakness for meadows and wildflowers, they’re pretty much my favourite alpine scenery, so I was in hiking heaven.

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From the meadow, you can see that the trail continues up the side of the mountain and then switchbacks through the pass between Pinnacle Mountain and Mount Temple. This is where the hike gets a little more challenging. If you’re afraid of heights you might find this part a little scary, but I never felt unsafe on the trail at any point. There was still a little bit of snow left in one section, but it was easy enough to pass across. Watch for wildlife as you make your way through the meadows and up the final climb because we saw so much wildlife on this trail! The first meadows earlier on are filled with ground squirrels, and the higher meadows have tons of marmots! We could also hear lots of pika, which are harder to spot than the marmots, but we did spot one later in the day thanks to Seth’s determination.

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The view from the top of the pass is incredible, but honestly, so was the view from the meadow. It is worth pushing to the top of the pass to see down the other side, but if it’s too much, don’t sweat it, the views from the lakes are honestly just as good. It was pretty hot when we hiked the pass, but it gets chilly and windy at the top, so be prepared. It is possible to seek shelter while you eat lunch at the top, but we opted to just brave the wind so we could enjoy the views.

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While we were on top, there were some other hikers coming up the pass from the other side. I could see a map for this trail on my GPS, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re experienced. It’s hard to discern any path from the other side and you mostly just create your own path up the boulder field. The trail officially ends at the top of the pass, but we decided to explore a little bit further. There is an unofficial path up Mount Temple, but again, it’s more of a climbing path – it’s misleading how long it is to get up to the top of Mount Temple and I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a helmet. We just went about 100-200m further, snapped some photos, and then started to make our way back down the pass.

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It was an early morning, but the trail was pretty empty, which made for a great hiking experience. There were definitely more people coming up when we were on our way down, but it never felt overly crowded. We took our time on the way down, enjoying all the beautiful views, taking pictures of the wildflowers, and looking for marmots. Sadie did well on the hike and had a great time, especially on the snow section, but after Banff we decided it was probably a bit too much for her, so we’ll probably wait a few more months before taking her on any more large hikes. Like I said, we wanted to do the Moraine Lake trail, but eventually abandoned the idea to give Sadie a rest.

So in conclusion, this was really an excellent hike. I would absolutely recommend taking the time to do it and know I’ll have to return again some day to do the Wenkchemna Pass hike and the rest of the trail around the lake!

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Let’s Talk: Winter Camping

To-date, I’ve written about all of my snow camping adventures (find them here). All of my posts include useful information and lessons learned about snow camping, but I decided to make a guide to Winter Camping to compile the key things I’ve learned in one place for those debating taking up snow camping! It’s a lot more work than summer camping, but I find it hugely rewarding! Please keep in mind that I am still only a novice snow camper/snowshoer – I always stick to low risk avalanche zones and sleep in a tent – if you’re looking for advice on snow shelter construction or ski touring, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Safety

Safety is the number one consideration if you’re thinking of taking up snow camping. I know the pictures of us hanging out and camping in the snow look awesome (at least I think they do, others *Emily* think it looks like a nightmare), but if you think snow camping may be beyond your ability or you’re not prepared, do not go. It’s not something you do for the ‘gram, it’s dangerous. But if you think you’re ready, be prepared with the 10 essentials and lots of warm clothing and sleeping gear. Wear proper footwear and bring lots of hand and foot warmers with you. See my blog post on personal safety for more information about the 10 essentials.

But the most important consideration is avalanche safety. Avalanche Canada is a wonderful resource for assessing avalanche risk and always check it before you go. There are lots of places to snowshoe and camp outside of avalanche terrain, but if we’re going into avalanche terrain, our personal rule is that we won’t go anywhere that’s higher than moderate risk, end of story. We’ve all taken the Avalanche Safety Training and Brandon owns a transceiver, probe, a shovel. Me and Carolyn just own shovels right now, but rent probe and transceiver when needed.

Even with training, we still avoid high risk areas, but taking the training allowed us to learn how to start identifying avalanche terrain and risk so that we are equipped with the knowledge to make decisions. Avalanche safety is about a lot more than just checking the bulletin. Even on days where the risk is low or moderate, you can still trigger avalanches and get into trouble if you don’t understand how to assess the conditions and control your exposure to risk. When in avalanche terrain, it’s not enough for 1 person to be experienced. Everyone needs to be equipped with the proper gear and knowledge.

Gear

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I think that gear is probably the biggest bottleneck to getting into snow camping. Camping gear in general is expensive and in the winter you definitely benefit from warm and lightweight gear. It took us a while to get started with snow camping because we were weary of investing in a ton of expensive gear for something we might not enjoy, so we cut a lot of corners and bought some cheap gear to try it out. The downside was that because we loved snow camping, a lot of the gear had to be replaced again, which is a bit wasteful, but can generally be sold secondhand. Plus check what you can get second hand in the first place to help you get started!

My main tip for saving money is to supplement your existing gear. Buy a cheap blue foamy to go under your existing sleeping pad and a warm sleeping bag liner or blanket (or both) to increase the warmth of your existing sleeping bag. The downside is that this is not lightweight and you can expect to have a heavy pack on the first trip. The other alternative is to rent gear, which is a great option if you really think you’re going to love it. See the sections below for more detailed information on specific gear.

Shelter

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Shelter is obviously one of the biggest considerations when you’re snow camping and is one of the things that can be the most expensive, or the cheapest. The first time me and Carolyn went out we took my parents ancient 4 season tent, it held up, but was definitely not meant for snow camping and weighed a whopping 10lbs. Fortunately (for us) it was only a 2 person tent and Brandon decided he wanted to be included on these adventures, so he decided to invest in a winter tent so that the 3 of us could go together!

The main feature of a winter tent is that it’s double walled, so basically it has no fly and the poles are exposed, but the double wall and lack of mesh keep you warm inside. Brandon’s tent works great, but it came at a super high price tag, so it’s not practical if you’re just starting out. If this is the case, one thing you can consider is building your own snow shelter. I’d really like to try this some day, but we were a bit overwhelmed with everything we had to learn about snow camping that we didn’t want to add shelter building to the list. It’s something we hope to explore in the future though.

However, even though we use tents, there is still a lot to consider when making camp. You want to protect yourself from the elements as much as possible and of course you can’t just set up a tent on top of powder. We always start with digging a hole big enough for the tent and then stomping down the base with our snowshoes to make it as compact as possible. Location and weather conditions will usually dictate how deep our hole is. I recommend approximately 1 metre, especially if it’s windy because the snow walls will provide a natural shelter, as well as insulation. One tip for when you’re setting your tent up is giving consideration to how you will peg it. In the snow, the risk of losing your pegs is super high, so we either tie rope on the peg, or just skip pegs altogether and bury the rope. The snow will freeze around the rope, so when you’re done, it’s a lot easier to pull the rope out than to dig out frozen pegs.

We have also tried snow camping in a 3 season tent. It’s not ideal, especially if it’s really cold, but if you pack the sides of the tent with snow for insulation, it’s actually not too bad. We made sure to pack the snow up so that it closed the gap between the fly and the inner tent to avoid a draft, but because most 3 season tents are made of mesh, it’s unavoidable that it will be cooler than a true winter tent. Finally, make sure you fill in your hole at the end of your trip to avoid creating a hazard for future users. If the hole fills with powder, it may confuse a skier and could easily result in a broken leg if they don’t know it’s there.

Sleeping

So like I said, when we first started, we cut some corners on our sleeping gear. Depending where you’re going, you’ll want a really warm sleeping bag and a sleeping pad with a combined R-value of 5 or higher. Eventually we all ditched our double pad system in favour of the Thermarest Neoair XTherm, which is rated to R6 and can be used on it’s own. After camping in -20 degrees celsius at Elfin Lakes, Brandon invested in a -30 sleeping bag (Thermarest polar ranger), but Carolyn and I continued to use cheap -15 synthetic bags from Teton paired with a liner and blanket. I’m not going to link the bag because honestly it’s not very good and I think I’d be just as warm in my quality -7 down bag. If you already have a good summer bag (-7 or warmer), you can probably get away with pairing your summer bag with a liner and blankets, provided it’s not super cold. This year me and Carolyn finally gave in and bought North Face’s -29 Inferno bag and Marmot’s -18 Lithium bag respectively and to date, it’s been a lot easier to sleep warm. When picking your bag, I recommend sticking to down and checking what the sleeping bag’s comfort rating is.

I can’t lie, staying warm at night is a lot of work when you’re snow camping. In addition to my gear, I sleep in fleece lined leggings under a pair of pants, several merino layers under a puffy jacket, balaclava, hat, gloves, and socks with slippers. I put foot warmers in my slippers and Carolyn stuffs all her pockets with hand warmers. We also all boil water to put in our nalgene bottles before bed to use as hot water bottles in our sleeping bags. I have an insulator for my nalgene to keep it warm longer.

I take my blanket into the sleeping bag with me (it’s warmer this way and less likely to fall off) and then to finish it off, I overlay my parka over my middle/butt area because I’m a side sleeper and line my snowpants between my bag and the tent to avoid a draft and stay insulated if I accidentally touch the side of the tent. With my new bag, I’m able to leave the liner and blanket at home. It can take a while to get warm in the sleeping bag because it takes a while for your body to heat the space. Try doing sit-ups in your bag right after you get in to warm it up. As a side sleeping, I also recommend starting on your back (it’s warmer this way because your sleeping pad reflects your body heat back at you), then switch to your side once you’re toasty warm.

My last tips are to cocoon into your sleeping bag, but avoid breathing into your bag as this will introduce moisture into your bag, which will make you colder. If you find yourself needing to pee, just get up and do it. Everyone hates getting out of the warm tent, but a full bladder will make your colder and keep you awake. I find that I will usually be a lot warmer after getting up to pee just by virtue of moving around. Your boots will likely freeze overnight, so know that they’ll be a challenge to put on when you leave the tent.

Clothing

Winter camping is all about layers. You don’t want to dress too warmly on the snowshoe in because you are going to sweat and you want to avoid sweating into all your layers. I usually just wear a thin merino sweater (Costco) under a fleece (Columbia). If I’m still cold or it’s snowing, I’ll add the shell of my ski jacket (but not the liner because it’s overkill). The removable liner was one of the main features I wanted in a winter jacket, I’m on my second “interchange jacket” from Columbia and really like it. I usually start with the shell and ditch either the shell or the fleece once I start sweating (pending if I need the waterproof layer on top). On bottom, I usually wear a pair of tights under my normal water resistant hiking pants. MEC’s sandbagger pants are my favourite and I hike in them in all seasons, although just searching them now I’m sad to find they don’t make the women’s version anymore! Then I pack a pair of snowpants to put on when we get to our campsite and my lightweight puffy for sleeping.

Merino is key when you’re snow camping. It really does still keep you warm when wet and it dries a lot faster than other fabrics. I’ve slowly been accumulating merino layers over the years and one of the best finds for me was switching to merino underwear and bra. It’s expensive and surprisingly hard to come by, but I love how much more quickly they dry. I recommend SmartWool and Icebreaker for merino undergarments. Changing your underwear is really hard and cold in the winter, so switching to merino meant I could go the whole trip (I’ve only done 1 nighters to date) without having to change my base layer. If I did 2 nights, I would bring a second set.

The other trick to winter camping is to bring lots of hats and mittens. Make sure you have a separate toque for sleeping as you don’t want to have to sleep in the hat you’ve been sweating into all day (or is wet from snow). I usually bring several pairs of thin gloves for mobility, a pair of waterproof insulated ski mitts, and another thinner pair of mittens for sleeping.

Footwear

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Don’t skimp on footwear. Having a comfortable pair of boots that will keep you warm and dry all day is essential. I used to use a pair of snow boots from Sportchek that had really good waterproofing, but I found my feet would get cold after a while. Lots of boots have temperature ratings and I recommend getting something really warm, but not too bulky if you can avoid it.

Last winter I decided to try snow camping in mukluks and I love them. Manitobah Mukluks is a Canadian, indigenous owned company and I thought who would know better about how to keep your feet warm! I love my muks for warmth, but they can be challenging to pair with snowshoes. They don’t have thick soles like a lot of boots so it’s a challenge to get a really tight fit on the snowshoe, which is another important consideration when picking both your boots and snowshoes. What I do love about these boots though is that they are super warm and because they’re made with natural materials like rabbit fur, they did not freeze on me overnight! Plus a lot of their boots are waterproof – I tested mine snowshoeing in heavy rain for 5 hours and they stayed completely warm and dry!

Being prepared with both snowshoes or microspikes, depending on your trip, is also very important. Most of our snow camping has been done in remote locations with high snow accumulation where snowshoes were definitely required. My snowshoes were from Costco and getting a bit dated, so I picked out a new pair this year, MSR’s Lightning Ascent. The main reason I picked them is because the basket where you connect to your shoe is really comfortable and gets a tight fit to your boot. The straps on a lot of snowshoes can dig into your feet after awhile. Depending where you’re going though, you might be better off with microspikes. We used them when we camped at Keyhole (see photo under ‘clothing’), plus I use them a lot in the shoulder seasons on day hikes. I recommend Kahtoola, but I’ve heard Hillsound is great too.

Cooking

Cooking when snow camping is not that different from backpacking, but there are a few considerations to keep in mind. The first is fuel. Avoid propane and iso-butane mixed gas when snow camping because they can freeze. Stick to white gas stoves if possible or find some way to insulate your fuel canister to keep it warm. Second, up your calorie intake. Being out in the cold for a long time burns a lot of calories, so be prepared with high energy treats that won’t freeze.

The last consideration is water. As I learned on my first trip, melting snow takes a long time and unless its super fresh, it tastes really bad. Melt the snow until its warm and then start adding more to the pot, each time warming it but not boiling. It takes a long time to boil, so once you get enough water, just boil it all at once at the end. It’s not required it you’re boiling it, but consider filtering the water anyways to improve the taste, or bring drink mixes to make it palatable. Also, avoid your platypus on snow trips as the straw will freeze. I usually take a nalgene and a thermos that I pre-fill with tea to keep me warm along the trail. Then I refill my thermos before bed for a nice warm treat when I wake up (or if I get cold overnight).

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Building a snow kitchen is one of the fun parts of snow camping though! Plan ahead when digging your hole and pile the snow in one area for your kitchen counter. It’s not a difficult concept, we usually just consolidate the snow into a bit of couch/counter combo so that have somewhere to hang out. I always bring my inflatable sit upon to provide insulation against the snow. We’ll either put the pot right on the counter, or dig a little pit for it if it’s windy.

Bathrooms

Unless you go to Elfin Lakes (or somewhere that caters to winter visitors), it’s unlikely you’re going to have access to an outhouse. Even if where you’re going has outhouses, they’re likely to all be buried in the winter. The good news is, digging a hole is a lot easier in the winter! Just be mindful that your poop is going to stay frozen until Spring, so make sure to use the bathroom somewhere discreet once the snow melts. In winter though, you have to take all your toilet paper with you – there’s no burying paper in the winter.

In some cases, depending on location, you may need to bring a bathroom bag with you to carry your waste out. I’ve written a whole blog entry on backcountry bathrooms, so check it out for more information.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, I’m happy to share my experience – snow camping is tough, but it’s rewarding and me, Carolyn, and Brandon look forward to it every year!