Mount Assiniboine Backpacking Trip: Part II

We had a pretty solid start to our trip on Day 1 (Part I), but things went downhill really fast on Day 2. It’s hard to write about, but backcountry safety and emergency preparedness in the wilderness are so important to me, so I think it’s really important to share when things go wrong. More people than ever have been exploring the backcountry during the pandemic and search and rescue tasks have been way up. Social media has exposed a lot of very beautiful locations, but people don’t always share the challenges that often come along with those experiences. I don’t want to give a false idea of what multi-day thru-hikes are like, so I think it’s really important to share the good along with the bad. In general, my entire 6 day trip to Assiniboine was extremely challenging, but Day 2 was probably one of the worst days I’ve ever had in the backcountry.

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On Day 2 we had to go 14km to get to our campsite at Magog Lake. We departed shortly after 8am and it was about 1km to the lake. There’s a short uphill section that takes you partway up the mountainside and from there, it’s another 6km of relatively flat terrain that runs parallel to the lake. The trail traverses in and out of the trees, so we had a pretty good time because large parts of the trail were shaded, and the parts that weren’t shaded offered absolutely gorgeous views of Marvel Lake and the glacier covered mountains at the end of the lake. From the trail, we could just see the tip of Mount Assiniboine peaking out from behind the mountains.

Once the trail reaches the end of the lake, it starts to ascend up to Wonder Pass via a series of switchbacks. We knew the switchbacks would be challenging in the heat, so we planned a nice break before starting them. It was around 11am, so we decided to wait to have lunch and instead has some snacks. I was feeling a little tired, so I mixed myself some electrolytes to help prepare for the climb. We hit a river right before starting the ascent, so we all topped up our bladders and bottles.

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I was feeling good as we started the switchbacks, but I was also worried about the others, particularly Lien, who drinks a lot of water on a normal day, much less a really hot one. I told everyone to say if they felt the least bit dizzy or nauseous and that we would stop. But one mistake I think I made was that as we climbed up the switchbacks, I was at the head of the group. We probably should have put a slower hiker at the front, but the trail goes in and out of the trees, so we were stopping for short breaks at every single shady section of the trail, so I didn’t think much of it.

I was one shady section ahead of the group taking a break when the guys called up to me that our other companion, whose name I’ve left out for privacy reasons, was feeling tired and wanted a quick break. I walked back down the trail to see her sitting on the ground leaning against her pack with her eyes closed. This was a bad sign for me and indicated to me that she probably already had heat exhaustion. I quickly mixed her a half litre of electrolytes to try and perk up her energy. The guys seemed pretty sure she’d come around quickly, but honestly for me it was a really bad omen. I’ve had first aid training since I was 16 and have treated 2 other cases of heat exhaustion in the past (1 of which resulted in a seizure), so I just had a really bad feeling.

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What I wasn’t prepared for though was how quickly our companion’s health went downhill. Within minutes she was fully lying down on the trail while I continued to give her electrolytes and Brandon gave her energy chews. She kept saying she just needed a few minutes to rest up, but I was not reassured by the fact that she was lying down and knew she was likely already dehydrated and needed more than a few minutes of rest. I booted up my Inreach on the side as a precaution, but the guys wanted to give her more time. This is not unreasonable as you definitely don’t want to call for emergency assistance unless you’re sure you need it.

But shortly after that things really deteriorated and she started having severe muscle cramps in her arms and legs. At first I thought she was having a seizure, but then recognized it as heat cramps and immediately made the SOS call. This is something I hoped never to have to do when I purchased my Inreach, but of course, I also purchased it for this exact scenario. While I was making the call the guys removed her shoes and socks and anything that was creating tightness and started massaging her legs, feet, and arms. This definitely helped with the pain of the cramps, but I knew that in the long term she needed hydration. I poured water over her face and torso to try and cool her down and kept feeding her electrolytes, hoping she would not pass out because I needed to keep giving her water.

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As we gave first aid, I noticed the SOS had still not sent. It often takes my inreach about 20 minutes to send messages, especially in the trees like where we were, but I didn’t want to wait for it, so Brandon offered to run it up the trail to try and get the message through. It stressed me out for us to split up, but we needed help and I had wilderness first aid training and Brandon was fast, so it made the most sense. He took his water and left. It felt like he was gone forever, during which I mostly continued to feed her electrolytes until she complained it was too much and asked me to switch to water. At that point, I started drinking the electrolytes myself because I was starting to get tired too. Lien continued to massage her limbs. She had initially been frantic because she couldn’t feel her legs or arms, but overtime, she started to regain feeling and fortunately, still never passed out. Eventually she became cold from all the water I poured on her, so I changed her into dry clothes and we put an emergency blanket under her to insulate against the cold ground.

I don’t know what the official diagnosis was for her condition, but I believe it was heat stroke, which can only be treated with medical help. The fact that she had such severe cramping and lost feeling in her limbs likely suggests that her body was starting to shut down and was taking energy away from her limbs to preserve her body’s core functions. I’m not a professional, so perhaps it wasn’t as extreme as heat stroke, but I don’t doubt she needed more help than we were able to provide on that mountain.

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The sun was on the move and our shade was disappearing, so I put up my tarp to shield us all from it. Her pain had subsided so me and Lien quickly ate some food to keep up our own strength and then kept giving her water. There wasn’t much else I could do for her aside from try to replenish her fluids. Thankfully Brandon returned, having finally got the SOS to go through. He was immediately inundated with messages from Emergency Services looking for more details. Fortunately the Inreach had found the satellite and we were now able to message from our location. I’m sure the technicians were frustrated with us because it takes forever to type using the text pick on the Inreach and we gave them pretty limited info to try and get the messages out as fast as possible. They asked if we could move at all, to which I responded no, and I told them we’d wait at this location and to look for a yellow tarp. Lien tied his red ground sheet to the trees as well to make us more visible.

Once I finished the trip, I learned Inreach had called both Seth and my Mom, who were listed as my emergency contacts. They couldn’t originally get a hold of Seth, who had our entire trip plan, but the main thing they first asked my Mom was about my level of experience and whether she thought I had sent the SOS accidentally. The reason they wondered is because the GPS location showed we were directly on the trail. Mom told them she thought it was unlikely it was an accident and to please send help. By then we had got more messages through and Inreach reassured my Mom they were already on the way.

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They definitely were on the way. Shortly after Brandon returned and less than an hour after the message had gone through, a helicopter circled our location and sirened at us to let us know they’d seen us. They told us after it was really easy to find us having our exact GPS location and with the tarp. They flew off and returned some time later with a guy on longline. He landed about 15metres down the trail from us and Lien accompanied him to our location. He asked our companion some questions and we filled him in on what had occurred. During this, Brandon had departed again to go back to the water source to refill our bladders and Lien began packing up the backpacks for departure. A second S&R guy was flown in on longline and they assessed whether they could bring our companion out lying down or sitting up. They decided lying down would be best for the extraction and then to transfer her to the helicopter to sit on the way to the hospital. At this point she was looking better. She was actually keeping her eyes open and giving longer responses, plus she needed to go to the bathroom twice. S&R never actually gave her any first aid on the ground and instead transferred her to hospital to go on saline.

They told us we had taken the right actions in putting up the tarp, cooling her down, and giving her lots of water and electrolytes. They took her out via longline lying down and then took Lien out by longline sitting up. They waited for Brandon to return before taking Lien so we could plan what to do next. They did indicate they would take us all via longline if we needed it, but that it wasn’t preferred as the helicopter wasn’t big enough. They needed to take Lien so he could go to the hospital, but it made no sense for them to take me and Brandon too, so we had to decide whether to go back or continue on. I felt that we should go back. We had been through something traumatic and I wanted to know she was okay after having given her first aid for 3 hours. But Brandon pointed out there was really nothing more we could do for her and we were more than a day from either trailhead, so we should just go on.

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So we went on. I still feel a bit guilty about it, but I’m also glad that at least the trip wasn’t over for everyone. In the back of my mind though I was concerned about me and Brandon also getting heat exhaustion. Brandon had already climbed the pass once with the Inreach and I was tired from the stress of attending to the incident. One of the eeriest parts of the day was the fact that we hadn’t seen a single person besides S&R. It made us feel like we were the only people crazy enough to be out hiking, but we encountered lots of other people at Assiniboine who were day hiking up to the pass and thru-hiking in the opposite direction, so it was just a coincidence we were the only ones hiking through the pass that day.

Before moving anywhere we finally sat down and ate our lunch to get some energy back. After that we took it really slow. We crawled at a snail’s pace through the sunny sections and took a break every time we encountered shade. There was limited shade in Wonder Pass, but was it ever gorgeous! I felt like we weren’t able to properly enjoy it, but we still got some lovely photos. We debated camping in the pass since it was an extenuating circumstance, but there was so little shade to be found we ultimately decided to press on. Though we did find a single tree up there and took a break.

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It was approaching 6pm when we left the pass. The top of the pass marks both the Alberta-BC border and the transition between Banff National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. It was a relief to finally start moving downhill and we walked through a beautiful larch forest that I’m sure is super scenic in the fall. We descended past a waterfall and down to some meadows where we re-filled our bottles from the stream. In total Brandon drank a whopping 7L of water on this day!

It was still late June, so I was surprised by the amount of wildflowers we saw on the trip! We saw lots of buttercups and Indian Paintbrush, as well as the Alberta Wild Rose, forget-me-nots, and lots of other white and purple flowers I can’t identify. Eventually we arrived at Gog Lake, which still had some small bergy bits floating in it. I wanted to go for a swim in it, but it’s surrounded by wetland, so I settled for a dunk in freezing Magog Creek instead. It was only knee deep and my feet immediately started to go numb, so I quickly washed myself down before crawling back out.

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We were pretty exhausted at this point, but we continued on through the meadows and couldn’t help exclaiming at the beauty of the park. We finally hit the Naiset Huts and were disappointed to learn it was still another 2km to the Magog Lake campsite. It was finally starting to cool off now though and the sun was lower in the sky, we continued along the edge of Magog Lake and were treated to the most gorgeous views of the lake. Every step hurt and when we finally rolled into the campsite it was 8pm – almost 12 hours after we had started! We were greeted by the Ranger who directed us to the shadiest campsite remaining (not very shady). But we didn’t care and trudged our way out to site number 40 at the back of a little meadow.

I have lots to write about the campsite, but this post is getting long, so I’ll save it for the next entry. We set up camp as quick as possible and I got dinner going while Brandon filtered water. We scarfed down our dinner and sent messages out to Lien and Seth to let them know we’d made it to the campsite and check on our companion. She was still in the hospital, but doing better. After that we pretty much hit the sack immediately. Unfortunately sleep was elusive. There was too much to process from the day, I just lay in bed for hours with my brain spinning. At one point I got up to pee and I could barely open my eyes or move my body I was so tired, but my mind just would not go to sleep. Eventually I drifted off late in the night with no alarms set for the next day. Click for Part III.

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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!