Lightning Lakes Snow Camp

I know I said I was done with writing about Manning Park, but in addition to doing day snowshoe trips in the park, I have also snow camped there, so I want to share about that adventure too!

It’s been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19 and our limited ability to travel and see friends. Fortunately the outdoors is a relatively safe space to spend time with friends, so we decided to go on our annual snow camping adventure. We made some notable changes – we all drove separately, prepared our own meals, and brought multiple tents. It wasn’t ideal because Brandon is the only one who owns a winter tent, but Carolyn decided to make do with her 3-season tent and we convinced Steve to join us this year! Steve did avalanche safety training with us this year, so he was interested in expanding his horizons.

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Originally we wanted to do Zoa Peak, but the avalanche risk was particularly high the weekend we went, so we decided to do Lightning Lakes instead since there is very little avalanche terrain there. To be on the safe side, we still rented avalanche gear and practiced finding each other’s beacons to get more familiar and comfortable with the gear.

I won’t spend too much time on trail details as I just wrote a separate post about the Lightning Lakes trail. It was possible to hike on the lake, so we crossed once on the first lake and then followed the trail along the edge of the second lake to the back. I’ve never gone beyond the edge of the second lake, but it’s not too far to snowshoe to the next lake, which is Flash Lake, so we decided to check it out. We weren’t keen on camping on Lightning Lake since there’s a lot of foot traffic and we thought Flash Lake might be more secluded.

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We didn’t see anyone along the Flash Lake trail, but the creek between the two lakes was not frozen and the head of the lake looked very sketchy. If we’d continued further, it likely would have improved, but we decided to turn around and instead found a nice clearing in the woods between the two lakes to set up camp.

Surprisingly there wasn’t actually a huge base of snow at Manning this year, so we didn’t have to dig too deep. In other years we’ve shared shovels, which made digging a bit slower, but this year we each had our own shovel, so even though we had multiple tents to dig out holes for, it ended up being a bit quicker than normal (or maybe we’re just getting better at it?). We dug deeper for Carolyn’s tent since it’s not a winter tent and we made sure to pack in a lot of snow around the edges for extra insulation. Fortunately it was only about -7 degrees overnight and with two people in the tent, they didn’t have any trouble staying warm.

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We all upgraded some of our gear this year, so Steve inherited some of Carolyn’s old snow camping gear and I got to test out my new -30 degree rated sleeping bag. It took me a bit longer than I anticipated to warm up in the bag (you’re only as warm as the heat you bring in with you), but after about an hour I finally got toasty and after that, quite warm. I ended up having to unzip a little bit and slept most of the night with one arm out of the bag, so I’m optimistic it will hold up in colder temperatures. There are very limited options for winter camping sleeping bags and even fewer are available in Canada. I still think some of the features of my bag could be improved, but I do think it was the best option available to me as a side sleeper.

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Like any snow camping trip, by the time you get to your destination, dig out your tents and make your snow kitchen, it’s more or less time to start getting ready for dinner before you lose daylight. We spent some time boiling water and enjoyed hanging out while we cooked our meals. I made the snow kitchen this year and I have to say I thought it turned out quite well! I made the counter/couch out of the pile of snow Carolyn shoveled out for her tent and then shoveled out a pit for one of the stoves. It snowed gently for most of the day and evening, but the clouds did clear a little bit and we got a glimpse of the stars before bed.

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It was around 7pm when we crawled into our tents. I read until around 8pm when I finally got properly warm and then hit the sack. I woke up around midnight to pee and then slept the rest of the night until 8am – definitely one of the better nights sleep I’ve gotten snow camping!

After breakfast we took down camp and then spent some time playing around with our avalanche gear before heading back out to the cars. It doesn’t take too long to hike back along the edge of the lake and we did a few photoshoots along the way. We all have a bit of an obsession with Gregory packs, so we take turns making attempts to get ourselves Gregory sponsorships – so far, no luck, but we still have fun!

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So overall it was a great first snow camping trip in Manning Park. Manning is a bit intimidating because it can get really cold there overnight, but fortunately for us it was pretty comfortable when we visited. Definitely have plans to go back and try camping at some of the other winter trails!

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Lets Talk: Backcountry Gear

Anyone who hikes all the time, loves talking about gear. I started off with a lot of gear that was either old or borrowed. My parents gave me a lot of their old camping gear, which was very robust, but a bit on the heavy side. Since then I’ve slowly been replacing my gear over the years, though there’s a few older pieces I still use because I love them.

Unlike me, Carolyn used the same crappy gear for years and then this year she decided it was time to finally replace everything all at once. Not ideal on the chequebook, but the two of us having been talking all gear all the time for months, especially in advance of the Black Friday sales, so I figured I’d share some of my favourite pieces of gear that I use!

First off, backpacks. It took me a few years to replace my old 80L travel backpack, which weighed a whopping 7lbs, but subsequently I went a little backpack crazy. A few years ago I got the Gregory 60L Amber, which I loved, but started to find it was a little too big for me as I downsized my gear, so this year I got the Gregory 53L Jade, which I LOVE. The Amber is one size fits all, but I got the Small size in the Jade, so it’s actually 50L and has some great features. My favourite are the suspension back, the fact that you can remove the head of the pack, and the easy access water pockets. Almost all of my friends use Gregory packs, Emily sports the 44L Amber and Carolyn has the 55L Maven. For men, check out the Gregory Zulu or Stout.

Next up, sleeping gear. Having a good sleeping bag and pad can really improve your nights as there’s nothing worse then being cold. A good sleeping bag was the one thing I invested in from the start. I’ve been using the MEC -7 Aquilina bag for years, sadly they don’t make it anymore, but a better alternative would be the MEC -9 Delphinus (it’s warmer, lighter, costs about the same, and it’s purple!). The male version is the MEC -9 Draco. The key things for me in a sleeping bag were getting something that has a high comfort rating and is down (I know it’s not great for wet climates, but its just so warm). I went for a women’s bag because women generally sleep colder than men. If you’re looking for something warmer, Carolyn recently bought the Marmot -18 Lithium, and Brandon uses the Thermarest -30 Polar Ranger when we snow camp. I’ve been looking at purchasing the North Face -29 Inferno bag for snow camping myself.

Don’t forget to put some serious thought in your sleeping pad as well. A good sleeping bag will only do so much if you’re not using a warm pad. When buying a pad, pay special attention to the R-value as this is what tells you how insulating the pad is. My recommendation is to stay above an R-value of 3. Some people buy summer mats with super low R-values, but something around 3 will be a great 3 season mat for you. I used the MEC Reactor 3.8 for a long time because it’s on the cheaper side, but if you can stomach the cost, I’d now recommend the Thermarest Neoair Xlite. It weighs less and in my opinion, is comfier. Currently though, I use the Thermarest Neoair Xtherm. It’s an expensive mat, but it’s 4 season and I use it snow camping as well, so it’s been good value for me.

Moving on to tents. I’ve been using the North Face Talus 3 for years and I absolutely love it (and got it for a steal), but at 6.5lbs, it’s a heavier tent, so I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Although when you do actually sleep 3 people in it, the weight to person ratio is generally less than a lot of standard 2 person tents, so it’s decent value for 3 people, but heavy if you only have 2. I’ve been doing a lot of research on tents lately because I was looking to purchase a new one. I’ve been comparing between ultralight freestanding tents and ultralight tents that are set up using hiking poles. Take my advice with a grain of salt because I haven’t tested these tents, but I narrowed my research down to my top two picks, which were the Big Agnes UL Tiger Wall, and the Gossamer Gear The Two.

I recently purchased The Two, which rings in under 2 pounds and can be set up using hiking poles, or two tent poles purchased from Gossamer. I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet, but looking forward to trying it out next year! I think the downside to this tent will be that it’s a single walled tent. So if you want double walled, check out the Big Agnes, which is a little bit heavier, but still very light. If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, I think one of the best value on the market is the Marmot Tungsten, which comes in both standard and ultralight (higher price, but worth it in my opinion). Again, there’s much lighter tents out there, but you pay for it. Brandon uses this tent, so I do have experience with it.

Stoves and pot sets is one area where I will encourage you to seek advice elsewhere. My stove is the one piece of gear I inherited from my parents that I still use and therefore is ancient. It runs on propane, so the fuel is heavier, but I keep using it because it’s a robust little stove that provides great heat distribution. I also have a smaller stove that runs on iso-butune mix that I love, but I got it in New Zealand, so you can’t find it in North America. Brandon and Carolyn both use white gas stoves, which are a must have if you’re snow camping, but personally I like the gas stoves. In addition, I just have the basic 2 pot set from MSR. It’s pretty cheap and the coating is starting to come off, but it served me well for several years.

I think that about covers it for major pieces of camping equipment, but I’ll link a few more of my favourite miscellaneous items below if you’re on the hunt for any other gear.

Hiking boots: I swear by Vasque, the Breeze is probably the closest to what I currently hike in.

Sit-upon/Pillow: MEC Seat Cushion (I fold it in half to use as my pillow. LOVE IT)

Mug: GSI Infinity Mug (seriously, this thing is the best!)

Safety: Kahtoola Microspikes (excellent for icy conditions), Garmin InReach Mini (could save your life)

Kettle: Sea to Summit Kettle (collapsible and great for hot chocolate on day trips)

Sleeping bag liner: Sea to Summit Reactor Extreme (great for winter camping)

Clothing: Honestly, Costco is the best. They have merino base layers, wool socks, small compressible puffy jackets, puffy slippers, just stay on the lookout for great deals! No need to break the bank on clothing, although I started using merino undies and bra when I hike now and I am a huge fan! They’re a little pricier, but you can usually get them on sale from Icebreaker or Smart Wool. They dry so fast and keep you warm even when they’re sweaty.

The only other thing I wouldn’t skimp on is your rain jacket. If you’re relying on it to keep you dry, it’s worth investing money in. I’m currently saving up for a gore-tex Arc’teryx shell jacket – they’re top of the line for rain jackets, but you definitely pay for it.