Wild camping in the snow

I’ve always wanted to camp up in the hills in deep snow. For the last few years I’ve been watching the mountain weather forecasts, hoping for cold weather, and getting into the hills whenever it looks like it might snow. 

For my latest trip to Snowdonia the forecast was a bit uncertain, as it always is. But, the general forecast was for high winds and heavy overnight snow, followed by calm winds, clear skies and temperatures around -6 celsius. The uncertainty lay in the wind direction, what time the wind would calm down, how much snow would fall, and how cold it would get. 

The milky way arch was due to peak over Snowdon at around 01:00. If the snow had stopped by then, I would be in for a great night. 

If the wind calmed down early and the snow started to fall, then their could be a lot of snow overnight, followed by clear skies. Which would be ideal to photograph the milky way arch over Snowdon, while the peaks were covered in snow. But it was all in the timing. 

Winter camping is hard. Especially when you are taking photography kit too. You need to take more food, more warm clothing, more fuel, a tougher tent, and a warmer sleeping system. All of the extra kit adds up to a lot more weight than you would need in summer. And as the sun goes down earlier and rises later, you have a long night in the tent. Particularly if the weather is bad. I stripped my winter kit back as much as I could, and took minimal camera gear. A tripod, stills camera, 14mm lens, 35mm lens, and a second camera for timelapse’s, or video clips. Even so, I still had around 20kg of kit with me. 

As I have been to the same spot a few times I knew roughly where I would pitch the tent, and I was familiar with the route. I was hoping to finish work early, but ended up getting away a bit late, and arrived at the start of the walk shortly before sunset. I drank half a litre of water and ate another nut bar. Then I put on my pack as the sun was going down behind the mountains and started the walk. It’s always difficult for the first twenty minutes as you get used to the strain of carrying the extra weight. But then you get into a rhythm and find a pace. 

The moon was up, and the sky was still illuminated by the sun as I walked up the side of the hill. The grasses and heathers were covered in a thin layer of snow, although the ground wasn’t frozen solid, and I would regularly sink to my ankles in the cold mud and snow. I walked without using my head torch, and just enjoyed walking under the moonlight with snow crunching underfoot. 

As I got to the camp spot I checked the direction of the wind, and pitched my tent with feet into the wind (the most stable way to pitch my tent). It was just about dark, and the wind was really starting to pick up, so I put on my head torch, and went through pitching the tent in my mind, and then got on and pitched it. After about ten minutes the tent was up, and I was inside, blowing up my bed for the night while water boiled on the stove. 

The sky above Snowdon was filled with a mat of thick grey cloud which seemed to be getting lower as I waited for the water to boil. I managed to grab a couple of quick photos. The wind rain and sleet hit as the water finished boiling, so I zipped the tent door shut, lit my candle lantern, and prepared for a long night. 

It’s an obvious thing to say, but the nights in winter are long! Mid-January the sun sets at 16:20 and rises at 08:00. I’m no good at maths, but that’s a long time to sit in a small tent in the dark. One of the reasons I selected this pitch was that I have good phone signal. Just a few yards away on the other side of the peak, I would have to leave the tent to get signal.

It’s important to be able to communicate with the outside world for many reasons; emergencies, to check weather forecasts, plan routes. But, on long winters nights when the weather is too harsh for photography, calling home, or watching videos on YouTube to pass the time is high on my list of priorities.

As Gerald Undone talked about a new video tripod the wind howled and the tent gently rattled and flapped. By the time Murray from Scotlands Mountains got back to the camper the sound was like a jet engine.

The wind was forecast for a constant 30mph from the southwest, with to gusts up to 50mph; and then changing to lower speed northerly winds. Being inside a tent in high winds, even a good winter tent, can be overwhelming on your senses. It’s like sitting inside a drum being dragged behind a gritter truck while dinosaurs roar all around you. I lay there and listened to it for a while, making sure that the tent was stable and nothing was moving around. Then I put my ear plugs in.

The first time I camped in the winter in high wind I forgot to bring ear plugs. It’s impossible to sleep with all the noise and the walls shaking. I won’t forget again.

I set an alarm so that I could put my head out of the tent and check the weather every couple of hours. At some point the wind started to ease, and I could hear snow landing on the tent, building up, and then sliding down the sides.

I stuck my head out, but the cloud was low and I couldn’t see very far. So I tucked back in and set the alarm again. There were periods of silence and total calm, then an explosion of wind, walls shaking, hail hitting the outer. It feels like lying relaxed and half asleep in the sunshine as a cement truck suddenly hits the brakes and skids out of control in your direction. Then it’s silence again, and the pattern plays on repeat. Floating in a pool, jet engines.

Calm and silence. Noise and violence. I can’t sleep.

I kept setting the alarm and checking the weather, but the cloud clung to the peaks. It was 07:00 before the cloud lifted. Too late for any astrophotography. Definitely missed the Milky Way arch. But only by six hours.

I was warm overnight. I left the door of the inner tent part open all night to help with ventilation, and I had put the candle on a few times to let any condensation out. By the morning my boots which were in the outer tent were near frozen, and my water bladder had started to freeze. Nothing wakes you up like a drink of freezing cold water, ice bouncing off your teeth.

I took a couple of photographs while the water boiled and then had a hot drink before packing everything away and taking down my tent. I would have lingered and taken a few more photographs, but free parking runs out at 08:00, and I needed to get back down before I got fined.

Normally I would go to The Siabod Cafe and have a couple of cups of coffee and a full breakfast, but the cafe has shut down. Hopefully it will reopen. Soon. There’s nowhere better when you’re cold and hungry after a sleepless night.

So another trip into the hills to see the stars, where I didn’t see any stars, and only took a handful of photographs. That’s landscape photography. I’m not disappointed, it was another mini adventure, and more experience with sleep depravation and winter camping. I enjoyed it.

Kit Lists

Camping Kit
  • Tent – Hilleberg Soulo
  • Sleeping mat – Thermarest NeoAir XTherm NXT MAX
  • Sleeping bag – Sea to Summit Quilt
  • Cooker, Gas, Cooking Pot
  • Insulated Cup
  • Spork
  • 2l Water bladder, Water bottle
  • Warm socks for sleeping
  • Wooly hat
Hiking Kit
  • Waterproof jacket – Mountain Equipment – Tupilak
  • Waterproof trousers – Mountain Equipment – Saltoro
  • Down insulated Jacket – Mountain Equipment – Xeros
  • Insulated Trousers – Mountain Equipment – Compressor
  • Walking Trousers – Rab Vapour-Rise
  • Baselayer top – Rab
  • Fleece jacket – Mammut
  • Winter boots – Scarpa Manta Tech
  • Gaiters – Rab
  • Walking Poles – Black Diamond Alpine Carbon
Camera Kit
  • Sony A7R IV
  • Sony A7S III
  • Sony 14mm 1.8
  • Sony 35mm 1.4
  • Gitzo Traveller Tripod & Head