Winter camping provides a completely different spin on most visitors camping experience at Mount Rainier. In winter yes, obviously it’s colder, the days aren’t as long and the weather can be a bit less benign. However the real distinction between winter camping and summer sojourns in the mountain backcountry comes down to a feeling of intimacy.
In the summer, you’ll be one of many looking for a place to pitch your tent. When you go to the stream to fetch water, chances are you’ll strike up a conversation or two with the other folks sharing your camping area. There is nothing particularly unforeseen or undesirable about this; it’s just part of being in a place where so many others want to be as well.
In the winter, however, when you rise to the primal quiet of a high country morning, when you gaze out at the ancient shore of a frozen mountain lake beneath the gray light of another snowy dawn, the chances are pretty good you will have the scene to yourself. If it’s solitude you’re after (and who isn’t?), the winter is the best time of them all.
Choosing a Campsite
When it comes to choosing a location for your winter camp, the options are almost limitless. Camping on snow is permitted almost anywhere once the snow depth has reached 2 feet (5 feet at Paradise.) Your site needs to be at least 300 feet away from plowed roads and parking areas and other more heavily traveled zones and a minimum of 100 feet from water. If your group size is larger than 12 people, you’ll have to camp at Paradise; smaller than that, and you can take your pick of some of the most inspiring places imaginable. Reflection Lakes is a choice spot, as is Panorama Point and the areas around Glacier Vista.
Regardless of where you intend to camp, you’ll need to get a permit at the Longmire Museum. Permits are available on a daily basis at Longmire and also at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise on weekends and holidays. If your group is larger than 12 people, you’ll need to make a reservation by calling (360) 569-6575 at least two weeks in advance.
Setting Up Camp
When it comes to different methods of setting up camp, you have several choices. In most conditions, a tent will suffice; extra tiedown points and short barrier walls to divert the wind are good ideas, but a solid 4-season tent is made to hold up under adverse conditions. (The key here is that you use a “4-season” tent. The summer backpacking tents, with mesh walls and lightweight flies may not last through the night and even if they do, your stay will not be a comfortable one.)
Winter gives you the option of camping in a snow cave or an igloo. For snow caves, a moderate hillside is the best place to start. Using a snow shovel, dig downward at first, making a tunnel that then angles slightly up and into the snowpack. Carve out a space that is large enough for the number of people who will occupy it, but not too big. Sleeping platforms can be cut into the snow at a higher point than the floor of the cave, allowing them to stay warmer through the night. Remember to poke a ventilation hole up through the snow cover from the ceiling of the cave to allow the air to circulate. If you’ve done it right, you should be able to cover the entrance with your pack, which will allow the air inside the cave to stay relatively warm through the night. The insulation of the snow above you will not only provide some warmth, it will completely dampen any sound from the outside. Let the winds blow… you won’t even hear them.
Another option is the igloo. Most important for igloo construction is having good, sticky snow that can be cut into bricks and shaped to form the classic domed arctic home. If you choose a flat area and compress the snow by walking on it with your snowshoes for a few minutes, the results will be better. Using shovels and snow saws, cut into the compressed snow and arrange the bricks into a circle around the area. As you add to the walls, your floor elevation drops, making the process go fairly quickly. A short tunnel section will work for the door; remember to slant the opening down and then back up again, as in the case of the snow cave. When all the bricks are in place, you can fill in the gaps between them with chinks of snow, formed into position. As with the cave, sleeping platforms should be above the floor, as the lowest points are where the coldest air will be.
Food, Roads and Blue Bags
Safeguard your food at all times. Not only are the gray jays and Stellar’s jays relentless camp robbers, but the foxes are also adept at helping themselves to your groceries. For your sake and theirs, use a wildlife-resistant food container to store anything edible. Remember to pack out all of your trash. When the summer comes and the snow melts, anything you left behind will still be there.
During the winter, the road closes every night at Longmire. Above that point, parking for snow campers is limited to the lots at Paradise and Narada Falls. Once the road closes, you’re in for the night. Plowing activities can go on at any time during the night and it is not safe to drive the road while plows are operating.
It’s a delicate topic for some, but all human waste needs to be removed as well. Blue bags are available at the ranger station and the visitor center and using them helps to keep the water clean and minimizes damage to the surrounding areas, allowing more visitors without increasing the impact. You can dispose of the bags in a barrel in the restroom tunnel in the upper lot at Paradise.
If you are looking for a unique mountain experience and one you can truly call your own, then winter is the time to make it happen. With proper preparation and the right gear, the experience of a winter camp on Mount Rainier will become one of your most treasured backcountry memories.
– Ken Campbell
The park publishes this brochure about winter camping.