Heading down to the snow can seem like a daunting adventure. Questions arise; What to wear to keep warm? What type of sleeping gear to take? It can confuse even the most experienced adventurers, especially when ideas of buying extra, snow-specific gear come into play. Luckily enough, a lot of regular hiking gear crosses over perfectly to snow conditions.
Despite the snow season drawing to a close in the next few months, there is still time for some socially distant adventures in the Australian Alps. If you are new to the backcountry touring/snow scene then this next paragraph is for you. If you are experienced in the snow scene head straight to the bottom to check out the gear reviews!
The Basics: What you need to know about the Australian Alps
The Australian Alps have some of the most varied alpine weather on the planet. The golden rule in the snow is to keep everything as dry as you can from rain/snow and sweat. Unfortunately for us, the weather likes to stick around the zero-degree mark during the day at the lower altitudes at which you enter the ranges, but you will often quickly climb above the freezing line and be exposed to colder temperatures and high winds. So, whilst a light windbreaker/shell may suffice for higher altitudes you will need to be prepared for rain with a fully waterproof jacket and pair of overpants. Additionally the Australian alpine region is highly susceptible to rapid changes in weather. This means the cloudless blue sky can quickly change to storm clouds, so keep and eye on the horizon as predicted weather may change. Temperatures can also soar to plus eight degrees during the day and plunge to minus ten at night, I speak from experience. This means that your layers must be versatile enough to prevent overheating and sweating yet keep you warm when the temperature drops or the winds pick up. The key takeaways from this are versatility, breathability and waterproofing, which when simplified likes this makes the idea of snow camping less daunting.
Let's talk about layers: How to stay warm and dry
During the day you will want to match the level of physical activity and weather conditions to the amount and type of layers you have to avoid sweating. You will be able to make do with your normal hiking clothes, thermals, shells and mid insulation layers for this. During the day you will be relying on the activity to keep you warm, so a lightweight merino long sleeve top and just normal hiking pants under a shell jacket and pants is an ideal active setup. For cooler temperatures a light fleece or synthetic insulation layer as well as thermal bottoms are the way to go as down insulation will be too warm in most conditions. You will be cold when setting off and when you stop moving so again a lightweight fleece and a synthetic insulation layer are ideal for this situation as well. For cooking in the morning and at night a warm down jacket is a must, do not skimp out on this layer. A warm down jacket will be the difference between a fun trip and a hyperthermic trip.
Sleeping System: Tent, Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Mat
Due to the high winds and cold temperatures of the Australian alpine environment I would recommend looking at a dedicated 4 season tent to ensure your safety. If you are expecting good weather you might be able to get away with your standard hiking tent but you want to be careful, especially when venturing above the treeline. My personal recommendation would be to look at Exped’s Venus Extreme, Mont’s Epoch or their Dragonfly
If you are not yet fully committed to getting a dedicated sleeping bag for alpine conditions here is an alternative for you. You can combine a three season sleeping bag like One Planet’s Bungle -7 (or warmer) with a quilt like Sea to Summit’s Ember II (-4) to achieve the minimum -10 sleeping bag rating for the snow (keep in mind the temperatures you are expecting on your trip). The benefits of this are as follows. In alpine conditions you need some sort of waterproofing for your sleeping bag as when snow gets into your tent it will melt and wet anything it touches, you may also have condensation issues depending on what tent you are using. The Ember Quilt shell provides this, protecting itself and your bag underneath. Additionally you gain a modular sleep system that can be used in summer (the quilt) spring and autumn (the sleeping bag) and winter (both) without having to purchase specialist sleeping bags. The drawback is that this modular sleeping system may be bulkier and less waterproof than a dedicated alpine sleeping bag.
The last thing to think about with your sleep system is your mat. For camping on the snow you are aiming to have a minimum R value of 6.0. I recommend taking a standard hiking air mat with an R value of 4 and on top of that a Foam mat. These are really handy to have around camp, I keep mine lashed to the outside of my pack so when I rock up to camp I can lay it on the snow and put anything I need to take out of my bag on top of it to avoid it getting wet. If you are cooking or spending time outside of your tent you can use it as a sit pad.
Liquid fuel stoves such as the Optimus Nova or Soto Muka are going to be the most reliable in sub zero temperatures. If you are going to take your gas stove to the snow there are a few things you need to know. Your standard gas canisters contain butane and propane, In sub zero temperatures these will fail to vaporise and therefore your stove won't light. Our MSR and Jetboil Canisters both contain a isobutane and propane mix which works better in sub zero temperatures. From our experience the MSR ones are the most reliable. If you are having trouble getting your canister to light keep it inside your jacket until it warms up then it should light again.
A couple more tips. Take a 1.5-2 litre pot for melting snow in, small pots are really slow and frustrating. Take quick to make meals preferably freeze dried or dehydrated, after a long day on the skis when it's -10 outside you don't want to be messing around trying to make gourmet food.
Clothing Gear list:
- Base Layers:
- Long sleeve lightweight merino top
Merino is very good at dealing with odour but doesn't dry as fast as it's synthetic rivals
- Three quarter length lightweight synthetic thermal bottoms
Synthetic is good at keeping you warm even when wet, since this will be one of the only insulation layers for your legs I would recommend taking synthetic thermal bottoms for this reason.
- Mid Layers:
- Mid weight Fleece or synthetically insulated Jacket (Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody (synthetic primaloft))
This item is a must in any hikers backpack. The Atom is an extremely versatile jacket allowing you to adapt to a wide range of temperatures from winter to spring. With a surprisingly windproof shell, fleece sides for ventilation and synthetic primaloft insulation which keeps you warm even when wet, the Atom LT is an invaluable piece of equipment.
- Softshell Pants (Arc’teryx Gamma LT Pants)
These lightweight stretchy technical pants are ideal for the cooler seasons, worn on their own or under shell pants for some warmth. Offering decent windproof ness, heat retention and a comfy fit the Gamma’s are very much an all round three season technical pant.
- Shell Layers:
- Hard Shell Jacket (Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket)
Arc’teryx’s All-Rounder (AR) technical mountain jacket will get you through the gnarliest weather that Australia has to throw at you. Featuring reinforced ripstop-nylon patches on high wear areas, pit zips, large chest pockets and waterproofed with Gore-Tex Pro this technical layer is great for lightweight missions which require a high performance jacket.
- Hard Shell Pants (Mont Supersonic Pants)
Bomb proof and breathable! Also the full length leg zip makes putting them on over boots, even ski boots easy. However, as rain pants for hiking in non alpine conditions they may be a tad overkill...
- Extra Layers:
- Camp Jacket (Mont Icicle down Jacket)
If you like going on adventures in winter or alpine conditions, get one. It's a ‘Hail Mary’ piece of equipment for keeping you warm and is waterproofed by Monts Hydronaute XT giving this jacket an impressive waterhead of 20,000mm, whilst the lack of seam sealing means that it remains very breathable. In a Sea to Summit compression sack these jackets compress down a lot. Sure you look like a Michelin man but who doesn't want to be wrapped in a wearable sleeping bag in subzero conditions or warmer?
- Lightweight Fleece (Arc’teryx Delta Lt fleece)
Perfect for taking the edge off of the cold, by itself or as a midlayer, this is a great lightweight option for those that like to keep the gram count low but are wise enough to not skimp out on a synthetic midlayer.
- Fleece Pants (Mont Flashpoint)
Not always necessary and can be a fairly bulky but boy are they nice to slip into after a day’s adventure or to sleep in.
These are amazing for sun protection and for helping to warm up the freezing cold air before you breath it in.
- Heavyweight Ski Gloves
- Fingerless Camp Gloves