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#146925 - 02/24/11 08:05 PM Best emergency shelter in snow?
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
I just took a locally offered "winter camping" class which turned to be heavily oriented towards "how to build a snow cave".

A good snow cave takes quite a lot of time and energy/calories to build, and can leave a person not only tired but wet. I'm therefore disinclined to build one for normal winter camping --- maybe for a multi-day base camp or if very bad weather was expected.

I'm also disinclined to build one in a "dayhike gone wrong" scenario. Again, a lot of time, energy, and it also requires a bit of skill to get right.

What I'm inclined to build instead (in an emergency situation) is a snow trench or debris hut, depending on amount of snow to work with. IMO, in a true life threatening emergency, the "leave no trace" ethics go out the window and I start stripping live branches off trees, both as ground insulation in the trench, and to provide roof structure for the trench --- branches, covered with ripped open plastic bags or tarp or jacket or whatever, and that in turn covered with a few inches of snow for insulation. light a tea candle for a little warmth. Seems a lot easier and requires less experience than a snow cave.

I'm wondering if folks on this forum that have experience at this have other preferences (or nuances)? On backpacking trips and in the summer I don't carry anything that would help me cut live branches, but for shoulder season and winter day trips I think I'll start carrying a very light (1 - 3 ounce) saw of some sort as part of my emergency gear, just the minimum needed to cut some tree branches if necessary (obviously this can help too in an emergency situation in building a fire when that makes sense).

Thoughts?
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#146935 - 02/24/11 09:08 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
Jimshaw Offline
member

Registered: 10/22/03
Posts: 3938
Loc: Bend, Oregon
Brianle
In the case that you speak of your best tool is a medium weight pair of pruning shears. I would choose a bunch of fir trees that form a natural shelter under them. Under the tree there will be a lot of dry branches that can be removed to start a fire or for insulation under you. With some larger branches laying on snow and lots of green needles, you can get a fire going on top but it won't last real long - take advantage of it.

Trouble with snow shelters as you say, is getting wet. Whats our cardinal rule of staying warm? "don't get wet", so the whole concept of emergency snow caves is flawed. Also they sag, so a day or two later the ceiling may be too low to use. Snow is a good insulater. A plastic bag over you and then bury your self in the snow. As long as you have a breathing space outside of the plastic you will be fine. Apparently no one has ever suffocated in a snow cave unless it collapsed onto them, and if it did, how would you get out, or would you die there?

Obviously I consider snow caves to be dangerous for two reasons, you will get wet digging it and it could collapse on you.
Jim
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These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.

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#146936 - 02/24/11 09:10 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
I passed my roughest night ever in a snow pit that had a tarp, supported by branches. Long night, cold temps (somewhere around 0F). It was an impromptu bivouac on a climbing trip. I came out with all 20 digits, so with the help of brewing up a few cups of tea during the interminable night, the snow pit worked well enough. It took me about 30-45 minutes to construct, as best I can remember. I am glad I started to prepare it before the sun set.

The best snow caves are those built by others which you reoocupy - that was my experience on Denali.

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#146942 - 02/25/11 03:29 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: oldranger]
BrianLe Offline
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Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Quote:
"The best snow caves are those built by others which you reoocupy - that was my experience on Denali."


Thanks, that's quite the same idea I have in mind.

In terms or reuse of a snow cave, the issue often is that folks feel compelled to collapse these so that an unwary person doesn't fall in. In any event, you certainly can't count on finding such a shelter when and where you need it!
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#146943 - 02/25/11 03:45 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: Jimshaw]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Thanks, Jim. Pruning shears strike me as too heavy for emergency use. I was initially thinking in terms of one of those little emergency wire saws, though I've read that the lightest versions aren't very durable or even reliable. In lieu of that, I just ordered a "Coghlans Pocket Sierra Saw" for $9 from Amazon.com, listed weight is 2.4 oz. I reckon I can cut branches at need with that.

Finding a natural tree well is certainly an alternative, particularly if time is short, or perhaps if you have nothing to dig snow with.
The thing that inclines me towards the snow trench/pit is that it can be made into a pretty small enclosed insulated space and thus can be significantly warmer than normal air temperature (obviously some fresh air is needed ...). I think it's do-able to dig a snow trench with a snowshoe and with care and pacing oneself not get wet in the process.

I guess that's about four things I want to make sure I have on winter day trips, beyond the typical ten essentials:
(1) snow shoes or one of those really light plastic "snowclaw" no-handle snow shovels (about 6 oz),
(2) some sort of lightweight tool to cut moderate sized tree branches
(3) a couple of yard waste bags (can split open to cover branches above the trench)
(4) some sort of reasonably long-burning candle, to add some heat to the enclosed space
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#146944 - 02/25/11 04:33 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
My favorite multitool, a Leatherman Wave, has a dandy saw which is perfect for slicing through small branches. About 4 inches long, it can easily cut anything 2 inches or so in diameter, which is about right for this use. A Wave is not what you would call lightweight, but I definitely carry one in the winter, especially if I using snowshoes or skis, and I make sure I have set it up so that I had the right tools to work on bindings, stoves, and other critical gear.

I tend not to use this saw for chores around the house where other tools are available, since I want to keep it sharp for the backwoods occasions. I suppose I can get it resharpened, but that is a bit of a hassle

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#146945 - 02/25/11 06:45 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
Paulo Offline
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Registered: 01/27/11
Posts: 158
Loc: Normally Pacific Northwest
I would use something along the lines of a folding saw. (not collapsible). That way, if you need to cut snow you're in a much better situation.
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#146946 - 02/25/11 06:58 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
Glenn Offline
member

Registered: 03/08/06
Posts: 2617
Loc: Ohio
Why not add some useful gear to your dayhiking kit: say, a lightweight (6x8) tarp (Visqueen sheets are cheaper than silnylon), a couple of garbage bags, 50' of light cord, and maybe a comforter (one of those cheap, small, light quilts - down or "down alternative" - that you can pick up in those home decor stores for about $10.) In many situations, that may eliminate the need to strip branches, dig snow pits, and otherwise get all wet and tired.

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#146947 - 02/25/11 09:09 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
phat Offline
Moderator

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 4107
Loc: Alberta, Canada
Brian, I've done this, and you really don't want branches that are that big.. a simple knife works pretty good for boughs for insulation. and just pulling them down to pull them off the tree. A nice little sharp opinel knife will serve you better, I think, than those horrid little coghlans saws. at least anywhere there are evergreens, I've never had an issue making a bough bed with just a knife..

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#146949 - 02/25/11 09:22 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: phat]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
Excellent point. I was talking about using a saw for the roofing/tarp support material. Even at that you could probably break them off. It's wonderful what you can do when motivated.

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#146950 - 02/25/11 09:24 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: phat]
phat Offline
Moderator

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 4107
Loc: Alberta, Canada

And let's say for sure, any of this is a lot better with a few garbage bags and/or a small tarp.. my silponcho is always in my daybag.
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#146955 - 02/25/11 01:07 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: phat]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Interesting approach. Catch is that the knife I carry is very light and short. In lots of normal backpacking I find that I never need a "real knife". Given that the Coughlan saw is 2.4 oz (and one review claimed 1.4 oz) for a 3.7" blade, I think I'd rather err on the side of something better for cutting wood at need --- for dayhike emergency situations only --- rather than bring a bigger knife. With the little saw blade, an emergency fire in shoulder season trips is also a more credible option.

Besides, I've already ordered it ... :-)
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http://postholer.com/brianle

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#146957 - 02/25/11 01:18 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: Glenn]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Quote:
"Why not add some useful gear to your dayhiking kit ..."


Well, the one doesn't preclude the other. Depending on conditions I'll sometimes bring my gatewood cape as rain gear and emergency shelter, and I do bring a couple of garbage bags and a candle, and of course general 10 essentials stuff, plus reasonably warm clothing to wear on breaks and at least a sitpad. Not sure that 50' of cord is required, but I do bring quite a bit.

Comforter: my 32F rated WM Summerlite weighs 20 oz; for winter day hikes I think that would be as good an option as any to carry for emergency. I think this and other options are situational, based on what I know of the trip, just balancing risks against weight.

Quote:
"In many situations, that may eliminate the need to strip branches, dig snow pits, and otherwise get all wet and tired."


Indeed, but my point here is thinking through the trade-offs ahead of time and having a credible set of kit, offset by weight and bulk to carry. A 6 oz snowclaw for when I'm not in snowshoes, and a couple oz worth of folding saw isn't much against the possibility of saving a life (possibly my own).
Again, the thing about an enclosed snow shelter is that apart from blocking wind, you can get significantly higher temperatures inside. The snow cave I slept in last weekend stayed in the 30's F, while temps got into the single digits just outside. I imagine that a good snow trench could approach that, and without me necessarily getting all that wet or tired or taking literally hours in the construction.

I'm not meaning the above as argument or dispute, just wanting to thoroughly air the ideas in case I or anyone else is misunderstanding something. I certainly agree with the idea of bringing some other things to help survive, such specifics depending on anticipated conditions.
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Brian Lewis
http://postholer.com/brianle

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#146960 - 02/25/11 01:29 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: phat]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Quote:
"Brian, I've done this, and you really don't want branches that are that big.. a simple knife works pretty good for boughs for insulation."

One other thought occurs to me here --- I'm talking about cutting branches for more than just insulation. For stretching across the top of a snow trench I'll want branches that are a good 4' long if not longer, that can hold a load of insulating snow on top of them. That's the context in which I'm thinking of cutting thicker stuff --- whether live or not-too-brittle dead branches. The latter I can perhaps snap off from the tree (won't find any "on the ground" branches under the snow of course ...), but it seems to me that I might have to cut some relatively thick stuff to get branches that are still strong enough on the far (tapering) ends to support a snow load.

Another use is along this line for building a debris hut when there isn't enough snow for a trench. Here is one site that illustrates and explains about debris huts.
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Brian Lewis
http://postholer.com/brianle

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#146987 - 02/25/11 08:15 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
TomD Offline
Moderator

Registered: 10/30/03
Posts: 4963
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
Brian, If you can find a store that sellls Japanese carpentry tools, there are several very lightweight saws that they use. I have a small folding saw that is very light and the blade is razor sharp. The blade is very thin, so you have to be careful with it, but it would cut anything you would want for a shelter.

I dug a trench shelter last winter, not because of an emergency, but because the weather was really clear and I didn't feel like putting up my tent. Didn't take long. I didn't even need a cover over it. If I had, I could have made one, I suppose.
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#146989 - 02/25/11 08:42 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: TomD]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Thanks, Tom. If you ever encounter a link to something specific, I'd be interested in a (URL) pointer to the Japanese carpentry tools. I have a set of Japanese sharpening stones that are pretty amazing, I know that folks there have hand tools down to an impressive science.

Trench shelter that you didn't need to cover: my impression here is that you dug something deep enough to be out of the wind, but not so deep that you could have covered it and sat up inside?
I expect one that's covered would take more time and effort. An alternative to a trench for just blocking wind is to build a small (or large) snow wall on the appropriate side(s) of a tarp or tent. Heck, just stomping down a firm sleeping platform on snow tends to put a person at least a little below ground (okay "snow surface") level.

It is indeed nice to just cowboy camp on cold clear nights when you're pretty sure of no precipitation!

Back on the initial point, it occurred to me later today that I've been thinking of snow caves with a solo (or at least independent) hiker bias. Traveling in a group I could see a snow cave being a viable approach if one group member becomes sick or injured --- warmer for a group of two or three to share a small snow cave than to stick each person in individual trenches, plus if one were injured, a group shelter allows one or two others in there with them to monitor and help them out. But if time or energy were low, a "trench for two", where the two essentially embrace (regardless of gender or orientation) --- this might nevertheless be a good alternative.

The tough thing about emergency shelters is that we hopefully never get "real" practice at these, just designed practice at best under generally low pressure conditions. It's easy to sit back and make guesses as to what would be best. My hope here is that by sort of "thinking out loud" and getting feedback (here) that I'll be mentally prepared to make good decisions in an actual winter day hike emergency.
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#147008 - 02/26/11 04:04 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
TomD Offline
Moderator

Registered: 10/30/03
Posts: 4963
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
Brian, the only place I ever saw those tools was at Nuuanu Hardware in Honolulu. The Japanese also make a short handled hand saw that is hard to describe-the handle is a short dowel with a two sided blade about the size of a 5-7 index card mounted to it. Sounds weird, but works really well. My folding saw is made by YKK, probably not the zipper company, but that's what the label says. The blade on mine is 10" which is a bit bigger than I remember (haven't used it in years), but they do make smaller ones. A small pruning saw would do the same job. What I like about mine is that if folds like a pocket knife, so no case to lose.

Found a fancy version of the handsaw-
http://japanwoodworker.com/product.asp?pf_id=19.605.0&s=JapanWoodworker

and a fancy version of the folding saw-
http://japanwoodworker.com/dept.asp?dept_id=13932&s=JapanWoodworker

Mine probably cost $5-10 at most, but it isn't fancy and I've owned it for years. There are a few websites selling the fancier ones. The thing about these saws is that they are incredibly sharp and are designed to cut on the draw stroke rather than the push stroke like a typical American hand saw.

Yep, you are right about the trench. It was on a slope and I just cut into the hillside to make it flat-maybe 18-24" deep or so at the most. Zero wind that night, temp probably around 20F at 8500ft. up above Palm Springs. Took the tram up. The snow was firm, but not rock solid, so it wasn't that much work. I have a Voile Mini shovel-metal blade.

Anyone getting a shovel-stay away from the plastic bladed ones-totally useless in some conditions, like snow mixed with layers of ice. Voile, BD or even this cheap one on Amazon would be better in my opinion.
http://tinyurl.com/4rnx7rc


Edited by TomD (02/26/11 04:33 AM)
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#147017 - 02/26/11 09:15 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: TomD]
skcreidc Offline
member

Registered: 08/16/10
Posts: 1590
Loc: San Diego CA
I never thought about using the Japanese carpentry saws for cutting snow and ice. I have 6 of them and they are great precision tools. If I was going to use them in the field, I would make a light wood scabbard for the one I was going to take. The blades are very flexible but prone to being bent if miss-handled. I think you could destroy it otherwise.


Edited by skcreidc (02/26/11 09:16 AM)

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#147035 - 02/26/11 12:39 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: TomD]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Quote:
"Anyone getting a shovel-stay away from the plastic bladed ones-totally useless in some conditions, like snow mixed with layers of ice."

While I completely agree on this point, I guess that in general snow shovels are another thing about which a lot of debate could be sparked. The group I've been hiking with in recent years seems to like to carry these in winter; personally, I think I would rarely see the need.

If I'm snowshoeing, then a snowshow can move a lot of snow (admittedly not ice or very hard/firm snow), if I'm not then I'll carry a 6 oz "snow claw". Unless there's some reason to believe that a shovel might actually get used. Note that if an ice axe is carried, this can break through tough stuff to augment a whimpier shovel.

For actual backpacking trips I'm disinclined to bring a shovel because I'm already carrying a shelter of some sort, so again, either snowshoes or 6 oz plastic "snow claw" to move snow at need.

My recollection is that the lightest metal tipped shovel is about a pound. I might break down and get one if I do many winter trips with this group, but it's quite a bit to carry just for a potential emergency. On day hikes I'd rather invest that pound towards a light sleeping bag.
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#147043 - 02/26/11 02:12 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
Jimshaw Offline
member

Registered: 10/22/03
Posts: 3938
Loc: Bend, Oregon
Brianle
Its all about avolanche. If you have to dig someone out you will want a tough metal blade, not a whimpy metal or plastic blade, but without avo transcievers it also doesn't matter since you won't know where to dig anyway.

If you do not camp in avolanche country a plastic shovel is just as good (almost), BUT - what actually will you do with a shovel? Dig a cathole? A shovel may be just wasted weight unless you PLAN on digging. smile Fill your pan with snow to melt? Both? sick. I always carried a plastic bladed shovel in the Sierras, then a snowclaw which is totally worthless, and now I just use a ski tip for camp chores.

It takes a lot less energy to carry and pitch a tent than to carry a shovel and dig a cave, and you will be dryer with the tent.
Jim
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These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.

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#147050 - 02/26/11 02:53 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: skcreidc]
TomD Offline
Moderator

Registered: 10/30/03
Posts: 4963
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
Originally Posted By skcreidc
I never thought about using the Japanese carpentry saws for cutting snow and ice. I have 6 of them and they are great precision tools. If I was going to use them in the field, I would make a light wood scabbard for the one I was going to take. The blades are very flexible but prone to being bent if miss-handled. I think you could destroy it otherwise.


I'm not talking about using them for snow, but for cutting branches to make a shelter. If I wanted a snow saw, I'd get the one SMC makes. My folding saw could be used to do both, but not as well as the SMC, which has really big teeth and is made of aluminum.

As far as Brian's comment about shovels, I always carry mine. I find it really useful for a lot of things, including digging out my tent platform and the area in front of my tent, getting snow for water, digging a latrine or digging out your car in the parking lot. I wouldn't want to be using a snowshoe for any of that. I bought a Snow-Claw when they first came out, but it is more useful for sitting on than anything else.

If you've seen any of the pictures I've posted of my trips to Yosemite, you will see what I have done with my shovel. Here are a couple -






Edited by TomD (02/26/11 03:02 PM)
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#147063 - 02/26/11 07:40 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: TomD]
OttoStover Offline
member

Registered: 08/30/08
Posts: 62
Loc: Norway
Looked nice and tidy the camp there TomD, goodjob
But weather one takes no showel or one showel including the debate which type is a question of the terrain and weather. In dense forest all you need is perhaps an emergency shelter ala bivybag or windbag. In treeless terrain however the need for a GOOD showel is evident. Here i Norway we just had an accident where 4 german tourists died in a storm. They would probably have survived if they had dug a snowcave. http://www.trailspace.com/forums/backcountry/topics/85123.html

The DNT (our trekking organization) has made some suggestions for winter equipment in the mountains http://www.turistforeningen.no/english/article.php?ar_id=17652&fo_id=3622 Showel is strongly advised, both on short trips hut-to-hut and even on daytrips. Weather may change before you know. cool

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#147069 - 02/26/11 11:22 PM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: BrianLe]
Glenn Offline
member

Registered: 03/08/06
Posts: 2617
Loc: Ohio
I didn't take it as argument: you added nicely to my comment - I particularly enjoyed the thought about balancing risks and kit for a given situation.

I don't have the heavy winter experience the rest of you do, so I didn't really have the thought fully developed - it just seemed that the idea of extra kit in winter wasn't getting discussed, so I just wanted to get that ball rolling.

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#147075 - 02/27/11 01:03 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: Jimshaw]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Yup, if any serious risk of avalanche then I agree with the shovel. And if anyone else on the trip has a beacon, then I'll bring my beacon (don't own any wands ...). It really depends on the trip. At least in my general area most avalanches happen in the same places every year, so --- duh! Don't go to those places if the risk is significant (which can be found out online before venturing out and pretending to dig a snow pit ...).
IMO the biggest thing to know about avalanches is how to avoid getting in them, and not so much about how to more conveniently find the bodies later. So it's about map reading, understanding snow layers, being wise enough to turn back when conditions look dicey, etc etc.

So anyway, in some contexts, a metal tipped shovel can be worth carrying. I do own one, but it's a couple of pounds, not something I'd like to carry often.

The snowclaw is far from optimal, but if I'm not wearing snowshoes I reckon it's a worthwhile trade-off to carry. A bit of a PITA to use, until you consider the alternatives in a real emergency!

In fact, using snowshoe or snowclaw I do occasionally move a bit of snow in normal snow camping, just not large volumes of the stuff.


Edited by BrianLe (02/27/11 01:04 AM)
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#147076 - 02/27/11 01:14 AM Re: Best emergency shelter in snow? [Re: TomD]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1146
Loc: Washington State, King County
Quote:
"As far as Brian's comment about shovels, I always carry mine. I find it really useful for a lot of things, including digging out my tent platform and the area in front of my tent, getting snow for water, digging a latrine or digging out your car in the parking lot. I wouldn't want to be using a snowshoe for any of that. I bought a Snow-Claw when they first came out, but it is more useful for sitting on than anything else."


Thanks, Tom --- this is just the sort of thing I was looking for in this thread. Now I'm starting to think more seriously about buying that 1 pound metal tipped shovel and perhaps taking it on a few more trips.

But I suspect I'll still err on the side of making do with snowshoe or snowclaw. I did a 3-day trip at the end of January where my snowshoe worked just dandy for the minimal stuff I needed to do for tent platform prep. I've never found it that difficult to get snow to melt, and I'd think a snowshoe or snow claw would be okay for moving snow off of a car. Digging a latrine, however --- that's situational, whether to blue-bag it or whatever, and depends on group dynamics as well. It's one thing that could help convert me to be more of a shovel-carrier, however. Have to think on that.
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12/15/17 08:05 PM
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Backcountry Discussion - Featured Topics
Greetings - and a question
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12/11/17 11:35 AM
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11/30/17 08:41 AM
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Make Your Own Gear - Featured Topics
Plant based insulation...
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11/18/17 02:58 PM
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