anti-numpty tips for the Australian backcountry

The Aussie alpine.  Who doesn’t love it?  Anyone who has spent some time touring the backcountry in Australia knows the joy of rolling across the gently undulating hills, past granite boulders and across gullies of slender snow gums.

In some ways, the Australian backcountry is a beginner’s paradise.  With moderate terrain that’s often easily accessible from popular resorts and low avalanche risk it’s pretty easy to get out for an adventure.  Which is awesome.  However it also presents us with some unique challenges.  It doesn’t take much to find yourself committed in hostile terrain.  Low altitude and a relatively warm climate mean that you will often experience snow, sleet and rain in one day and, combined with the region’s trademark big winds and whiteouts, this can make for pretty brutal conditions.

You see some pretty dodgy stuff out there.  People wearing cotton, touring without any emergency gear.  If this is you, you might need more than this blog post can offer!  This post is for people who have done the basic research on how to gear up for the backcountry and want some extra random tips they might not have heard at the outdoor store or from their scout mates.  I wish I’d known some of these things back when I started hanging out in the snow, so I hope they will be good to you.

[*Caveat: This obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide to preparing for an Australian alpine adventure.  Just saying.]

Snowfall on Tassie's temperate rainforest

Snowfall on Tassie’s temperate rainforest

1. Check your stove before you leave. Just do it.  If it’s fresh out of the box it could be faulty (I’ve had that).  If it’s old it could need maintenance (that happened too).  And if your stove is field-maintainable, take a repair kit.

Whether you’re using your stove for food and tea or for melting snow, a functioning stove is important.  If you have a propane/butane stove, prepare to keep the canister warm in a closed-cell foam case or a pot with a little warm water at the bottom (use your thermos).  Warming it up inside a down jacket can help too.  If you have a multi-fuel stove, you might want to bring a small piece of plywood to rest it on, to stop it from melting a hole that gradually consumes it.

2.  Staying warm:  always keep a spare set of dry clothes in its own waterproof bag (see below) in your pack.  These clothes stay in their dry bag until you’re in your tent and settling in for the night.  Do not be tempted to pull them out during the day!  This ruins all the fun.  I usually keep thermals, undies, gloves, beanie and warm socks in this grab bag.  (Your down or synthetic insulated jacket needs its own dry bag, that you can keep at the top for easy access during short breaks).

3.  Drinking.  Water: it’s best when it’s liquid.  If it gets really cold out there you might wake up to a solid block of ice where water used to be.  You can stop your water bottles from freezing by insulating your bottles with a cover like this one.

Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka

Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka

If you don’t want to buy one of these, you can make your own out of closed cell foam and gaffa tape.

You might also want to bring a thermos filled with hot water – it’s awesome.  Especially if the stove isn’t working.

If you have a water bladder, think about getting an insulated neoprene cover for the hose.  Water rarely freezes in the main reservoir but it will probably freeze in the tube.  You can buy a purpose-made insulator, make one yourself or try to remember to blow the water back into the main reservoir when you’re done drinking.  Just make sure you don’t forget – and don’t blow too hard or you’ll end up with a water balloon in your pack!

Snow near Junction Cabin, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

Snow near Junction Cabin, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

4.  Staying dry.  This is one of the most important things you can do in the snow.  It’s not just about comfort, but it’s critical for your safety.  It’s also a fine and wondrous art, which is why I’ve split this part into 5 sections.  There are also dot points, yay! 🙂

1.  Make sure you waterproof your pack completely.  A pack cover on the outside is not enough.  You can buy a waterproof pack liner from an outdoor store or visit a vet and ask for one of their ‘dead dog’ bags.  These are economical and work really well as pack liners.  You can also use tough bin liners.  If you use these, double up and seal them by twisting the top tightly and tucking it around itself- knots are hard to untie and will often make the bags explode.

2.  As well as lining your whole pack, it’s a good idea to keep your things in separate dry bags inside your pack – especially key gear like your sleeping bag, night clothes and down jacket.  Compartmentalising helps you find things more easily and allows you to open your pack without worrying about getting everything wet (especially if it’s raining).  No matter what measures you take, all your gear will probably get wet to some extent, whether through condensation or exposure to rain and snow.  Separate bags help you to keep the damp, wet and sopping apart.

Exped Dry Bags

Exped Dry Bags

3.  Bring a couple of spare plastic bags to stash wet gear and boots at the end of the day.  It’s good to protect your boots from spindrift and freezing, but the last thing you want is a pair of damp smelly boots inside the tent. If you put them in a plastic bag, no worries.  If you have ski boots, take the inners inside and leave the outers in the vestibule.

4.  If you have wet socks or underwear, try drying them overnight by wringing them out and stuffing them down your top or just putting them in your sleeping bag with you. You might be a little chilly initially, but if your sleeping bag and mat are insulating enough and you’ve had a good feed and drink you will warm up within an hour.  If you tend to get cold when you sleep, fill your Nalgene bottle with hot water.  Cosy 🙂

5.  Do everything you can to keep your sleeping bag dry.  It’s quite common for condensation to get your sleeping bag and mat wet in the snow and this is not good.  Down sleeping bags in particular lose their insulating capacity when they’re wet, so this is a real risk.  The best ways I know to manage this are:

  • Open the vents in your tent.  It might be a bit colder but reducing the temperature inside the tent reduces the build-up of condensation.  Make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the conditions you’re in.
  • Choose a sleeping bag with DWR treated down or a waterproof shell for alpine adventures.
  • Take an absorbent cloth or chamois to wipe the moisture off your gear in the morning.
  • If you’re doing a lot of camping in wet snow – particularly if you’re staying in snow caves – take a look at the synthetic sleeping bags on the market.  They insulate more effectively than down when they’re wet.
  • Store your sleeping bag in a waterproof compression bag inside your pack liner.
  • Always take an emergency blanket or survival bag in case your sleeping bag gets irretrievably wet.
  • Know about any huts in the area – and know how to navigate using a map and compass in whiteout conditions –  so that you can find shelter (and hopefully a fireplace stocked with wood) if things go pear shaped.

For more tips on caring for your sleeping bag, check out this post.

Thanks, this was fun.  I hope these tips help you stay dry – let me know your snow tips and adventures in the comments.

Du Cane Range, Tasmania

Du Cane Range, Tasmania

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