Winter Retreat 

Cold-weather camping for solitude seekers

Silence, pure and absolute—where the crunch of each ice crystal seems to echo across the landscape, and the air is so brilliant that objects seem to take on a stunning clarity in the stillness of the weak winter daylight.

Such is the reward for those willing to leave the comfortable confines of their homes in the dead of winter and venture off the beaten path.

Whether tucked into a snow cave dug in the side of a hill, hunkering down in a tent or kicking back around a wood-burning stove in a yurt, increasing numbers of people are making camping a year-round activity.

"If you haven't wrapped your hands around a mug of warm Jell-O, you haven't lived," said Emil Hutton, owner of Benchmark Adventures in Boise, referring to his favorite winter drink.

Hutton has been an avid winter camper since 1970 after he realized the sense of fulfillment that came with surviving comfortably in the snowbound mountains.

"It's an accomplishment to stay warm and dry," he said.

Hutton prefers tent camping to building a snow cave, an option that has its disadvantages but still allows him to be light enough to travel, while having the ease of setting up a relatively roomy tent.

The key, Hutton said, is to have the right basic equipment, starting with a quality sleeping bag, one with a temperature rating that exceeds your needs.

"No one is ever going to say it was too warm," he said.

When it comes to a tent, Hutton said a four-season tent isn't necessary. A three-season model will work as long as you pay attention to where you are setting up camp—preferably out of the wind and in an area where your tent won't be inundated with snow.

Use skis or snowshoes to stamp down a platform roughly two- to three-times larger than the footprint of the tent, letting it set for roughly 20 minutes before putting up the tent. If you can walk on the area without snowshoes, it's ready.

While it's tempting to put a heater inside of the tent, anything that burns fuel to produce heat will also eat up oxygen and produce gasses, which leads to the threat of suffocation. Instead, stick to a good sleeping bag.

This winter has produced ideal snowshoeing conditions, Hutton said. He recommends adventures near Idaho City or Garden Valley, where there is also another of his favorite parts of winter camping. "If there's a hot springs involved, [it's] always a plus," he said.

For some campers, a tent is a little too posh. Instead, they favor finding a pretty spot and digging out a snow cave to crawl into for the night.

It's a survival technique practiced by the members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit, and some do it for fun.

"It's surprising how many people do it," said Rick Thompson, public relations director for IMSRU. "If you go out prepared, it's not all that uncomfortable."

IMSRU member Bob Meredith has been snow camping for nearly 60 years and said snow caves can actually be quite elaborate, adding he once built one large enough for 20 people. "We sat around and played the guitars and drank Baileys and hot chocolate," he said.

A snow cave can keep the interior temperature at or near freezing, regardless of the temperature outside; it just takes a little know-how to make one that won't collapse.

"If you do it right, it's perfectly safe," Meredith said.

Thompson said location is key. Look for a leeward slope, where the wind won't blow snow in. Options for locations include treewells, where protective branches have created natural hollows, or hillsides.

Make sure the snow is solidly packed and dig in, literally. Once you've created a cave large enough, use a candle or small heat source to form a thin layer of ice on the interior, punch out a vent if you plan to use a stove, and you're home.

Thompson recommends digging a small trench somewhere in the cave, where cold air will settle and allow occupants to stay warmer. It may seem obvious, but limit the use of stoves and don't build fires in a snow cave: The results are wet.

As with any outdoor winter adventure, Thompson said it's essential to have the basics: a change of dry clothes (nothing cotton), food, water and some sort of fire starter. Also, have a compass and map or a GPS, and know how to use it before heading out. Most importantly, tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.

Thompson also recommends taking an avalanche course for anyone who plans to spend time in the backcountry.

For most of us though, spending a night in a snow cave is a last resort. For those who enjoy warmth but still want to get out this winter, yurts—large round, soft-sided tents with solid floors—are the perfect choice. Ranging from 12 to 20 feet in diameter, and sleeping up to 12 people, yurts are a preferred getaway for groups.

The popularity of backcountry yurts has grown in the last few years, as witnessed by the number of resorts and private guides opening them across the state. Of course, that popularity means most winter weekends are booked as soon as reservations open. But even now, there is some availability at nearby yurts if you're willing to go midweek.

"We call it camping, but really, it's pretty luxurious camping," said Marty Rood, owner of Payette Powder Guides, in its third season of renting yurts and guiding backcountry skiers.

Their largest yurt features a kitchen and is near a sauna, the perfect combination after a long day of hunting for fresh tracks.

The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation rents numerous yurts, some in state parks and others in the backcountry, but all are within a few miles of a parking lot. The yurts come with the basics, including bunk beds, tables, chairs, utensils and firewood, but visitors bring their own bedding, food, water and propane for lanterns.

Used as a home base, yurters can use Nordic skis or snowshoes to explore the area, returning to a warm room and hot meal at the end of the day.

The yurt program has been running for more than a decade, and Parks and Rec has added cabins in several state parks in recent years as well.

Locations, rental prices and availability of state yurts and cabins can be found on the department's Web site by clicking on the lodgings link at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov.

For something closer to home, check out the new yurt at Bogus Basin Mountain Resort. Installed over the summer near the Nordic Center, the yurt rents for $100 per night and sleeps up to 12 people. There's firewood, a portable toilet, furnishings, a stove and utensils, but there's little availability. Winter weekends were booked within 48 hours of reservations opening according to Gretchen Anderson, spokesperson for the resort.

"We were not expecting this response," Anderson said. "We opened reservations and all of a sudden, 'boom.'"

Information and reservations are available online at bogusbasin.org.

Whether it's in a tent, a cave or the comfort of a warm yurt, the benefits of winter camping are worth the extra work for those who crave an escape.

"It's very, very peaceful," Thompson said, a wistful sound in his voice.

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