Australian Alps snow hacks

On a ski-touring trip in the Australian Alps: the Wilderness Equipment tarp in action between two tents. Note that a hole has been dug in the gap between the tents so you can sit easily. Photo by Bogong Equipment owner Neil Blundy, who has personally used Mike's makeshift bench seat (read below) for many years.

When you're ski mountaineering and alpine touring in Australia, having some simple, easy-fix tricks up your sleeve is handy.

Here are a few things I've learned over the years:

How to Un-thaw Your Ski Boots

Going to sleep after a day of ski touring in the sun is bound to signal an overnight freeze. This can mean that when you emerge from your tent in the morning, your ski boots can be frozen solid and impossible to get your feet into (especially if you left them away from you and your sleeping bag)!

Using warm water, fill a small, flexible drinking bladder such as the 500ml Salomon Soft Flask (a non-flexible 500ml Nalgene wide mouth bottle can work too). Insert it into your frozen boot. This will speed up the defrosting process and make that first morning ritual far less painful.

Makeshift Bench Seat

It's lunchtime, you have been ski touring and there's nowhere to sit. Stomp a little foot trench. Flip off your skis and your partner's and lay them side by side, upside down. Now you have a relatively warm seat bench. Bonus: An upturned snow shovel head works as a flat surface for a stove.

The Snow is Your Fridge

On alpine trips, food stays fresher for longer. To prolong freshness, you could even bury it in snow (in sealed containers, and only if there are no sign of local beasties visiting your camp when you aren’t around). Eat food that is more suspectible to 'frost damage' (i.e. food you wouldn’t put in the freezer, such as mushrooms or lettuce) early on the trip.

Protect Your Lips and Nose with This Mix

Temperature extremes are absolutely brutal on your lips. Constant skin care of lips and nostrils with a lip balm will pay off. Try a type with a UV guard, and cold sore preventative mixed into it.

Moisture Management in the Snow

It seems overly simple, but a small chamois or travel towel can make a lot of difference to your comfort. In the snow, things get wet. Whether its from body sweat, or a sudden change of precipitation from snow to rain, or simply condensation, be prepared for the constant battle to stay dry. Use your chamois or microfibre towel to wipe out the inside of your tent, wring out soggy socks or gloves, or even your boot and pack lining.

Manage Your Gloves (And Bring Two Pairs)

Gloves get wet. If your first pair gets damp, whip out the dry ones and stow the damp ones close to your armpits (e.g. in 'Napolean' chest pockets, such as on the Mont Supersonic Jacket). Excess body heat will help your gloves lose moisture. FYI, using this technique, I've found that gloves with leather outers dry faster.

If You Don't have any Swix F4 Left

Snow balling up on the base of your skis? Have no Swix F4 left in the tube you brought along? Get out that really runny sunscreen you packed – it will suffice.

Tips for Staying Warm in the Snow

Cold toes?

The best way to 'capture' your body heat just before heading to bed is to be active and moving a lot. Sleeping bags don't generate heat for you; they just insulate really well the heat you already have. If your toes tend to get cold during the night, take a hot thermos and an empty Nalgene bottle. If you wake up with cold toes, fill the Nalgene bottle with hot water from your thermos, and put it inside your sleeping bag. Another trick is to zip up your down jacket and slip it over the toe end of your sleeping bag. If you can't be bothered with any of this, hand warmers work too.

Cold hands?

The 'Dutch Hug' is the act of whacking your arms around your body, hitting your back in the process. The theory is, this gets warmer blood from your core out to your fingers. Similarly, the 'One-armed Wind Mill' where you swing your arms around vertically in fast circles, squeezing and unsqueezing your hands as you go, should force blood (and warmth) out to your fingers. Be sure to wear gloves.

Cold feet?

Try the skiers dance. What's the skiers dance ? Face a partner and work out a dance sequence of tapping the inside and outside of your boots together, jumping from foot to foot for balance. (It also bangs off ice, snow and mud while you're at it.)

Other things to consider when standing still on ice and snow for prolonged periods in sub zero conditions is to consider using a vapour barrier to stop your socks and boots from getting too moist (and, therefore, cold). Vapour barriers are worn over your socks (and under your boots). They can be as simple as a couple of bread bags.

Snow 'Toilet' Hacks

Bring a 'pee bottle'.

Weather turned bad? Don’t want to get out unless absolutely necessary? A one-litre, wide-mouth Nalgene bottle may just be your saviour. If it doesn't gross you out, a filled bottle also works for warming your toes up. (Just make sure it's clearly labelled so you don't confuse it for your yellow energy drink...)

Bring a poo tube or dedicated sealable bag.

To reduce the smell, take some powdered bleach in a sealable Nalgene container. The big advantage of 'doing it' onto newspaper, then folding it up and packing it away into a biodegradeable plastic bag, and then another sealable bag (and then another), is that you can go to the same designated location at camp without creating a latrine. (You can go one further and create a shelter/igloo at this spot, ready for all weather conditions.

Snow Shelter Tips and Hacks

Consider a tarp.

If you are heading out with a group of three or more to set up a base camp in the snow, a large lightweight tarp, such as the Wilderness Equipment Overhang Tarp (3 x 4.5 metres) is a good idea. A camp kitchen, with walls made up of snow blocks, is quicker and easier to put together than an igloo, and provides much better lighting than a snow cave. A tarp also gives you many more options for location if the snow depth is shallow. And, it comes in handy as a makeshift 'Bothy'-style shelter for lunches and emergencies.

Sticks can work as guy line pegs.

Ski poles are great as guy line pegs if you're camping for one night, but if you're base camping, you're going to need those ski poles during the day! To use a stick, chose a solid one (make sure it's dead wood – not cut green off a tree, please). Bury the stick 'dead man' style, parallel to your tent's perimeter, in a trench about 30cm deep. It will probably hold if the snow is firm and you stomp it into place. Make sure you have a snow shovel or ice axe to dig it out on your day of departure.

Build a wind wall.

If you are base camping, making two walls with a 90-degree corner pointing at the prevailing wind direction makes an excellent wind break, which will help stop snow from piling up around your tent. Before you head out, it is really smart to look at the Bureau of Meteorology's forecast for wind speed and direction for the next 5 days. If you want to cut nice even blocks, consider using the Black Diamond Snow Saw Pro (which attaches to the end of a Black Diamond ski pole) or the MSR Basecamp Snow Saw.

Melting Snow for Water

The idea of melting snow for water is fun. In reality, it takes up a lot of time, fuel and bother – it's much easier to camp somewhere with access to a river or clean, flowing water.

If you have to melt snow, put a dribble of whatever water you have left in the bottom of your billy and then squeeze snow into tight balls before you throw them into the billy as well. Use a pot or billy with a firm, air-tight lid. The pressure will speed up the melting and retain heat better.

If you are running low on fuel and water, but still have enough high energy food, Another trick is to fill a water bladder with a large mouth with snow and a bit of the remaining water you have. Put the bladder inside your jacket, close to your body and go for a ski. Body heat will melt the snow into water. Plus, the bladder will provide a refreshing coolant when you would normally start to sweat.

Don't Overlook the Simple Thermos

Over the years, I have found a small thermos for personal use, or a larger thermos if I'm travelling with a bigger group, worth its weight in gold while out ski touring. Sometimes you can't hang around to wait for water to boil, or even find water. Sometimes you may need to stop someone (yourself included) from slipping into hypothermia. A well made thermos – stainless steel, with a copper shim within the vacuum chamber – will hold onto heat for a very long time. Sometimes you have to add snow just to get the liquid inside a thermos cool enough to drink. This is great for energy conservation, since you haven’t needed to carry that water with you. Lifeventure Vacuum Flasks – which come in lots of sizes – are great.

Think Creatively

The ski strap on a Black Diamond ski pole is a versatile bit of gear. Consider using it with a splint for fractures on arms, wrists and ankles, if someone has a nasty stack.

Make a DIY Ski Pulk

If skiing for days with a big 80-litre pack doesn't appeal to you, consider hauling your load on the flats. You can get a cheap, plastic toboggan and modify it, using a retired climbing rope (around 10mm in diameter). Allow for enough rope to have two leash lines, with figure-8 knots and carabiners to clip into a climbing harness, PLUS for an excess loose loop located around the front of the toboggan with a large knot. This knot will flop out when you're descending mild gradients and act as a brake for the toboggan, stopping it from crashing into the back of your legs and skis. Wear a daypack for skiing for easy access to day gear and snacks. A daypack will also be handy for small forays around the nearby peaks and slopes on a multiday or base camp trip.

This is just a sample of the many tricks I have discovered over years ski touring in Australia and around the world. I am always happy have a chat to find the appropriate gear or solution to any little ski touring issue you may have.

Mike Wasley,
Bogong Equipment.

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