Thursday 16 August 2018

Snow Camping with a Baby

Our recent facebook post (see below) about Emil's first overnight snow hike got a bit more attention than the usual blurbs. Now while it all looked fun and games, taking a baby into a sub-zero environment needs a bit of preparation and you have to meet a couple of prerequisites because enthusiasm and interest are no substitute for knowledge and experience.
  • You need to be well experienced with snow camping and by that I mean not just having car camped in the snow some years ago. A mountaineering background would be preferable. Learning the basics of anything while someone else's life depends on you is never a good idea.
  • Your baby needs to be 100% healthy. That means not even a cold or other "little things".
  • You comfortably co-sleep with your baby (We'll get to that later again).
As much as these little munchkins are entertaining, they are also lacking two fundamental abilities: The capability to properly regulate their body temperature and the ability to articulate what's wrong. An ill prepared summer camping trip might result in a cold wet night while the same thing for a winter trip brings you closer to death or beyond faster than you want - with or without a baby on board. Keep in mind kids are funny little creatures and in the end what worked for us, might not work for you.

Check the Forecast

Example of suitable forecasts
While snow camping and winter adventures can be fun in substandard weather, it's terrible with a baby. Precipitation of any kind is not good so you want perfect conditions. Be especially careful of temperatures slightly above zero degrees. Cold and wet conditions are already extremely challenging for adults and can become fatal for infants very fast. Add a little bit of wind and you'll face a disaster. Most hypothermia deaths happen above and not below zero degrees. 
Crispy and consistent minus degrees mean the air is dry which is easier to handle. Obviously this is a bit hard to find in Australia so avoid getting wet by having no rain at all. And don't run into the trap of just looking at the forecast for the summit. Snow on the mountain is cold rain in the valley.

Find a Suitable Location

Federation Hut
There are plenty of spaces in Australia - or wherever else - to have a snow adventure but if it's your first one with your little star, you need to pick a location where you can get out in case you need to. For example Cleve Cole Hut up on Mt Bogong or McAllister Springs are not a great idea unless you're aiming for a Darwin Award. On the other hand J.B. Plains, Federation Hut or Mt Stirling are all good ideas.
Having a sheltered and not exposed camp-site makes obviously sense as well. A hut with a stove as a backup doesn't hurt either.

Plan Your Hike & Cater for Breaks

You know that everything you do with a child takes longer and hiking is no exception. Plan your trip accordingly including breaks for bubby. In order to get him out of the elements we use a simple bothy-bag which is deployed in seconds. This works for feeds and nappy changes as well. By the way: Keep the wet-wipes warm in your inner pocket. It's good for your ears.
We prefer to carry the little on the front since he's far easier to monitor. Every year you can read horror stories of frost-bitten or dead babies in backpack child carriers so this isn't an option for us. Front-carrying also allows us more payload: Compared to a child carrier on the back, we safe 2-3 kg plus there's more room for bulky loads. Obviously whoever carries the child get's the light-weight gear like the sleeping bags and down-jackets.

Get Appropriate Clothing

This is pretty much key to the happiness of your offspring. Dressing a baby for the snow is not much different to your own wardrobe: Layer up and adjust to the conditions. The saying "cotton kills" is still valid so don't do that and make sure the head is covered since it can make up to 20% of a baby's body surface.
Hiking with an umbrella
 Admittedly it's a bit difficult to source non-cotton clothing (which has normally a red "flammable" tag in it) for little ones in Australia but it's not impossible. When you can get your hands on this stuff buy two or better three of everything since you need spare outfits in case the little one gets wet or you're facing a poonami. 
On a side note don't use chemical or other heat-packs because you're risking severe burns. Even in emergency situations paramedics won't use them on little children let alone babies.
Checking if Specki is still alert, happy and warm enough or too warm is a bit of a challenge and you absolutely need to do this regularly! We use a Garmin Tempe sensor in his sock which displays his peripheral temperature on the GPS watch and avoids unwrapping him. If that's fine, the core temperature is good as well. There are other devices available e.g. the nurofen FeverSmart but think about putting it on the extremities. The human body can sustain frostbite without being hypothermic.  
As with adults the top-layer needs to be water and wind-proof which again is challenging to source. We used a stuff-bag as a vapour barrier for the lower part of the body which worked very well. Of course the old trick of wearing a hard-shell jacket which is two sizes too big above everything, does it as well - just don't forget the feet. If you can't avoid the little drizzle, an umbrella is a great option to keep your precious dry ... as long as it's not windy and there aren't wet plants across the track.

Fine Tune Your Sleep System

Emil likes his sleeping bag
If you don't co-sleep with your baby, bin the whole idea of snow-camping. The baby-mouse needs your body heat overnight to keep toasty. There's also no point in going cheap because this is your fall-back position. If anything goes wrong, you'll pitch the tent and keep the little one warm inside your sleeping system. For one small-sized parent one roomy sleeping bag will do the trick. Our system consists of these components:
  • Base Layer - foam mats (Z-lite)
  • Mats -  two inflatable down mats (Exped WinterLite) connected with some straps
  • Sleeping bag - 0°C comfort rated bag at the bottom connected to a -25°C bag on top (Mont Expedition 8000 Std)
  • Tent - proper 4-season tent (Mont Epoch)
I know this isn't exactly cheap gear but it kept the three of us toasty warm at -8°C. You really need to get this right since you can't check on bubby all night. Again the little one still needs to be rugged up and wear a hat, hoodie or both. 
Please be aware that co-sleeping, the use of soft bedding (down sleeping bag) as well as wearing hats in bed are not recommended by various health professionals since they are connected to an increased rate of sleep accidents of babies. There is a lot of information available around SUDI which you should know anyway. We deliberately waited with our adventure until he was eight months because age is a factor as well. 

Have a Backup Plan

Having a break
There are so many things which can go wrong with a child which means you need to have a backup plan already in place before you might need it. This is why we chose a location where we could have walked out in any weather. In the car was a spare set of cloths and a sleeping bag. In general going with a group of experienced and trained people is safer than doing it on your own. In our group we had four Alpine SAR members, two medical practitioners as well as other people with substantial mountaineering experience. Emergency communication included mobile phones, satcom, PLBs and radios. You might think that's a bit overkill and we could have trimmed it down a bit but then again why not if we have access to these resources?

Never hesitate to cancel the whole thing and go or stay home. If things don't go to plan, it's safer to call it a day and try another time. 

The margin which allows errors to be corrected without consequences gets pretty slim once you're out with Wursti.

It's Worth It!

I know that "I'm painting the devil onto the wall" and it's not that bad. You might wonder why bother going through all this effort and that's a fair question. For us it already created great memories and hopefully in future one very resilient child which appreciates the great outdoors. That's worth every minute of preparation in our books 😁

Cheers and see you in the mountains!
Emil, Anna & Philipp 

P.S.: In Germany there's a saying that if the first winter after your birth is a strong one, you'll be a winter-child. It looks damn good for Emil 

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