Snow camp

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Snow Camping using Paragliding Rescue as Roof. By Tobias in January 2019

Our group camp. After five days, lines were not as taut anymore.
Happy Faces in the Snow Camp
Panorama of our snow camp.
Camp after we took off the parachute. It provided enough clearance for people to stand on the bench without touching the roof, and was outfitted with a kitchen table, a fair-weather outside kitchen, benches and lots of storage compartments.
The packed rescue. Volume can be much lower if you pack it nicely.
Tigging the plastic plant pot saucer contraption that closes the central ventilation hole
If part of your group is looking to find the camp (as was the case with us), having a colorful camp can be helpful.

A few years ago, fellow VOCer Flo and I, Tobias, moved away from Canada to live in Switzerland. This raised a lot of issues, for instance: how do you celebrate New Year's? There are tons of mountain huts with great backcountry skiing, but they are fully staffed, and have luxuries like cooked meals, heated dining halls and sometimes even warm showers. Even without considering the price tag of $100 per night, it was clear to us that we would not go for this option. After unsuccessfully trying to find an unserviced hut with nice ski touring options, we decided to snow camp instead. This article presents the type of camp we built for ~14 people. You can find the trip report at ubc-voc.com/tag/europe.

The centerpiece of the snow camp is the kitchen and living room area. Being 5m in diameter, and roughly 2m deep, it provides ample space for at least 15 people. A retired rescue parachute that paragliding pilots carry is used as a roof. Pitch this round parachute up using an extendable sun shade pole (2-2.5m in size) in the center. In order to have a comfortable camp, build benches around a circular table in the center. Sleeping pads to sit and lean on turn the bench into a cozy couch. Backpack-sized holes in the wall provide convenient storage space and help to keep the living room tidy and homey. And finally, candles placed everywhere inside the camp are an enchanting way of making the atmosphere romantic.

Using this type of parachute roof has several advantages:

  • Wind proof shelter. We experienced 50-60km/h wind gusts, and while the roof was flapping loudly, it was practically windless inside.
  • Rescue parachutes are not meant for regular use and are made out of lightweight fabric. A normal rescue parachute weighs around 1.5-3kg, some ultralight ones even below that. An extendable pole is also not too heavy.
  • With stoves running inside, and a few people, it feels considerably warmer inside than outside, especially if you add a tarp door blocking the entrance.
  • Rescue parachutes usually have flamboyant colors, so it's easier to find your camp in a whiteout.
  • On our five day trip, the snow camp was my highlight -- it is super fun to build, and it feels great to have a home as cozy as this.

When you obtain a parachute, there are a few things to consider:

  • A typical round rescue has a flat area of 30-40 sqm, which translates to about 20 sqm of usable living space. For 15 people, that's spacious. (For even bigger groups note that a tandem parachute has upwards of 60 sqm of fabric)
  • For circular camps make sure that it's a round parachute. The ones used by paragliders work best.
  • Round rescues of annular style have an opening in the middle. This is good for ventilation when cooking inside, but if warmth or protection from precipitation is the priority you can close the opening. We constructed a lid using a plastic plant pot saucer and attached it to a string so that we could vent whenever we wanted to. Your parachute may have other opening flaps, which you can sew up.
  • Parachutes make for great and cheap shelters. Rescue parachutes need to be retired after 10-12 years, even when they have never been used. Ask a local paragliding shop. We got a model from 1992 with awesome colors for free.

While parachutes make for wonderful camps, there are a few things to be aware of:

  • We didn't test how well the parachute performs when loaded with snow. If it is dumping, you will need to remove snow from the parachute on a regular basis, similar to when you are camping with a tent. Since its area is larger than a tent, this might be rather tedious.
  • If you expect very strong winds, build a small wall with snow blocks around the parachute. The parachute will be less exposed to the wind and parts of the snow drift will go around the parachute rather than on it.
  • It's questionable how water proof the fabric is. I would suggest to avoid rain.
  • You need to pick a spot with lots of snow in order to dig the pit. A snowdrift is a good location. However, wind might continue to deposit snow after you have built your camp.
  • Digging a 2m deep pit took four people around five hours. After you pitch up the parachute, it becomes much harder to expand the camp.
  • At night, temperatures inside will be almost the same as outside. Most people in our group decided to sleep in separate snow caves, which are warmer and have more predictable temperatures.
  • You don't get to have a nice view while you're sitting in the shelter. Don't forget to go outside occasionally to enjoy the view.

I hope to see more VOCers embracing this wonderful way of camping outdoors and look forward to their trip reports.