Build a Snow Kitchen – AMC Outdoors

March 31, 2009

If your image of a backcountry camping kitchen in winter is a stove leaning precariously on a snowbank, think again. Outdoor overnighters have the luxury of using snow to build cubbies, counters, and other structures that can offset the rigors of cold weather. Some hikers, like Lucas St. Clair and Yemaya Maurer, the husband-and-wife team that authored the new AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping, even find winter camping to be an indulgence. If you have 4 feet or more of snow on the ground, you too can build a kitchen in about an hour.
                       
 

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PREP TIME  St. Clair maintains that a snow kitchen ultimately saves time and energy. “Even if it’s snowing,” he explains, “I would much prefer to cook outside of the tent. If you’re cooking in a vestibule, steam can rise and form ice on the inside of the tent.” From the moment you arrive at a campsite, survey spots to set up shop. Avoid environmentally sensitive areas, precarious “widow-maker” branches that might fall from above, and frigid summits and valleys. To maximize warmth, find areas that are sheltered from the wind and are on the sunny, southern side of a hill. Also, in order to soak up the morning sun, orient your kitchen to the east.

A PINCH OF INGENUITY  “Before digging in, take a moment to think about where your bench should be, where to place the counter, and where you plan to cook,” the authors say in their book. Start by pacing a square in the snow that is 8 feet long and wide. St. Clair stresses the importance of stomping, or “work hardening,” the snow with snowshoes or skis and then letting it set for 15 minutes. After it has congealed, the plastic-like snow should be easy to manipulate.

Using a backcountry shovel, begin digging from the center of the square and create another square that is 6 feet long and wide, and 3 feet deep. On one side, sculpt a counter from the piled snow. On the opposite side from the counter, make an “L”-shaped wall that will become your bench (see diagram). St. Clair recommends making the seat high enough so that your feet dangle above the snow floor. He also suggests making the counter at waist height and chipping out a toe space beneath it so you don’t have to stand duck-footed while cooking. While it will be easy to shape, the hardened snow may be hard to dig into. Try to remove it in foot-long cubes by making incisions with your shovel blade around the area you hope to extract. Place the blocks behind your bench if you need to add height to your backrest. You can also fashion rectangular cubbyholes beneath your counter for storage or make stairs descending into your kitchen.

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS  Once you’ve built your kitchen, use a metal stove plate to prevent your stove from melting through your frozen counter. And remember to keep the cold away from your body with at least one 3/4-length closed-cell foam pad. Used at night to supplement full-length pads, these shorter sleeping pads should be put on your kitchen floor and benches to prevent conductive heat loss while you are sitting or standing. (If you’ve forgotten your mat, substitute an empty backpack.) “It may sound over-the-top,” writes St. Clair and Maurer, “but approaching camp setup as though we were creating the home of our dreams helps us stay organized.”

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