Winter Mountaineering Gear: Snow Cave or Tent?

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


I am wondering about snow caves verses a good four-season tent; is one a better shelter than the other? Also, I'm looking for three additional recommendations from you. If you took me into a gear store and I needed the following three items to survive and enjoy a high mountain climbing excursion, what would I come out with? 1) the best winter mountaineering boots; 2) the best 4-season tent; 3) the best below zero sleeping bag.

- Thomas Bourgeois (Trego, MT)


Dear Thomas,

First of all, a tent is more versatile than a snow cave since you need sufficient snow pack (depth of snow and the right consistency) to build a snow cave. In contrast, a tent can be pitched most anywhere. The biggest disadvantage is the weight of the tent since a snow cave is built "on location" and isn't carried. A snow cave can be warm and quite comfortable but it does require a few hours of work, and the builder gets wet during the construction.

As for your questions on cold weather gear, I will start by saying that the quickest way to find our recommendations on specific pieces of gear is to check the Guides Choice test results. This link lets you know what gear AAI guides have found to be the best in each category after undergoing extensive testing.

That being said, the best winter mountaineering boots are whatever fits you the best. Some of the top brands and models are the Koflach Artis Expe, the Scarpa Vega, and the Lowa Civetta. They all are plastic boots with inner linings. Size them to fit with your preferred sock combination, and remember that all of the liners will pack out and become slightly bigger with use. So when you purchase them, they should be adequately roomy and comfortable but not so roomy that they allow your foot to slide around.

The best choice of a 4-season tent is dependant on a number of factors. Mountain Hardware tents are well made (specifically, the Trango 2, 3, and 4), though are slightly heavier than other brands. Black Diamond makes some great single wall tents that are very light, but they aren't as durable over the long term. I like the Hilleberg tents, although they aren't freestanding (hence they are harder to set up and to move around once pitched), but they are light in weight and waterproof. Sierra Designs also makes some good, light 4-season tents.

I like the Feathered Friends, Western Mountaineering, and Marmot sleeping bags. Choose a rating that seems appropriate for the expected low temperatures. I prefer down bags over synthetic because of their comfort range, compressibility, and durability.

- Mike Powers

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