Driver’s Shred: How To Turn Your Car, Truck, Or Van Into a Backcountry Basecamp

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Welcome to our new series, Driver’s Shred, where we help Luno community members turn everyday cars, vans, and trucks into bad-ass adventure mobiles. Each Driver’s Shred article will focus on tips, tricks, and gear recommendations that enable you to camp comfortably while enjoying a specific sport or activity. Simply put, our mission is to help you camp, shred, and repeat. So grab your pens and pencils, because class is in session.

To kick things off, we’re going to focus on backcountry skiing and splitboarding. Why? Well, there’s nothing better than parking at a trailhead, snoozing as snow blankets your vehicle in white, only to wake up and crush some powder turns. Plus, it’s been absolutely dumping snow across the country, and a healthy snowpack now means that spring shredding will be all-time this year. But before you grab your Luno Car Air Mattress and jet to the nearest backcountry trailhead, there are a few tricks of the trade you should keep in mind.

Not a backcountry skier or rider? Check out our recent guide to camping at ski resorts, which includes a few of our favorite resorts that allow car camping in designated lots.

Gear, Tips, and Tricks for Camping In Your Vehicle on a Backcountry Shred Trip

1. Avalanche Safety First

First things first–let’s talk safety. If you’re an experienced backcountry skier, feel free to skip this basic overview. However, if you’re relatively new to skiing outside of the resort, this is the most important point we’ll make in this guide. That said, before you enter the backcountry, it’s critical that you:

  • Make sure you and your partner(s) take an Avalanche Level 1 course from a certified instructor.
  • Speaking of education, it’s a smart idea to take a Wilderness First Responder course, or a Wilderness First Aid course at a minimum, and pack a backcountry-specific first aid kit. We recommend the Berrk Survival Kit. It’s small enough to pack every time you tour and includes survival gear like an emergency tarp and wire saw in addition to first aid essentials.
  • Buy avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe), learn how to use it, and practice rescues until they become second nature.
  • Read your local avalanche center forecast.

As your trip gets closer, make a plan using your skills, the forecast, and maps (more on maps below). And once you’re in the field, look for red flags (reasons to back off avalanche-prone objectives). Remember, it’s always better to back off of an objective and live to ski another day than to force the issue.

Also, if you’re uncomfortable planning your own tour, it’s always a smart idea to hire local guides–not only are they intimate with the local avalanche problems, but they also know where to sniff out the best snow.

2. Do Your Research Before Parking Overnight At Backcountry Trailheads

Almost worse than a knock from the cops is a knock from a tired plow driver. Before you set up camp for the night–or better yet, before you embark on your road trip–do your research. Can you park overnight at your target destination? Is there a plow schedule posted? A “no overnight parking” sign? In some regards, camping at a backcountry trailhead is a bit like backcountry skiing in general: it pays to do your research and always have a Plan B.

Want to learn more about how to find a free (and legal) place to park overnight? Check out our comprehensive guide to free car camping, where we discuss everything from BLM land to Walmart parking lots. We also share five of the tools we use on the road to find free overnight parking.

3. Racks & Roof Boxes

Unless you love your skis or splitboard so much that you want to spoon them tenderly on your Luno Air Mattress, we highly recommend storing them outside of your car at all times. Why? Because wet skis and snowboards are a recipe for condensation, which is every winter camper’s nemesis. As such, we suggest using a lockable roof box or rack. A couple of suggestions on that front:

  • Yakima Skybox 12 Carbonite: We like this roof box from Yakima–it’s simple, slim, affordable, and gets the job done. Go with a wider option if you want to bring a quiver.
  • Küat Grip: We dig this innovative rack from Küat because of the sliding trays, which pop out and make loading and unloading skis and boards a pain-free affair.
  • Owl Ski Locker: If you’re a vanlifer, check out this rad, rear-mounted ski locker from Owl Vans.

By the way, if you do decide to spoon your beloved skis or boards, that’s totally cool. We’re not here to judge. Regardless, you’ll be pleased to note our mattresses are built from an ultra-tough 300-denier Oxford Nylon that can stand up to freshly tuned shred sticks.

4. Bags and Boxes–and a Box That’s Built Like A Bag

When it’s 5:30 am, -2 degrees, and you’re waking up for a dawn patrol, the last thing you want to do is look for misplaced gear. Staying organized on the road is essential, and it requires two things: organization strategies and organizing tools.

Organization Strategies vary from camper to camper. When we’re backcountry skiing, we like to keep wet boots on the floor of driver’s and passenger’s seats, then use the seats themselves for personal gear (helmets, backcountry packs, clothes, so on and so forth). Chapstick and sunscreen stay in the console, maps on the front dash, etcetera etcetera. Everything has a place, and returns to its place after use–otherwise, chaos ensues. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.

Organizing Tools, of course, are the physical objects you use to implement those strategies. Here are a few of our favorites:

    • Luno Seatback Organizers: We’re a little biased, but we love our Seatback Organizers. With a plethora of pockets, they’re infinitely useful–not just on backcountry ski trips–and we leave ‘em in our vehicles year-round. Snag two and turn your seatbacks into mini organization stations.
    • Yeti Camino Carryall: This bombproof tote bag is extraordinarily versatile on backcountry ski trips. They come in several sizes, and we use them for everything from compartmentalizing wet gear to food storage.
    • Front Runner Wolf Pack Plastic Ammo Box: Stackable, simple, and built to last, Front Runner’s Wolf Pack boxes are off-road-ready.
    • Clear Plastic Bins: You can also use cheaper, clear, plastic bins from Target, The Container Store, or wherever–transparent boxes are great for smaller and miscellaneous gear so you can see what’s what.
    • Luno Gear and Shoe Storage Bag: We originally designed this magnetic, mesh-bottomed bag to store shoes as they drip dry, but it’s extremely handy for miscellaneous gear storage, too. On winter expeditions, we like to use it to store smaller, easy-to-lose essentials like phone, headlamp, fire-starters, etc.
  • Clothes Hangers: Bring a few–they’re useful for drying and storing wet outerwear and base layers, plus you can use them for drying skins, too.
  • Rux 70: The Rux is pricey, but it’s worth it if you’re looking for a gear hauler that opens like a box, carries like a bag, and collapses inconspicuously.

5. Our Go-To Instant Coffee Kit

Early mornings are an occupational hazard for backcountry skiers and splitboarders. Here’s an extremely simple way we like to start each dawn patrol:

  • A Jetboil Flash to quickly boil water.
  • Instant coffee–the Starbucks Via packets aren’t bad if you’re hitting a grocery store on the way to the trailhead. Otherwise, check out Wildland Coffee–they package high-quality coffee in tea bags that tastes surprisingly similar to a pour-over from your favorite coffee shop.
  • Toss a golf-ball-sized glob of peanut butter into two packets of instant oatmeal, add water, scarf it down, then hit the skintrack.

6. Dry Is Life

Backcountry skiing and splitboarding are much less fun when all of your gear is soaking wet. Keeping backcountry ski gear dry on the road is tough, but there are a few tricks we like to use:

    • Sun is Your Friend : If it’s sunny out, take advantage! Use a rope, hang a clothesline, and dry everything–skins, jackets, sleeping bags, outerwear, undies, boot liners, you name it. Whatever needs drying, dry it! Just be careful if it’s windy–if you lose a skin, the trip’s over.
    • Your Sleeping Bag Is a Dryer: That’s right, you can use your sleeping bag like a dryer. Put wet boot liners, gloves, and damp essentials in your sleeping bag. Overnight, your body heat will help dry them out. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience, and it can certainly make sleeping less comfortable, but it’s better than waking up to frozen-stiff gloves and boot liners.
  • Car Heaters: If you’re driving at all during your trip, crank up your car heater. You can drape wet gear on the dash or leave it hanging up in the backseat with clothes hangers. You can even use a cord to rig a makeshift clothesline from window to window.
  • Portable Boot Dryers: GearDryer makes this portable, road-trip-friendly gear dryer that plugs into a 12V car jack. It can dry a pair of boots, a pair of gloves, and a helmet all at once. Definitely worth checking out, and you can use it at home, too.

7. Prepare to Get Unstuck

If you’re camping in extremely snowy locales, it’s only a matter of time before you get your vehicle stuck. Either you’ll pull onto a shoulder that’s deeper than you thought, or a plow will box you in, or it’ll dump more snow than mister meteorologist predicted. All backcountry skiers should have an avalanche shovel on hand, but sometimes, we like to carry a bigger scoop shovel, too. They’re better for digging out vehicles, and perhaps more importantly, better for building jumps. You also might want to consider vehicle traction mats and, if you’re traveling in a caravan, a tow rope.

8. Apps, Maps, Comms, and Forecasting

Oftentimes, when you’re camping at a backcountry trailhead, cell service is in short supply. Assume you won’t have service, and download apps and maps ahead of time.

  • OpenSnow: We use OpenSnow to check snow forecasts. You might be used to using this popular app to check ski resort snow forecasts, but you can also use it to search for a specific backcountry zone or peak. When you subscribe to the app, it gives you a 10-day forecast window, which is great for gauging general trends while planning a trip. However, a lot can change in 10 days. Our advice? Take 6-to-10-day outlooks with a grain of road salt.
  • Avalanche.org: Visit Avalanche.org to find avalanche forecasts in your target region. Don’t just read the forecast the day before you leave, either. Reading forecasts weeks in advance helps give you a better feel for the overall picture of the snowpack upon your arrival.
  • OnX: We like to tour with OnX, a mapping app that has helpful tools for backcountry travelers like slope shading, lines and routes, and even avalanche forecasts. You can download maps so you have them offline and can use them without service.
  • Old-Fashioned Maps and Guidebooks: We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again–always have a backup plan. While we love using apps in the backcountry, the old-school topo map and compass combo is endlessly useful and, most importantly, doesn’t run on batteries. Order topo maps ahead of your trip, or swing by a local gear shop to pick up the right maps for the job. Also, guidebooks are an excellent source of knowledge, and may help you find lines you wouldn’t otherwise. Plus, they make good reading when you’re cuddled up in your sleeping bag.
  • Finally, since you likely won’t have service, get a satellite communication device, like a Bivy Stick or a Garmin inReach, to stay in touch with loved ones and call for help if needed.

9. This Tip Should’ve Been Number Two

Trees are generally acceptable urinals when camping at a backcountry trailhead–just pick one out of the public eye and preferably away from the skintrack. Also, be cognizant of the fact that campers will gather snow to melt for drinking water… Again, out of the way is best.

Going number two, however, is a little trickier. Sometimes, trailhead toilets are inaccessible or simply locked in winter. If you’re unable to access a toilet, follow Leave No Trace protocols and use a W.A.G. bag. Gear Junkie discusses the nuances of the winter poop in this article if you’d like to take a deeper dive.

Class Dismissed