I have a two-layer dome tent, cheap and not particularly designed for winter. Do I need to ever worry that during a heavy snow downfall during the night that tent might be covered up with snow and I will suffocate?

To narrow that down, I worry that the tent walls will be covered, while the surrounding snow level remains below the ceiling level (of course if 2 meters of snow fall during the night, it will be covered, no question here).

up vote 8 down vote accepted

If you get that sort of snowfall, the correct safety procedures include clearing snow every couple of hours. Set your alarm and get out to clear snow - especially from the entrance, but all round if it looks like the tent will get covered.

The tents used in the Antarctic are shaped like steep pyramids to help avoid the problem of snow buildup - dome tents are just too susceptible to this problem.

  • I have heard warnings that snow may pile up and brake the poles that hold the tent. Is this the significant risk, or is it silent suffocation? – Vorac Sep 17 '12 at 16:34
  • I guess it will depend on where you are. If the snow is vertical and heavy, then yes, it could present significant risk to a dome tent as it builds up. If you face drifting snow, the tent is more likely to collapse sideways, probably without the poles snapping. – Rory Alsop Sep 17 '12 at 17:11
  • 2
    @Vorac Silent suffocation is the concern I've heard the most. Snapped poles will ruin a trip. Suffocation in your sleep is more permanent. – BMitch Sep 18 '12 at 2:31
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    Heh - 'suffocating...is more permanent' – Rory Alsop Sep 18 '12 at 10:05

Assuming you are a somewhat healthy individual and not camping in an avalanche zone, you probably do not need to worry about suffocation. With enough accumulation, your tent will collapse, at which point you will wake up and most likely think you are being abducted by aliens; it will be completely dark, there will be an unnatural amount of pressure on your body (from the snow), you will not be able to move (you will be trapped in your mummy bag), and there will be a cold wet piece of material on your face (the tent). I am pretty sure there would have to be something seriously wrong with you to be able to sleep through having a cold wet tent on your face; it really is unpleasant. If the collapsed tent persists long enough, eventually there will be a C02 build up which will cause you to wake up gasping for air. Note that CO2 is not CO and is not deadly in the same way.

After you wake up, you will likely scream and panic for a few moments (remember you think you are being abducted by aliens). Then you will realize what is happening and you will begin to extract yourself from your sleeping bag and tent. This generally isn't all that hard since the tent often keeps some of its structure. Once you are out of your tent, it will be a race to find your gloves and boots (and possibly pants) before hypothermia/frostbite sets in.

If your tent sheds snow really well, it is possible to end up in a deep hole with snow going up the walls, but again suffocation is not really a concern. Eventually the CO2 levels will rise and your body will do the thing it normally does during high CO2 levels (gasp for air). At this point you need to dig yourself out and clear off the tent.

The best thing to do during heavy snow fall is to wake up every couple of hours and shovel off the tent and around from the entrance. You can keep the snow on the sides as it will provide warmth like a snow cave.

If the tent is not designed for snow then you'll need to make sure it doesn't get weighted down by the snow on top. The edges with a low gradient get covered in snow and this stretches the tent. You'll need to keep pushing it off the tent. If it has a flat top you'll have to push it off there as well.

Camping in a snow cave requires a small vent at the top and bottom to allow some fresh air in and CO2 out. Unless your tent was covered when you get it, you will have enough fresh air through the night. I suspect that this three-season tent would be crushed by the snow before it got covered.

Your cheap tent is likely to have bug netting on the inside. During a snowstorm spindrift will blow into your tent. You will be cold and wet. Four-season tents do not have netting that cannot be sealed with another flap. Four-season tents have high quality poles to help prevent collapse.

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