Friday, January 8, 2016

Winter Backpacking and Camping Article

Ah yes, winter. She can be a fickle mistress turning even the easiest of day hikes into a miserable slog making you wonder why you even bothered to head out in the first place. Overnight trips in the winter? Sure, why not. It's really not as terrible as it sounds. Once you get your systems dialed in, you'll probably even enjoy it. Winter is as beautiful, as it is unique and challenging. If you can take some adversity, give it a try. 

I'll offer some advice and considerations based on research and personal experiences and divide them into 3 sections: clothing, equipment and planning. I'll add any suggestions that may help as they come up. What works for me may not work for you.Take the time to get your systems right; your life depends on it.

These are my general thoughts and notes and this is not indented to be an exhaustive list. If you can time it right, your 3 season stuff might work just fine and dandy during the winter calendar months. These pieces are listed as it pertains to winter conditions and not necessarily a calendar date between December 21st and March 20th. I'd love to tell you which brands and specific pieces I prefer, but I don't want to give out any free product plugs.

Clothing. Be like an onion and have lots of layers. 

Example list


Synthetic long sleeve shirt.

Expedition weight base layer. (I'm comfortable in mid-weight, but that's just me.)

Light fleece w/hood. Heavier if you get cold easy.

Mid-weight insulation w/hood. Down or synthetic will work.

Waterproof shell jacket w/hood. Soft or hard shell, take your pick. Powder skirts are nice in deep snow.

Expedition style insulated parka w/hood. Down or synthetic will work. This should feel like wearing half of a sleeping bag.


Synthetic boxers.

Expedition weight base layer.

Soft shell or Gore-Tex pants or bibs.

Waterproof hard shell rain pants w/ full side zips. (Probably not needed with Gore-Tex pants.)

Insulated pants. Down or synthetic will work.

Head, hands and feet.

Warm hat.

Balaclava or Buff.

3 pairs of gloves: light insulated or soft shell, medium insulated wind and waterproof mountain gloves and heavy weight insulated gloves. They could all fit together or be worn separate. As long as your hands are warm and dry, the combo works. I prefer my heaviest, outermost layer to be mittens.

2 pairs of socks, whatever combination and/or weight works with your insulated boots.

I have a saying when it comes to jackets; no hood, no good. The hood is there to keep your head warm and that's kind of an important thing. You'll notice a total of 6 top layers of varying weight and insulation. The important thing is that they all fit and work together. When you're cold as balls or exposed in harsh weather, wear them all. When its nice out, you will not be uncomfortably hot. For everything else in between, well, that is exactly why you're like an onion and have lots of layers. Mix and match, add and subtract as required until you're comfortable. The big trick is to stay warm when stopped, and staying just barely warm enough (I prefer to be slightly cool) while on the move. If you focus on anything with your layering system, focus on not sweating. Sweat = cold + wet = hypothermia. Take time to find what combinations work for you in different conditions and activity levels. The only rule to layering is NO COTTON. Cotton + sweat = cold + wet = your cotton layers will not dry = hypothermia = death.

You'll notice redundancy with gloves and socks. Why, you ask? If one pair gets too wet, wear the dry ones while the wet ones dry out. I personally recommend bringing extra gloves and socks in colder conditions because cold hands and feet just plain suck. 

Equipment. Your last line of defense from that fickle mistress.   

4 season tent. Double walls seem to manage condensation better than a single wall. Single wall tents or bivy tents weigh less and may be appropriate for a short duration or in optimal conditions. I consider a vestibule a must-have. Overall, think fortress. Think Bombproof. Know how to anchor and pitch it to survive a severe storm. Build snow walls higher than and around your tent to divert wind.

Sleeping pad. You'll want the highest R value you can get your paws on. For really cold conditions, I like to use a closed-cell foam pad on the bottom, and a self inflating pad on top. 

Sleeping bag. Zero degree or warmer, duh.  These can get very expensive and heavy so I feel this really comes down to personal preference. I prefer Brand X to Brand Z because its warmer and lighter. If anything, I go a little lighter on the sleeping bag because I can wear all of my layers inside it, if its that cold. 

Backpack. Big enough to hold all of your stuff and doesn't feel like an 8 year old hanging off your back. Finding one with a waterproof type material and coating is always a plus. Always bring a rain cover.

When all else fails, your shelter should be warm and dry. It will be your final retreat and you might be there a while so some form of entertainment is also nice.

Stove. White gas and wind screen. Bigger pot for melting snow.    

Snow shoes. If you can walk, you can snow shoe. 'Nuf said. Don't forget your poles!

If you can ski, then ski.

Don't underestimate the power of a plastic sled. The cheap kiddie ones in the front of the superstore work great. Just drill holes on the side, two in the front and two in the back. Use accessory cord to make lash points or criss-cross it over a duffle bag. Use the front two points to run cord and attach to your packs waist belt. Volia, you've made a pulk! Now put a bunch of your gear in there and go take a hike. Making a pulk is one thing, actually pulling the pulk is another. Plan for flat terrain and wide trails for optimal use. 

Planning. Location, location, location.

We should always be heading into optimal conditions, but as we know this is not the case. It is even more so in the winter. Check the weather forecast for before, during and after your trip to get an idea of the overall trends and snowfall totals. If there has been recent heavy snowfall, consider waiting a few days for it to settle. 

There is less sunlight, so plan to be in camp well before dark so you'll have time to set up. 

Plan for shorter mileage but look for worthy destinations. 

When trying the first few trips, you don't even need to hike out. You can snow camp right next to the car or go just a short distance so if things are not going well, you can easily bail. 

Learn to use snow to your advantage. Digging snow caves are a great way to get warm and when done right, make a bomb-diggity shelter. I'd advise to already have a tent set up if you are unsure. Visibly mark the entrance and keep a shovel inside. Making an excellent snow cave is an art. There are many intricacies that I won't go into.

Dig down and pile the snow up to make walls for your kitchen and common area. Yes, a fire place is possible. 

Food and water can be interesting. I prefer more hot meals like soup. One plus side is that refrigeration is usually not an issue. One down side is that things can freeze and frozen Cliff bars are hard to eat. 

Insulated sleeves to keep water bottles from freezing are a must. There are several tricks to melting snow. Learn as many as you can so you'll be ready with plan B if plan A fails. 

On melting snow for water. I like use a black plastic bag and shovel clean snow on it. I place it in a concave and shallow incline with a funnel shape on the bottom. I let it melt and drip into a collapsible plastic container, or a pot. Bring the water to a boil for 1 minute. Let cool, place into bottles or another collapsible plastic container. (Mark and keep them separate.) A straining system prior to boiling is advisable due to the usual unwanted dirt, pine needles, etc.

Of course, snow travel and avalanche conditions are a concern. There are many good resources available both on and offline to these and all other topics associated with winter camping. It is advisable consumption, so get to it.

Happy trails. 

Granola, out.

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