For all its labor-intensive nature and the danger involved, winter backpacking can be incredibly rewarding. There’s the allure of the crisp, cold air on your skin, the invigorating pump of your legs up the mountainside and the silence broken only by your feet on crunching snow. No matter how much you’re looking forward to the scenery, however, it’s important to make sure you’ve got your gear in order and your wilderness skills in check. Though summer backpacking can also be dangerous, winter backpacking poses its own set of threats and safety issues, including frostbite, sudden bouts of bad weather, extreme ice and snow-induced disorientation.
Even if you’re a seasoned backpacker, don’t do a winter trip solo, and make sure you have someone in your group who has experience finding snow routes and shelters and traveling in snow. Below are a few tips and tricks to get you started on your winter trip:
Do your research. Where’s the nearest hospital or search & rescue station in case of an emergency? What will the weather be like? Check a site such as NOAA-NWS, and if the forecast is bad, postpone your trip. Be aware of avalanche conditions – if you’re on or near any slope greater than 20°, your group should have formal avalanche training. As always, leave an itinerary, complete with vehicle and contact info, with someone back home.
Double check your gear
Before you go, make sure all your gear is functional and that you have backups where needed. Check that all parts of your tent match, that your stove works, that your water purification drops aren’t about to run out and that you haven’t forgotten anything on your packing list. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Keep in mind that snow is simply frozen water. If your boots aren’t waterproof, snow will seep through to your socks and freeze against your feet. There’s nothing worse in winter than wet feet – and nothing more dangerous. Frostbite is a very real concern on the trail and having winter-appropriate hiking boots, as well as gaiters to keep the snow from running into your boots, is essential.
What to wear
Your motto is: stay dry and stay warm. Your clothing should wick moisture, dry quickly, insulate, be waterproof and breathable. Adjusting three basic layers can help you regulate heat. Your base layer should be composed of synthetic and merino wool fabrics to wick perspiration away from your skin to outer layers so it can evaporate. Avoid cotton. The middle layer, made of fleece, microfleece or goose down, is for insulation, designed to help you retain body heat. Your outer layer should be waterproof, windproof and breathable. Laminates such as Gore-Tex, eVent or REI Elements are ideal, but a waterproof polyurethane-coated fabric can be a less-expensive alternative.
Take waterproof gloves and a hat to keep body heat from escaping through your head. Wear two pairs of socks, both made of merino wool or synthetic fiber; the first should be thin and snug, the second pair a bit thicker.
Necessities and niceties
You’ll absolutely need the following: water purification tablets, water bottles (wear them under your coat when you hike to prevent the water from freezing), maps of the area, sun protection, a headlamp, first aid supplies, repair kit and tools, extra food, water and clothing and an emergency shelter. Make sure you have a sleeping bag that’s rated at least 10°F lower than the coldest temperature you plan to encounter. A down bag has the best warmth-to-weight ratio, but be sure to keep it dry; a wet down bag loses much of its insulating ability. For winter camping, use two full-length sleeping pads to keep from losing body heat to the cold ground. Though not strictly necessary, a pair of mukluks will keep your feet extra toasty in camp.
Daylight hours are shorter in the winter, so plan your hikes that you reach your campsite while it’s still light out. Find a safe site: check for natural wind protection, a nearby water source, distance from potential avalanches and landmarks to help you find your way back in case of a snowstorm.
Cooking in the snow
Use a liquid-fuel stove rather than canisters and don’t forget to pack a windscreen and heat exchanger to improve performance. Remember that you’ll use more fuel at higher elevations and that you might need fuel to melt water. Stick to water for hydration, avoiding alcohol and caffeine; alcohol increases blood flow and cools your core temperature, while caffeine restricts blood flow and cools your extremities.
Be able to recognize and deal with hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia is when the body’s temperature decreases to a dangerous level due to cold exposure. Symptoms include shivering, slurred speech, non-communication and lethargy. If you think someone in your group is showing symptoms, immediately get them into dry clothing and give them warm foods and fluids. Wrap them in a pre-warmed sleeping bag (since hypothermic people don’t produce enough warmth on their own) or have someone crawl into the bag with them.
Frostbite is when tissue freezes, most commonly on the fingers, toes, nose or face. Symptoms include numbness to an area, loss of sensitivity to touch, tingling that feels like burning, shivering and skin that appears red, then white, then white-purple. As soon as you notice these symptoms, place the affected area against warm skin or use warm water. Be careful of warming the area too quickly, as it increases the risk of permanent injury. Do not thaw with fire or rub. For both hypothermia and frostbite, evacuation is often necessary.
Be prepared for the unexpected
Always carry extra food, clothing and socks in case the weather shifts, you get lost or your trip changes course. But don’t be afraid of the outdoors – with the right planning and a healthy respect for nature, you can have a safe, fun, and above all else beautiful winter backpacking trip.
Photo credit: All photos are by the author