Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to hang up your pack and mothball the rest of your gear. It seems once the low temps, snow, and ice start showing up a lot of backcountry athletes pack it in for the off season. This doesn’t have to be the case, getting out in the snow and cold is certainly more challenging than the warmer sunny days of summer, but that’s what its all about, a challenge, right? There are lots of benefits to getting out in the colder middle months between summers. While many of our fellow backcountry explorers are in hibernation mode we have the opportunity to enjoy empty trails and scenes that only this season can provide. Use these six tips to help make venturing out into the cold a little more enjoyable.
The best way to keep warm on a cold trail is to use the layer system. Start with a synthetic moisture wicking (fabric that draws mositure away and drys quickly) thermal base layer (cotton is not a good choice, it holds moisture and does not warm properly especially when wet) and build on top of that with a thicker synthetic mid-layer (how many and thickness depends on the temp and your comfort). Once you’re content with your thermal layers add an outer shell that will protect from both the chill and wet winter weather. Layering allows you to keep warm without the bulk, while enabling you to remove and add covering as needed. Most important is that the layers should have moisture wicking capabilities so that you stay dry and comfortable. Don’t have a good layering set up? Just about all major outdoor clothing companies provide their own variations of layering systems. Some are so advanced that after crawling into your sleeping bag wet at night you will wake dry in the morning.
Snow Appropriate Gear:
Depending on the conditions, you should always go prepared for the inhospitable winter environment. The trail will most likely be icy, buried in depths of snow, or both. Luckily, like-minded adventurers before us who also believed there’s no such thing as an off-season have invented tools to allow the rest of us to continue our explorations, no matter the conditions. Snowshoes are a must for deep snow treks to prevent sinking in powder up to the waist and prevent injuries caused by post-holing. Crampons and boot spikes help gain and maintain needed traction on icy rocks and terrain. And to supplement both snowshoes and spikes trekking poles will keep you balanced as well as provide a way to test snow bridges and other potentially dangerous crossings and slick paths before taking a risky step.
Sleep With Your Clothes:
You probably won’t sleep wearing all of your layers, so keep any layers you’ve stripped or will add once morning comes in your sleeping bag with you. Not only will this provide extra insulation without directly overheating you, it will keep those clothes you plan to wear again (or change into) in the morning warm and thawed. It’s kind of a pain defrosting frozen layers in the morning before you're able to put them on.
Keeping hydrated and well fed is a major key to staying warm and raising morale. Hydration is always an important part of keeping yourself moving and healthy during any season. Unfortunately water freezes but if you store your container topside down you will keep it always accessible. Your body is like a furnace and food keeps your furnace burning. The first thing you should do in the morning after a cold nights sleep is heat up a warm meal. And you should eat as you trek providing yourself with energy that will keep you moving and your body temp well regulated. Hot tea whether herbal at night or caffeinated in the morning is a great morale booster and body warmer as well, coffee is great too if you prefer. Make sure you have a stove with fuel that works well in cold temps or have materials to light a fire ensuring your ability to warm these meals.
Ice and snow eventually turns to water either on you, in your pack or in your tent, and wet gear can mean a miserable trip. Pack items in your bag inside of individual water-repellant stuff sacks. While your pack will do all it can to keep moisture out eventually water will find a way in. Keep your sleeping bag, spare clothes, and any other items you want to keep dry in separate stuff sacks. It’s also a good idea to have something to keep your wet boots and pack on while you sleep so that they don’t create puddles in your tent that you're sure to roll into or set dry gear in. Keeping gear in stuff sacks also keeps your pack organized. I usually have a sack for my kitchen gear and food, spare clothes, sleeping bag and any other items usually separated by use and likeness.
Conduction is the transfer of heat when things of different temperatures touch, and it's always the colder of the two that takes heat. In winter the only heat transferring will be yours, right out of your body. You can easily regulate your transfer of heat and prevent cold injuries by wearing properly fitting boots and thick warm moisture wicking socks while your feet are in contact with the frozen ground (again, cotton is not a good choice for the same reasons as above). Another way to prevent conduction-induced hypothermia and get a better night sleep while winter camping is by using a thicker ground pad. The more padding that you can get between you and the ground while sleeping the better. The ground is going to be cold and the more and longer you expose yourself to it the more it will suck heat from you. Pads that are inflatable, especially those with inner foam, work great and are light and easy to pack along on any adventure. They can also be used as a protective and warm seat in or outside of your tent.