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Hiking and Camping in Winter

Clothing and Footwear

Theme - Stay away from cotton and dress in layers.

 

The simple rule of winter camping is to stay dry and warm. Carefully choose clothing layers that are moisture-wicking, quick-drying, insulating and waterproof/windproof/breathable. By adjusting your layers of clothing, you can regulate the amount of warmth you need.

The 3 Basic Layers

The base layer is basically your underwear - the layer next to your skin. Synthetic and merino wool fabrics work best (avoid cotton at all cost).

 

They wick perspiration away from your skin to outer layers so it can evaporate. They dry quickly so you spend minimal time in wet clothing. 

 

A few popular base layers include Arc’teryx Phase, Icebreaker and SmartWool products.

 

For maximum thermal efficiency, the base layer should feel snug but not constricting. When snow camping, it's common to wear 2 base layers: a lightweight or midweight layer, then a thicker heavyweight layer.

 

A zip T-neck is a versatile choice in cold weather.

 

The middle layer is your insulating layer. It also moves (wicks) moisture away from your body, but it is primarily designed to help you retain body heat. 

 

For snow camping, consider expedition-weight fleece or microfleece shirts, pants and jacket and/or a goose down jacket.

 

The outer layer , or shell, is your waterproof/windproof/breathable layer. Shells made of laminates such as Gore-Tex, eVent or neo shell offer premium protection. Less expensive alternatives typically use polyurethane-coated fabrics that are equally waterproof but somewhat less breathable. Many are designed with core vents and underarm vents to help you expel excess heat and moisture.

 

Tip: If you take a break, put on a layer so you don't cool off too much. Your body will have to work harder to warm up again.

Footwear

Winter Boots vs Leather Traditional

Depending on your mode of transport and the snow/weather conditions, it's possible to get by with traditional hiking boots.

 

However, most snow trekking is greatly enhanced by boots that are waterproof and insulating… also they don’t get nearly as stiff and thus are a lot easier to tie in the mornings.

Socks and Gaiters

1 Versus 2 Layer System

 

As with most of your body, your feet need a thin, snug layer next to the skin and a second layer over it, both made of merino wool or synthetic wicking fabrics.

The thickness of your second sock is determined by your boot fit.

 

An extra-thick sock will not keep your feet warm if it makes your boots too tight and restricts circulation so be careful of that. 

 

Take extras. If they get wet, put them in the sleeping bag next to you to dry.

 

Gaiters: A must for deep snow, they help keep snow, rain and water out of your boots. They even add a bit of warmth. Be sure to use a waterproof/breathable model – like gore tex - they cost more but are designed for winter use.

Hats, Gloves and Eyewear

Hats: You lose a significant percentage of your body heat through the top of your head.

 

"If your feet are cold, put on a hat." A warm hat is critical for snow camping. 

 

Consider windproof models such as those made of Gore WindStopper fabric.

 

Gloves and mittens: Remember that mittens are much warmer than gloves, but you do lose finger dexterity when you wear them… layer the two for best results.

 

Also, take an extra pair of liners in case they get wet.

 

Goggles and glasses: Always protect your eyes from sun and wind by using one or the other - I prefer goggles but both will work fine.

 

There are different lens tints for various weather conditions but remember something is always better than nothing.

Equipment

Tents

For snow camping, you ideally want a "mountaineering tent" (also known as a "4-season tent") that's easy and quick to set up in frigid conditions.

 

These tents are a bit heavier than 3-season backpacking tents as they use more poles and have thicker fabric but they do offer much better protection against the elements.

 

Typical mountaineering tent features:

 

Dome shape and an extra-strong pole structure to combat high winds and shed snow loads.

 

Mostly solid fabric (instead of mesh) for more warmth and strength.

Dual doors for easy access for 2 campers or for a sheltered entrance/exit in bad weather

 

Extra guy lines for more stability in high winds

 

A gear attic (a mesh shelf that hangs from the ceiling) to stow gear and free up floor space

 

Large vestibule(s) for wet-gear storage or a sheltered cooking area.

 

Mountaineering tents employ either single-wall or double-wall construction, each has its advantages.

 

Two things you absolutely want to have for setting up your tent in winter!!!

 

Tent footprint (wear and tear/condensation)

 

Snow Anchors (pegs won’t work in deep snow)

 

Setup tips:

 

If it's windy, build a snow wall if possible. If it's not feasible to do so, then dig out the snow a couple of feet down for your tent and vestibule. This helps to reduce wind impact.

 

Pack down the snow before setting up your tent. Loose snow is more likely to be melted by your body heat and make it uncomfortable for sleeping.

Backpack

Winter backpacking requires extra gear, so you most likely want a high-volume pack. Pack as lightly as you can, but always make sure you're prepared for winter weather and conditions.

 

Rough guidelines for a 2- to 4-day winter backpacking trip:

Lightweight: minimum 65-70L

Expedition: Approximately 80-90L pack or EVEN larger

 

If you plan on carrying skis or snowshoes, make sure your pack has lash points or is otherwise able to secure these large items.

Sleds

For longer trips and expeditions, it is common to pull a sled.

A sled helps you to reduce weight on your back, and it lets you carry more gear. A sled is not practical for all terrain, so study your topo map and ask about trail conditions beforehand.

Sleeping Bag

A sleeping bag helps retain your body heat to keep you warm, and keeping warm is essential to snow camping. Make sure you use a bag that's rated at least 7°C to 10°C  less than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. You can always vent the bag if you get too warm.

 

Cold- and winter-rated bags are supplied with generous amounts of goose down or synthetic insulation. Down is the most popular choice due to its superior warmth-to-weight ratio - just make sure to keep it dry (when wet, down loses much of its insulating ability). These bags are also distinguished by their draft tubes behind the zippers, draft collars above the shoulders and hoods to help keep the heat in the bag.

Sleeping Bag Liner

Using a bag liner adds extra warmth, minimizes wear and helps keep your bag cleaner. The extra layer can add 8° to 15°F of warmth.

Sleeping Pad

Much of the heat lost in your sleeping system will be through the ground and snow underneath you. In fact when sleeping directly on the snow with only a ground sheet underneath, you will literally melt your way into the snow, and be quite cold as well, regardless of how lofty your bag is.

 

You need an airy insulative pad underneath you to stay warm and dry in winter… for this I recommend thermarest products.

 

These provide both cushioning and insulation. For winter camping, be sure to use 2 pads to help insulate your body from losing body heat on a cold surface such as snow. Use a closed-cell foam pad next to the ground and a self-inflating pad on top to get the best insulation from the cold ground. The foam pad also serves as insurance in case the self-inflating pad gets punctured.

 

Pads are rated by R-value, the measurement of insulation, ranging between 1.0 and 8.0. Basically, the higher the R-value, the better it insulates.

 

A closed-cell foam pad is your warmest option. It is a thin, dense foam made of closed-air cells that block water and stop air circulation.

 

Self-inflating pads are a combination of open- and closed-cell foam.

Open-cell foam pads have open-air cells that absorb air and create more cushioning.

 

While a 3/4-length pad is fine for spring through fall backpacking, a full-length pad is recommended for winter use.

Stoves and Cookware

Theme - Go liquid and stay light.

 

Liquid fuel stoves are recommended for cold temperatures. White gas is readily available here as well and it relatively cheap. Before you leave home, always make sure your camp stove is working properly.

 

Other winter camping considerations: You may want a windscreen and heat exchanger to improve cooking performance. Keep in mind, too, that it takes extra fuel to melt water.

 

Finally, bring a backup stove, just in case. The added benefit is that having 2 stoves speeds up the group-cooking process.

 

Lighting and Batteries

Winter nights are long, so make sure your headlamp and flashlight batteries are new or fully charged before an excursion and always take extras. Alkaline batteries are inexpensive and should work in any device, but they drain at a faster rate so try something that uses lithium instead.

 

Tip: Cold temperatures decrease battery life. Store your batteries and battery operated devices inside your sleeping bag to keep them warm.

Storage Containers/Dry Sacks

Dozens of types on the market, but basically you divide them into dry sacks, compression and dry compression.

 

Saves space in your pack when critical

 

Protects your gear from the elements and wear and tear

 

Keeps your wet gear away from other stuff

Snowshoes

There are many different ways to travel in the snow, for this presentation I am going to focus of snowshoeing for 2 reasons… in the interest of time and literally anyone can do effectively it without any experience or training

 

Snowshoes offer the easiest and least expensive way to travel in snow. "If you can walk, you can snowshoe" is a common expression indicating that no special skills or training are required.

 

Snowshoes disperse your weight over a large surface area, thus providing a degree of flotation that reduces the amount you sink into soft snow. You should not, however, expect to just "float" on the surface of the snow.

 

Snowshoes provide good traction for climbing, traversing and descending slopes. They also work better than skis in areas of closely spaced trees or in brushy or rocky areas.

Trekking Poles/ Ice Axe

Poles

No matter what your means of ascent, you'll want to have a pair of adjustable ski or snowshoe poles. They provide welcome support and balance and can be used for downhill skiing or snowshoeing as well. If you don't want them for parts of your route, just shorten them and strap them on to your pack.

Ice axe

This can help you self-arrest when sliding, serve as an anchor for climbing or hack through ice when setting up camp. Be sure you know how to properly use it before heading out. Seek out competent instruction and practice.

Food

Consider food that does not take much cook time or clean up. Look for one-pot meal or, better yet, buy some freeze-dried entrees and breakfast foods—just add hot water in the pouch and pack the garbage out. No dirty dishes!

 

Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol increases blood flow and cools your core temperature; caffeine restricts blood flow and cools your extremities.

 

For getting the most out of your meals with the least amount of hassle when cooking in winter try freezedried meals! They are quick, easy and have very little to clean up!

 

Tip: To stay warmer, don't stop for long lunches where you cool down and then need to put on more layers. Instead, take short breaks to snack on food, or simply nibble while you're moving.

 

Other considerations…

One time use hot packs

Water transport

 

 

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