With the temperatures dropping quickly (we had our first frost a few days ago!), if we still want to spend time hiking and camping, we will need to prepare a little differently. Winter tends to be colder, windier, and wetter. The days are much shorter, which means less hours on the trail. Footing can become more dangerous. However, do not let that list scare you away from camping and hiking when the seasons change, because there is one HUGE advantage to the cold dark days of winter. NO BUGS!!! (Insert happy dance) For the purposes of this blog, I won't be getting into trips where things like snowshoes, crampons, or sleds are needed. That falls into mountaineering and I lack advanced knowledge about that.
Mike has done a significant amount of cold weather camping and hiking. I have hiked in all sorts of conditions, but haven't backpacked in the dead of winter yet. So that leads me to my first tip: go with someone who knows. As with anything new, it always helps and makes things safer if you learn from someone with experience. But if the weather isn't too severe and you think you want to get a taste of what it's like in the winter, I still recommend not taking on this experience by yourself for the first time. Symptoms of hypothermia, altitude sickness, and dehydration can be hard to spot when you are the one suffering. For that reason, I recommend having a buddy or 2 along to help keep an eye on each other to prevent something minor from turning into a true emergency.
Plan, plan, plan
For your first winter camping trip, I would recommend going to an area that you are familiar with. But if you can't do that, get your maps ahead of time, look carefully at the routes, the elevation changes, & the location of shelters. Remember, you will have less daylight hours to work with, so plan your distances accordingly. Hiking through snow and/or ice will slow you down too, so you should plan on reducing your daily mileage by 50%. Know where the nearest help is located (Ranger's station or such). Know how far away you will be from your vehicle or help throughout the route. Basically, just know where you will be and where you are going as well as planning some bail out spots or routes just in case. Let someone at home know your plan and educate them on when they need to call for help for you. Let everyone in your group know the plan as well as contingency plans in case you become unable to lead the group for some reason.
Keep a close eye on the weather leading up to your trip
You can find backcountry weather reports at the National Weather Service site. If the area you are visiting has a website that they update (like the National Park system), check prior to your trip for alerts, trail closures, weather reports, etc. If you are traveling in an area prone to avalanches, check avalanche reports and avoid slopes of more than 20 degrees unless you have specialized avalanche training. Don't be fooled if the forecast calls for some warm days. This may just help snow and ice to melt and refreeze each day which can create difficult to see "black ice" and can make conditions tricky. Warm days can also lead to runoff and turn a babbling brook into a raging river, so keep in mind how the weather will affect water crossings. Understanding how the weather fluctuations affect the area you will be utilizing can help you plan better.
Dress for the conditions
In winter, it is more important than ever to follow a tried and true layering system. In addition to layering properly, in winter you will want to put away the trail runners and use boots. They will give you extra stability on slick footing, they will help prevent snow and moisture from getting into your shoes, and they provide more insulation than low cut shoes. If you will be in deep snow, you may want to also plan on using gaiters to help keep your feet dry and warm. Wool socks are a must, as they insulate even when wet. For wet conditions, I've heard good things about Goretex socks as well, but haven't tried them. I carry a pair of Neoprene socks that I can use if my feet are going to be wet for a while, and those can even be layered with a thin wool sock underneath. Always bring a warm hat, gloves or mittens, and sunglasses or goggles. Also, always bring a spare pair of gloves or mittens and a hat, because if you lose those items, your trip will take a turn for the worse quickly.
Evaluate your gear
You will need a sleeping pad that offers insulation from the cold ground, a sleeping bag rated for the conditions you will face, and a pack big enough to carry the extra layers and gear that winter camping demands. A tarp or footprint for your tent will help keep snow and water from seeping in and making you cold. If you have a sleeping bag that isn't going to be quite warm enough, a good liner can add another 15 degrees of warmth. There are many types of liners, and you can read about them and their various features here. If you find yourself without a liner in conditions that are too cold for your bag, anemergency blanket can be used as a liner in a pinch. A good sleeping pad arrangement for winter camping is to use two pads, a closed cell and aninflatable. The closed cell should be on the ground with the inflatable pad on top of it. This will provide enough insulation from the cold ground and having a closed cell pad is extra insurance should your inflatable pad spring a leak. Using a winter gear checklist can help prevent forgetting important items.
Eat to stay warm
Eating enough calories is one way to help your body stay warm, and your body burns more calories in the cold. Besides the extra calorie burn from staying warm, hiking through snow or challenging winter terrain adds to the number of calories you will be depleting. Plan to add at least 25% more calories to your diet in cold weather. For this reason, dehydrated meals are great. They are warm, have some water content, are usually pretty high in calories, and are comforting. Another tip is to bring along a small amount of olive or coconut oil. You can add a tablespoon to your meal or just eat it straight for an extra 120 calories. Remember you will need more fuel to heat water in cold weather, so make sure you bring plenty! Packets of hot chocolate, hot cider, or tea bags make a nice pick me up beverage when you need one before bed or in the cold, cold morning.
Learn first aid
Many symptoms of things like hypothermia, shock, dehydration, etc., are often subtle and may go unnoticed by an untrained eye. It's important to begin treating these things immediately and appropriately, as an injury or illness compounded by exposure to extreme weather can quickly become a life or death situation. Starting out your trip being properly hydrated, nourished, and dressed can go a long way to preventing conditions from developing. Ensure that you have adequate food and water, our bodies burn calories keeping warm, so it's important to make sure you keep "stoking the fire". Hydration helps keep your circulation flowing efficiently. Many people make the mistake of not drinking enough fluids in cold weather because they don't feel thirsty, but the dry wind can dehydrate you rapidly.
Other tips and hacks
You can put damp socks, mittens, and other small items inside your sleeping bag at night to help them dry. This won't work for large items, as they will add too much moisture to the inside of your bag and end up making you colder. Place your boots in a sack and put them at the bottom of your sleeping bag at night so they are dry and warm in the morning.
Put water next to you, away from the tent wall to keep it from freezing. If you are using bottles, place them upside down. Water freezes from the top down, so when you flip it over, you will have water to drink right away and ice won't clog up the spout or top of your bottle. Use lithium batteries when possible, they tolerate cold temperatures better than traditional batteries.Make sure your tent has enough ventilation for water vapor to escape. If not, the condensation build up will make your sleeping bag and everything else in the tent damp and cold. Do not put your whole head inside your sleeping bag. The moisture from your breath will cancel out the insulating properties of your sleeping bag.
Carry a sleeping bag warmer for emergencies. Carry some hand warmers just because they are nice to have and can help warm up frozen boots or cold hands & feet.
There is certainly a lot more that could be said about winter camping and hiking, and we will cover some more advanced camping skills in future posts. In our part of the country, winter is long and cold, so any fun you can have while waiting for spring to come is much needed. Hopefully these tips will encourage you to get outside this winter too. Being prepared and educated about how to handle the conditions will keep you safe and make your trips fun!
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