20 Winter Backpacking Tips That Could Make It Suck Just a Little Bit Less
We all love winter backpacking. And by "we all", I mean almost nobody, because most people are smart enough not to do it. But for those who might decide they need some more suffering in their lives, here's a few tips to make it suck just a little bit less! 1. Sweat Kills
The number one challenge with winter hiking- you sweat, you die. Alright, maybe not die, but it's not going to be more fun. All that sweat will soak every layer you've got on, and eventually freeze, trapping you in a wet, cold mess. Once the trail gets steep, try to pull the pace back enough to limit the amount of perspiration.
2. Start Cold
See Tip #1. Start at the trailhead with a little shiver. If you start off warm, you'll be shedding clothes in a matter of minutes (or beginning to sweat!) A good rule of thumb- if you think your fingers, toes, legs, etc., are too cold during the first few steps, give it 15 minutes. If you're still cold, then you should layer up.
3. Stop and Layer Up
Once again, see Tip #1. Sweat freezes, and even if you try to keep try, you still will have a little perspiration on you. As soon as you stop, toss on a layer, even if you feel warm. This will help prevent the sweat from freezing before you realize how cold it really is.
4. The Best Water Bottle Insulators
Don't waste your money on water bottle insulators. A heavy sock is perfect to roll over a Nalgene or plastic bottle, and doubles as a spare sock or mitten if needed during your trip.
5. Blow Bubbles
If you decide to go with a hydration pack (which usually isn't the best idea in cold weather), try to get one with an insulated tube. On top of that, every time you're done sucking up water, blow the rest of the water out of the tube and back into the bladder. This will help keep the tube from freezing solid.
6. Keep Your Batteries Alive
Batteries die 4 times faster in the cold. Yes, I did just make that statistic up, but it's definitely way too fast. Ray Zahab, the famous Canadian explorer, once told me that during his Arctic expeditions, he has only 7 seconds to take out his iPhone and snap a picture before the phone would shut off. To prevent early expiration, keep all batteries against your body, such as in an inner jacket pocket or a sports bra.
7. Dedicated Camp Clothes
The worst realization you can have during a winter backpacking trip is when you're out of dry clothes. This usually happens when you swap out your soaking base layer during lunch for your only dry shirt, and arrive at camp, once again, cold and wet. Always bring a dedicated shirt, pants, and socks for camp, and only for camp- no sweating allowed.
8. Pee Bottles Are Your Friend
Holding your pee in at night actually makes you colder, and nobody wants to climb out into the snow at 2am. Start off your trip with a sports drink, enjoy it on Day 1, and keep it for the remainder of your trip for late night bathroom breaks. And please clearly label it.
9. Double Up on Sleeping Pads
No matter what the R-value, or the insulation rating, of a sleeping pad, in the winter 2 always work better than 1. I usually do a Z-style foam pad underneath an ultralight inflatable pad. If your ultralight pad keeps slipping away, you can put it inside your sleeping bag, but that will make it a bit less effective.
10. "Water Fuel"
If you need to melt snow for water, don't underestimate how much fuel you need to get it done. The colder the temperature, and the more water you need, the more fuel required.
11. Don't Burn the Pot
When melting that aforementioned snow, don't just toss it in and boil. Always start with water at the bottom, otherwise you'll just burn the pot and not much else.
12. Camp Shoes Worth Their Weight in Gold
Do you love hopping around the snow in your bare feet, or shoving on your boots every time you need to leave the tent? Neither do I. A light, puffy style camp shoe or boot might not be the lightest item in your pack, but it can make you the happiest.
13. Sleep With Your Valuables (Water)
Anything you need to keep warm, dry, or at least not frozen, sleeps in your bag with you. This means cell phones, your last pair of damp socks, and all that water you worked so hard to melt.
14. Wind Shields
It takes a ton of fuel to melt snow and heat up dinners in the cold, so don't waste even more to the wind. A simple fold of aluminum foil can wrap around the stove and increase efficiency, saving you plenty of gas.
15. Beware of Widowmakers
Widowmakers, or dead branches that snap off and kill campers as they sleep, are especially dangerous in winter, with heavy snowfall and cold temperatures breaking them easily. Watch where you set up camp- look for more open areas, shorter, more compact trees (like fir trees instead of giant maples), and healthy groves over signs of death and decay.
16. Stake Out with Bags
Instead of using stakes (normal tent stakes are useless in snow), fill plastic bags with snow, tie them to the tent lines, and bury them to anchor down the tent.
17. Flatten Out Your Tent Floor
When camping on snow, any tilt in the tent floor will become more and more obvious as the snow beneath the structure melts and freezes. Take the time to even out the floor first so you don't regret it later!
18. Beware of Moisture
Try to avoid zipping up the entire tent tight, and then diving deep into your sleeping bag. Moisture from your breath turns into condensation in your bag and on the roof of your tent, which then freezes (or just drips down onto you). Keep a good balance between warmth and ventilation in both. 19. Regulate with Extremities
Instead of taking your jackets off and putting them on over and over, focus on adding and subtracting gloves and hats. Your extremities can help regulate the amount of warmth available to your core, which helps keep you in balance without having to stop and change as constantly.
20. Remember That It Sucks
Winter camping can very much be Type 2 fun- fun to talk about later, but maybe not so much in the moment. It's ok if sometimes you're lying in your sleeping bag at 11pm wondering why the hell you're doing this.... everyone else is thinking the same thing.