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Winter Mountain Camping and Hiking

By Kent Trulsson

The coming of winter need not end your mountain hiking and camping until next summer.  Snowshoes can make the mountains accessible through the winter, provided that you equip yourself properly and learn a few specialized snow camping skills.

Clothing:  The single biggest challenge of winter camping and hiking is staying both warm and dry.  Mountain temperatures may vary from minus 20°F on a windy ridge at night to 50°F in a sheltered meadow on a sunny calm day.  The even greater range of aerobic activity levels, from climbing a mountain on snowshoes, to sitting around camp eating dinner, demand a layered clothing system to precisely maintain the right degree of warmth.  This cannot be achieved with a single heavy down jacket.  Rather, you will need a number of thinner layers to allow continual, on-the-fly adjustment of your clothing to match the weather and your level of activity.  The overarching goal is to stay just warm enough to be comfortable without breaking a sweat and accumulating moisture in your clothing.  Perspiration will chill you quickly as soon as you stop working.  Managing the moisture you generate is usually more important than repelling already frozen precipitation.

The outer layer should be a wind- and water-resistant (not waterproof) shell.  Both pants and jacket should have full-length zippers to maximize ventilation when you are working hard and the temperatures are mild.  Underarm pit zips on the jacket are a plus.  Breathability is vital.  In winter, soft shell fabrics usually work better than the standard hard shell rain jacket, GoreTex included.  Middle insulation layers should be made of pile, polyester thermal fabrics, nylon covered synthetic fiberfill, or wool.  Do not wear anything with cotton.  You will need a range of fabric weights to fit all conditions.  At night you may wear them all.  During the day when you are working hard, you may need no insulation layer.  Because down becomes ineffective when wet, down-filled insulating garments are best for night or other times when you are dry and sedentary.  The inner-most layer should be underwear and long underwear with moisture wicking properties, such as Patagonia’s Capilene fabric.

You should have several different weights of hats and gloves.  These are the easiest part of the system to adjust while you are hiking.  Layers are just as important for your extremities as they are for your core: a thin Capilene balaclava covered with a pile cap covered by the hood of a nylon shell, with a pile neck gaiter or face mask, covers the full range of conditions better than one thick down-filled hood.  For your hands, have a choice of several weights of liner gloves, covered as needed by pile or synthetic fiberfill mittens, and finally with mitten shells when cold or glove shells when warm.

Always wear sunglasses or goggles.  The high altitude and the great reflectivity of snow can quickly lead to snow-blindness (sun-burn of the eyes).

While hiking, constantly monitor your temperature:  Am I too warm?  Am I sweating?  If so, unzip your jacket, take off a hat or glove layer, and if necessary, stop and take off an insulating layer.  Am I too cold?  Put on a layer, or zip up any openings.  Stay dry, and you will ultimately stay warm.

Water:  Dehydration can be serious problem in winter mountain camping and hiking.  Snowshoeing in high altitudes requires heavy, open-mouth breathing of very dry air, resulting in high water loss.  Carried water tends to freeze quickly, and replacement water must usually be melted from snow.  Even when you are day hiking, carry a stove, fuel and pot to replenish drinking water.  You will need a large melting pot (at least 2 liters in capacity) and a smaller snow-scoop pot.  Start with a small amount of water in the bottom of the melting pot, and continue adding clean snow as it melts.  Bring the water to a boil before using.  Never use a stove in a closed tent.  A stove with a wind screen and separate fuel canister is preferable to a burner mounted on top of a fuel canister.  You will also need a flat surface to support the stove, so it does not melt into the snow.  A 12” square piece of “peg-board” works well.  White gas fuel is preferable to isobutane / propane, because it continues to work below zero, and is easier to pack in bulk.  Plan on carrying about three times the fuel you would normally need for a summer trip, and spending about an hour a day just melting snow.  To keep the water liquid between melting sessions, fill one-liter hard-plastic bottles with hot water and cover with thick foam insulating jackets.  Store the bottles upside down, so the threaded lid does not freeze shut.  Keep the bottles in as insulated a location as possible during the night.

Food and Cooking:  There are few activities that require more caloric energy than winter mountain snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with a pack.  Walking or skiing through deep snow uses much more energy than trail hiking, and maintaining body warmth in cold temperatures demands even more energy.  Plan on increasing your food intake about 50% above a summer menu.  This is not the place to diet!  Choose lunch foods that can be eaten even if frozen.  Even bars will freeze if you do not carry them inside your jacket.  Keep lunch and snack stops short but frequent, so as not to get chilled.  Dinner should include slower-digesting fats and proteins, as well as complex carbohydrates, which will continue to provide energy through the night.  Consider hot drinks with every meal.  Do not cook inside a tent.  Besides being a fire danger and introducing unwanted water vapor inside the tent, the carbon monoxide produced by the burning stove can make high altitude breathing even harder, or even fill an enclosed tent.  Instead, consider digging a cooking pit in the snow, with stoves protected from the wind in the center, surrounded by seating benches.

Tent, Sleeping Pads and Bag:  A tent for winter mountain camping should have two walls (body plus covering fly) with no open screen sections in the body that cannot be zipped shut.  (Wind can blow spindrift snow through insect screens, even when under the fly.)  The tent frame should be a three or four pole dome design, with multiple supporting guy lines.  Normal peg-style tent stakes do not work in snow.  Instead use 1” wide by 10” long snow stakes, or parachute-shaped nylon or V-shaped metal snow anchors that are buried in the snow.  Select a tent location that is not under the snow-shedding line of large trees, but that is sheltered from strong winds.  Level the tent site with a shovel, and thoroughly pack the snow down by tramping over it with your snowshoes.  Also pack down a defined path between tents and to the designated cooking and latrine areas.

You will need two sleeping pads when camping on snow.  The bottom pad should be ½” thick (minimum) full-length closed-cell foam, such as a RidgeRest pad.  The upper pad should be a 1-1/2” thick minimum, full length self-inflating open-cell foam filled air mattress, such as a Thermarest.  Do not try to get by with one pad—no matter how warm your sleeping bag, you will end up very cold.  Do not try to use an air mattress without insulating fill.  Bring two long webbing straps to tie the pads together.  Your sleeping bag should be rated to the expected minimum temperature.  Be careful not be breathe into the sleeping bag—the condensed moisture will quickly freeze inside the bag’s insulation and degrade the insulation’s effectiveness.  For maximum warmth, consider wearing a balaclava or face-mask, as well as a pile hat.  Change out of your hiking long underwear, which may be damp with sweat, into a dry set of sleeping underwear.

Weather and Snow Conditions:  Finally, to stay safe, you must be aware of the present and forecast weather and snow conditions.  When hiking after a heavy snowfall, stay away from steep slopes that could pose an avalanche danger.  High winds can build unsupported cornices of snow on the down-wind side of ridge lines. Stay well back from the edge of these cornices.  Sudden blizzard conditions can make it dangerous to hike.  Use marked routes (or mark them yourself with flags) if there is any a chance of white-out conditions blocking a safe return to the trailhead or camp.  Monitor the skies and be prepared to return early if conditions change for the worse.

By following these guidelines, hiking and camping in the mountains (such as our upcoming Taos Bus Trip) can be enjoyed year-round.

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