If you want to really enjoy winter backpacking, one of the first skills you need to master is your water management. This is both about staying hydrated and staying warm. It may seem like a minor thing to have your water freeze in a plastic bottle, but if you allow this to happen, it is one of those small things that can spiral into big problems. You don’t want this to happen. So let’s start with the basic gear necessary for managing your water.
Will a 3-season Tent Work in Pacific Northwest Winters?
The short answer is yes. I’m not going to do a detailed review of particular tents, but I want to mention a few models that I see often on our trips. I’ll also discuss a few pros and cons of using 3-season tents in the Pacific Northwest winter conditions and some of the best 4-season options available. In context, I’ll be referring to small and light tents for backpacking rather than tents that are used for basecamps and long stays in one location.
Even if you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that the winter adds unique risks, and what you know about common gear, such as stoves, hydration systems, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tents, will be different from what you need to know for winter conditions.
Know the Risks
Whenever you hike into the backcountry you expose yourself to dangers and risks, such as avalanches caused by snow, mud, or rock slides. There are hunters, falling rocks, falling trees, tree wells, and the risk of slipping off ledges, falling through snow or ice, suffering from hypothermia, snow blindness, frostbite, severe sunburns, stove accidents, etc.
Know the risks when you decide to go winter backpacking. Be prepared and bring what you need. Basic tips for staying warm and knowing what gear to bring are explained below. This is not a comprehensive discussion of winter backpacking or backcountry safety, but it does contain important things that you MUST know before going.
In the PNW most people hike July-September and this concentrated use can put considerable strain on the trails. To control the adverse impact, Oregon is now expanding permit areas to limit the number of hikers and the same is likely to happen in Washington state in the years to come. The popular area known as the Enchantments, had over 17,000 visitors in 2017 with 3000 overnight permits issued (over 20,000 people applied). These permits are just for six months—May 15 through October 31. July and August probably get the highest number of visitors.
In the hiking community, everyone is expected to follow voluntary leave-no-trace (LNT) practices. However, if even 1% of 10,000 visitors per season on a 20 mile trail don’t know or don’t care about LNT practices and leave garbage or human excrement along the trail, that’s 100 incidents of the environment being trashed each year.
1. Camp on snow
Be equipped to camp on the snow. Once you learn how to do it and how comfortable it is, you may never want to camp on the ground again. To do this, you need a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. The standard practice for snow camping in the Pacific Northwest is two mattresses, either one solid core and one air or two solid ones.
Snow is soft and clean, usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation. Sometimes you might need to stomp it down a bit with snowshoes or level it with a snow shovel. It is easy to level a spot even on slopes. Pitching a tent on the snow is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It also increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). And, it is often the only option if you want to camp in the winter season. So be prepared!
For more on sleeping warm, see winter sleeping bags.
Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. However, during the winter months, wind speeds increase significantly and trip planning needs to include clothing for wind protection to prevent discomfort, hypothermia, and even frostbite.
This is just a quick tip to help you stake out your tent on snow. You may already be familiar with snow stakes or pegs and the deadman strategy for securing the pegs in deep soft snow. What I want to explain here is a method of setting up your guy lines so that you don’t have to tie any knots when you set up your tent. That is, the only tieing involved is done at home before you head out to the wilderness. Technically, you do need to tie one knot, a girth hitch to attach the cord to the stake, but this isn’t the kind of knot that requires much finger dexterity or time in cold conditions.
With the right winter backpacking gear, you can be warm, dry, and comfortable while snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.
Truth 1: Circulation equals warmth.
Make sure your boots fit correctly. Not too loose or too tight. If your boots are too tight-blood circulation will be reduced causing your feet to become cold, especially when you are not moving. Overly-tight boots often occur when hikers use their three-season hiking boots with thicker wool socks or layer socks with sock liners.
Use the right snowshoes for the terrain.
There are snowshoes for flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. For alpine terrain here in the Pacific Northwest, I use snowshoes designed for mountain terrain. How are mountain terrain snowshoes different?
Flat terrain snowshoes provide support but have little traction on the underside. This allows you to go faster on flat terrain but making them a potential high-speed death sled on mountains. Rolling terrain snowshoes have more traction, but only mountain terrain snowshoes have the added traction plus pop-up heel lifts that give your calves a break on steep terrain.