Can you use a 3-season tent in winter conditions? Here’s what you need to know.
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.
Some tents are definitely better than others. The ones that are too heavy or unable to bear snow or unable to stand in high winds will not be mentioned.
3-Season Tent Examples
Here are three of the better examples, used by winter backpackers in our group:
These tents are lightweight and packable. They shed snow and withstand wind well.
The wind is an important consideration because stronger winds are more frequent in winter. The wind passes through 3-season tents more easily than 4-season tents making the tents colder inside. Sometimes drifting snow will pass through the mosquito-netting too. These problems make 3-season tents less comfortable. Otherwise, in calm weather, the experience of being in one is very similar to being in a 4-season tent.
No one wants to watch you suffer. Please read the information shared here before coming on one of our winter backpacking trips. Snowshoeing in deep snow for miles while ascending thousands of feet to a ridge or summit can be demanding and strenuous, but being comfortable in the cold and staying warm does not require toughness, rather it is about bringing the appropriate gear and knowing how to use it.
If you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that 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
When ever 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, frost bite, severe sun burns, 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.
With the standard leave-no-trace guidelines failing, it is worth considering how we can do better. Otherwise, we can expect more wilderness restrictions.
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 voluntaryleave-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.
It is always a good idea to trim off unnecessary weight, but sometimes there are safety considerations or just simple pleasures and preferences that make you want to hang on to some gear choices. Here are two of mine.
Most of my gear falls in the light to ultra-light category. This is important especially in the winter because sleeping gear and warm clothes add to the weight. But I have a few not-so-ultra-light exceptions, some of which I’m going to discuss in this post: my hard-shell bear-proof food canister and my extra sleeping pad. Continue reading “Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions”
Most backpackers stick to three seasons—spring, summer, and early fall— avoiding winter and cold weather camping, but some backpackers keep going, year round. Why?
The things that make winter backpacking the best
Here are some reasons snow backpacking delivers a special and unique kind of backpacking bliss.
Spectacular snow scenery.
Solitude: There are fewer hikers in cold weather and fewer cars at the trail heads.
Low-impact: When the snow is deep (6 feet or more) you can set up your tent most anywhere without impacting the meadows.
Fewer restrictions: Campsites and trails are buried deep under the snow. You can hike off trail without damaging fragile vegetation. Areas that are restricted to permit holders are open in the winter and parts of the shoulder months of May and November.
No bugs: The winter cold suppresses mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying bugs.
Less sweat: The cool, usually dry air, helps minimize sweat.
Less trail dust and mud. The bottom of your tent rarely gets dirty and the footprint (ground cloth) isn’t even needed.
Bears are usually hibernating.
It’s easier to have a level, smooth, and stick-free surface for your sleeping area
Water is everywhere. You just have to melt it. In the winter there is no reason to carry a heavy load of water.
Very few hiking experiences can compare to traveling across pristine snow under a blue sky.
If you’re new to backpacking in snow conditions, here are a few things you can do to help minimize some of the common dangers.
A few safety tips
Winter backpacking is like driving a car. There are always dangers, but there are ways to reduce those dangers. After all, we want to make sure we get a chance to backpack another day.
Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, carry walkie-talkies.
Do day-hikes in the snow to learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions and also how snow changes in the course of the day effect travel and gear requirements (snow is usually harder in the morning and softer as the day progresses). This way you can get to know conditions for different types of gear, such as micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. It will give you an opportunity to learn how to layer clothing and what levels of warm clothing are needed for different temperature ranges. Being too hot—overheating and sweating—or being too cold can both lead to hypothermia.
Give greater attention to trail navigation, before and during hiking. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spots reliable natural markers. Consider bringing a GPS, but don’t be reliant on electronic devices or batteries which may fail, especially in cold weather. Don’t depend on clear visibility, or expect exposed trails, or footprints in the snow for directions.
Carry appropriate gear (layers, insulated clothing, non-cotton clothing, and gear suited for the condition and weather, such as the snowshoes with side walls and a four-season tent that sheds snow). Always be prepared for conditions colder than anticipated. It is good to have a sleeping bag that is 10–20 degrees warmer than what you expect. If you’re just out for a day hike, carry emergency shelter in your day pack.
Expect to get wet and be prepared to deal with it. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Snow may melt on your books and gloves. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting your boots wet. Bringing extra pairs of socks and gloves to replace wet ones.
Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. (There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.)
Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
Carry and know how to use basic avalanche safety gear (transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel) when traveling in areas with avalanche risks.
Check wind conditions and generally be prepared for high winds (goggles, balaclava, gloves, windbreaker, insulated jacket with hood).
Learn about common dangers such as tree wells, snowbridges, and crevasses.
Carry multiple fire-starting devices, but don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting and starting a fire is difficult, counter-productive (you expend valuable energy and often get wet in the process) and environmentally unsound. Fires are for emergency situation. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The art of staying warm involves preserving the warmth your body generates. The secret to being warm is eating, circulation, and insulation. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it.