Preparing for Winter Winds

Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 8,000 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.

There is a thin line of protection between being a happy winter camper and being miserable and at risk. Always plan your kit so that you are fully protected and never cold for any significant length of time.

winter winds average speeds in Washington State
If you are use to three-season backpacking, you may be unfamiliar with the increased wind speeds of winter. Planning for the cold is not enough. You need to factor in wind as well to be safe.

Wind Forecasts

When planning a trip, bear in mind that a forecast of 10–25mph wind can fail to represent wind speed in specific terrain conditions, such as the crest of ridges or narrow saddles and valleys, where the wind can increase significantly. The Mountain Forecast website provides wind speed data for select elevations.

intense mountain winds
The forecast included 10–25mph winds, but on this ridge we had trouble walking, indicating that the wind speed was around 40mph. The temperatures were 7–10ºF at 5000ft, making the wind chill probably –15ºF. This placed us close to the edge of frostbite danger.

Judging wind speed and frostbite risk

It is often easier to get a temperature forecast than to know the wind speed you are encountering. If the wind is strong enough that you are having trouble walking and you know temperatures are below 10ºF, then you are at risk of frostbite on exposed skin. To make it easier to judge wind speeds, I have combined the Beaufort Wind Force Scale with a wind chill chart (see below). Note that the brackets for West and East Cascades are averages. Wind chills can exceed these averages.

Beaufort Wind Force Scale combined with Wind Chill Chart
The Beaufort scale is based on observation rather than actual measurements. These observable correlations allow the scale to be a practical guide to wind speeds. It was developed by Francis Beaufort of the Royal Navy in 1805 and first officially used by HMS Beagle. Here, I have combined it with wind chill information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and added some basic data about conditions on the west and east sides of the Cascade Range.

Except on the eastern slopes of the Cascade range, average temperatures and wind speeds do not pose a serious frostbite risk below 9,000ft. However, unusually low temperatures and high wind speeds can occur. The most likely risk would be in the 0–10º degree range with winds 15mph or above.  

Average winter temperatures in Cascade Mountains

Even without the risk of frostbite, wind robs your body of warmth and comfort. It also places you at risk of hypothermia. The number one safety rule is to be able to cover all flesh if you encounter high winds.

Essential wind protection gear

  • Have a hardshell jacket with a hood to protect your core and head. Layers of Capilene and wool are not enough to prevent strong winds from robbing your body warmth. Even if there is no rain in the forecast, always bring your hardshell rain protection in case of high winds.
  • Use a Balaclava that is designed to cover your nose and mouth while allowing ventilation under your nose to prevent your goggles and/or glasses from fogging over.
  • Wear ski goggles. These are available in eyewear compatible designs.
  • Wear gloves with high-rise design to cover jacket sleeve ends 
  • Wear gaiters to seal the ends of your pants. In severe conditions bring hardshell pants as well.
Winter wind protection gear
Balaclava, goggles, and high-rise gloves. These with your regular winter layers will allow you to keep all flesh protected from high winds.

A hardshell jacket, gaiters, and gloves are standard gear for any winter weather trip. So the only added wind protection weight is the balaclava (2.45 oz) and goggles (5.40 oz), adding a half pound to your kit. I prefer several pairs of light-weight wool liner gloves and a mid-weight water-resistant pair, but in severe cold temperatures (below 15ºF), I’ll add heavier high-rise gloves too (7.80 oz). 

Costs: balaclava ($36), goggles ($65–85), and high-rise gloves ($25–100). Prices can vary a lot and you may be able to find these items on sale. I bought my goggles for $35.

A buff adds warmth to the neck and can be pulled up over part of your face but the thin fabric does not provide adequate protection in high winds and low temperatures. A winter weather balaclava is necessary.

Finding shelter from the wind

If you find yourself hiking on a ridge in hind winds, you’ll need to find a natural wind barrier to set up camp and reduce the windchill. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best and safest possible locations may be on the windward side of the ridge. The leeward side of the ridge will often be loaded with snow with increased avalanche danger. Look down the windward slope and watch for moving trees. The trees may be relatively still, indicating that the wind is gaining speed and peaking on the ridge. You can then head down the windward side (hiking into the wind) to a lower elevation, which may be all that is needed to escape the stronger winds. In the evening the winds will often subside. In my experience, winds usually die down a few hours after sunset allowing a better opportunity to come out of the tent and prepare a meal, hot tea thermos, or hot water bottle for the night.

Wind and tents

Tents add very little warmth while you sleep in winter (my 4-season tent adds around 5–10º degrees), except when it is windy. If you are using a 3-season tent, high winds in very cold conditions will send snowflakes through the mosquito netting, allowing drifts to build up around your sleeping bag. This can quickly (within an hour) reduce your warmth and the wind will also more easily penetrate the sleeping bag too. In high winds, fine snow blowing in the wind can be hardly perceptible, but if you leave your tent door open the snow can build up quickly. Face the opening away from the wind and put snow around the edges of your fly for added protection.

Inside your tent, even a light 5mph wind will seem like a strong wind. A 20mph wind will cause a significant amount of noise, like sleeping very near a passing train. Both my 3-season and 4-season tents have ridden out high winds 15–25mph. They could probably withstand much higher winds, but the experience inside would be difficult to sleep through.

The primary reason to carry a 4-season tent is wind protection.

4-season tent used for wind protection
My 4-season tent on windward side of the ridge—safest wind-protected spot that still had a 5-star view.

Know your gear limits

My coldest weather sleeping bag is rated –20ºF, which means it provides comfort down to 0ºF, and that is, therefore, my equipment comfort limit. However, at 10ºF water and food freezes so fast, that my trip planning preference is for above 15ºF, with ideal weather being between 20–30ºF—cold enough that snow doesn’t melt, but not so cold that hot food freezes too quickly.