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 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.

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 (February 9, 2019) 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. Without the right clothing, this would place us close to the edge of frostbite danger.
Mountain Forecast web page example
This is a screen image of the Mountain Forecast web page. High winds and cold temperatures don’t just happen in the middle of winter. This examples is for October 26–27, 2019. It indicates that at 6400 feet (our planned elevation) we could likely expect 25–30 mph winds around noon Saturday and then diminishing to 5–0 mph by Sunday morning. The reality on the ridge was around 5:50 AM winds picked up to 20–30 mph and then dropped right after sunrise. With wind chill it was probably 1–4ºF. Later, after the wind went back down, we measured the temperature at 8 AM and it was 20ºF.

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 can place you at risk of hypothermia. Always be able to cover all flesh if you encounter high winds, keep moving, and if you stop add layers and avoid staying in exposed areas.

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, except when it is windy. Then a tent can add a lot because it protects you from the wind chill. My 4-season tent adds around 5–10ºF degrees in calm weather.

Many of the people I camp with in the winter use 3-season tents. This may not provide as much comfort as a 4-season tent, but it does work. Some 3-season tents are better than others.

If you are using a 3-season tent, high winds in very cold conditions can send both cold air and snowflakes through the mosquito netting, sometimes 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. 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. A high wind can seem like sleeping very near a passing train. Both my 3-season and 4-season tents have ridden out 15–25 mph winds, maybe 30 mph winds. I don’t know the exact speed, but I assume the speeds were in that range based on the forecast and observations. These tents could probably withstand 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 a ridge—safest wind-protected spot that still had a 5-star view.

What to do if your tent fails

If you experience high winds, stay calm. This applies to both hiking and camping. If you are hiking in high winds cover up exposed skin. Bring and wear a balaclava, rain jacket and rain pants (full zip rain pants are easy to put on), and goggles. Once protected, you will be able to stay warm while hiking in all but the most extreme conditions.

At night your tent protects you from the wind chill factor. Be aware that you cannot always position the narrow side of the tent against the wind, because the wind may change direction in the course of the night. When high winds occur it may seem like the wind will blow the tent apart, but be aware that a 10 mph wind is loud in a tent. The wind may not be as strong as it seems inside the tent. Even a 20 mph wind can seem terrifying, especially the first time you experience it in a tent.

Mountaineering tents, including the small ones using an “x” design (two bending poles that cross corner to corner in the shape of an X) are among the most wind proof. That said, I have seen quite a few 3-season tents ride out winds that were likely around 20–30 mph. Some 3-season tents use the same basic x-design as small mountaineering tents, such as the REI Co-op Passage 1 and the North Face Stormbreak 1. The only tent that I have actually seen fail is the 2-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL (twice with two different tents). The smaller 1-person Big Agnes Copper Spur UL did fine. The larger 2-person tent puts more pressure on the poles than the smaller tent.

Wind damaged tent
The wind caused the pole to break and the pole then tore through the fly. The high winds lasted less than an hour and I think the tent failed after maybe 20–30 minutes. Notice though that the tent is still standing.

Having your tent fail in the loud roar of high winds is a disturbing experience. Remain calm and stay in the tent. Your body will anchor the tent and the tent will still provide some protection from the wind chill. Never leave a tent in high wind without first putting on your wind protecting gear. The worse case scenario would be to climb out of the tent and have the tent with your wind protective gear blow off the mountain.

I’ve never done this, but if I thought the tent poles were about to break, I might release the tension from the front grommets (easiest to access) and try to hold the tent close to the ground (while inside). Usually the wind will die down and you can later pack up and move to a lower elevation or more sheltered spot.

Know your gear limits

If the forecast includes gale force winds (scale 7–10), don’t go backpacking. With the right gear, I can remain comfortable in a wind chill down to around –15 while hiking, but if 30 mph winds are in the night time forecast, I wouldn’t go, because at night I rely on a tent and do not want to test it’s limits too far. While you can plan to be in a tent at night for protection, there is the possibility that some situation might require that you are not in your tent. A 20 mph wind at night is my usual limit and I would avoid that too if the forecast indicated that it would be sustained for many hours. The wind is often stronger than the forecast, so if the wind forecast is already 20–30 mph at night, you might be placing your tent in a situation exceeding its limits.

My coldest weather sleeping bag is an expedition bag rated –20ºF, which means it provides comfort for me down to 10º to 0ºF, and that is, therefore, my equipment comfort limit. However, at 10ºF water and food freezes so fast, that my usual trip planning preference is for temperatures above 15ºF. Fortunately, the milder weather in the Pacific Northwest rarely requires trip planning involving temperatures below 15ºF. If the temperature forecast is too cold, the trip can be moved a few days or a week until warmer temperatures occur.

20–30ºF is sort of ideal. This is cold enough that snow doesn’t melt, but not so cold that hot food freezes too quickly. Winter backpacking in colder places such as Alaska and Norway will require colder-rated gear and the need to adapt to colder temperatures than the unusually mild winter temperatures experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.