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.

Winter Backpacking Gear Buying Tips

Before buying winter backpacking gear, here are a few tips. My suggestions are mainly agnostic with regard to brand names. My purpose is just to explain what to look for and share buying tips. These are the things to do and know before you spend your money putting together a winter backpacking kit.

With the right winter backpacking gear, you can be warm, dry, and comfortable snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.

These tips just concern winter gear basics and are not a full gear list for winter backpacking.

Boots

In the early winter season (fall) when rain is freezing and icing the trail and in late season (spring) especially, when the snow is packed down on the trail, micro-spikes add valuable traction.

Keeping your feet warm in PNW winter doesn’t require heavy Mukluks. Your 3-season boots might even work, but only if they are loose enough to allow for warmer socks and still have plenty of circulation. I usually use thin liner socks with heavy outer wool socks. If your socks create a tight boot fit, then your feet will be cold and you are better off getting another pair of boots for winter use. Circulation is the key to warmth. If you buy boots for winter, be sure to try them on wearing liner socks and thick wool outer socks (the thicker the better). Even with both pairs of socks on, the boots should not be tight. Look for boots that are waterproof, but breathe, and sturdy enough to use with snowshoes.

If you want to use your summer boots, but the fit is tight, try relacing them, starting about half way up. How you lace your boots is very important for correct winter fit. Even with boots made for wide feet you may need to skip the first bottom eye-rings to get the perfect loose winter fit. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-keep-your-feet-warm/

Continue reading “Winter Backpacking Gear Buying Tips”

How to keep your feet warm

Three truths to help keep your feet blissfully warm in Pacific Northwest winter conditions.

 

winter booties
Some gear to keep your feet warm. No matter how wet or cold your boots may get during the hike, you want warm dry foot wear while in camp, at night, and during emergencies. In this photo (left to right): Thin smart-wool sock liners, thick wool socks, wool insoles for the booties, and down booties.

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. This often happens when hikers use their three-season hiking boots with thicker wool socks or layer socks with sock liners.

When you select hiking boots, the boots need to be slightly loose. Here are some tips for getting the right fitting winter boots: Continue reading “How to keep your feet warm”

Snowshoe tips

There are a lot of types of snowshoes, including “racing” snowshoes. I’m going keep this simple and put snowshoes into three terrain categories to cut right to what matters (the differences that can save your life):

Use the right snowshoes for the terrain.

There are snowshoes for flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. For 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. Continue reading “Snowshoe tips”

Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions

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.

Some Exceptions…

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”