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