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Stoves Water Bottles Winter water management

How to Keep Your Water from Freezing

Stoves and Water Management

Recommended winter gear for melting snow and carrying water:

  • Stove (liquid fuel recommended for below 15º F)
  • Firestarter (flint and/or lighter and matches)
  • Nalgene bottle (32 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
  • Small Nalgene bottle (Optional, 16 fl. oz., weighs 6.2 oz.)
  • Thermos/metal flask (18 fl. oz., weighs 11.1 oz)
  • Pot large enough for melting snow (I use the Snow Peak Trek 1400 Titanium Cookset, 7.4 oz)
  • Stove repair kit (if you use a liquid fuel stove)
  • Fuel (11 fluid oz. is usually sufficient for a weekend and 20 oz. for 3 days trips)
winter water management gear

NOTE: The methods I’m going to explain in this post are for trips in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. This is important because you may be hiking somewhere that has colder temperatures that require different methods. Here in Washington, I’m usually hiking between 2000–8000ft and camping between 3500–7500ft. What I consider “deep cold” is typically 5º F–15º F, which is when the methods described here matter. Otherwise, expect temps to be on average between 15º–35º F here in the winter. These are thermometer temps, not wind chill. In the photo above, I’m camping on a solidly frozen alpine lake at about 5500ft. The nighttime low was 6º F.

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Backpacking Booties Canister and Liquid Fuel Stoves Glacier Glasses Health Hazards Hypothermia prevention Leave No Trace Rain Pants Sleeping bags Sleeping pads Stoves Winter Backpacking Gear Winter Backpacking Safety Winter Planning

Before You Go…

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

Whenever 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, frostbite, severe sunburns, 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.

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Balaclava Beaufort Wind Force Scale Frostbite prevention Gloves Goggles Health Hazards Hypothermia prevention PNW Weather wind chill wind preparation Wind Protection Gear Winter Planning Winter Weather Winter winds

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.

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Booties Safety Tips Sock liners Winter backpacking Winter Boots Wool insoles

How to keep your feet warm

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:

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Avalanche dangers Snow dangers Winter backpacking Winter camping

Winter Backpacking Dangers

A few things that make winter backpacking dangerous

Snow camping and winter backpacking are great ways to experience the wilderness. In fact, nothing is as beautiful and enchanting as the wilderness in winter. But if you are new to the idea, here are a few reasons you shouldn’t just head out alone or unprepared. Be aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions. Below is a short beginner’s list of basic hazards and concerns that every winter backpacker should know.

  • Avalanches. Learn about avalanche dangers and then always check the avalanche forecast in your area before heading out. This is not something that can be fully learned in an afternoon or even in a few days of training.
avalanche danger
It takes time to learn about avalanche dangers, avi-gear, and precautions to take.
  • Snow conceals lethal dangers such as tree wells, rapidly moving streams, and deep crevasses that you can fall in, as well as heavy cornices that can collapse below you or bury you.
hidden dangers in the snow
A snowshoer uses an 8ft avalanche probe to search for the bottom of a hole in the snow. Moments earlier he suddenly found himself in this hole. He had fallen through the snow after several other hikers crossed the same spot with no trouble. Fortunately, he was able to suspend himself with his arms and gradually gain enough traction on the sides of the hole to force himself out. The snow had concealed a stream. The possibility of being washed away under deep snow in a cold stream is not something one wants to contemplate.
  • Winter weather—cold temperatures, reflected UV light, and wind conditions can create special hazards that require specific types of gear. In cold and snowy conditions you are at greater risk of hypothermia, frostbite, snow blindness, and snow immersion suffocation.
  • Navigation is more challenging. Trails, trail signs, and familiar landmarks are covered in snow increasing the risks of getting lost. Snow and clouds can create whiteouts obscuring directions.
winter navigation challenges
You can’t always count on the forecast to deliver on promises of clear weather. The mountains have their own ways of generating unexpected conditions. Your earlier footsteps can be quickly erased.
  • Help can be a long time coming. Depending on where you are, there are fewer people in the wilderness to find you or help you if something goes wrong. There is often no phone reception and even if you carry an emergency device a mountain rescue can take anywhere from 6 hours to several days depending on circumstances, location, and weather conditions.

Be sure to read my beginner’s safety tips list too.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically.

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and leave comments below.

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Backpacking Safety Tips Snow camping Snowshoeing Winter backpacking Winter Backpacking Safety Winter camping

Winter Backpacking Safety

A few safety tips

This is a concise list of safety tips for beginners who want to start winter backpacking.

  1. Avoid traveling alone. Hike in a group when possible and keep in eyesight of each other. If you think you may get separated, consider using walkie-talkies.
  2. Learn about snow. Start with short snowshoe day-hikes. Learn about the seasonal differences in snow conditions, from deep early season fresh snow to late-season consolidated snow. Learn how snow changes not just over the course of the season but of the day and how these changes affect travel speeds and gear requirements. Get to know which conditions require micro-spikes, crampons, snowshoes, and ice axes. Learn how to layer clothing and what levels of insulation are needed for different temperature ranges. Being too hot—overheating and sweating—or being too cold can both lead to hypothermia.
  3. Give greater attention to trail navigation. Know how to orient a map, use a compass, and spot 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. Both wind and fresh snowfall can obscure your tracks quickly. Learn more about trip planning here: Trip Planning.
  4. Carry appropriate gear suited for the conditions and weather. Make sure you have the appropriate type of snowshoes for the terrain, the necessary sleeping bag and sleeping pad ratings, a tent that sheds snow, etc. Bring essentials such as first aid, headlamp, extra food and water, rain gear, etc. Have a gear checklist and do a visual inspection before leaving home. Avoid cotton clothing because it doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin making it harder for your body to retain warmth. 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.
  5. Expect to get wet and be prepared to deal with it if it happens. Even though it is winter, you will likely sweat a lot while hiking. Always be able to change into dry clothing. Snowmelt can cause your boots and gloves to get wet. Wear gaiters to reduce snowmelt getting into your boots. Bring extra socks and gloves to replace wet ones. Carry rain gear even on clear days because the snow melting in the trees above can create rain showers in the forest that quickly soak your pack and clothing. Protect your sleeping bag, base layers, down jackets, and extra clothing with dry sacks inside your backpack.
  6. Attend avalanche classes. Learn how to identify risks. There are often free classes available, such as those hosted by REI.
  7. Check weather and avalanche forecasts before leaving. If things look worse than anticipated, know when to turn around.
  8. Carry avalanche safety gear. Bring a transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use this gear when traveling in areas with avalanche risks. Practice beacon recovery with friends.
  9. Be prepared for wind. Check the wind forecast and carry wind protection, such as rain pants and jacket, goggles, balaclava, and extra gloves. Learn more about winter winds here: Preparing for Winter Winds.
  10. Bring UV protection. From January to July, UV reflection from the snow intensifies and can cause severe sunburns and snow blindness. Bring category 4 sunglasses (Glacier Glasses) to protect your eyes. Bring sunscreen and be able to cover exposed skin. Even the bottom of your nose and lips can get blistered from UV exposure on the snow.
  11. Learn how to avoid common snow dangers such as tree wells, snow bridges, cornices, and crevasses.
  12. Carry a stove and multiple fire-starting devices. Don’t rely on fires for warmth. Collecting wood and starting a fire in deep snow is difficult and often counter-productive because you expend valuable time and energy and often get wet in the process. It is also environmentally unsound in high elevation alpine areas. A stove is a faster and far more reliable way to generate warmth, resupply water, and heat food. Tents, sleeping bags, and jackets don’t create warmth, they preserve it. Your warmth comes from within your own body. The first rule of staying warm is to not lose body heat. While hiking you will wear fewer layers of clothing to avoid sweating, but once you stop moving you must layer up quickly to avoid core heat loss from your body. Once you lose warmth it is hard to recover it. Avoid staying in the wind without wind protection and sufficient layers. Being able to use a stove to create hot water bottles and heat food is important to generating, sustaining, and recovering warmth.