Experience It

winter camp cascades

Winter Backpacking in the PNW

Seattle, WA
54 Members

Do you enjoy being outside in the snow? Want to backpack year round? This group is for backpackers interested in non-technical, challenging, and enjoyable hikes to the snow-co…

Next Meetup

Snowshoe to Ptarmigan Ridge Near Happy Bunny Butte (Overnigh…

Saturday, Feb 9, 2019, 7:00 AM
4 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →

Be Part of the Winter Backpacking Team

General Group Information

Most of the trips posted will be two-day, one night trips.
A few will be longer.

Trip Planning: Bad-weather will cancel some weekend plans. Some trips will be rescheduled for weekdays. Good-weather weekends are not always possible. Weekday trips, therefore, will sometimes be arranged on short notice. For most trips, there needs to be at least one day that is partially clear. Hiking in bad weather, even near white-out conditions, is acceptable, provided there is some clearing in the forecast.

Group Size: Group size will usually be 3-6. Some will be larger (8–12).

winter backpacking camp photo

The Waitlist

Everyone needs to sign onto the waitlist. To increase your chances of going, see “Special considerations for the Wait List” below.

Special Considerations for the Wait List

Selection from the waitlist will be based on who signs up first, with exceptions made for the following considerations:

  • giving someone new an opportunity
  • ability to provide transportation, preferably AWD/4WD (most trips will only require two or three vehicles)
  • known previous experience with winter backpacking (preference will be made to always include at least one other person with known winter experience)
  • whether the person brings diversity to the group (diversity is valued)
  • ability to keep up with the group (especially important for long trips) and willingness to stay together
  • gear readiness (it helps if you communicate that your kit is equipped for the anticipated conditions)
  • first-aid skills
  • willingness to bring avalanche-gear (transceiver, shovel, probe)

If any of the above describes you, send me a private message, because it could make a difference. You must be over 18.

Expectations

Where are some good places to backpack during the winter months? Most lists stress low-elevation trails with no snow, such as trails along rivers. The purpose of Winter Backpacking in the PNW is to seek out snow for as much of the year as possible. Snow camping is the lowest impact method of camping and, of course, the snow is beautiful.

Skiing, snowboarding, and short snowshoe trips are considered normal, but for many people, hiking has a “season” that doesn’t include winter. Most trails are considered impassable in winter, but with the right skills, equipment, and route finding, it is possible to enjoy hiking and backpacking in the winter, especially in the mild winters of the Pacific Northwest.

In the PNW most people hike July-September and this puts considerable strain on the trails. Oregon is now expanding permit areas and the same is likely to happen in Washington State in the years to come. The Enchantments had over 17,000 visitors in 2017 with 3000 overnight permits issued (over 20,000 people applied). These permits are just for May 15 through October 31.

One solution is to turn this around and hike September to July, rather than July to September. The advantage is more freedom, solitude, and less environmental stress. This approach requires lighter gear, route-finding skills, snow travel skills, and avalanche awareness, but the rewards are higher. Winter backpacking allows hikers a true backcountry experience.

Most trips will be in Wilderness Areas, National Parks or Alpine zones. These are very special places that we need to protect.

Respect the wilderness. Everyone is expected to follow leave-no-trace (LNT) practices. The standard LNT practices were developed and promoted in the 1970s and 80s after visits dramatically increased from around 3 million (1958) to 20 million (1967) in one decade. In 2017 the number of annual visitors reached 330 million. It is likely to continue growing and this creates the need for better LNT practices. Those managing National Parks and Public Lands are unable to protect the land and regulation can provoke a counter-productive response. Education and awareness are thought to be the best methods. The standard leave-no-trace guidelines are well known, but how can we do better? Here are some LNT 2.0 suggestions:

  • Travel off-season
  • Always camp on snow when possible (easy to do in the PNW, September–July)
  • No campfires (campfires are unnecessary and usually prohibited in Alpine areas due to the lack of organic materials and the impact fires have on the landscape)
  • Only use liquid fuel stoves (no alcohol or wood “twig” ultralight stoves)
  • Travel in smaller groups (3–6)
  • Use WAG bags (pack out human waste)
  • Leave the pets at home (Pets are great trail companions, but unfortunately impact ground-nesting birds and other wildlife.)
  • Do not run or travel fast on trails as this activates the prey instinct of predators, resulting in human/predator conflicts, with predators being put down.
  • Don’t include specific locations of destinations in social media.

We are not just sharing a fragile land with millions of other human visitors, but with many species that have no other home. We may be the last generation to experience this privilege. Have thoughts and suggestions for better LNT practices? Your thoughts are welcome.

Respect other hikers in the group. Be considerate of others and respect the quality of their experience. If, for example, you want to bring music, bring ear-buds or headphones. We want to have fun, but for safety and consideration of the group, let’s keep it smoke-free, drug-free (non-prescription drugs), and limit or avoid alcohol (drinking alcohol in the cold lowers your core temperature).

For most trips, we will stop for coffee on the way to the trailhead and stop for food and drinks after the hike. It helps if everyone avoids having other plans that inconvenience the group. We will try to carpool whenever possible, so bring a contribution for the driver if you are a passenger. As a courtesy, a change of shoes and shirt is recommended for the drive back to help keep the cars clean.

Safety

Backpacking in the Cascade Mountains is dangerous and people get injured and killed doing it. None of the planned trips are risk free. If you are seeking safe, risk-free recreation, you should probably consider some other activity. There are many risks including falling from high elevations, hypothermia, and avalanches. If you are concerned about predators, such as bears, mountain lions, or humans, bring bear spray. Do not bring lethal forms of self-defense.

Avalanche Gear

Everyone is encouraged to bring at least a transceiver. If you can, please bring shovel, probe, and transceiver. We have seen avalanches on the trails even when NWAC had posted “Low” on the Avalanche Danger Scale.

Large late season avalanche on a “low” danger day.

As, examples, these are the avalanche gear choices I use:

  • Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport Beacon. 11.6 oz with batteries and case. (Usually around $240–300) All avalanche transceivers use the same frequency and will work together.
  • Backcountry Access B-1 EXT Bomber Avalanche Shovel. 1lb 5oz. (About $50)
  • Black Diamond QuickDraw Tour Probe – 240cm. 10.4 oz (About $60) Probes are usually 240cm to 320cm. Longer is better.

This gear combination will cost $350–400 and add 2lbs to your pack and another 11.6oz around your torso. It may seem like a lot of money and weight, but it is insurance that could save your life or help you save someone else.

Just as there are many ways you can die from automobile accidents, winter backpacking involves dangers. Avalanches can push you off cliffs or into rocks and trees at very high speeds. You can also be buried and suffocated, die from hypothermia, or be crushed. You cannot outrun an avalanche. Once buried, you will be unable to move, so your transceiver must be turned on to the “send” mode so that others can find you. Avalanche gear will not guarantee your safety. Rather it will increase the chances that you will be located if buried and it will increase your ability to help recover others.

Recommended reading: Avalanche Essentials: A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival by Bruce Tremper, Mountaineers Books (Paperback).

Liability

Everyone must read and agree to the release of liability. Provide (email) a clear statement such as “I have read and accept the terms of the release of liability.” Let your loved one know you are involved in these activities and that you have agreed to the release of liability. Put the name of a contact person in the lid or outer pocket of your backpack. There are no avalanche experts, no guides, no first responders, and no medical professionals provided. There is usually no phone service in the wilderness. Everyone is a learner trying to increase his or her skills. Be prepared for the same risks and take the same precautions you would take if you were backpacking alone in winter conditions. Arrive self-sufficient. Organizers are only group facilitators for the trip and may have no prior knowledge of the trail conditions. YOU are responsible for evaluating weather and terrain conditions and risks.

Necessary Gear and Redundancy

Some types of gear are required. Along with the usual ten essentials, you must have mountain terrain snowshoes, trekking poles with snow baskets, boots suitable for snowshoes, layers, 5+ R-value under your sleeping bag (two air mattresses are recommended, one air, one foam, or two foam), and usually a 10-degree, 0-degree, or warmer sleeping bad. Everyone is expected to arrive self-sufficient. If you bring a heavy tent, expect to carry it yourself. Redundancy adds safety. If, for example, someone’s air mattress fails, someone else can give up a foam mattress. If a stove fails, some one else can share.

You will need to adjust your gear based on circumstances. Late winter is different from early winter. The days are longer and sunnier and you must be prepared to avoid severe sunburns and snow blindness.

Pack Weight

You can bring a heavy pack and many people do. However, if your pack exceeds 35lbs without food or snowshoes, it should be possible to reduce the weight. Replace necessary gear with lighter versions. Consider discarding items not on a basic winter gear list. Do not compromise warmth or safety by going too light, but avoid over packing. Heavy packs increase the chances of injury, accidents, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Even with snowshoes attached and food and water, a weekend winter pack should be no heavier than 45lbs. A weekend pack with necessary gear, including snowshoes, food, water, and avalanche gear, can be 30–35lbs. If you have experience with heavier packs (regularly climb Mount Denali), then fine.

Difficulty, Experience, and Conditioning

You do not have to be a young super athlete, but you do need to be in good mental and physical shape with sufficient conditioning to keep up. Snowshoeing with a heavy winter pack can be difficult and exhausting. Some trips require snowshoeing up hill all the available hours of daylight. Trips can be up to 12 miles and 5000ft in one day. Don’t sign up for a trip that is beyond your abilities.

You should be experienced enough to know your abilities. If you have never snowshoed before, do some short day snowshoe trips first. Ranger-led day trips are also available for beginners (https://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/rangerprograms.htm, http://www.discovernw.org/store_winter-snowshoe-program-at-snoqualmie-pass_SNOWSHOE01.html). You can also test some of your gear capabilities by winter car camping. One of the main skills you need is the ability to layer clothes while hiking and in camp so as to not overheat or lose heat.

Additional Valuable Tips

With the right skills and practices, it is possible to stay warm at all times. Please read the tips found here: https://winterbackpacking.com/winter-backpacking-info-3.pdf.

Winter camp