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 Safety

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  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 and know how to use basic avalanche safety gear (transceiver/beacon, probe, and shovel) when traveling in areas with avalanche risks.
  9. Check wind conditions and generally be prepared for high winds (goggles, balaclava, gloves, windbreaker, insulated jacket with hood).
  10. Learn about common dangers such as tree wells, snowbridges, and crevasses.
  11. 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.

 

snowshoes, gaiters, hiking poles
Some snowshoes are better suited for flat terrain. For steep and mountainous travel, be sure to use snowshoes with adequate side walls. In early season snow, when snow is soft and deep, wear gaiters (not shown in this photo) to prevent snowmelt and moisture from getting inside your boots.