If you want to really enjoy winter backpacking, one of the first skills you need to master is your water management. This is both about staying hydrated and staying warm. It may seem like a minor thing to have your water freeze in a plastic bottle, but if you allow this to happen, it is one of those small things that can spiral into big problems. You don’t want this to happen. So let’s start with the basic gear necessary for managing your water.
1. Camp on snow
Be equipped to camp on the snow. Once you learn how to do it and how comfortable it is, you may never want to camp on the ground again. To do this, you need a sleeping system with sufficient R-value (5+) under your sleeping bag. The standard practice for snow camping in the Pacific Northwest is two mattresses, either one solid core and one air or two solid ones.
Snow is soft and clean, usually free of sticks and rocks. It makes the most comfortable surface and often requires no preparation. Sometimes you might need to stomp it down a bit with snowshoes or level it with a snow shovel. It is easy to level a spot even on slopes. Pitching a tent on the snow is the lowest impact (leave no trace) way to camp. It also increases your campsite options (unless you are in an area where designated campsites are the only permissible locations). And, it is often the only option if you want to camp in the winter season. So be prepared!
For more on sleeping warm, see winter sleeping bags.
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.
Solitude and Snow
With the right gear and knowledge (know the hazards), you can head out and experience the beauty of the wilderness without the crowds.
To stay cozy and safe, you’ll need to add some pounds to your pack, making your ultra-light strategies even more important. And, sometimes you’ll
Things that make winter backpacking the best
Here are some reasons snow backpacking delivers a special and unique kind of backpacking bliss.
- Spectacular snow scenery.
- Solitude: There are fewer hikers in cold weather and fewer cars at the trailheads.
- Low-impact: When the snow is deep (2–6 feet or more) you can set up your tent almost anywhere without impacting the meadows.
- Fewer restrictions: Campsites and trails are buried deep under the snow. You can hike off-trail without damaging fragile vegetation. Areas that are restricted to permit holders are open in the winter and parts of the shoulder months of May and November.
- No bugs: The winter cold suppresses mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying bugs.
- Less sweat: The cool, usually dry air, helps minimize sweat.
- Less trail dust and mud. The bottom of your tent rarely gets dirty and the footprint (ground cloth) isn’t even needed.
- Bears are usually hibernating.
- Snow is more comfortable. It’s easier to have a level, smooth, and stick-free surface for your sleeping area. It is also cleaner. No dirt or mud on the bottom of your tent.
- Water is everywhere. You just have to melt it. In the winter there is no reason to carry a heavy load of water.
- Bonus point: Glissading.
Very few hiking experiences can compare to traveling across pristine snow under a blue sky.
Before you head out, be sure to read my short post about the dangers of winter backpacking.
Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically for correction, etc.
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