(Originally published on www.natebbrown.com and adapted for Choose Mountains. Any gear recommendations are from the author and do not represent an endorsement from Choose Mountains.)
Written By: Nate Brown
Winter Has Come.
What used to be my least active season is now probably my favorite! I have spent the last several years making mistakes and learning lessons about how to be in the backcountry in the winter, and rather than horde this information like an adorable Pika, I have written everything down for you!
For the sake of clarity, I broke this down into four distinct sections that cover the entire process: planning the trip, getting to the trail, during the day, and camping overnight. I wrote this with the Pacific Northwest in mind, since that’s where I live, but most of these tips will apply anywhere you may find yourself in the winter.
Please note that this is not an all-inclusive guide, but rather a collection point for little tips I have learned, as well as DISCUSSING topics that always seem to come up.
Planning Your Trip
What’s the weather?
If you are like me (i.e. lazy), you don’t pay too much attention to the weather forecast during the summer months. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I know what conditions will be like, and there really isn’t a whole lot of variation. While this may be fine and dandy in the summer, this type of laziness can get you into some serious trouble in the winter. Conditions can vary greatly during the day (and night!), and there’s a lot more precipitation. It is essential to check the weather forecast before going! I use Mountain Forecast and NOAA for it’s pinpoint accuracy. Looking at the weather in Seattle and expecting the conditions to be the same 50 miles to the west and 4,000 feet higher in elevation is not a smart strategy. As they would say on South Park, you’re gonna have a baaaad time, mmkay?
What about avalanches?
Okay, so you’ve checked the weather forecast. But that’s just part one of two for the winter! Now that you know you are in the clear with the weather, it’s time to look at the avalanche forecast at Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC). What are the conditions in the area you are going? What’s the risk level? Does this affect the trip you want to go on? If you plan to spend a lot of time in the mountains during winter, I highly advise getting the appropriate gear (beacon, shovel, and probe) as well as educated. There are a lot of great avalanche courses taught all over the PNW, like The Mountaineers, but the BEST course you can take is the AIARE Rescue Course and Level 1. It’s honestly one of the best and most helpful courses I’ve taken.
Is your gear prepared?
It is absolutely essential to have good, reliable waterproof clothing during the winter. For example, if you don’t have the appropriate boots, the snow will quickly soak into them, which is bad news bears for your poor toes. So the first step is to ensure you have waterproof gear. The second step is to make sure all of your waterproof gear is still waterproof. The protective coating that is put on at the factory will not last forever; even Gore-Tex is subject to normal wear which reduces it’s water repellency over time. A lot of people will pay hundreds of dollars to buy a nice Gore-Tex jacket, only to replace it a year or two later because it just doesn’t repel water like it used to. This is a waste of a good jacket (and a waste of money)! Instead, I use special cleaning and waterproofing products like NikWax to clean and retreat my waterproof and insulating layers.
Getting to the Trail
Check road conditions!
Always check the conditions of the road before heading out. Do you have to drive over a mountain pass to get there? Check the pass conditions on WSDOT. If you have to drive up a forest service road, check for recent trip reports on the WTA, as well as road conditions listed on Park Service and Forest Service websites.
Do you have an emergency kit in your car?
I keep a box in the back of my car year round for emergencies. This box has a lot of standard vehicle emergency kit items like jumper cables, tire pump, flashlight, tools to change a tire, etc. But for those of us that sometimes have to drive down 30 miles of forest service roads with no cell reception, I’ve added quite a bit to mine. I carry a large jug of water, a water filter, a package of emergency food, a blanket, beanie, warm leather gloves, duct tape, a multi-tool, a handful of chemlights, hand warmers, and an ice scraper/brush. I also keep a small shovel (in my case, a spare avalanche shovel) that I use to either dig my car out from snow, a ditch, or to use to cover an icy road with dirt and other debris to provide traction.
Do you have chains?
If the answer is no, then go get some. If you said “No, because I drive an all-wheel vehicle”, then go get some. I too drive an AWD vehicle (Subaru Crosstrek) but here’s the thing: ice doesn’t care about your AWD or 4-wheel drive. You could have 18 wheels, and it still wouldn’t care… because it’s ice, and a spinning wheel on ice will do exactly what the ice wants: spin and slide. If you have an AWD vehicle or low clearance vehicle, you might have to get something a bit lower profile than your typical tire chains. I use tire cables, which look a lot like chains, but are a bit less aggressive since normal chains don’t play well with AWD. There’s also tire socks, which provide extra grip. Consult your vehicle owner's manual and do some research to find out which works best for your vehicle. Also; it is mandatory to have them to go into National Parks, like Mount Rainier, during the winter months.
Driving up to the trailhead
It may be tempting to continue to drive up that last half mile to the actual trailhead, but sometimes the best bet is to park lower down on the road and just walk up. Let me paint a scenario for you, from a real event that happened to me:
I was driving up a forest service road in the North Cascades early one morning. The road had some crunchy snow on it, just a couple inches; nothing my Subaru couldn’t handle with ease. I got to the trailhead just fine, parked, and went about my winter hike. Later that afternoon I returned to my car happy with my day, hopped in, and started to drive down the road. It did not snow or rain all day, perfect bluebird clear day… yet the road was completely changed. That layer of snow I had in the morning had been beat down and compacted by several cars (including mine) traveling over it. The sun then rose while I was hiking, hitting the dense packed snow and melting it ever just so slightly before quickly passing over the other ridgeline to cover the road in shadow again. The compacted and slightly melted out snow then froze again, this time into a sheet of thin, hard ice. This resulted in one car sliding into a ditch, and a second car to slam into the back of the first when it was unable to stop on the ice. Both cars were 4 wheel drive SUVs. I thankfully managed to stop my car before slamming into them, but not without sliding several feet myself. The end of that day resulted in everyone walking down the forest service road and being rescued by tow truck, which came back the next day to get the cars. This cost the owners of the two cars thousands of dollars, and a lot of heartache. All of it could’ve been avoided had everyone either put on chains, or had just parked a little further down the road.
If you don’t have appropriate snow tires and chains, just park a little lower down the road and enjoy the opportunity to put a couple more miles in your legs, and walk that extra bit of road! ;)
During the Day
Proper layers are essential!
The key to not only staying warm, but comfortable, is all in the layering system. You don’t necessarily need to bring your biggest, warmest coat every time as long as you are properly layering. There are four layers to consider: base, mid, insulating, and shell.
Base Layer: This is the layer that is next to your skin and is going to be lightweight and breathable. Preferences vary, but I prefer merino wool (especially Icebreaker) for my base layers for their ability to stay warm even when wet. I will typically sweat, even in the coldest of conditions, from the exertion of whatever sport I’m doing, so staying warm after I’ve soaked through it is very important for me. Stay away from cotton since it does not regulate body temperature!
Mid Layer: This is typically your normal clothes that will be worn on the outside for the majority of your uphill effort and other times of high exertion. For me, this typically consists of my soft shell hiking pants and either a merino wool or synthetic long sleeve shirt. On colder days, I might skip the shirt and instead wear a lightweight hoodie, like my Arc’Teryx Fortrez. Just like above, do not wear cotton!
Insulating Layer: This is typically a puffy coat, made from either down or some other type of synthetic fill. Here in the PNW when it is typically wet, I choose to avoid down since it loses its ability to stay warm when wet. If you are in a drier climate, down is the warmer choice. This is what I throw on when I’m stopped for a break or at the end of the day at camp. You can buy down jackets without a hood, but I find that having the hood to keep my head, neck, and ears warm is crucial. I don’t personally have an insulating layer for my legs since they don’t get that cold, but you can find these for those really cold climates or if you just happen to run cold in the legs.
Shell Layer: This is going to be the waterproof and windproof shell, most likely made of Gore-Tex. This can be worn either on top of the insulating layer or without it, depending on conditions. I also include a pant shell layer to protect them from getting wet and as a wind block. It is very important for these layers to have vents you can open. In the jacket, they are typically located under the arms, and along the sides of the thighs in the pants. This is SO important, since sometimes you may be wearing them while still exerting yourself, so you need a way to dump all that heat that’s being trapped in by the Gore-Tex. Point blank, if it doesn’t have vents, I won’t buy it.
Before you start moving, always take the extra layers off. It’s tempting to wear everything at the car since you are cold and haven’t warmed up yet, but you really need to stick to the winter rule of always starting out cold. If you wear too much to begin with, you will very quickly work up a sweat which will force you to stop and shed some layers. But the potential problem here is that your now soaked base layers will be exposed to the cold and wind, which could make you sick. Always start out cold!
When you stop moving, whether this be to take a break or any other reason, put a layer back on! You most likely shed some layers after you got moving, since your body is generating a bunch of heat, but when you stop, that heat will quickly dissipate. Even if you still feel hot, the first order of business is to put that layer on. What you are trying to do is trap all that heat in, to keep you warm while you aren’t moving. Just before you are about to start moving again, shed that layer and return to what you were wearing before you stopped.
If you can’t warm your hands, stick them in your pants! I’m not kidding! Sometimes that chill just sets in, and no amount of gloves can bring them back to life (hands don’t really generate that much heat). If this happens, you need some type of external heat to give them a hand (ba-dum-ching!) by either using those little hand warmer packets or putting them near another heat source. I personally tend to be more frustrated than anything with those little heat packets, so I don’t bother with them. However, we have a LOT of heat located in our core, and you can feel that heat by reaching down into your pants and squeezing your hands between your thighs. Don’t knock it until you try it!
Leaving No Trace
There are some positives and negatives to the winter rules of leaving no trace. On the positive side, with snow covering the landscape, you can go pretty much anywhere! You are no longer restricted to hiking and camping on established sites like you are in more balmy times. However, the bad side is that when it’s time go number two, digging a cathole in the snow is no longer an option. Instead you have to make like a dog and bag it up. Use a blue bag or some other type of method to carry your #2 out with you. Gross, I know… but it’s important to follow this rule. Some tips to make this process a lot more enjoyable (haha!) are to bring a hard sided container to seal the blue bags in afterwards. This will help you by keeping any residual stink away, and also so you don't have an accident inside your pack. Some ideas for this container include pringles cans and tupperware. For more on leaving no trace, visit their website!
Having appropriate traction is a life saver in the winter. Even if you aren’t walking on snow, you may still have to deal with icy conditions in the morning, which can be dangerous if you fall. In deep and fresh snow without a boot pack already beaten in, snowshoes or skis will be your best bet. In very icy conditions, you might even need crampons! However, most of the time, your best bet will be microspikes. They are simply little metal spikes that are wrapped around your boot with rubber, and work SO well! There are a few different types, but my personal favorites are the ones made by Kahtoola.
Shorter Days, Less Daylight
One last note to point for your day trips is to be aware of how early the sun sets! Up here in Washington, the sun has already set by 4:00 PM, which can catch even the most experienced people off guard if you aren’t paying attention to the time. Far too many times have I been out enjoying myself only to look down at my watch and see that it’s already 2PM, yet I am at least 3 hours away from the car still. Because of this, extra attention needs to be made that you bring your headlamp. This is something that should of course be in your pack, no matter the time of year, but it becomes even more crucial in the winter when often times, you will be hiking out in the dark.
Sun protection always important, yes, but even more so in the winter! On a sunny day, you are not only being exposed to the sun from above like usual, but you are also getting it from below! The sun hits the white snow, which is then reflected back up onto you. This can result in a lot of interesting sunburns (like under your nose and chin) since you aren’t used to paying particular attention to these areas. Don’t forget those sun glasses either! All that reflection will absolutely wreck your eyes, which could cause some actual damage. Make sure you have sunglasses that actually cover your eyes (this is not the time for those fancy Ray Bans). Make sure your eyes are covered from the sunlight bouncing off the snow below you. Also, don’t forget that chapstick! Wind and sunburned lips are a certain way to ruin your week.
3-Season vs 4-Season Tents
What’s the big difference? Do you really need a 4-season tent to go winter camping? The short answer is no, no you definitely don’t. The main difference between the two is that a 4-season will typically be a solid piece of material, while the 3-season consists of the tent body with a mesh upper and a rainfly you put over it when needed. The reason 4-season tents won’t have this mesh layer is because in high winds and storms, snow could blow under the rain fly and into the mesh area of the tent; which would not be super great for the people inside. But if conditions are going to be blue skies with little to no chance of precipitation, a 3-season will work fine! 3-Season tents are actually better in some ways; they ventilate much better, which helps reduce condensation build up overnight from your breath. They are also substantially cheaper and lighter. 4-Season tents are really meant for those people who are going into high altitudes in not-so-great weather seeking that summit bid for big mountains.
A very common myth is that 4-season tents are warmer, which is really just not true. The biggest factor in staying warm is your sleeping pad, followed by the sleeping bag. The choice of tent comes in at a distant 3rd in terms of keeping you warm.
So how to stay warm then?
Like I said above, the best thing you can do to stay warm is get a great sleeping pad with a high R value. A sleeping pad's R-value measures its capacity to resist (hence the "R") heat flow. The higher a pad’s R-value, the better you can expect it to insulate you from cold surfaces.
As far as sleeping bags go, there is a lot less mystery since they are rated to the degree which most people will be comfortable to. If a bag is rated to 30 degrees, you can expect to be comfortable down to 30 degrees outside. Of course, everyone is different and you may run a little hot or cold. I personally own a 30 degree bag for its versatility. It will cover me for most nights, but when I think it’s going to dip considerable lower than 30 degrees, I have a sleeping bag liner that adds 25 degrees of warmth, turning my bag into a 5 degree. For this reason, I typically suggest people stick with something a bit higher than what you think you will experience on the coldest nights. As far as down vs synthetic goes, the same rule applies as above with the puffy jackets: down will be warmer, but not as resistant to moisture as synthetic material. I use a down sleeping bag, and just try to pay particular attention to keeping it dry.
Another trick for staying warm is to boil a bunch of water right before bed and fill your water bottles with that water, then put them inside your sleeping bag! It’s like a little backcountry heater blanket. This has the added benefit of helping your water to not freeze in the middle of the night. Win-win! Another must have for keeping your toes warm in particular is to always change to a pair of dry socks before laying down. They may not feel wet, but it’s almost a guarantee that they are holding on to some moisture, which will only get colder as the night goes on.
You shouldn’t be the only thing inside your sleeping bag at night!
No, I’m not talking about someone else (although that would be another way of staying warm). Other items that should go into your sleeping bag with you at night are:
Electronics and batteries. The cold will sap all of the energy right out of your phone, camera, GPS, etc. so use your body heat to keep those battery levels up.
Water should also go in so you don’t wake up with nothing but big hunks of ice. As mentioned above, I also recommend the water be fresh out of the stove so it’s nice and hot to keep you warm too!
Clothes you need to put on in the morning. The worst thing about the morning is having to get out of that nice warm cocoon you’ve built for yourself, so make things a bit easier by keeping your clothes inside the bag. This will allow you to put them on while still remaining warm, and they will be substantially warmer than if you had left them outside to fend for themselves overnight.
Snacks, because I tend to wake up hungry and want something right away. So I keep a bar or some candy or etc. in there because I’m all about those snacks.
When staking your tent down, don’t do the usual method by sticking the stake directly down into the snow. This won’t work long term, and you’ll keep wondering how and why your stakes seem to be just popping out of the snow. Instead, use the “dead-man” method by digging out a small horizontal hole and placing the stake in sideways, with the string affixed to the center of the stake. This will be much more sturdy than the traditional method.
If anything has to stay outside your tent at night, put it inside your pack, then put the entire pack in one of those large black yard waste bags. This includes your boots, if they aren’t in the tent! Too many times I have woke up the next morning to find everything left outside frozen to the ground and covered in frost. Not a nice way to start the day off, obviously. Cover it with that big trash bag.
That’s about it for now!
Thanks so much for taking the time to read over this! If you have any questions about anything I covered here, PLEASE feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to chat! Also if you have any tips or tricks I didn’t cover here; let me know! I would love to hear them.
About the Author
Nate is a Choose Mountains Team Member in Washington State. On the weekends you can find him in the mountains, whether it be hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or trail running; it’s guaranteed that he has a smile on his face! To read more about him, head over to his ambassador page, or check him out on his Instagram and Website.