from The Lightweight Backpacker @ www.backpacking.net
Contributor: John Macri (2/4/02).
Every autumn I lament that many of us start winding down our hiking and get ready for a hibernating winter. In fact, I think I enjoy winter hiking best for many reasons albeit a heavier pack. Is there anything more breath taking than a snow covered mountain vista? Few landscape scenes can match fresh snow on a forest of pine trees. In a nutshell, consider: there are less crowds, Lean-to shelters are usually wide open; no bugs; no bears; no rain; no mud; no leaves to block a view and perhaps most enjoyable - real solitude. So quiet, you actually can hear it. Awe inspiring really.
Okay, an obvious question is "Don't you get cold out there?!" Of course the answer is yes but that is not to say we are freezing all day. In fact, while walking, one can get pretty toasty not unlike the other seasons. Rest periods and night time are when you need to pay closer attention to the cold air. It's rather humorous at times because I can run out to the car and swear at ol' man winter yet never seem to get as cold living outdoors for a few days.
The following information is mostly on snow gear although winter sage is a must before hitting the snow covered trails. I cannot emphasis this enough - read as much as you can before tackling winter backpacking. Food and water is a worthy topic on its own as it is important to graze and drink more often than in warm weather.
I only mention companies and their products as a reference point, not necessarily as a personal endorsement. Regarding gear, your summer backpack may be too small. A decent load carrying 4000+ cubic inch pack will likely provide enough room for bulky winter essentials. Also, the assumption made here is that we're hiking on trails, no bushwhacking or rugged mountaineering save for a non-technical scamp up a snow covered mountain.
BEST TIME TO GO: The best time to enjoy a snowy, winter weekend outing is after the winter weather stabilizes. Late fall/early winter can be dangerous, especially when crossing streams. The rocks are sometimes coated with a thin film of black ice. It is quite common to find the same type of ice and wet leaves under a thin layer of snow on trails so be careful when placing your steps. The same is true at the end of the winter season when spring thaw is possible. The ice and snow melt which increases the possible peril of avalanche and ice breaks. The best time to hike in winter is in the heart of the season. The snow and ice are usually condensed to provide safe footing. Also, you can usually count on snow, not rain like at the beginning and end of winter.
There are many winter tents to choose from and most will be heavy unless dividing between hikers. Frankly, I think many of the tents used during the summer can be used in all but extreme winter weather. The list of single person, all season tents is greatly reduced for solo hikers. Yes, these tents are a far cry from your tarp but consider the possible winter storm potential. Sometimes conditions require a good, all season shelter. If you want a light solo tent, take a look at single wall shelters from Stephenson, Bibler and Integral Designs.
There are a few hybrid bivy/tents like the Bibler Tripod or TNF Soloist worth considering as well. Both hold up to winter weather although much of your gear remains outside. Coupled with a tarp, these shelters or any waterproof/breathable bivy will provide a good winter camp.
SLEEPING SYSTEM: let's assume we use a tarp if you don't own a winter worthy tent. You will also need an additional shelter like a waterproof bivy or at least a water and wind resistant sleeping bag cover. Depending on where you hike, I think a 0F sleeping bag with a pertex or microfibre shell is a good choice. Check out Marmot, Integral Designs, Feathered Friends and my favorite bag company, Western Mountaineering. A comment on vapor barriers. These liners will keep you warmer and moisture away from the down in your sleeping bag. One potential problem though is it eliminates adding clothing should you get chilled. Why? Your sweat/condensation will be trapped between you and the barrier. Any clothes you put on will get wet. I am currently testing a vapor barrier shirt. The moisture is trapped inside the shirt thus protecting additional layers from getting wet.
Adding clothes can obviously increase temperature rating. In fact, a less rated bag will also work if adding a down or synthetic filled jacket. Mountaineers will often select a half sleeping bag and use their clothes to increase temperature performance.
I find the best results are when I am comfortable - not hot. Don't over dress inside your sleeping bag. Either start off with several layers and remove as you get warmer or add a layers as you get cold.
SLEEPING PAD: I think a thick, closed cell foam pad is best of all albeit not as comfortable as a thick, self inflatable. Thicker is better. Regarding comfort, I find snow to be more forgiving than the forest floor. The number one reason I prefer closed cell pads is because they are accident proof. If you do take a self inflating pad try and stay away from the Ultralight Series if possible. The air channels inside these are designed without much between you and the ground. You can always add a piece of extra closed foam under your torso which can be also used to sit on in camp or add back support for your pack. Some folks take both a closed cell and full scale self inflating pad which for me is an overkill. A small section of closed cell foam plus either an inflatable or closed cell pad works for me.
STOVE: you will appreciate at least one white gas stove in your party because canister models do not perform as well in near 0F weather. Clearly, you can modify or keep the canister in your sleeping bag or pocket for low volume activity. Remember, you get water from melting snow which means more fuel consumption. To date, the Coleman Exponent Xtreme is my favorite canister stove that I'd rely on in winter. I am not sure on the tablet fuel stoves although I know the Trangia alcohol stove will work if ever so slowly. I like alcohol stoves because there aren't any parts to clog or replace. Back to snow melting: a large pot, liter-plus is a good size for it takes lots of snow to deliver a little water. Take another smaller pot to collect snow. I like pouring melted snow into a nalgene bottle through a coffee filter or mesh netting to catch any pine needles or foreign matter.
CLOTHING: one of the easiest ways to increase unnecessary weight is bringing too much clothes. Remember, you will likely be comfortable until you slow down in the evening which is the time to utilize your sleeping bag to stay warm. This said, you will need additional warm clothing. First, you will need an insulated sweater or jacket. There are many to select from as almost every outdoor company has an offering these days. Synthetic or down is a matter of choice. You really do not have to invest in a top-of-the-line jacket. I used an inexpensive 500 fill, down sweater for years. You should use this layer when tooling or sitting around camp, hiking respites and in your sleeping bag if you get cold. Too warm to hike in. I also suggest a synthetic vest to sleep in or if you get a chill hiking. It is also reassuring to start the evening wearing a vest knowing your jacket is on deck. Never wait until you get cold though. Anticipate when you need to bundle up prior to getting chilled. When you do feel cold, and you will, prepare yourself for bed. Get inside your bag or drape it over you. Your sleeping bag is a big part in your defense against the cold.
The other clothing to take in your pack includes a synthetic first long sleeve first layer; a mid weight long sleeve zip t-neck; mid to expedition weight long johns; extra wool or synthetic/wool blended socks. I also take at least two pair of gloves and liners. One is always saved for low volume time which happen to be my warmest: GTX, Primaloft filled gloves. Mittens are even warmer. Another alternative is having a system with a waterproof shell. Wear different weight liners under the shells for all weather protection. Lastly, hats. I always take a windblock cap and usually a fleece balaclava to sleep in. You know how important keeping your head warm is.
This is as good a time as any to mention a lost or misplaced piece of gear in summer is mostly an inconvenience. In winter, with temps well below freezing, it could place your life in peril. Know where your gear is and always take inventory before breaking camp.
WHAT TO WEAR HIKING: I am always trying new combinations. No matter what the temperature, I warm up pretty fast. Don't be swearing at me after you take only a few steps down the trail and are freezing your butt off. Within a few minutes, you'll feel comfortable. I usually will wear a short sleeve base layer, a long sleeve zip, t-neck and a waterproof/breathable jacket with pit zips. I also wear pants made of the same material and high gaiters over a lightweight pair of long johns. Sometimes just a wind shirt over a first layer will also work well.
Soft shell pants made of Schoeller Dryskin fabric get a nod of approval but these are not waterproof nor 100% windproof. Pretty good stuff though. I have been using a soft shell jacket and pants recently. I cannot believe how much of a difference these make in overall comfort. Because these breath much better than waterproof material, I seldom overheat and sweat less. This translates into more energy and less hydration requirements.
FOOTWEAR: much has been written about winter footwear but I found most advice confusing. Consider purchasing an insulated boot from Columbia, Salomon or even a pac boot from Sorel. Mukluks get good press although I have never tried them. I also prefer having a waterproof boot because the snow in NY is of the wet variety - not the dry, powder stuff found in other geography's. You are likely going to be wearing snowshoes so a gripping boot sole is less important in winter than warmth.
You will want to stay away from running shoes but your leather hiking boots are likely fine to use, especially just for a weekend. Not my first choice but waterproof the heck out of them. If you get a decent pair of gaiters, your feet should be fine. If you don't feel like carrying down booties for camp, cut out a piece of closed cell foam for each of your boots and replace these with your original foot bed. I suppose you could hike with these but actually are best in camp. Plastic, double boots have a major advantage or two: the inside booties can be removed and worn around camp. These can also be placed inside your bag at night to dry. Plastics are waterproof, can take on most crampons and work well with snowshoes. Plastics are also very heavy and somewhat difficult to walk in for any length of time. Expensive, too. Perhaps an overkill if you are staying on groomed trails but many fellow hikers swear by them for winter.
I strongly suggest vapor barrier or GTX socks. This will increase warmth and prevent the inside of your boot from getting wet from perspiration. In winter, boots freeze overnight unless wrapped in a plastic bag and placed inside your bivy or sleeping bag. Finally, get yourself a pair of gaiters to keep snow off as well as add warmth to the lower legs.
OTHER WINTER ESSENTIALS:
Snowshoes - a must in snow country. There are several good brands although the lightest snowshoes I know of are from Northernlites.com. Whichever pair you select, keep in mind your combined body and pack weight when perusing the different models.
Hiking Poles - you will want at least one pole but will appreciate a pair with snowshoes on.
Ice Ax - a tool worth taking. Helpful in chopping ice for water, a must for self arrest and can be used as a tarp or tent anchor. Some aluminum models with an alloy head weigh less a pound.
Crampons or Ice Creepers - not required on groomed trails if you own good, cleated snowshoes. However; there are a few lightweight strap-on models that fit any boot or shoe and are worth looking at.
Shovel - not an essential unless you hike near avalanche activity but worth strapping on your pack. I like using one around camp. Some models weigh only 24 oz. If you own Komperdell hiking poles, they have a shovel adapter that weighs only 12 oz. You can also use your snowshoes as a shovel around camp.
Sun Glasses - snow blindness is very possible without them. Plus a good pair of sunglasses or goggles reduce wind friction.
Insulated Water Bottle Holders - OR makes 'em and are a must have. You can also make your own out of closed cell foam. This will save a few ounces.
Down Booties - not necessary but will be appreciated at the end of the day or even in your sleeping bag until you warm up. Most weigh around a pound and are made with down or synthetic filling..
Okay, I ran out of gas but the framework is here for memorable winter weekend getaways. All said, after perusing this note, you may find weekend winter hiking isn't much of a reach after all. Don't get overwhelmed - just get out there for a day hike or weekend getaway and enjoy yourself