Winter is settling in; and with the shortening days it can be easy to fall into a slump. If you’re like me, and houses kill your soul a little bit, but you’re stuck because it’s freezing cold outside (and sometimes inside, too)… Here is a wee multiple-part series describing how I do wintering outside. This first part covers pre-trail preparation, clothing and footwear.
This is not a comprehensive guide. It’s a, “Sail is scribbling down her things, and has walked outside in the snow with temps between 40F and -20F for a few months, but still knows very little,” random article of nothingness. Be aware.
Do your homework. If you’re inexperienced, start with small excursions. Go for a walk in the types of terrain and/or weather conditions you expect to find on your larger hike, if you’re planning for one.
When I was teaching in South Dakota, some weeknights I’d take my sleeping pad(s) and bag, and go out into the hills behind our house and cowboy camp in the snow under the stars. This may be because I was ridiculously stressed and that’s how I deal… but it also meant that when I started hiking the IAT, I knew I could comfortably spend nights out in the snow in temperatures with sub-zero wind chill, and happily wake up, drag my gear inside, and go teach students their science.
For pre-trail resources, there are a lot of cool YouTube videos (here’s one by Far North Bushcraft and Survival, which is the only channel whose videos I actually took time to watch). In Monson, Maine, I also lucked out and got to spend multiple days around Alexandra Conover Bennett, who has spent decades traversing and guiding the Maine and Canadian winter backcountry, and describes -20F weather as warm. She is legitimately legendary. If you can get your hands on a copy of her book, that’ll cover a good amount. She uses more traditional snowshoes and materials. For travel using modern/synthetic lightweight gear, Justin Lichter and Shawn Forry winter hiked the PCT, and wrote this book about their gear and techniques. It has really useful resources, including a number of checklists and a handy table of the calorie types you can find in standard grocery food.
Layer. The coldest parts of your day will be when you’re getting out of (or setting up) camp; once you get started, you warm up quickly and will often only need a base layer and a lighter outer.
My standard was
- Base layer. I invested in a thin merino wool (pants and long-sleeve), because I like wool and it doesn’t melt when hit by sparks, and doesn’t hold odors. There are also a bunch of decent synthetics. The key is something that dries fast and moves moisture away from your skin, so a standard Under Armour type layer is fine. No cotton.
- One or two mid layers. I typically use my lightweight down puffy, and carry a second thing to layer (thick wool or synthetic fleece). (Note: Unlike wool, cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. It also takes absafalutin’ forever to dry, so it’s best to steer clear of any cotton). My wool blend scarf serves multiple purposes as another layer, a pillow, a totally ineffective towel, or an extra sheet in ye olde sleeping bag.
- Waterproof/windproof outer. I carried a rain jacket, although I did go through a phase with no rain jacket and one of those cheap plastic rain ponchos, which are lighter than a rain jacket and cover more things, but fragile, kids, so go easy.
Bottoms follow the same pattern- wool base layer, then quick dry or water resistant pants. You can optionally put a pair of cheap waterproof pants on top, which doubles as a wind break.
I also had a pair of wool mittens, an inner pair of glove liners, a thick hat, two sets of underwear, and two pairs of wool socks (wear one, clean the other).*
*Also had an extraneous pair of waterproof wool socks Motherski gifted me. Stopped carrying them. Regretted it, because man those things are perfect for stomping in the snow at night when you’ve gotta get out of your tent and don’t want to put on boots.
If your feet are warm and comfortable, you’ll stay much warmer overall, and travel far more easily. I ran into a gentleman in northern Maine who looked at my shoes in disgust. “Please can I buy you boots, yours are falling apart,” he said. No thanks, dude. “Please I just got a $200,000 settlement, those are horrible. Let me buy you boots.” Well… So now I have these Oboz, which I have destroyed enough to make leaky, but are very, very warm even when they are sopping wet.
Expect your boots to get wet, no matter how waterproof they are. The Oboz are stiff and give blisters, but they were also free, have good tread, and most importantly, keep my feet warm. However, if you’re planning on longer term winter hikes, it’s often handier to opt for boots that have a removable (felted) liner. They dry faster than Goretex, and dry better in the foot of your sleeping bag than sopping huge rubber dinosaur muffins.
If you’re far enough north that you are only walking in dry snow, and can stop worrying about rain and wet, winter is really a glorious time. Mukluks become an option, and are really far more comfortable and easier to get rid of condensation and better to walk in than hard boots (although depending on your bindings this could be challenging. This problem is one I dream of having).
If you are not far enough north to count on dry snow, and have a comfortable pair of hiking shoes that you already like walking in, but don’t think they’re warm enough… You could also consider a pair of waterproof overboots, which fit over your standard footwear. Cost depends on quality. Depending on your work, could be useful in a number of situations. I have not used them for my hiking, but hear only good things and would wear them in the future.
Um… Also, gaiters. Gaiters are totally great for keeping snow out, and I know people who love them… I just never used them, and used my boot laces to tie my pants snugly around my boots. This happened because I have broken the little hook lacing things on the boots, so I couldn’t lace them properly even if I wanted to.*
*Oboz is a great company, and would replace them for me. I just have never asked.
Skis? Snowshoes? Ski-shoes??
Finally, in wearable gear… Winter is cool, because you get to put neat things on your feet.
Check your local resale shop for older gear, if you’re like me and have no money, no standards. I purchased a pair of cross country skis for $11 in the Rapid City sports resale shop, and some 3-pin boots for $12, then took them wandering through the Black Hills on the weekends. I also like the older style snowshoes; so I’ll keep an eye out when I’m going through people’s garages for something in good shape; and these are what I used for the majority of my winter hiking. (*cough*Bill*cough*thanks)
If the snowshoe bindings are broken, they’re easy and simple to replace. Here’s a video using cotton lamp wick (or whatever else you have to hand) to make the lowest maintenance (and easiest to use) snowshoe bindings I’ve ever met: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mOf_IMyEKg. You could also take a rubber inner tube, and cut bindings out from that (these are the bindings you see on my snowshoes, above. I did not do them).
Traditional snowshoes don’t have built-in crampons, which can be helpful on slopes with hard crusts of snow. I typically didn’t miss having spiky bottoms, but occasionally it was really good to be wearing something more aggressive, though there was no need for full-on crampons where I was hiking. (and that ish is heavy.)
I found a light pair of microspikes worked perfectly when I needed extra traction. I could strap them directly onto my boots, but more typically wore them jury-rigged to the bottoms of my snowshoes on icy crusts (using the same boot-strap mechanism, but threaded through the snowshoe’s open weave).
If you have invested in more expensive things, you have also probably invested time and are far more experienced than this Texan. But if you have not, and you’re in a northern area… It is really, really lovely being able to traipse all over the wintry landscape after (or in the middle of) a snowstorm. Much more pleasant than cars.
Check out the standard snowshoes; but they’ve also got lighter weight foam ones, or you could make special ones for yourself. I also got the chance to try out a pair of Hok skis, which are essentially short, fat skis with a pair of skins along their camber. They were inspired by ski-shoes used in the mountains of Mongolia, and were ultimately too heavy. But wow, so nice; and used boot bindings, so I could wear my hiking boots. Here they are, lashed to the front of the pack, next to my chocolate milk:
The biggest thing is simply to get out there and do the things. Your gear doesn’t have to be perfect, or new! It just has to work. Enjoy!
Got any ideas? Stick questions and suggestions in the comments below :).
To be continued eventually: Winter sleeping and shelters…
[Edited 4 Dec 2019]