Tips for Winter Backpacking

1. Do not fight the cold – instead, embrace it.

It can be difficult to be outside in frigid temperatures. Comfort does not come easy, and routine tasks can be challenging.  The effect of the cold  on things can be downright annoying, like when food freezes to the sides of your pot before you are finished with dinner. But do not fight the cold, instead, seek harmony with it; think of the cold as part of the experience.

2. Margin of error.

You can easily put yourself over the edge by messing up – e.g. falling into a creek, losing a glove, spilling your soup on your sleeping bag, miscalculating fuel needs, not noticing a fatal crack in your binding, or overestimating the limits of you and your gear. In the winter you always need to stay engaged and to bring your A-game; you can go on auto-pilot and make amateur mistakes again when it warms up in a few months.

3. Never be “hot” or “cold”; always be “comfortable.”

Proper thermo-regulation is important for safe and fun wintertime travel. If you become too hot, you sweat, which will result in evaporative heat loss and will collapse your insulation. If you become too cold, you will lose the dexterity in your fingers, making it difficult to zip your coat, start your stove, or clip a buckle; hypothermia follows. Like Goldilocks, you want to find the equilibrium that is “just right.” Achieve this by appropriately adjusting your layers, utilizing venting features, and creating a versatile and flexible clothing system (e.g. take two lightweight base layers instead of one mid-weight layer).

4. Know how things behave in frigid conditions.

Gear is similarly affected by the cold, and you need to know what those items are and the severity – e.g. my camera being inoperable unless I kept it in a chest pocket was not life threatening, but not knowing that insulated items collapse due to moisture build-up could be.

5. Go ahead, give it a shot.

To thrive in the wintertime you need to familiarize yourself with a list of gear, techniques, and skills that are unique to the season. And you need to accept that the experience will be less comfortable and more challenging than if you did the same trip in more hospitable conditions. But do not let this re-education or the intimidation sway you from reaping wintertime’s rewards and magic. Start slowly and in low-risk settings; and push your limits further and accept more risk as your skill level and confidence increase.

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