Login | March 05, 2021

Winter backpacking

Pete’s World

Published: February 22, 2021

Have you ever toyed with the idea of doing a winter backpacking trip but were too worried about freezing your keister off?
Well, I have some good news, this particular endeavor has advanced light years with respect to the equipment and the strategies necessary to make it successful.
Now I did my first winter excursion back in the early 1980s, and that was a beat down compared to how much easier it is today, a credit to the technology and know-how that’s currently and readily available.
So let’s take a look at several of the essential components needed to make a winter backpacking trip pleasant rather than punishing.
I committed a gazillion clothing faux pas in that first winter excursion, the biggest of which was not removing my cold, clammy clothing when I worked up a sweat hauling around a big clunky backpack. That, and not having access to high-tech “wicking” materials darned near put me in the chill locker two hours into the trip.
Okay, so when you’re humping that heavy backpack down the trail, it’s crucial to avoid sweating, and the best way to do that is to dress in layers (read my column: Layering Tips, 01/07/19). You might be doing a lot of adjusting throughout the day, but that’s way better than the alternative - ending up wet, hypothermic, and shivering.
Wear a thin base layer - typically a synthetic material or soft wool - next to your skin, and avoid cotton at all costs (in winter weather anyway), because rather than wicking moisture away, cotton holds moisture next to the skin. Over top of that wear a piece of clothing that’s more insulating and a bit heavier, something like a wool sweater or a pile jacket. And if it’s really cold and breezy you could have a third layer - the shell - in the form of a vest or jacket. Finally, don’t forget some kind of head covering, which is a great regulator of the body in general. Remember: About 10% of body heat is lost through your head, so a hat is a quick way to hold/dissipate body heat without putting on or taking off layers.
Food & Hydration
Calorie consumption is higher during winter outdoor activities - some 500-1000 calories per day higher - and when you’re not active, the body consumes additional calories just to keep itself warm. So eat more. And in terms of calorie consumption, aim for a mix of 55% carbs, 30% fats, and 15% proteins, and know that eating nutritious foods will play a major role in your ability to stay warm and invigorated.
With respect to cold weather hydration, adhere to the mantra: Drink often, even if you’re not thirsty. Less humidity in the winter, which has a drying effect on the body, coupled with fluid loss through respiration, evaporation, and perspiration, can cause dehydration. Thus, you must drink lots of water in the winter, generally two to four quarts of water daily - contingent on your activity level and body size.
Gear Needs
Know that winter backpacking puts you in an alien world when compared to warm weather backpacking, and that means extra winter gear which will make your backpack measurably heavier. That additional gear includes the aforementioned clothing layers - which should be easy to put on/take off and be easily accessible within the backpack - in addition to gloves, balaclava/face mask, gaiters, sunglasses/goggles, extra socks, heavier sleeping bag, heavier sleeping pad, four-season tent, and additional food. For a thoroughly detailed winter gear list go to https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/winter-snow-camping-checklist.html
Regulating Winter Tent Condensation
The water in your respiration can manifest itself as either frost on the inside of the tent or as moisture droplets that form on clothing and gear, the latter of which is bad news because it can dampen down gear and degrade its insulating properties.
The solution to this involves venting the tent. Unzip the outer door, but keep the screen fully zipped. Or if you have small air vents open them fully. However you do it, you must enable most of that moist air to escape outside.
So don’t let the cold keep you from winter backpacking. If you choose the proper gear, use tried and true winter camping strategies, and eat and hydrate yourself properly, you’re on your way to a fun, successful trip.