Winter Backpacking Essentials

Snow is a game-changer in the world of backpacking. But Boulder REI employee and outdoor survival teacher Tim Joynt says the experience is worth the extra challenge.

“Snow absorbs a lot of sound, so there is this eery calm,” Joynt says. “It’s absolutely beautiful to get out and see the mountains and trees covered in snow.”

With a little extra preparation, you can be one of the few to experience the mountains in the heart of winter. Joynt says planning is paramount and can even be part of the fun.

“A key thing is spending the time to prepare and enjoying it,” Joynt says.

When planning, The Lightweight Backpacker website says to remember that hiking will be slower in the snow and cold, so you will need to reduce the mileage of your daily hikes between camps. Joynt says good trips can be found in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, as well as Brainard Lake and Buchanan Pass. He also says it’s important to contact someone who knows the area before your trip.

“I always recommend talking to someone who knows the area and getting in touch with the forest service,” Joynt says. “They can get you a lot of information you wouldn’t normally have about water, closures and restrictions for fire.”

Joynt says the most important factor for winter backpacking is gear. Without the appropriate cold-weather clothing, sleeping bag and fire starters, your trip can be uncomfortable and even dangerous.

“You can have a lot of skills, but if you go out and you don’t have a warm enough sleeping bag, you can enjoy the day while you’re hiking but then you’ll find yourself in trouble,” Joynt says.

The Lightweight Backpacker says cotton clothing should be avoided and layering is key when it comes to your winter backpacking attire. Cotton loses its insulation when damp and takes a long time to dry, so synthetics and wool materials are preferable. You will be colder at night when stationary and warmer while hiking, so layer your clothes to allow for adjustments. Try to adjust your layers before you are too hot or cold so that your body doesn’t have to exert extra energy to regulate.

As with any camping trip, it is imperative that someone (a ranger, friend or family member) know where you are going and how long you plan to be gone. If you are considering a first time trip, REI regularly hosts free workshops on outdoor survival and winter camping. Their website also contains more information on the how-to of general and winter backpacking.

Whatever your motivations for a winter backpacking trip – the peace and quiet, the pristine mountain air, or the physical challenge – preparation is the key to success.

Published in Longmont Magazine on 11/12/11 (see PDF below).

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