Winter Backpacking: A Beginner's Perspective

This is a guest post from Tyler, our Customer Service Director. He recently had his first winter camping experience, and wrote his thoughts from the trip. This is the first in a series of posts about gaining some winter backpacking and camping experience. 


Tyler hangs out next to a mossy log and writes his thoughts


Winter is the worst season of them all. Sure, snow is beautiful and all, but it’s cold! In the winter I find myself hiding out indoors wrapped in three or four blankets while binge watching shows on Netflix waiting and thinking of all the warm and fun things I am going to do in the summer. So when Peter and I decided to go on an overnight hiking trip in February I had some reservations.

My biggest concern was obviously the cold. I would not consider myself a cold person in general, I actually think I tend to run warm, but because it was going to be in continuous cold outdoors I was worried about what types of layers to wear. I knew I didn’t want too many layers as the sweat would cause issues, but I also didn’t want to be shivering the entire time. My other reservations were about my sleeping situation: I had never slept on top of snow or even cold ground and wasn’t sure if my Ridgerest CCF pad would be enough to keep me warm. Luckily Peter was able to calm my nerves with a quick pep talk and a reminder that we would only be a short distance from the car if things went south on us. I finally decided that it was time to stop being a bear and come out of hibernation to see what the outdoors had to offer in February.


I am used to going on lightweight hiking trips with my base pack weight being anywhere from 9 to 15 lbs. I knew that wouldn’t be the case for this trip since I didn’t have any of the light cold-weather gear needed so I did my best. I decided to still try and use as much of my lightweight items as I could so I started with my pack: knowing it was only an overnighter I went with my Gossamer Gear 36L Kumo Pack. I quickly realised that this was probably a mistake and was not big enough for the bulky items I was bringing, but I made it work, packing it to the top and really having to compress my other gear. For clothes I decided on going with a performance T-shirt with a long sleeve shirt over that, and a fleece on top. For pants I went with long johns and a pair of Nylon hiking pants. I brought a raincoat in case it snowed as well, but was pleasantly surprised when I realised I did not need to use it at all for the trip.

I couldn’t bring myself to sleep on the ground so i decided to hammock. I knew my 20* Revelation top quilt would be fine for the weather we were expecting (lows being in the mid 20’s) but my 30* Revolt under quilt was a different story. I hemmed and hawed for an evening and decided to go with the underquilt and then I also brought my ridgerest pad (cut to be only torso length). I figured I could keep myself warm with these items. For a tarp I went with a hammock gear cuben fiber tarp with doors. I brought an extra pair of pants, long johns, beanie, and a long sleeve shirt so if anything got wet I could swap out and stay warm. I used some warmer work gloves I had lying around as well. The creature comfort I always bring is my Minion that I pack with extra clothes and use a pillow.


For food I knew it wouldn’t be much. I brought Camp Chow cold/warm hydration food (Vegan Gumbo… delicious!) and some oatmeal packets for the morning. I knew we wouldn’t need much for snacks so I went a little bulkier than necessary and brought Chocolate covered Acai berries. For water I used a standard Nalgene bottle and brought my MSR pocket rocket and fuel for camp stove. I knew I would want a warm meal and being able to melt snow for water was always a plus. Other items I brought were Hatchet, camp stool, packs of cards, and a book (The Strain by Chuck Hogan).

Finally having all the items I needed, I started to cram them into my pack. It only had to repack 3 times to finally get everything in exactly how I wanted. I kept changing my mind on how I wanted to pack because I knew I couldn’t set anything on the ground so I needed to make sure the first thing I pulled out I could use and put up right away without having to wait on anything else. I ended up with my rain jacket at the bottom, then the quilts- and clothes-packed Minion, followed by food, tarp, and hammock at the top. This ended up working out really well for me as I was able to hang my pack on a nearby tree and pull out the items one at a time without dropping anything in the snow. I am a big believer in packing smart and it worked in my benefit on this trip. All other items I packed on the outside of my pack, which weighed 19.2 pounds all said and done, and was ready to go!


We got out to the trailhead about 4:30 pm on Friday. Knowing we had few precious hours of daylight we hiked for a short distance, maybe a mile or less. I didn’t have snow shoes but rather big rubber boots with thick warm inserts I could also sleep in. I was determined to stay warm my first time out in the frigid winter wasteland. My first thought while on the trail was I was worried about rolling my ankle. The ground was very uneven and I worried about my ankle twisting and making this short trip even shorter. But I watched the ground and moved with some caution and I seemed to be fine. Sifting through the ankle high snow wasn’t as hard as I thought, though I was still mindful of my footing. I found in the first 10 minutes of the hike I was sweating. I knew this could cause an issue if it persisted, so I slowed my pace and I seemed to even out. I was surprised how warm I felt even with a slight breeze coming off of the stream next to us. We finally made it to camp with about an hour of light left so we all went our separate ways looking for the best camping spot...I lost.


One thing to remember when hammocking is to make sure there are trees to be able to hang from. While there were plenty of trees around me, none of them were small enough to wrap my hammock straps around! I tried for about 20 minutes and decided on one tree I could get the strap around and a very sturdy branch. I do not recommend strapping to branches, it was my only option and luckily it worked out well for me, though I hung very low to the ground ( I cleared the snow from under my hammock and when I sat in it had about 2 inches of room under my underquilt).

We dug out a fire pit and Todd made a nice fire to sit around to talk and relax. I found myself to warm by the fire with the fleece on and had to sit a little back. I wished I didn’t bother bringing the hatchet. A friend recommended it to me and I never even used it. There were plenty of downed trees and dead branches around and we were able to make a nice fire with little effort. We still used our stoves to heat water as it was easier than doing so in the fire. I used my water up quickly and decided to melt snow for more. I learned quickly that you can actually burn snow (or your pot anyway). Apparently you need a little bit of water in the bottom to help the snow melt- who knew? But we got our food cooking and we ended up eating like kings!



We ended up eating family style and all shared our food while sitting around the fire. We had Vegan Gumbo, Chicken Chili, peanut M&M’s and chocolate covered berries. As I went to pull out my spoon I realised...I forgot it. There is always something I forget and unfortunately it was my spoon this time. So I grabbed my knife and made a very rough spoon out of a stick I found, nothing was going to stop me from enjoying the feast we had prepared! I don’t think I have eaten so good while out on the trail. We were all stuffed by the end and smoked pipes as a desert. My stool decided to break about 5 minutes after setting it up (and almost falling into the fire a couple times because of the uneven snow). I ended up sitting on the ground, and though I got cold and needed to stand up, I quickly dried out and became warm again with little effort. I thought once I stopped moving I would need my rain jacket to stay warm, and am glad I was wrong. The fleece and two shirts mixed with the warm food in my stomach kept me nice and toasty throughout the evening of gathering firewood and relaxing. We attempted to play cards, but without a good surface to set them on, we gave up fairly quickly. we enjoyed talking and walking down by the stream. The snow really did make everything beautiful. The was ice and snow formations where the water had pushed through and created miniature icy cliffs off the banks. At night a distant owl cooed us into a relaxed state and it was finally time for bed.

I slept in long johns, boot inserts and my two shirts and fleece. Since I never have gone cold camping I have never used our Hoodlum so I was excited to give it a try. I got in and got cozy in my hammock and surprisingly fell asleep with ease. It wasn’t till the middle of the night that my first issue happened, and it ended up being my worst fear...I started to get cold.


My top insulation was plenty warm enough and the hoodlum worked amazing to keep my head warm. The only complaint I have, and it was mainly due to how I was using the hoodlum, was that I wore the Hoodlum higher up than I should have and used it to cover my mouth leaving just my nose and eyes exposed, this caused the cinch cord to come up over my head and dangle in my face, this got annoying and woke me up but luckily was easily fixable. What was a little more difficult was once I was awake I realized I had cold butt syndrome. The Temperatures dropped to 25* or so and my 30* rated under quilt had met its match. I had the ridgerest pad but had forgotten to put it in my hammock: it was about 20 feet away hanging off of a branch in my pack. I tried sleeping on my side and tossed and turned but nothing really helped. I think at this point, because I was hanging so low, I was sagging the ground a bit and it caused issues. I was having trouble getting my back warm and, desperately wanting more time to sleep, I started to work up the courage to jump out into the cold to get my pad. Then a spark of genius hit me!

I was using my extra clothing as a pillow in my hammock and knew that I had quite a bit of extra. I rummaged around and found my extra long sleeve shirt. With some fussing and wiggling I managed to get the shirt under me and found that even just that thin layer was enough to warm my bottom half up! I was so excited that it took just this little amount of insulation and I quickly re-situated and snuggled down for a good night’s sleep.



Breakfast

In the morning I quickly dressed and went on a nice walk to the stream, collecting sticks as I walked. It was a peaceful morning, the sun poking through the trees with nothing but the splashing of the stream next to me. I returned to camp and Todd had already started the fire. I started to pull my food out when Peter showed me his dehydrated eggs,hash browns,peppers, and onions that he had for all of us. The breakfast, though a bit wet, tasted fantastic and gave me enough energy for the trek back to the car. At this point I was sick of sitting on the cool earth and so I used my pad as a comfortable seat, I would have done this last night but I didn’t want to use it on the ground and then potentially bring it into my hammock- we all know how that turned out. I was amazed at how such a thin pad was enough to keep me warm on the ground. We lounged for a little while, but late morning decided it was time to head back to town.


We broke camp and headed back to the car. It was a short walk but seemed to take us longer than last time. We even stopped by the stream for a quick break to see a cool log/snow formation. We were all hesitant to get back as we had fun and to my surprise I wanted to stay out in the cold longer. Yes, me, the one complaining about the evils of winter when we first started. I found that even though there are a few challenges in the winter, there seems to be a peacefulness you don’t get in the summer. As we made it back to our cars we were happy of the prospect of warm showers and the comforts of home, but with a certain reserve. This trip got me excited for future trips and made me realize that there definitely is a place for winter camping in my life. I suppose it is time to start getting my lightweight winter gear list so I can go on my next winter trip next month.


Left to right: Lydia, Peter, Tyler, Tim, and Todd. 

Lydia, Tyler, and Tim all had their first winter camping experience during this trip.