Four Tips for Backpacking in the Winter

Written by Justin “Trauma” Lichter
There’s a mystique about heading out into the backcountry in the winter. In recent years backcountry skiing has been gaining in popularity, but that still typically doesn’t take people more than a few miles from the road. The allure of the short trip is obvious. Even the most popular backcountry destinations are deserted in the winter. I’ve been to Glacier Point in Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the White Mountains, some of the most heavily trafficked areas — and hardly seen a soul. Most people hike and backpack to disconnect, seek solitude, and experience the outdoors. There’s no better time than the winter to achieve this. Don’t be scared to leave the comforts of a warm fireplace – expand the camping season and escape the crowds by heading out in the winter!
I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in the winter and seen hardly anybody. This is the Grand Central Station of hiking trails. It’s amazing and beautiful, even more so in the winter because you can see out of the “Green Tunnel”, but can be crowded and difficult to get shelter space. Almost every night of the trip I was the only one in the shelter – with the added benefit of no one else snoring but me!
This winter I plan on attempting to thru-hike/ski the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. It will be roughly 2650 miles of varying travel methods, from skis to snowshoes, in a mix of terrain and conditions. We think this challenge will take 5-6 months through the heart of the winter. Here are a few things to keep in mind on a winter trip:
1) Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance – my favorite saying.
You want to research the conditions that you could hit, including the low temperatures, potential weather, and the potential for avalanche conditions. This includes last minute checks of the weather and avalanche forecasts, then alter your kit accordingly. For example, if you are expecting a snowstorm then you might want to throw in the GPS to help you navigate or add a few additional layers to wear. You’ll also want to cater your sleeping system to the potential low temperatures.
2) Pack wisely – but that doesn’t mean you should pack the kitchen sink
You want to be prepared for colder temperatures and adjust your kit accordingly, but that doesn’t mean that you need to throw your entire closet into your pack. The sun sets early and you’ll be in your sleeping bag when it starts getting chilly. Save on extra camp clothing layers since you’ll be in your sleeping bag, but pack something to read or a deck of cards and a shelter with a little extra room. You want to be comfortable and the weight savings from other items will allow room for extra comforts.
3) Layer
I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but seriously, layer your clothing. This will help to create an adaptable and versatile system throughout the day and night. If you are sweating during the day then you should strip off a layer and save it for later before it gets wet. You don’t want to overheat because that will lead to chilling later on. Use your layering system to prevent overheating. Also when you stop for a break, make sure to add a layer before you start getting cold. It takes less energy for your body to stay warm then to get cold and warm up again.
4) Adjust your goals
A winter trip is different than a summer trip. Sometimes you can make great time if the snow sets up right, but often the travel is much slower. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Take this into consideration when you pack your food. It might snow and you could be slogging. In the winter I would always recommend packing a bit of extra food. If you don’t need it, you’ll probably end up eating it the last day anyway!
A winter trip is rewarding, enjoyable, and challenging. When an old timer says, “I remember when we would go weeks without seeing people in a national park”, you will respond “I still do.” Sometimes travel might feel like it is uphill both ways, but those challenges will just make the hot chocolate in front of the fireplace that much more rewarding when you return home.
Justin “Trauma” Lichter bio:
Justin has also logged over 35,000 miles of hiking and backpacking. He has hiked unsupported from end to end through the Himalayas, through the Southern Alps of New Zealand, through Iceland and Norway, across the United States six times, and over 1800 miles through Africa. He is a ski patroller and enjoys backcountry skiing, Nordic skiing, biking, surfing and anything else outdoors and active. His first book, Trail Tested, was published in April 2012, with a follow up book, Ultralight Survival Kit, released in February 2014.


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