cold weather backpacking 101

Cold Weather Backpacking 101: The Beginner’s Guide

There is nothing fun like pine’s scent amidst the quiet mountain zones or a clear sky with speckling stars against snow-capped mountains. When backpacking, it’s always wise to prepare beforehand with all the necessary items and gear. Appropriate gear will help keep warm and endure all the winter hiking challenges.

The Cold Will Be Your Constant Antagonist

Remember, as you hike, your primary challenge will be overcoming the extreme cold, wet and snowy conditions. Even if it’s fun hiking during winter, it comes with disadvantages which you have to prepare well to deal with them. Otherwise, you might end up freezing, getting cold injuries, and frostbite. You can also contract severe illnesses like arthritis, pneumonia, and even pains, especially in the joints. Be sure to carry all cold-weather clothing and gear, enough food, and follow other measures to keep you warm.

Don’t Take on More that You Can’t Handle

As a beginner in winter hiking, it’s wise not to overdo it. First, your body has not adapted to hiking and straining it will be uncomfortable for you. You may experience severe body aches and pains that can hinder you from enjoying the trip. You are new to the activity in terms of mileage coverage, weather adaptations, solving challenges, and you require to learn progressively.  Therefore, start small and keep learning as time goes by.

The following tips can assist you in taking what you can handle;

Start with a Mild and Manageable Winter Hikes

When packing, consider the size of the pack, a big package will decrease hiking speed and call for more stopovers. You will also get exhausted. Don’t try to make a mileage record, keep daily mileage as low as possible like 7 miles or lower per day. Again, ensure you just camp for a few days, and have a small pack minimize fatigue.

Go with an Experienced Partner

Having someone with during camping, it’s much safer and even relieves your adventure fears. A friend will teach you tips on handling and overcoming winter camping challenges, backpacking skills, and safety measures. While with a friend, you learn how to hit the trails, operate gear, and still have fun together.

backpacking in cold weather

Take a Shorter Trip a Day or Two and Stay Close to Civilization

Take your first trip simple and closer to home. Shorter trips will involve fewer logistics, less food, a light pack, and less stress. You need this as you gain more experience. Also, if a gear fails, or you forgot to carry, terminating a trip is easy. Additionally, if things go unexpected been close to civilization keeps you at ease.

Always Carry an Emergency Beacon

A beacon is an electronic device that alert search and rescue services in case an emergency occurs. It transmits a coded message on 406mHz distress frequency through satellite to the nearest rescue center. It’s a vital gadget, especially when going solo accidents may occur like bleeding, encountering wildlife, or getting lost. Only use the beacon when it’s an emergency and after trying other options like calling a friend or relatives. Your beacon should also be registered for it to help you.  Ensure it has enough charge for accessibility.

There may be constraints for rescue-like terrain and unfavorable weather conditions, which may delay the process for hours or more. Therefore, you should have other backup options, like calling friends. The Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger is a good option with impressive battery life.

Some hiking watches with GPS can also get the job done but their battery life might be a bit shaky if you are lost for long.

Report into a Friend Left at Home Frequently

Keeping in touch with a friend at home is wise. It helps track when you are in danger, or if communication fails, one can detect something is wrong. You can also leave your trip plan with a friend or relative. In it, include details of where you are going and when you will get back. Your plan can help during a rescue mission if you fail to report back as expected.

Stay in Your Tent for the First Trip

As a beginner, you may be overexcited over the new adventure and aiming to achieve several goals. The challenge comes from less experience with the environment, especially the trails and high chances you may land into a fix. Take your time reading favorite novels inside the tent or taking photos just around the camp as you familiarize yourself with the environment.

Preparing for the Cold: Must-Have Gear for a Cold Weather Backpacking Trip

As you prepare for your trip, it’s good to have a checklist of all the gear you need to avoid inconveniences, the equipment ranges from navigation tools, food, water, clothes, safety tools, first aid kit, and more.

Clothing

You require to pack unique hiking clothes and still wear different layers. Layering enables you to adapt to the changing environmental conditions if you feel warm, undress, or adjust if feeling cold. Carry moisture-wicking clothes, quick-drying fabrics like nylon and polyester. They absorb sweat from your skin and keeps you dry.

Avoid cotton clothes as they take in too much water and delay in drying. These clothes can chill you and even lead to hypothermia, a condition where your body loses heat faster than their production, causing low body temperature. The backpacking clothing group into the following layers;

  • Base layers like the long underwear to keep warm, especially in the cold night.
  • Hiking layers which are light clothes like nylon pants, t-shirts, sun-shirt, sun-hat
  • Insulation layers: puffy vest or jackets, lightweight fleece pullover, warm hat, and gloves. Look for something similar to this as they are lightweight and quite insulating.
  • Rainwear: carry with you breathable jackets, rain pants depending on weather forecasts.

The Right Type of Shoes

Invest in proper fitting boots that feel comfortable and supportive. The shoes should suit the terrain you are going to hike without getting painful blisters on the trail. Wear your hiking boots with woolen socks. Also, consider buying a pair of shoes or sandals for wearing around the camp. Here are some catchy hiking boots to try out.

Gloves

Use flee-gloves or Gore-Tex; they keep your hands warm and prevent frostbite. Gore-Tex is waterproof and more reliable, especially in unexpected weather. The MCTi Waterproof Ski Gloves are a great option for winter backpacking.

Headgear

Woolen hats warm your head and prevent heat loss to the surroundings. A trapper’s hat will keep you warm and cozy without getting in the way. You could opt for protective hard hats that protect you from impacts and also give you a perfect mounting point for head lights or a GoPro camera to capture those important moments.

Goggles

You can go for basic sunglasses to protect your eyes from reflective snow if you are on a budget but they won’t shield you from cold draughts and will be a bother if you get involved in intense activities. Snow goggles will protect your eyes from the glare while also keeping the cold out of your upper face without obscuring your view.

Snow Gaiters

Snow gaiters keep snow out of your boots while hiking. Again, they keep your legs warm. Coupled with some heated socks and the right boots, you are guaranteed comfort as you plod through the snow and ice. You won’t have to worry about frostbite and all the hiking shortcomings it brings.

The Tent

Choose a tent that is lightweight, waterproof, durable, and easy to setup. You should practice setting up and packing before leaving and spending the night outdoors. Since the tent will always be on your back, you’re limited on its heft and insulative properties. The FLYTOP 3-4 Season tent will do the trick on short trips.

The Backpack

You should factor in the length of your trip and climate as you choose the best pack. The pack should fit properly with even weight distribution and comfort as you carry. Something basic and affordable like this could be the perfect backpack for hiking in winter since it is comfortable, reinforced, and big enough to carry the supplies you need.

Backpacking Stove and Fuel

Pick a stove that takes less time to cook and functions well in cold weather. Light cookers allow you to heat meals and keep warm instead of snacking. White gas stoves are considered the best for winter. Others prefer gas-canister because it is affordable.

Remember to pack a full canister for the right type of fuel for your oven. You can carry isobutane fuel and keep your canister warm in a sleeping bag before using it. Something small like the MSR PocketRocket stove is easy to tuck away and can easily give you room for a life-saving Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy.

Cooking Gear

Carry enough pots, plates, pans, cups, spoons to cook and eat all planned meals. Again, carry a small sponge, biodegradable soap, and towel for cleaning dishes. A knife is also an essential tool for cooking, cutting fabrics, and making fire.

Sleeping Pad

It’s essential for sleeping in comfort a

nd warmth. As a beginner, you require a light, well-cushioned pad that packs small and can hold up to some tear and wear. Since you won’t be out for long, you don’t have to get a very thick pad. Portability here should be your priority. Go for something like the ECOTEK Outdoors Insulated Hybern8 that is 4 seasons rated, packs small, and is inflatable.

Sleeping Bag

Choose a warm insulated bag that’s comfortable for staying outdoors. Depending on insulation, you will choose between a synthetic or a down bag. Go for a 3 or 4-season bag insulated more for colder temperatures or unzipped for airflow when it’s warm. A warm enough sleeping bag can do away with the need for a thicker tent, a bigger sleeping pad, or a dedicated heat source. The Bessport Sleeping Bag Winter will keep you comfortable in temperatures as low as 14F, which is more than enough if you slip in with your puffy jacked in a tent or in a dugout with a fire or heater going.

Headlamp

It’s useful for lighting and can help cooking, during lowlight on the trail, and more. Choose one with an articulated lamp, adjustable band, and dimmer options. Best headlamp.

Trekking Pole

A useful gear to help you keep balanced, evenly distribute weight, and support yourself on the terrain, check ice or snow depth and even conduct searches. The PEAKWALK Lightweight Trekking Poles pack should be a good starting point.

Snacks and Toiletries

Remember to carry extra snacks that will be enough for your trip. They help energize when you are too tired. Be sure to bring water in bottles to remain hydrated. Also, carry tissue, waste bags, and hand sanitizer.

How to Set Up a Good Winter Camp

A camp is your home in the wild or camping zone. It should be well-built to protect you from cold winds, rain, and wildlife. Therefore, it’s essential to set a camp at a safe spot to protect yourself adequately.

Choosing the Right Camping Gear

setting up a tent on the snow

As you prepare for camping, carry the right camping gear. The gear depends on where you are camping, but there are basic ones. First, consider, 3-4 season, if, in a windy and heavy snow area, 4-season is the best. The tent should be spacious to fit more than one person and gear.

Additionally, a sleeping bag is an essential item in the cold-weather. Use one rated at least 10 degrees F, colder than the lowest temperature you expect to find. The kit provides cushion and insulation from the cold ground. It’s better to use a two-full lengths pads to avoid losing body heat with a closed-cell foam pad against the floor and the self-inflating on top; the bags rates from 1-8 R-value with a high figure indicating better insulation.

A camping stove is another significant gear. It acts as a source of heat, helps in melting ice to get water and cooking meals. Liquid-fuel ovens work well in winter though the cold can cause pressure issues in canister stoves. If using canister, choose one with an in-built pressure regulator and keep it warm in a sleeping bag or jacket.

Clothes are also part of camping gear to keep yourself warm. The clothing layers should be three;

  • The base layer(lightweight) like pants and t-shirts that help wick sweat to outer layers can evaporate.
  • Insulating(middle)layer; microfleece or goose down jacket and second pair of socks, they retain body heat and protect you from cold.
  • Waterproof/ resistant and breathable shield you from rain, wind, and snow. Consider also using the right boots which are waterproof. Other gear includes; snowshoes or skis, snow stakes, a pickaxe, and avalanche safety equipment.

Choosing the Camping Spot

While choosing a spot, you need to consider the location of setting the camp. The area should be free from wind away from falling trees and more. Survey the space you need to camp for the following things;

Protection from Wind

Choose a spot that has a natural wind block like trees or a hill. Direct wind may be a source of cold and can cause destruction.

Water Source

An area with a source of water is best to ensure you remain hydrated. Melting snow is time-consuming and also requires more fuel. You need water for drinking, washing clothes, dishes, and cooking.

Avoid Camping on Vegetation

Set up a camp on patchy snow conditions or an established campsite of bare ground. You don’t want to destroy the natural environment.

Avalanche Risk

Avoid setting a camp on a slope or below one that can slide as this is risky to your life.

The orientation of the Sun

An area that offers exposure to sunrise will help you warm up faster, especially in the morning.

Landmarks

Set a camp in an area with clear landmarks for tracing your way back in darkness or a snowstorm. Look for prominent landmarks like unique trees that cannot be hidden by freshly fallen snow.

How to Set Up a Tent in the Snow

Before setting up the tent, ensure you have a good camping location free from any risks. The next steps are erecting tents, building a kitchen area, collecting firewood, gathering water, packing down snow in and around your tent, set up a tent, and build a snow wall.

First, Pack Down the Snow

You can pack through walking the entire area with skis, split board, or snowshoes. Stamping down the snow helps create an even surface that is flat and less likely to melt. Packing this snow also makes walking comfortable and prevents sinking into the flakes.

Tying Down Your Tent in the Snow

After packing the snow, then erect the tent. The doors in the canvas should be facing the central area where the kitchen will be. Ensure the doors are at a right angle to the wind to avoid direct wind into the tent. To tie your canvas, use stake kit, small bags which can hold rocks, sand snow and bury them deep into the snow. The snow hardens around the sacks and anchors your tent.

Check this too: Best Freeze Dried Meals for Backpackers

Build a Snow Wall

If the wind becomes a challenge, consider building a snow wall around the tent for protection. Make the snow wall as high as you require using snow saws and shovels. As the wall hardens, it provides extra insulation, making the colder nights warm.

Build a Snow Kitchen

It’s more practical to build this kitchen as a team. If you don’t have an extra tent, consider making the kitchen in the snow. You can use the kitchen to cook, set fire to warm up, fix equipment, and more. Depending on how many people you are, dig around 2-3 feet bottomless pit, but if more than four people, dig 6-8 feet deep.

Pile the snow on the outside of the pit until its firm.  Make the benches inside the hole, tables, counters for storing cooking equipment using snow. Set a fireplace at the center of it.

a good stove for backpacking

What to Eat When Backpacking or Camping in Winter

Your body consumes a lot of energy when trekking through cold and snowy landscapes. It’s therefore wise to eat and hydrate well before, during, and after hiking to ensure you have enough vigor and stay warm. Here are some tips on how to eat and drink;

Have Simple and Hot Meals

A simple meal with dense calories takes less time to cook. Ensure your meal is hot to keep warm.

Take Short Lunch Breaks

Take simple sandwiches or a quick grab of snacks and energy foods that have protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Don’t stop for long lunch breaks as you will cool down, instead take munches as you walk.

Remember to Drink Water Even Though its Cold

Water is necessary during the hike to keep your body hydrated. Even though it’s freezing, make sure you take some amount during the day, soups, and hot drinks.

Snacking for Recharge

Take snacks often along the trails to keep your body full of energy to walk.

How to Melt Snow for Water in Winter

You can melt on a fire or stove for water. The snow should be clean, with no yellow or pink color. Some colors, like pink, indicate bacterial growth. The flakes may take much time to change from solid to liquid state and also consume much fuel. You should put water first in your container and heat it, then slowly add snow. The hot water will melt the snow more efficiently than doing it directly.

How to Stay Warm When Hiking in the Cold

There are various tips you can follow to keep warm while hiking in the cold;

Pack the Snow

Pack your campsite before setting up the tent. You can trample on the snow using skis or snowshoes. You prevent yourself from getting into the risk of stepping into the soft bit of snow inside the tent that can tear the floor and get inside, exposing you to cold.

Pack an Extra Hat and Gloves

Hat and gloves help you to keep your hands and head warm and prevent any cold injuries.

Use the Right Sleeping Pad

Have two layers at the bottom of your pad and one at the top. Ensure your padding has a higher R-value and a closed-cell foam pad underneath. Through this, you minimize heat loss from your body through condensation and keeps warm.

Sleep with Your Boots

Use boots with removable liners so that you can put liners at the bottom of the sleeping pad. If you only have single-layer shoes, put them in a waterproof stuff sack underneath the bag. You assist your boots in warming rather than freezing in the morning when you require to wear them.

Camp by Candle Lights

A well-placed candle lantern, far away from you, and the ceiling is best. It keeps the tent warm and reduces the condensation rate.

Use of Vaseline

Cover your exposed skin with Vaseline or animal fat for insulation.  Exposed skin areas are like ears, neck, wrist, and hands. Apply oil to prevent heat loss and exposure to windburn and frostbite.

Make a Heater

Fill your water bottles with boiled water and stuff them in the sleeping bag before sleeping. The hot bottles act like heating pads and keep you warm all night. Just ensure the caps are tight as you put them.

Pack and Eat Extra Food

Eating more food with calories helps your body to generate more heat and overcome cold.

Take Hot Drinks

Hot drinks help increase your body temperatures but avoid alcohol and caffeine beverages. Alcohol speeds up heat loss, dehydrates you, and sends you frequently to the bathroom.

Exercise to Generate Heat

Doing some sit-ups while in the sleeping bag helps generate heat. Also, pushups glute bridges will warm you up and help prevent knee pain. Try a few sets of these before getting up to prepare you to face the cold.

How to Avoid Getting Lost

To avoid getting lost you need to adhere to the following tips;

Research on Your Trip

Study a map and cross-reference directions from different sources to ensure they are accurate.

Bring a GPS with You

Buy a handheld GPS that you can use to check your exact location, access topo maps, and draw the intended path while marking key waypoints.

Have a Map and a Compass

The two-act as a backup for tracing your way, if you don’t have a GPS or when it runs out of charge, a compass also helps you locate your location when you combine it with a map.

Pay Attention to Surrounding

As you hike, get to note the features like unique landmarks that you can use trace your way.

Try Your Best to Stay on the Trail

Always follow the right trail as you researched to minimize the chances of getting lost.

Write Down Where You Turn

Note down where you hit forks on the trail and make turns. The surroundings may be similar and thus tricky to use landmarks. But if you write it down, it’s easy for you to backtrack.

What to do If You Get Lost

Getting lost can be terrifying, but you need to concentrate on finding your way out. Consider these steps to find your way;

Stop Walking

Stop walking and calm down, so that you reason. Stay put until you calm down. Walking around when panicked increases your chances of getting lost even more. You will waste precious energy that you’ll need to find civilization or sit it out until you are rescued.

Consider Turning Off Your Phone

If you don’t need your phone, it’s good to switch it off and conserve the battery for an emergency.

Gauge Your Distance

Get your trail map and try to determine how far you hiked. Some phones or even smartwatches can tell the distance you have walked. If you went off the trail, check the map and use natural markers to trace your path.

Try to Retrace your Steps

If you are confident with the trail, you can try your way out. Do your best to keep on the path to avoid getting more lost. Don’t strain your body if you feel exhausted, take some time and rest.

Staying Put

It will become easy for people to find you if you settle in a shelter. Create angled tarp shelter, use tarp or fabric, and tie it to a branch both sides. You can also make a contained fire to keep yourself warm. Keep calm as you wait for rescue.

Creating a Rescue Signal

You can use a whistle to make noise and ask for help. You can also use CD-ROM or shiny pieces of aluminum foils and flashlight up to rescuers. Again, you can consider making a smoky controlled fire as a signal; moreover, if you have your phone call, your friend or relatives for help.

Valuable Tips to Keep in Mind Throughout Your Backpacking Trip

These are tricks to ensure your safety while camping and also guiding you on the dos and don’ts.

  • Test Your Tent for Waterproofness

Before you leave for the trip, test your tent by spraying it with a hosepipe to see what happens inside. Note where its leaking and seam it if you can’t consult the manufacturing company for repair.

  • Learn to Start Fire Easily

Learn and practice starting a one-match fire. In wet climates, use a cotton ball dipped in Vaseline to help out.

  • Wash Your Clothes on the Trail

After exhausting hiking, it’s good to wash your clothes, especially the inner layer, and get rid of the smelly sweat. You should carry a portable wash bucket for the task. Remember not to pollute streams with dirty water and soap. Carry your water 200 feet from the stream, wash and rinse your clothes there.

  • Take Care of Your Feet

Prevent blisters by wearing fitting shoes. Wear synthetic hiking socks and let your shoes air out as often as possible.

  • Make Sure Your Pack Fits

An unfitting pack can cause unbearable pain and blisters on the hips, lower back, shoulders, and sides. Go to the outfitter to be measured and fitted for a pack if you need it. A good backpack that fits should be comfortable on your back.

  • Use some clothing softening for your backpack to avoid bad smell.
  • Carry a full mouth water bottle to prevent ice forming at the top. Moreover, carry your bottle upside down as water starts freezing at the top, and thus when you turn it upright, you will drink water instead of ice.
  • Use Plastic as Snow Anchors

Fill plastic bags with snow and burry them leaving their handles above. The bags are easy to remove in the morning and use them. They are lightweight, unlike carrying tent stakes.

  • Wrap Fuel Bottles with Duct Tape

Touching uninsulated fuel bottle with the bare skin of your hand in extreme temperatures can cause a cold injury. To prevent severe frostbite, wrap your bottle with duct tape to insulate it.

  • Hit the Trail Early

Plan your trip early in the morning to give yourself ample time to complete. Remember, the sun goes away soon in winter, and you may not want darkness to find you.

  • Cover Your Mouth

It’s wise to cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or bandana, perspiration from breathing in cold air results in heat loss. But if you cover it, you reduce heat loss and ensure you inhale warm air.

  • Carry Extra Batteries for Your Electronics

The best batteries to use in the cold are nickel-cadmium. They are rechargeable and work well in the cold. Lithium batteries are more common on most modern gadgets but will lose capacity if left in the cold. Keeping your electronics in a warm dry place should keep them safe. You could even store light batteries and gadgets in your inner cloths pockets to keep them warm and by your side at all times.

Conclusion

Winter backpacking can be fun, especially if you have experience.  As a first-timer, ensure you have a friend with you to learn more winter backpacking skills.  Also, if possible,  embrace team hiking. It aids in letting go of adventure fears, learning to solve hiking challenges, and organizing fun activities together.  If going alone for the trip, ensure you schedule it for a few days and near your home. With this, you can quickly access help when stranded and be less overwhelmed.

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