This article was prepared for the Appalachian Trail: Expert Advice Facebook page to which I am a contributor.
Backpacking experience is a sure bet if you’re attempting a thru hike. Informal surveys suggest that for the vast majority of thru hikers, this 2,200-mile adventure will be their first serious backpacking trip.
There’s art in the frost.
Especially with hikers starting earlier to avoid crowds, the winter months are an ideal time to develop hiking, camping and cooking skills. The trails and shelters see little traffic. The light angles are brilliant for photography. Best of all, if you make a mistake and have to bail, you’re generally close to home or your car.
If you follow social media, you learn many hikers hibernate during the cold and desolate winter months when they could be out on the trails honing their skills.
In many places winter isn’t totally glacial. There are warm spells. After all, even black bears don’t truly hibernate. When it warms up a bit, they get out and about. So can you. You can also test nature’s most challenging elements if you want to.
AT at New Found Gap in Nov. Temperature 0F.
Winter experience is also valuable knowledge that might save someone’s hike. Nearly all NOBOs and many SOBOs endure harsh winter conditions in the Smokies , the Roan Highlands, and or on the Mt. Rogers massif. On the northern end, the 100-mile Wilderness can become a deepfreeze in late fall.
Rain-soaked poles were hung on a peg and froze solid overnight on Mt. Rogers.
Here’s why it matters. While ridgerunning in a heavy March snowstorm, I met two couples from Florida on Blood Mountain who said they were overwhelmed by the snow and cold. Three and a half days into their hike, it was over.
These hikers were headed home with smashed dreams, casualties of not knowing how. Since it snowed, sleeted and/or rained on 18 of the first 20 days that March, they were destined to be toast no matter what, but they did not have to be.
Georgia in March.
Ready to try winter backpacking and improve your edge?
Four layers you can see and two you can’t. With my friend Denise Benson on a cold weather trip preparing for her thru hike.
The general concepts are simple. Wear loose and layered clothing. Keep your clothing, socks and sleeping bag as dry as possible. Keep your head and hands warm. Learn how to block the wind and manage body heat generated by heavy exercise. Learn how to stay warm at night. Know the techniques needed to avoid misery.
Here are some things to know before you go about clothing, layering, gloves and mittens, staying dry, treating water and keeping your water from freezing, dehydration and hypothermia, frostbite, staying warm at night, camp routine, cooking and electronics, and more. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
In dead winter you’ll need to pack more clothing than normal, at least a complete change or more depending on conditions. The keys are to stay dry and have enough layers to keep warm.
Extra layers may be needed depending on expected temperatures. During my thru hike, I experienced -15 degrees F on Mt. Rogers following a day of hard near-freezing rain. These were ultra high-risk conditions. But, that night and the next day were special in a good way. I was warm and dry. It wasn’t luck. It was know-how.
Everybody says wear layers. Exactly what does that mean?
Wind layer over base layer.
Layers trap air that acts as insulation. Usually a snug wicking base layer is complimented by a loose, windproof, baggy outer layer. The wicking property keeps your skin dry and warmer. Rain gear, pants and jacket, can serve as a wind-proof outer layer, but so can other forms of technical clothing available from outfitters. In a word, two thin fleeces will be warmer than one heavy one. In camp wearing a rain jacket over a puffy is much warmer than the puffy alone, especially if it is windy.
For example, even at temperatures around -35 F in Alaska, Colorado and northern Minnesota, a tight fitting wicking base layer surrounded by a baggy windproof layer on the bottom has been enough during exertion. On top a base layer and a second loose layer, say a light fleece under the wind layer is usually sufficient while hiking, snow shoeing or skiing in the extreme cold. It doesn’t take that much to stay warm while you are moving.
Most serious winter backpackers don’t use multipurpose clothing such as fleece-lined outer shells. Their outer layers are separate to ease building the right number of layers. If using a rain jacket, it should be designed like a mountain parka with a high hooded collar, pit zips to reduce heat build up, and an inside pocket to carry water bottles.
The key when moving is just enough clothing to keep warm to reduce sweating. Add or subtract light, lose layers as needed.
In cold weather, everything changes the minute you stop. Your body generates far less heat and the moisture in damp clothing quickens the transfer of heat away from your body. Keep your warm jacket handy so you can put it on right away when you stop.
In camp you can add down pants to help keep your legs warm during chores, and to sleep in as well. Wearing down pants and puffies to bed adds insulation that increases the temperature range on sleeping bags. Down booties keep cold feet warm. High quality down garments offer outstanding warmth at a light weight.
The down jackets, pants and booties extend the range of the 20-degree bag to 0F.
Bonus. Think about it. If nature calls on a freezing night, popping out of your sleeping bag wearing down pants and a jacket make the experience much more tolerable.
Gloves, Mittens and Socks:
Mittens are always warmer than gloves. They are handy to have for those prone to colder extremities – older hikers, women, or someone with Renaud’s disease.
Mittens with a waterproof shell helps keep hands dry and block the wind. On my thru, a cold snap (0 degrees F) drove me into Gatlinburg to buy mittens because my gloves were woefully insufficient. The outfitter didn’t carry them, so I waited in town two days for warmer temperatures. That was two town days not in the budget because my winter gear was waiting for me in Hot Springs.
Gloves, and especially mittens, make performing tasks much more difficult such as manipulating snaps, buckles, zippers and any task requiring fine motor skills. Wearing thin glove liners adds an inner layer and improves motor skills and reduces frostbite risk when gloves or mittens must be removed.
Dry wool socks/warm feet are a necessity, not a luxury. Some carry up to five pair of socks, including their sleeping socks. At night I put my socks between my sleeping bag and air mattress. Usually they dry out.
Water sources can freeze solid.
In subfreezing temperatures, having drinkable water is challenging. Water sources can freeze solid requiring hikers to expend precious fuel melting ice or snow. Filters easily freeze. To prevent freezing, they can be packed deep within one’s pack during the day and reside inside your sleeping bag at night. That’s a pain.
In freezing weather, chemical purification generally is more convenient, either Aqua Mira or iodine tabs. Fortunately iodine now comes with a neutralizer that removes its peculiar color and unpleasant taste.
Treated water must be kept liquid. During a bitterly cold day, carry water containers in an insulated sleeve and inside your outer layer where body heat helps prevent freezing. Extra water can be insulated inside your pack using extra clothing.
Wide mouth bottles are almost impossible to open if the water at the opening freezes due to the extra friction caused by their large surface area.
Narrow mouth bottles, carried upside down, fare better. The reason for carrying bottles upside down is that no bottle is completely full and the water near the air bubble at the top freezes first.
Know the forecast before relying on a water bladder. Even insulated hoses freeze at relatively high temperatures.
At night water goes inside your sleeping bag if you don’t want a block of ice in the morning that might not thaw out. Put the bottle in a sock or at the end of your bag if you’re worried about it making you cold. Heating the water first acts like a hot water bottle and adds comfort, but it comes with the cost of burning extra fuel.
Above all, make certain the container lid is on tight. Do not use flip lids unless you want to chance flooding your sleeping bag. It happens more than you think.
Fake fact: When it’s cold outside and you don’t sweat as much, so you don’t need to drink as much.
In winter the colder air is generally dryer, sweat evaporates more efficiently, and you exhale a lot of water vapor. Thirst is not as intense, yet your body eliminates nearly the same amount of water as it does in other seasons.
Monitor how much you are drinking to ensure you get enough. You should urinate about once every hour or two and the color of your urine should match lemonade. If it looks dark yellow or like weak tea, you’re headed for trouble. If the color darkens to the color of cola, you are at risk.
This condition occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees. That’s only 3.6 degrees below normal. Symptoms include shivering, rapid hear rate, rapid breathing, lose of coordination and confusion. Dehydration can be a factor, as can wet clothing.
Wear clothes made of artificial fiber that retain insulating ability when wet. Cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. Hence the aphorism: Cotton kills.
Staying as dry as possible is the Holy Grail in hypothermia prevention. Moisture reduces the insulating value of your clothes, hats, gloves and socks. You have to get out of damp or wet garments as soon as you get to camp. You might need to change earlier if you get soaked in a cold rain or slip and fall into a creek. Regardless, heat can dissipate rapidly leading to hypothermia or frostbite.
Tricorner Knob Shelter where a hiker died of hypothermia.
An experienced hiker, who was properly equipped, died at a shelter in the Smokies just a few years ago. He was found dead next to his sleeping bag having been robbed of his judgment by the cold. https://appalachiantrailnoir.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/hiker-succumbs-to-hypothermia-in-the-smokies/
If you start to shiver, it may be time to add layers, especially a windproof outer layer.
Frostbite happens when your skin freezes. The vulnerable parts of your body are toes, feet, hands, face and ears. For AT purposes, the likely danger lies mostly in wet feet and hands. Wind chill can endanger noses, cheeks and ears. Properly fitting boots, gaiters, and dry socks are your friends. Also mittens protect the hands much more than gloves. Knit and fleece hats protect ears. In extreme conditions balaclavas cover cheeks and noses.
When you role into camp the sun will probably be dropping like a stone along with the temperature. At a minimum, your back and socks will be damp, requiring a change. You’ll need water and to eat, and a place to sleep. What do you do first?
Camp routine is personal preference. The key is to be organized and prioritized both in the way your gear is packed (say clothes on top) and the order of your camp chores.
Since I treat my winter water with iodine, which takes 30 minutes to work, that’s the first thing I do. Pitching my tent or preparing my bedroll follows; then changing clothes. When the water is purified, I cook and clean up. Then I dive into bed and listen to pod casts rather than lose more valuable body heat.
These tents belong to ill-prepared spring break hikers. I slept in between. Had one more hiker arrived, the tents would have had to come down.
Sleeping in a tent is warmer than a shelter. It’s bad form to pitch tents in shelters, but hikers do it if they need to keep warm. It becomes a problem if too many hikers show up.
When pitching tents, scrape away the snow from under the area of your tent. During the night body heat melts the snow turning it into ice after you get up. If you don’t act quickly, the ice freezes tents to the ground like super glue. Striking tents immediately after waking helps prevent this. Using a footprint either from the manufacturer or homemade from Tyvek might just save your tent floor.
While sleeping, the majority of heat is lost through the bottom, transferring to the colder ground underneath. Thus, bottom insulation is far more important than on top. If you’re cold and have an extra blanket, put it underneath you, not over you, and you’ll be warmer. My preference is an insulated air mattress over closed cell foam sleeping pads because these air mattresses offer higher insulation values.
As a general rule, plan to sleep in your dry spare set of clothes. Don’t expect your damp sweaty hiking outfit to dry out overnight. You put that back on in the morning and quickly get moving to warm up.
In much colder temperatures, putting on damp clothing in the morning may not be practical or safe, depending. On a good day, I don’t change anything but socks when I get to camp. My back is usually only slightly damp. I add layers and am usually dry before bedtime.
Cooking in cold weather requires much more fuel.
What’s on the menu is a matter of personal preference. Most people don’t like to eat cold meals in the winter. Preparing a warm meal in winter is a function the laws of physics. Needless to say, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around within the hiking community.
Warm meal(s) and or hot chocolate are comforting to say the least. The choices for creating heat are basically two: fire and stoves. Fire is dirty and difficult for some. Alcohol stoves sometimes don’t generate enough heat to boil water in very cold temperatures. If you use iso butane, you need special winter mix fuel canisters. Pressurized stoves such as the MSR Wisperlite are heavy in comparison to other choices. Experience can help you pick your poison.
Cold is the enemy of all batteries, especially the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and iPods. Whip out your phone in winter to take a photo and it may die before you can even turn the camera on. If a lithium-ion battery freezes, nano wires inside may break, severely degrading its life and capacity.
Keeping your phone in your pocket helps keep the battery warm. Electronics including storage batteries also follow your water bottle into your sleeping bag at night. Electronics including your headlamp, unneeded during the day, can be packed inside sleeping bags to insulate them from the severe cold.
One more thing:
Snow blindness is rare at the lower altitude in the lower 48, but it’s a risk nevertheless. Sun reflecting off white snow plays hell with your eyesight. The Eskimos invented slitted eye covers to protect them from the glare. Always bring sunglasses or wear polychromatic lenses in prescription glasses.
My shoulder-season pack, set up for five days, weighs about 32 lbs., all included. That’s a tent, 20-degree sleeping bag, a down puffy, down pants and booties, a complete change of clothing, rain gear, wind jacket, two hats, and gloves plus stove, food and water.
My thru hike pack at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center. The month is March.
In contrast, my summer pack weighs around 18 lbs. – far fewer clothes, lighter sleeping bag, and modified rain gear if it’s there at all.
My full on winter pack weighs around 40 lbs. with all the basics plus gaiters, extra hats, mittens, zero-degree sleeping bag, and extra clothing. My boots change from high-top trail runners to an insulated and waterproof boot. Sometimes I bring micro spikes and/or show shoes.
The hiker is from Vermont and knew how to take good care of his dog in harsh conditions. Many hikers do not and their dogs suffer.
Winter is time you can use to your advantage. Mostly it’s an enchanting environment where the animal tracks tell remarkable stories and nature’s awesome beauty is visible in a way few seldom see. Occasionally it’s an adventure. Check it out!
Two excellent sources:
MOUNTAINEERING, The Freedom of the Hills. Edited by Ronald C. Eng. Part 1, Outdoor Fundamentals, eighth edition, 2015. The Mountaineers Books.
98.6 Degrees, The art of keeping YOUR ASS ALIVE, Cody Lundin. 2003. Gibbs Smith Publisher.
Gaiters help keep feet dry.
Pearisburg, VA is where the AT’s altitude drops below 5,000 ft. and it’s normally safe to send winter gear home.
Central Virginia in March.