AS GOOD, MAYBE BETTER: THE JOY OF (AND TIPS FOR) EARLY SPRING HIKING WITH JEFF GARMIRE
Words and Photos from Jeff "Legend" Garmire
The backpacking season starts when the spring arrives, and the weather improves, right? Well, living in Montana, that date can push far out into some of the finest months. Snow can linger and even arrive out of nowhere in late June. But that doesn't stop us, northern residents, from getting out on the trails. The weather doesn't dictate the hiking, nor does it stop the adventures. In fact, I think a snow-covered landscape is the most beautiful. Nature is quiet, and outside time is peaceful. I love the winter adventures and FKTs, but I also love the changes that seasons bring and the forced adaptations required to get outside.
In Montana, the first snow of the year can hit in September. This year it arrived in mid-October and decided to stick around through the winter. There are some days when the trails, streets, and routes are clear, but that is the exception. How is it possible to get out on the trails in the winter months? Here is some advice on what keeps us getting after it throughout the year, even in the most uninviting circumstances.
GEAR. TAKE MORE
Summer gear is light, efficient, and less necessary when the rain, snow, and cold can seep right through a layer. As a rule of thumb, in the winter, just take more. I start with a larger pack, then a larger (warmer) sleeping bag, and then a double-walled tent or a VERY sturdy single-walled option. The winter is relentless and unforgiving. A shelter is the first line of defense, and you don't want that to fail.
Starting with a fully waterproof bag is non-negotiable for me. When gear gets wet in the summer, it is a pain, but when it gets wet in the winter, it can be dangerous. The coldest night I have ever had was in the shoulder season in Montana, and my sleeping bag got wet. There was only a dusting of snow on the ground, and the temperature was in the high teens, but my sleeping bag didn't have any insulating properties. The down was wet, smashed, and offered no comfort. I stayed up through the night shivering until I finally left the tent and hiked forward for warmth.
Shoes, socks, and traction can all drastically improve an off-season adventure. I also throw in an extra pair of socks. Having one more dry pair to put on in the morning raises my spirits and makes the minimal weight addition completely worth it. My footwear is a little more substantial, but I still avoid waterproof options unless it is extremely cold. The problem with waterproof gear is that it doesn't dry out quickly. The time to use waterproof shoes is when the temperature is extreme. The waterproof shoes (trail runners) keep in more heat than the non-waterproof options. Once it is wet, it is going to be wet for the entire trip. Gloves, neck gaiter, and spare layers also help fight the unexpected cold.
Cold drastically reduces battery efficiency, and nighttime hours are longer. I pack a spare pair of batteries for my headlamp in the winter and always ensure I start with a full battery on my phone. These two small but underrated checks before beginning a hike eliminate lots of possible stress.
Water will freeze. And 32 degrees is still inviting weather to get outside and hike. When water freezes, it expands and also makes it impossible to drink. Filters can break and crack, bottles can become ice bricks, and lakes can quickly make their water inaccessible. So, armed with this knowledge, there are a few things that can ward off an impending freeze.
For longer day hikes, I add an insulated water bottle. In the northeast, many winter hikers carry an insulated thermos of water. The double-walled containers are heavier but can stave off the ice for the duration of a full day of hiking.
If I am going to need to treat water, I trade out my water filter for chemical treatment methods. In Montana, filters have a tendency to freeze in the single-digit highs of winter. On these cold trips, I sleep with my water in my sleeping bag. It remains in its liquid state and combats the ice that would form if it was left out.
In the summer, I leave the house with next to nothing. It is warm, refreshing, and easy to string together many quick miles. I can get by with a lightweight backpack or even a daypack containing only the essentials for an overnight. But in the winter, a little more planning is required.
Before even considering the weather, I always bring gloves, a beanie, and a trustworthy rain jacket. This is the bare minimum. From there, it is a game of additions. The colder it is, the more layers I bring. If it is windy or a storm is expected, more heavy-duty outerwear is thrown in. Baseweight is an afterthought. It is all about comfort in the winter and combatting all the forces designed to keep you indoors. In the winter, I overpack.
HERE COMES THE SUN
Sunscreen and sun protection aren't only for the summer. In fact, the sun can be even more brutal and malicious in the winter months. The rays reflect off the white snow and right onto the skin. Whether it is sunscreen or covering up any exposed areas, I do everything I can to avoid a massive sunburn. This is where sunglasses come in. If you have ever been snowblind, it is one of the most helpless situations. Simply packing sunglasses can help avoid the stinging white sensation of the bright white snow.
The weather is more variable in the fall, winter, and spring. It changes on a whim and can impact a hike quickly. Checking the weather before you leave isn't good enough. Constant awareness is a necessity. Risk tolerance and slope angle should be drastically lowered from summer hiking. Most avalanches are triggered on 35-45 degree slopes but can slide at angles as low as 30 degrees. It's best not to come anywhere near this type of terrain without avalanche education and a solid inclinometer to measure slope angles.
The best way to approach an off-season hike is with a healthy acceptance that plans may have to be altered. Summit fever is real, but when there is any question, leaving a peak for another day is the appropriate action. Consider making your winter and shoulder season excursions in a group or at least with another person. The more minds, the more eyes, and the more packs leave less chance for items to be forgotten and decisions to be overlooked.
Jeff Garmire is a writer and author. When he isn't adding to his 30,000 trail miles, he can be found on the trails and in the mountains around Bozeman. He is the author of Free Outside, which chronicles his Calendar Year Triple Crown.