A LIFE OF MILES: PUSHING FORWARD WHEN THE TRAIL GROWS COLD
Words & Photos by Jeff Garmire
Thirty thousand miles and always counting, give or take a few yards or inches, all done on foot. Jeff Garmire (@thefreeoutside) is still heading out whenever he can to "make up for 2020." Some of these miles were racked up diesel engine-style, nice and steady, all day long. Some were covered with a cinderblock on the gas pedal. In this post, he shares tips he's picked up from times his trails became snow-covered and the temperatures dropped. Adjustments and awareness can keep you moving forward!
Each month, Jeff will send out a call for your questions in our Instagram feed and answer them there or in new posts in The Shakedown section of our blog. Put your thinking caps on folks, and journey into Jeff's brain. Who knows what'll you'll learn!
Growing up, backpacking was a summer activity. We lived in the Pacific Northwest, and all the wilderness areas, lakes, and trails that we usually backpacked on held snow deep into May and June. Backpacking in the winter wasn't even a thought. But, when I took on the Calendar Year Triple Crown, everything changed. I had to camp on the snow. I had to hike through the snow. And I had to learn how to stay hydrated in temperatures that quickly froze my bottles. It was trial by fire, only the opposite. By being faced with all these things on my first true winter backpacking experience, I learned several valuable lessons that I apply more often than just winter.
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS MATTER
It is easy to throw rain gear in a backpack in the summer and forego looking at the forecast. But, in the winter, the temperature swings can be dramatic. Snow, ice, and flooded trails can encumber progress, and storms can immediately halt even the most experienced backpackers. Before committing to a trip, I try to find localized forecasts and even dive into the avalanche conditions for specific areas to assure that a trip is possible. Once I know the weather, my whole packing strategy is centered around the temperatures. I usually take a 20-degree quilt with a liner, but I also have a down blanket that I will throw in for frigid nights. Staying comfortable at camp is only part of the concern. On the Appalachian Trail in the winter, my hands got so cold from the biting wind that I had to make an unexpected trip into town to get mittens. Assessing the wind chill has been a part of the planning process ever since.
STUFF GETS WET
Condensation that forms in tents in the summer is ice in the winter. When temperatures drop below 32, the simple chemistry equation comes into play. But, the next day, when it warms up, the ice will melt, and the tent will become wet. If it is a dry day, I try to store my icy tent in the outside pocket of my backpack to spare other gear the moisture. Then, I lay it out in any sunshine. Also, monitoring the condensation and dampness of my sleeping bag, liner, and blanket makes for more comfortable multi-day outings in the snow.
In the winter, I like to take a larger shelter to fit more of my items inside and have more time to layer up before leaving the comfort of the shelter to begin the hiking day.
I stretch most of my gear to its limits. But both the tips on poles and the spikes on microspikes dull quickly in the ice. I wore down the tips on my microspikes on the Appalachian Trail quicker than I would have thought possible. The ice was so hard in Maine that it had a smooth sparkle. Only by stomping my feet and slamming my poles into the ice could I crawl up the hills. The points dulled quickly. Over the years, I have taken a file to the points to resharpen my spikes. Also, changing trekking pole tips for winter has been a big help, especially living in Montana.
SOCKS SOCKS SOCKS
On a night in the Smoky Mountains, I hung my soaking wet socks over the ladder in the shelter. The temperature dropped to zero overnight, and the socks froze solid. By morning they were clubs of frozen wool. Without a spare pair (or two), continuing on my Appalachian Trail thru hike would have been incredibly uncomfortable. In the winter, I try to pack three total pairs of socks, even if it is a simple overnight trip.
A BACKUP BATTERY
In the summer, phones and headlamps last about as long as advertised. But in the winter, it is vastly diminished. On outings during the single-digit Montana winters, my phone can go from a healthy charge to dead in a couple of hours. For those trips, an external battery becomes a part of my day hiking kit, especially when relying on GPS to navigate. I also try to keep my electronics close to my body to keep them as warm as possible.
MORE QUICK TIPS
PUT YOUR FEET IN AN EMPTY BACKPACK AT NIGHT
I have been so cold I couldn't sleep. Both in Montana and the Northeast, my gear at the time was so ill-equipped to keep me warm that I sat awake most of the night. But, after the second time this happened, I discovered another layer of warmth that was always on my back. An empty backpack can quickly become another sleeping layer if emptied. Many nights in the cold, I have slept with the toe box of my quilt slipped into my empty backpack, and the relief and warmth that my feet and lower legs felt turned an uncomfortable night into something more bearable.
PLASTIC BAGS AND LINERS ARE MULTI-USE
In 2011, my trail family headed out at midnight for a sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney. My shoes were already soaked, and the weather was frigid. I didn't have warm enough socks to climb the 14,505' peak at night. But I did have some plastic bags that had been used for meals. I first slipped my socks on and then put the plastic bags loosely on next. Inside my wet and cold shoes with the extra layer, my feet stayed warm for the entire endeavor, which even involved getting lost in a giant snowfield in the dark. I have used a similar trick with my hands. Plastic bags keep in body heat while protecting exposed digits from the wind.
Backpacking in the winter doesn't have to be impossible. Knowing the potential challenges and being ready to deal with them is paramount. It can be a beautiful, rewarding, and confidence-building experience to have a successful outing in unforgiving conditions, but it can also have awful consequences if you go into it unprepared. It is always best to know your gear inside and out, understand your navigation devices, and have a solid plan well before stepping into the backcountry.
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.