Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tips for Winter Backcountry Fun

Sledding in the park around the corner from your house has probably taught you a few things.  First, snow is tons of fun.  Second, wet equals cold.  Third, hot chocolate and a warm house are really useful once the wet and cold have set in.

What does that say about going deep into the backcountry in the winter time?  Yep, it is LOTS of fun.  Yep, wet kills.  Third, that hot chocolate and the warm house are not an option anymore.  There may be no easy escape from the elements.

There are plenty of safe ways to enjoy the backcountry in the winter.  But you have to think ahead.  Planning equals surviving.

Planning at home:

Before you leave, do your homework.  Where do you plan to go?  What sorts of conditions might you encounter?  What is the weather forecast?  Will you have LOTS of snow?  How long will you be gone?  How will you get there?  Who have you told the details of your trip to so they can watch for your return?

Life savers:

·         If you are going any significant distance from the car, take a zero degree sleeping bag along.
·         If you are going to be around slopes, especially slopes steeper than 30 degrees, get avalanche training before you go.  This is a MUST.
·         Always--not most of the time--not just when you are planning the big trip--ALWAYS pack a reliable snow shovel.
·         Have extra layers and replacements for mittens and socks.  Remember, wet kills.  Even sweat can kill.  Several layers of material that insulate when wet, along with a waterproof shell are much more effective than one heavy coat.
·         Understand the warning signs of hypothermia and know how to treat it without the warm house and hot chocolate!
·         Know how to build a variety of snow shelters that can be adapted to a variety of snow conditions.
·         Wear eye protection.  Goggles are best, but at least have sunglasses.  Blowing snow and ice can really claw at your eyes, and the sun WILL blind you by burning your retinas. 
·         Will you need an ice ax?  Snowshoes?  Crampons?
·         You will need gators.  Count on it.  Wear gators.  They could save your life but at least they will save your toes.
·         Take a face mask (even if it is just a bandanna).  The wind will turn your nose and cheeks into frosty the snowman very quickly.
·         Avoid tree wells.  Tree wells?  Yep, that deep pit of soft snow around the base of a tree that is sometimes invisible to the eye.  These can be more than twenty feet deep.  How would you like to be buried upside down in one of those?  It happens.
·         Snow caves make you invisible.  If you want to be found, then put up a flag, make a lot of smoke, or otherwise be seen.  You will not be found in a snow cave.

Helpful tips:

·       ·         Get warm before you get cold.  This means that if you feel yourself starting to cool, or if you are slowing your activity for a while, then put on additional layers while you still feel warm.  Don’t wait until you are cold to take action.
·        Warm hands and feet by doing the snow dance.  Swing your arms vigorously and clap your hands while stomping your feet as quickly as you can.  This will bring life back into the fingers and toes quickly.  It does take energy though.
·          Keep your hat on.  No duh, huh?  Seriously, just do it.  Trap that heat that is trying to escape.  Why do you think you have (had?) hair anyway?  It is not just to look pretty.
·         Drink before you are thirsty and eat before you are hungry.  Seriously.  In the winter we don’t feel as thirsty due to the cool air, but dehydration makes it hard to stay warm.  It takes a lot more fuel to keep warm too.  Stay fed.  If your pee is yellow, you are NOT drinking enough water.
·         You WILL need a way to melt snow for drinking water.  While you are at it, why not drink that water hot?  Keep in mind that lighters don’t work well in the cold or when wet.  Also, many types of camp stoves don’t work well in the cold.  Know your stove, and consider the value of using a 180 Stove with a snow pan.  It provides plenty of heat from natural fuels regardless of the temperature.  It does not have any valves or O-rings to fail in the cold.  It is as reliable as your ability to burn twigs.
·         Shelter is everything.  Wind sucks heat away from your body.  If you are taking a break, then find a sunny place out of the wind.  If you are setting up a snow camp then do the same.  I know it can be tempting to camp where the views are vast and the snow has drifted into nice “snow cave” mounds.  But you will have to contend with the wind if you do.  Choose a spot a few paces into the trees where the wind does not blow.
·         Mittens are much warmer than gloves.  This is because fingers need a buddy to stay warm and the airspace holds heat better.  Likewise, don’t wear tight clothing and make sure your toes have room to swim a bit.  That wiggle room really helps.
·         As you hike, expect your trail to be hidden by blowing snow.  Can you find your way back with no trail?  Can you find your way back in whiteout visibility?  Watch the lay of the land and memorize major land marks.  Use a compass to know what direction you are going and know how to use it to get back out.
·         Take a tarp.  It will provide a wind break when critical.  It will give you a dry place to sit.  If you are spending the night, it gives you a dry place to sleep.  You can use it as a roof on a snow pit.  A lightweight tarp with the reflective “thermo” side has a hundred uses in the winter if it has one.
·         Stay dry.  Did I mention that already?  Stay DRY.  Rule #1.  STAY DRY.  If you get wet, then GET DRY NOW even if that means standing naked in the snow for a few moments.  GET DRY.
·         Oh, and if you need to “go”, then do it.  Don’t lie in your warm sleeping bag all night dreaming of a cozy toilet.  Just do it.  Get up.  Get dressed.  Put on those snowshoes.  Take the effort.  You will get more sleep in the long run.

What else might you need to know?  Start small and work your way up to the bigger trips.  You will learn lots about snow conditions and how they impact skis or snowshoes.  You will also learn that in the winter, you don’t need to go as far to escape the people, and everything looks pristine with a white blanket of snow.  Experience will be your best teacher, but make sure you let someone know where you are going and when you will be back and take a friend.  Everybody needs somebody sometimes.  Most of us could use a friend most of the time!

Oh, and have fun!  Get out there!

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