March 1, 2017
Winter is in full swing and the snow has been falling like crazy all over the country. If you’re just getting into winter sports, it can be a bit intimidating to plan your adventure but have no fear, the fun awaits! Here’s a basic list of items that will make you much more comfortable along the way!
The ten essentials are a must-have for everyone doing any backcountry travel. Here’s a list that offers the traditional ten items to keep you safe and comfortable in the backcountry! I always add a few extra items such as hot cocoa, a good book, and my camera!
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun Protection (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and clothing)
- Insulation (always bring a variety of layers)
- Illumination (headlamp/ flashlight AND extra batteries)
- First aid supplies
- Fire (butane lighter and waterproof matches)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food for one additional day)
- Hydration (extra water and a purification method)
- Emergency shelter
In the winter, traction devices are the difference between a fun, safe adventure and slip-sliding away! Your needs will vary based upon the terrain and your level of experience so consider these options:
Nanospikes: easily slip on over all shoes, great for light/compact snow. Not recommended for ice as the metal tends to just slip over the surface rather than biting in.
Microspikes: easily slip on over all shoes, great for compact snow and moderate ice but not ideal for sustained ice travel or steep slopes as they lack front points. These should get you through most non-technical adventures during the winter.
Crampons: check compatibility of the brand with your boots—some crampons are compatible with any boot, some are not. Crampons are great for steep, icy, more technical adventures. If you’re entering terrain that requires the use of crampons, it’s likely that you should also have an ice axe (and know how to use it) as well as experience traveling over ice and snow. Please stay safe and make good decisions.
Snowshoes: The type of snowshoe you buy or rent will vary based on where you are intending to go. For scampering about wide, flat meadows with relatively little elevation gain, almost any snowshoe will do. If you’re intent on doing a bit more climbing, you’ll want snowshoes with teeth. I have the MSR Lightning Ascents because I like to go up as much as possible and love them but they aren’t necessary for everything!
Trekking poles: A solid pair of poles are your friend year round, but perhaps more so in the winter. Grab some snow baskets to help the points stay on the surface of the snow, giving you more leverage.
Ice axe: A must for some adventures (think steep slopes with a big fall danger) so you can safely self-arrest whether you’re glissading or take a fall. Of course, having an axe won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it. There are a variety of classes available on this subject and of course, you can always ask a friend! I recommend practicing on some low angle snow so you’re comfortable with your axe before you hit up a bigger objective.
As with anything else, proper clothing will keep you cozy, dry, and safe in the winter. What you wear depends on your activity. You will eventually arrive at a “gear set” that you know works best for different activities. If you’re overnighting, remember to pack a dry set of clothes to sleep in (if space and weight allow). Here are some important things to consider:
- down packs down small and provides a lot of warmth for the weight. However, it does not perform well in wet conditions (whether that means heavy snow or heavy sweating) so consider this for dry days, less sweaty activities, or as a layering piece for when you reach your destination and want to stay warm.
- Synthetics don’t pack as well as down but are also very warm. Additionally, synthetic pieces retain warmth when wet. Not all of them are breathable so as with down, try to wear your sweat wicking, breathable, quick drying pieces for wet adventure, sweaty, rainy, or otherwise.
- A solid, waterproof shell (jacket and pants) will be your best friend on super wet days. Remember that even the highest quality Gore-Tex can be a bit muggy on the inside so pair with sweat-wicking, quick drying base layers.
- A solid base layer is your best friend. There are many options to choose from—wool, synthetic, etc. The upside to wool is that it’s very warm when wet, tends not to smell bad even after several days of wear, and is very durable. However, it doesn’t dry as fast as some of the synthetic options. Synthetics also work well when wet, are breathable and dry quickly.
- Protect your hands. I personally prefer a pair of mittens with a merino wool liner instead of gloves. When your fingers are grouped together, they share warmth. The liner lets me slip the glove off quickly to use my phone/camera without exposing my skin to the cold and is also easy to wash. Some people require more mobility and prefer to pair gloves with a liner or simply go with a thin liner.
- Protect your face! I like a baseball cap for the day to keep sun and precipitation out of my eyes and a warm, wool hat for night or when I’m less active. Remember, you lose the majority of your heat through your head so take it off or put it back on as needed to help thermoregulate.
- Glasses are a crucial winter item, especially if you’re traveling over snow for prolonged periods of time. Get something with full UVA/UVB protection to protect your eyeballs from sun damage. Consider something with side guards for extended snow or glacial travel to give you additional protection against glare.
- Try a buff. I use my buff religiously: as a headband, as a hat, on my neck, around my face to block the sun, etc. It’s a great layering piece that can be used for so many other things.
- It’s a good bet that you’ll want some waterproof boots for winter adventures. The best advice I can offer is to try boots on and talk to a fitting specialist and then snag a pair. As with everything else in the “waterproof” world, even the best boots may fail depending on the conditions and terrain you’re traveling over. Pair your boots with wool or synthetic socks that will keep your feet dry even while they are wet, and bring a dry pair of socks for sleeping.
- Down booties are lightweight and easily packable and are a total game changer if you’re overnighting in the cold.
- Gaiters are also a winter lifesaver. They keep snow and other detritus out of your boots while providing a modicum of protection for your pants from traction devices.
Don’t leave the house without one in the winter. Part of the 10 essentials but worth a mention!
Appropriate sleeping gear:
This information could take up an entire blog post on its own but is worth a short mention all the same.
Choosing the right tent is important. Many 3-season tents will be just fine for basic winter activities if it’s not super windy, wet, or snowing heavily. However, if weather conditions are more intense or you’re doing some extended travel in the backcountry, consider purchasing or renting a 4-season tent to protect yourself and your gear from inclement weather and unexpected snowfall or rain.
Sleeping bags are rated on the EN scale which tells you the lowest temperature that you should still be comfortable in while using your bag, assuming you’re using a sleeping pad and wearing thermals. Your desired EN will vary based upon where you are traveling. You can supplement this with a sleeping bag liner that will boost the rating anywhere from 5-25 degrees depending on what you select. As an added bonus, it’s much easier to wash your liner than your sleeping bag and this adds warmth without adding a lot of bulk. If you don’t want to invest in a warmer bag, you can rent them from several different locations throughout the PNW.
Sleeping pads are assigned an “r” value that indicates their insulating effect: the bigger the number, the better it performs in cold weather conditions to keep you toasty. If you don’t want to shell out for a 4-season sleeping pad like the Thermarest Neoair Xtherm, you can layer two pads on top of each other to increase comfort and warmth.
There are so many little things you can bring along to make your day that much more fun and comfortable. I bring a stove along even on day adventures in the winter to make hot cocoa, chai, soup, etc. I like to take a foldable cribbage board or bananagrams along as well to give us something to do when the sun goes down early. I also like to bring a sit pad so I can sit outside comfortably while cooking or gazing at the mountains.
There you have it, a basic winter gear list. Pair that with some sound LNT principles and a great group of friends and you’re bound to have fun!