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Benefits of Winter Backpacking and How to Prepare

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Last week we covered several backpacking trails to try out in some of the warmer parts of the U.S. for a reprieve from the snow and cold. Even if you can't make it to warmer climates, winter backpacking (yes, even in the snow) has its own benefits.

Featured Photo: Chilly Royal Gorge Winter Hike (Photo by Scrubhiker)

Winter Backpacking Perks

  1. You get to see the landscape in a whole new way. Foliage is nice, but consider how much more of the surrounding forest, mountains, etc. you can see when the branches are bare and the undergrowth is dormant. It's even more amazing to see the same trail/terrain throughout all 4 seasons.
  2. Another top reason most hikers enjoy winter backpacking is the lack of other people. With the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are seeking outdoor pursuits for recreation. While we think this is great, it also means it's harder to find solitude in some natural areas during the warmer months of the year. Winter is the perfect time to seek some solitude in the wilderness to beat the crowds. Nothing quite beats the peaceful silence of a still winter day. 
  3. This is a surprisingly important perk for many hikers: You don't have to worry about bugs or snakes! Plenty of people are afraid of snakes but, even if you aren't, you have to admit it's a relief not having to worry as much about coming across venomous snakes if they live where you hike frequently. It goes without saying that bugs are always a nuisance that anyone is happy to avoid!
  4. Winter hiking helps you burn a lot more calories! While the main reason most hikers enjoy the activity is for the nature, burning off a few extra calories is a nice bonus. Your body has to work even harder in the cold winter months to keep you warm, burning more calories to do so. The extra physical exertion of walking through snowy terrain also helps to burn even more. One study from the University of Albany showed that hikers hitting the trails in winter burned 34% more calories than when hiking in mild weather!
  5. Speaking of burning calories, winter hiking is also a great cardio workout. With all of your other body systems working harder to keep you warm and moving, it's not surprising that your circulatory system goes into overdrive to keep all of these organs and functions running. You can learn more about the health benefits of winter backpacking here
  6. Getting outdoors during the winter helps to keep seasonal depression at bay. 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Hiking is a great way to not only get some extra Vitamin D during the months with the shortest amount of daylight hours, but to boost serotonin levels and endorphins to help fight and manage symptoms of “the winter blues”. 
  7. Winter hiking is the perfect opportunity to get some fresh air when you need it the most. Aside from (at least temporarily) shaking that feeling of being cooped up, it's good to occasionally get out of stuffy homes and work buildings that re-circulate the same air day after day. Going for a hike helps to boost our immune systems which is definitely needed during the germ-filled winter months!
  8. Finally, going on more and more winter hikes or backpacking trips will help you see the unique beauty of winter and not think of it so negatively. There is still plenty of beauty and life out there, even in the cold months. You just have to be willing to look for it. 
VinceTraveller on Flickr

What to Take

Now that you're feeling less hesitant about a wintertime nature excursion, you may be wondering what extras you need to bring on your backcountry trip. Our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List is a great comprehensive resource to get you started. Below we've listed some other items necessary for winter camping as well as some tips to make your trip more enjoyable!

Gear

  • Clothing - When it comes to clothing, it's all about layers! Be sure to wear wicking inner layers to pull moisture away from your body to help prevent hypothermia.
  • Accessories - Hats, sunglasses, gloves, gaiters.
  • Footwear - Waterproof hiking shoes or boots. Snowshoes or crampons may also be necessary depending on where you'll be hiking.
  • Outerwear - A waterproof coat or jacket or light, but very insulated, down coat.
  • Tent - Some people can still handle tarp camping in the winter, but if you're just starting you may want to bring a 3-season or 4-season tent instead. A 4-season tent will have less mesh to prevent cold drafts and might also have a stronger pole system to support a snow load.
  • Sleep System - An appropriately rated sleeping pad (an R-value of 6 or higher) and a lower-rated sleeping bag. Keep the comfort and survival rating in mind. Don't get the bare minimum. The lower the rating, the better.
  • Extras Snow baskets for trekking poles.

Tips

  • Eat more calories! Again, your body works a lot harder on a winter hike than a mild weather one. Be sure to eat a high fat snack before bed too to help keep your body temperature up.
  • Properly store your water filter and/or water bottles at night. Many of the straw filters will be damaged if they freeze. It's recommended to fill bottles up with warm water and place them in the footbox of your sleeping bag before crawling in yourself at night. This helps to keep your water from freezing overnight and helps to keep your feet warm too!
  • Speaking of bedtime, you might also do a few jumping jacks (not enough to get sweaty) before hopping in bed to keep warm.
  • Keep in mind the shorter daylight hours and give yourself enough time. Don't over-estimate your mileage!
  • Have emergency gear and know how to use it properly. Learn basic survival skills ahead of time.
  • There's safety in numbers! Consider hitting the trails in the winter for the first time with a buddy. Speaking of friends, ALWAYS let someone know your itinerary when hiking or backpacking, no matter what time of year it is.
  • Know when to call it quits. (i.e. you're too cold, water filter freezes and bursts, etc.)
  • It's not a bad idea to test your winter gear out at home first in your backyard.
  • Bring a lightweight tarp. Even if you're not using it to keep snow off of you or your tent, you can situate it around your tent to block wind and rain.
  • Remove layers when you start getting warm and BEFORE you start getting sweaty. Always change into clean, dry clothes at night too. (This is a good rule of thumb any time of year, but especially during the colder months.)
  • Drink extra water. You excrete more water in the wintertime, which is why your nose runs and you can see your breath when it's cold and the air is drier.
  • Speaking of water, while it might seem contraindicatory, water sources are scarcer in most places during the winter. Plan accordingly so you're not wasting all of your cooking fuel to melt snow.
  • Make sure your cooking fuel is rated for low temperatures, otherwise it may freeze.
  • Check out some further suggestions on REI's blog.

As long as you dress properly, bring the appropriate gear, and have the proper skills, there is no reason you can't fully enjoy your winter backpacking endeavors!

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