Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Backpacking in the mountains in winter

"Then come days of quite another kind. The winter clouds grow, and bloom, and shed their starry crystals on every leaf and rock, and all the colors vanish like a sunset"
-John Muir, "The Mountains of California"

Some of us are ocean people, some of us are desert people, and some of us are mountain people. For those of us that are mountain people, it's very hard in the winter when the snows start and realizing you may not be in the mountains for months at a time. For those of us that are willing to tolerate cold temperatures and snowy conditions we will NOT wait until next summer to be in the mountains, we can't. But backpacking in the snow is a big undertaking, there's lots to consider and because in the past year I've noticed a lot more people I know getting into backpacking in the mountains, I wanted to write a post about backpacking in the mountains in winter. There is no quiet I have ever known like the stark and stirring silence of the High Sierra under a blanket of snow on a windless day. It's an amazing experience we don't have access to in urban areas. When you can hear that kind of quiet, it just takes your breath away. I have never seen another backpacker on any backcountry winter trip I have done. Winter backpacking almost guarantees you opportunities for total solitude.

Kings Canyon Wilderness, Rae Lakes looking south, November 2014. Doesn't look like much snow but it was 2' in places and temperatures dropped to at least 12°. Some say this is the most popular place to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas, but since we went once snow was one the ground, there was no one else out there.

A lot of the same rules from summer backpacking apply but here are some more winter specific things I've learned when backpacking the mountains in winter:

Mileage- You must learn to swallow your pride in many ways when backpacking in winter. You just may not be able to do the kind of mileage you can do on dirt! Walking on snow by foot or snowshoe takes a lot more energy than walking on dirt. You will get tired more quickly and won't be able to go as far. I like going 10-15 miles a day in the summerfor personal trips, in winter the number of miles I'm comfortable with, depending on conditions can be as low as 5 miles. Skis are another story, a story I don't know much about so I can't give any good information on them. You also need to remember you won't have as much daylight to travel by.

Energy- Your body is working harder to go mileages you are used to. You are burning extra calories just to stay warm in the cold temperatures, plus it takes more energy to walk in the snow so you need a lot more calories. When I was out on my last trip in Kings Canyon a few weeks ago, we were eating two hot dinners a night. Bring more food! Burning calories is what keeps your body warm.

Gear- You need appropriate gear for the cold and snow. Rain gear (top and bottom), snow gaiters, waterproof boots, warm insulating layers, a sleeping bag and mat that are rated to appropriate temperatures, snow shoes, ice axe and a tent that is shaped in a way that sheds snow are the most important things. We don't have a "4 season tent" but our 3 season Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 is shaped in a way that it can shed snow and so we've made it work in the winter. It got us through a night of having a foot of snow dumped on us and the tent didn't cave at all, we didn't even know it has snowed until we opened the door. We only close the fly if it's snowing out, leaving the fly door open takes care of condensation issues we have in winter. And if it does snow and we have to close the fly and things get moist from condensation inside the tent....we just have to take the time to dry them in the sun the next day, it's just something we have to deal with sometimes. We have done some snow backpacking trips without snowshoes because we didn't think there was going to be snow. It's not fun. Sinking down a foot or more wastes a lot of energy and is really frustrating. From now on, when backpacking in the Sierras between the months of November and April/May I will always bring them...things could be snow free and then you get to a north facing aspect with a couple feet of snow! It's very important to also reserve layers to put on at camp. If you get to camp and you are already wearing everything you have and it's moist because you've been sweating, you will get cold very quickly. It's important to stay dry so you don't get cold and run the risk of hypothermia. Bring an ice axe. In the summer we are spoiled with level trails that sidehill steep slopes, it's amazing how different that same hill feels when it's covered in snow without a leveled trail...a hillside that you would never think twice about will feel very alarming when covered in snow and often dangerous. Get an ice axe and go practice self-arresting with it. It's a good idea to have crampons too, in case you come to a steep slope that is icey.

Navigation- You may not be able to go as deep into the mountains as you do in the summer. Try hiking along unplowed Forest Service roads, they are easy to follow. It's a great way to do a snow camping trip if you are not confident in your navigation, it may be less glamorous than a trail but it's better than being lost! No one should head into the backcountry in winter unless they feel outstanding about their navigation skills. You may not be able to see the trail and signs may be covered in snow so it's very important not to go out unless you are very good with your map, compass and topographical skills. When you're out there, keep your eyes peeled for cut logs (signs of trail maintenance) and blazes on trees (but keep in mind, trails get rerouted and blazes are always old and can still lead you astray) to help you stay on trail. The Tahoe area Sierra Club huts are a good destination if you are apprehensive about snow camping. Peter Grubb Hut is on a popular snow trail that tends to be very obvious and generally the trail is already broken. Ludlow Hut and Bradley huts both follow unplowed Forest Service roads so it's also easier to navigate to.

Access/Winter weather- This, to me, is the number one issue. You can go to the websites of the government land management agencies and they will say things like "our park backcountry is open year round" but the road to the trailhead you want isn't plowed adding up to 15+ miles to your trip. Often the only way to find out what roads are closed, and where they are locked is to contact the ranger district directly. It's also hard to get accurate information on snow levels. I check out this site that has links to web cameras of the Sierra Nevada and if you are as obsessed and in love with the Sierras as I am, you probably know where most of these cameras are without having to look at a map! Check on the Caltrans map to see what mountain passes are even open, if you need chains, plus there are more webcam here to look at as well. Use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) snow map and select "snow depth" from the drop down menu to get a sense of snow depth but take it with a grain of salt, I have now gone on 3 backpacking trips where this map was showing 0" of snow and there ended up being 1-2' it seems this map calculates for south facing slopes which, because the sun arcs along the south horizon, are often snow free while the north facing slope just on the other side has a few feet. Wunderground has a great option where you can select "change station" (circled in red in screen shot below) and a map pops up with locations of weather stations (including personal ones! ) around the original town you searched. I used it to check the weather at Charlotte Lake (which is the white 12° marker in the middle of the screen shot below) which is 8+ miles into the backcountry and as you can see the temperatures there were very different from the weather stations in Independence the closest town (circled in yellow)....over 20° colder in the mountains...important information! 

NOAA also has a good way to select specific backcountry locations for weather. Go to and type in a location or zip somewhat near to where you will be hiking. Then scroll down until you see the topo map (circled in yellow in the screen shot below) and use that map to find where you are hiking, click the location on the map, and it will give you the weather station closest to that exact spot. It doesn't give personal weather stations like Weather Underground, but if you are just interested in the "official" weather stations, it's great!

One of the big lessons I have learned even with these excellent resources, you have to be willing to accept that snow depth in the backcountry is hard to nail down. I've found that an important part of backpacking the mountains in winter is willing to adapt...mostly willing to adapt to more snow than your sources told you!

Another access issue is water crossings. A crossing that is a hop skip and jump in the fall could be a death trap in the winter and spring. When looking at topo maps for trip ideas, look for places that have bridges or no water crossings so you aren't disappointed when you get to something and it's too dangerous to cross.

Also, it's important to keep tabs on weather before you go out to make sure you are not going out after a big storm or during one. Read up about avalanche safety, the most important thing to know is most avalanches especially in the Sierras happen 24-48 hours after heavy rapid snowfall (a foot or more). So don't go out after big storms, snow needs time to settle and bond before it's really safe to travel on. The vast majority of avalanches happen on slopes between 30-45°. Slopes steeper than that shed snow regularly so traveling on ridges (just be aware of cornices) and down in flat areas (but be wary of the terrain that comes out of flat areas as avalanches often empty down into topography like that) are generally your safest places. The easiest way to sort out slope percentage is to go to and print out a map ahead of time that has slope angle shading selected. Most avalanches are caused by wind shifting large amounts of snow on the lee side of slopes so be aware of windy conditions and areas. Listen for "womp"ing sounds of air pockets settling in snow that you are stepping on....a sign that the snow is not settled therefore not safe. Look for breaks in the snow where avalanches have happened before, this likely means this slope can only hold onto a certain amount of snow before releasing it as an avalanche. Be wary of dramatic temperature warming that can affect the snow conditions making it unstable. Know the aspects of the the northern hemisphere most north facing slopes are less stable mid-winter (because due to less sun exposure consolidation/stabilization of the snow pack takes longer than the south facing) while in the spring when the sun is out more and temperatures are on the rise, south facing slopes have more avalanche occurrences and tend to be the less stable option. Most US avalanche fatalities are people on snowmobiles. Over the last 10 years:
-across the US there have been about 2 to 3 dozen avalanche fatalities a year
-in California the average fatalities are 1-2 a year
-1 avalanche fatality in California has been a hiker
(statistics based on data from:

For you own safety and the sake of your Wilderness (proof of visitation make getting funding easier) be sure to make sure you have permits if need be, many Wilderness Areas still require them in winter.

Being able to be flexible is key to winter backpacking. You must be willing to do things like change your route or turn around if a water crossing is too dangerous/swollen from rain/snow or you see avalanche danger on your route, opt to cancel a trip when a recent storm has passed through and cut a trip short if a storm is coming in. There are more risks in the winter and it's very important to be able to swallow your pride and turn around or change plans to be safe.

Marble Mountains Wilderness, May 2014. This was a trip where the NOAA snow chart said there would be 0" and in places we found it to be 5' deep. In this photo I'm on the ridge west of Summit Lake, a good spot to check the map topography against a long distance view.