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Thread: Requesting Advice on Winter backpacking

  1. #1
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    Requesting Advice on Winter backpacking

    Hi,

    After spending a chilly weekend at Ethan Pond, reminding us what winter holds in our future, my husband and I came up with a few questions that we wanted to pose to the group.

    We're relatively new to winter backpacking, but have done it a few times and have the right sleeping bags to make it a relatively comfortable experience. Our problem centers more around the time before bedtime.

    1.) When we get to our overnight destination, in this case Ethan Pond, we are warm and sweaty. Within minutes, we're getting cold and clammy. We can change our tops and put on down jackets, etc, but even with fresh socks, our feet still feel wet and then they get cold quickly. It ruins a perfectly good pair of socks to put them onto wet feet and then back into wet boots. What options do you recommend? Does anyone use the vapor barrier socks? Toe warmers?

    2.) What do you *do* after about 7pm? We love winter hiking, and we love camping out in the snow, but... it gets dark at about 6:30pm and the darkness lasts until 7am. We can't/won't build a fire. I usually end up going to bed before 8pm, but then my back will be twisted into a pretzel by morning. The best option seems to be to walk long enough that you arrive just in time to eat and go to sleep.

    Just for reference, we have done the 3-season NH48 and have 11 of the winter ones, so we are generally comfortable with the day-hiking part of the trip. It's just when we stop walking that things get tough.

    Your thoughts/advice are greatly appreciated.

    Valerie

  2. #2
    Senior Member NewHampshire's Avatar
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    The answer to your cold feet is a simple one....Down Booties. I have Sierra Design down booties and they will only take up a little more pack space, but provide you with the option of not having to wear your wet boots. Plus, you can add in a hand or foot warmer inside.

    Brian
    Adopter: Wildcat Ridge Trail from Rt.16 to Wildcat "D". If you have any issues please contact me!

  3. #3
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    Buy a copy of Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. It's mostly about winter camping, so even if you're on snowshoes, most of the tips apply. Cheap, useful and with cartoons. Good to have even if you've been out a few times.

    You have to dry off your feet. Booties are a good idea. I've never done the vbl socks, but some people like them.

    If you are warm and sweaty, you're probably wearing too much to begin with. I try to wear a minimum of layers while hiking or skiing to prevent that as much as possible.

    I don't like setting up or cooking in the dark. I have gone by myself several times so after it's dark, I might go for a short walk, take pictures at night (bring a tripod) or read. No fire for me either-not allowed.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Chip's Avatar
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    There is a relatively uncomfortable period between ending your hike and sleeping. You need to stop, set-up, organize, light a stove, cook, eat, clean-up, etc.

    When winter backbacking I aim to be at the campsite by about 3pm. It's often dark by 4:30 so this leaves you some room for error. I generally stay in my hiking gear (subtract hardshell/maybe add down parka) until I'm set-up and cooking and then may get out of my boots and into booties. I like down booties but it has to be dry/cold so they don't get damp. I also have a pair of high top fleece, insulated, soled slippers I bring if I think it might be damp.

    ALWAYS KEEP YOUR SLEEPINGBAG AND A CHANGE OF LONG UNDIES DRY. Use 2 sleeping pads in winter: 1 inflatable and one open cell or 2 open cell. I use an old closed cell pad under an extra thick inflatable inside a cheap nylon shell/bivy bag.

    Once you're set-up, fed, cleaned up and no longer sweating you should start to shiver. Organize a high calorie snack, cocktail, lamp, reading material and pee bottle next to your bag before you change into your fresh long undies. Dive into your bag.

    In a tent or leanto you can be very comfortable in winter. But, yeah, it's now only about 7pm. One reason I stopped winter solos was the boredom between 4 and 8pm. Having a spouse there and maybe a deck of cards is about as much as you can hope for.

    Hope this is some help.
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    Senior Member Pete_Hickey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ADKnBVI View Post

    2.) What do you *do* after about 7pm?
    I usually wake up thinking that it is almost morning... You see... later in the winter, you'll find it getting dark at around 4:00. I always am camping alone, so I can't really sit around talking* so I'm in bed by 4:30 or so. It makes for a long night.

    * I have tried sitting around talking, but it seems that I always knew what I was going to say next, and everyone knows how much you hate that person who finishes every sentence for you.
    There's no place like 127.0.0.1

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    Senior Member NewHampshire's Avatar
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    You could always look at the bright side to going to bed early.....you can get up early and go for those Alpine starts .

    I have a 160 Gb iPod that I download movies onto. Unfortunately it can be abit of a pain as your breath tends to fog the screen. Plus you have to keep your arms out of the bag to hold it which is annoying. I only did this once up at Carter Notch. But I can still listen to music. And a small paperback novel does not take up much room in a pack....just be sure to pack plenty of spare batteries for your headlamp just in case!

    Brian
    Adopter: Wildcat Ridge Trail from Rt.16 to Wildcat "D". If you have any issues please contact me!

  7. #7
    Senior Member dr_wu002's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by NewHampshire View Post
    And a small paperback novel does not take up much room in a pack....
    Nor does a flask of some swilly hooch. Or Jim Beam!

    -Dr. Wu
    To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.
    -Thomas Paine

  8. #8
    Senior Member paul ron's Avatar
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    The hardest part of winter backpacking is the hanging around time. It gets very cold n if you haven't changed out of your damp clothes, you'll freeze in no time at all. So as soon as we get into our site, setup n get everything sorted out. I put on all dry clothes right down to the bone. Dry your feet, put on fresh socks, leave your boots loose with a toe warmers inside.

    I wear my damp clothes over my new dry layers. The heat form your body passing through will take all the moisture out of em in no time at all. Besides, you'll have another dry set of clothes n be wearing all your layers keeping you that much warmer now. Don't put your damp clothes inside the sleeping bag, it'll just make you cold n damp n freeze up in the insulation. Hanging em in your tent will just be frozen by morning n still wet.

    Once you've gotten yourself organized n setup, start cooking. We generally start our food preps about 6pm. It's dark n cold but making food n cleaning up will occupy alot of time n give you plenty to do. Busy feels better than sitting and cold. Yeah, freeze dried is fast n easy.. but cooking for the group will leave everyone with a better meal n things to do n talk about, even if you only talk to yourself.

    Eating n cleanup will take you to about 8pm, then it's game time. Since we stay at lean-toes, putting up the tarps over the front n sitting in our bags n playing cards or listening to the radio n reading will kill the rest of the night. If you build a fire, that will give you plenty to do but finding wood isn't easy with snow on the ground so it doesn't happen often. Before bed, take an easy walk on the trail to star gaze to just move n get warmed up before heading off to bed. You can also boil water for your heater bottles. I like my hot water bottles in my pillow.

    Before you know, it's sun rise n you'll be sad you have to get out in the cold again... but... my friend makes fresh perk coffee he sets up the night before right in the lean-to before we get out of our bags. It really makes my morning worth looking forward to. We'll sit for an hour admiring the sun rise n sipping hot fresh coffee through tired eyes.

  9. #9
    Senior Member DougPaul's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chip View Post
    There is a relatively uncomfortable period between ending your hike and sleeping.
    Not necessarily.

    I rarely have problems during this period and usually keep my (double winter) boots on--my feet usually stay warm until I hit the sack.

    If you have done a good job of thermal management during the day*, your clothing shouldn't be too damp. Swap out anything that is too wet and put extra insulation on before you get cold. (This is where you may need that down jacket that has been in your pack all day.) Put on a hat or balaclava. Switching from boots to down/polyester booties can also help. (Polyester is heavier, but resists water much better than does down.)

    * Try to stay a little cool below timberline, a little warm above. If you become hot, take insulation off--sweating just wastes water and gets your clothing wet. For a while (typ ~1/2 hr) after you get going, your heat will build. As you warm up, remove insulation to stay within the desired range. Throughout the day, you should adjust your insulation to stay within the desired range.

    You said you are new to winter--there are a number of things that work for three season hikers or that you can get away with for winter dayhikes, but not for winter overnights. One possible cause of your problems might be wearing cotton. (Cotton absorbs water quickly and loses most of its insulation. The only cotton I carry is my hankerchief...) You should be wearing wool and/or polyester (typically moisture wicking polyester long underwear plus fleece or wool). Your boots may also be inadequate--summer boots may be enough while you are moving and have excess heat, but can be inadequate or even dangerous if you stop. You should be wearing insulated winter boots with wool socks. (Wool absorbs moisture but still retains its cushioning and a significant amount of its insulation when wet.) Feet and hands are warmed by excess body heat, so if your body is chilled, there is no hope your feet and hands will be warm. You also lose a tremendous amount of heat from your head--a hat can make a tremendous difference. (Old saying: "if your feet are cold, put on a hat".)

    Adequate hydration and food are also important. You need the water to maintain adequate blood volume--even minor dehydration also leads to weakening of the muscles. (You can lose more water in winter than on some summer days due to all that huffing and puffing in the very dry winter air.) The thirst mechanism doesn't work adequately in the cold--you need to drink by discipline and to maintain adequate urine flow (and light urine color). You also have only one fuel tank for both muscle energy and to keep warm. Keep nibbling all day to keep the tank filled. (Don't take long stops to eat.)

    The above is all basic winter hiking technique. A lot of it is a whole bunch of details, all of which you need to get right to be safe and comfortable. Both the Boston and NH AMC teach winter schools.** I suggest that you take one--they cover the basics and help to get you past the difficult (and relatively dangerous) startup. Otherwise, you are asking us to guess what your problem might be and hoping that one of us guesses correctly.

    ** Hiring a guide for a trip or two is another method--they are generally very good at teaching.

    There are also disorders, such as Renaud's Syndrome (a circulation disorder) which can lead to cold hands and feet.

    Doug
    Last edited by DougPaul; 10-21-2008 at 09:34 PM.

  10. #10
    Senior Member DougPaul's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dr_wu002 View Post
    Nor does a flask of some swilly hooch. Or Jim Beam!
    Not a good idea if you are struggling to stay warm.

    Alcohol causes the surface blood vessels to dilate causing you to lose heat. (Surface vasoconstriction is a heat-preserving response to being chilled.) It will make you feel warmer, but leads to an increased loss of core heat which can lead to hypothermia.

    Save the booze until staying warm is no longer an issue.

    Doug

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    If your feet get cold after you stop hiking and start to set up camp, then I think its time to look for new footwear. It seems to me that the only thing keeping your feet warm is the extra heat from high blood flow when you hike,
    that this is a marginal situation, and that you could be in danger if you ever have to remain immobile for unforeseen problems.

    I have never tried vbl or gore-tex socks.

    As for going to sleep when it gets dark in the winter....I never understood that. I like to hike in the dark with a good headlamp after sundown as long as I am on a trail and a lean-to or campsite is available within a reasonable time-frame.

  12. #12
    Senior Member Oldsmores's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ADKnBVI View Post
    ...Our problem centers more around the time before bedtime.

    1.) ...but even with fresh socks, our feet still feel wet and then they get cold quickly. It ruins a perfectly good pair of socks to put them onto wet feet and then back into wet boots. What options do you recommend? ...
    2.) What do you *do* after about 7pm? ...
    On number 1, I agree with NewHampshire: down booties! They are amazingly warm, and are perfect for hanging around camp, in or out of the tent (unless it's wet or the snow's too deep). I've even left them on in the sleeping bag when it got real cold.
    For number 2, since you're camping with your husband, umm, ahem... well, let's just say I'm surprised he hasn't suggested an "activity" to keep you busy and warm, at least for a while. However, if you've been married as long as I have, bring a book and extra batteries for the headlamp.

  13. #13
    Senior Member MichaelJ's Avatar
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    Once there's a nice, white, reflective layer of snow on the ground, if you know where you're going, why worry about arriving before dark? Or, just go to bed at 7, wake up at 3 or 4am, and start the next day. Bonus points for either approach if they're timed with the moonlight.
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  14. #14
    Senior Member dug's Avatar
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    Cold feet: Dry them and put on down booties.

    What to do: Yeah, you do end up in bed early. But, you are then up early to go to the next part of the day. Depending on the crew (there could be 5-6 of us) we can stay up and party for a while. Even if it's just a couple of us, by the time you've set up the tent, built a kitchen, built your benches, made some tea, had some dinner, made some more tea, had something else to eat, made some more tea, and passed a bottle around, it's a few hours after camp so it's time for bed anyway.

    A dice game is always good. You can crowd in the tent or keep it outside in the kitchen.

    A post dinner walk is nice if you are near a view spot. If I'm skiing, we will almost always go for a night ski.

  15. #15
    Senior Member cbcbd's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DougPaul View Post
    If you have done a good job of thermal management during the day*, your clothing shouldn't be too damp. Swap out anything that is too wet and put extra insulation on before you get cold. (This is where you may need that down jacket that has been in your pack all day.) Put on a hat or balaclava. Switching from boots to down/polyester booties can also help. (Polyester is heavier, but resists water much better than does down.)
    1) I agree. Yeah, it's ok to be a little damp, but if you describe it as "warm and sweaty" then you might be wearing too many clothes during the day (unless you're already down to your baselayer).
    Since I overheat a lot I'm usually just in my baselayer during the day and still get a little damp. I instantly put on a warmer layer before getting into the camp chores - doing this (putting warm layers on top) should also help you dry out your baselayer a little before giving in to your dry layers. I actually stopped bringing a second baselayer a while ago since it's usually not so damp that I can't dry it out with my body heat and warmer layers on top before going to sleep.

    Feet sweaty? Honestly, wear thinner socks. Since switching to thinner socks my feet just get a little damp and actually get a chance to dry out a little while doing my camp chores. But yes, I always bring my down booties and thick socks just for sleeping.
    Don't forget to sleep with your wet "day" socks closer to your body so they can dry out or at least be warm in the morning.

    2)It's just the way winter is... I look at it as a chance to do things that I would normally not give myself time for in summer, like a nice dinner.
    Go fancy with your dinner meal - in the winter you use more calories and have plenty of time for cooking. Plan some meals that involve more cooking of regular food and less freeze-dried. It should take some time (which you have) and just taste a lot better. Also, if you're not already (and have plenty of fuel), heat up all the water in your water bottles - that will kill time and make your sleep that much warmer when you stick them in your bag. And remember those wet socks? Wrap them around the water bottles before going to sleep.
    Last edited by cbcbd; 10-22-2008 at 10:50 AM.
    Doug

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