Many outdoor enthusiasts in Southwest Colorado aren’t kept inside by cold weather. As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Undoubtedly, there are folks outside every day of the year, whether in the mountains or the desert canyons. And not even night can drive some of us on to the warm, cozy couch. Yes, we camp out and even go backpacking in the dead of winter.
Aside from the right clothing, all you need is the right attitude and a few tricks of the trade. For general backpacking tips, refer to my February 2017 Stewards of the Land column. Then, read this article for tips specific to camping in snow and/or freezing temperatures.
Now, you may have heard me lecture about minimalist, lightweight backpacking. You should still strive for minimalism in the winter, but you’ll need more stuff, and it’s going to weigh more. But you’ll thank yourself later. Here’s what you might want to add to your pack besides extra clothing, a warmer sleeping bag and maybe a four-season tent.
Stoves. White gas stoves such as the MSR Whisperlite are ideal for subfreezing temperatures. The stove’s design easily vaporizes the liquid fuel. Isobutane canister stoves are difficult to use because the gas liquefies in cold temperatures. If you wear thick gloves or mittens, you can warm the canister by holding it in your hands while the stove is running. This can be a tricky endeavor unless you have a stove system where the pot connects to the stove. Whatever stove you bring, be sure to carry lots of fuel. You may need to melt snow or ice for water, and I bet you’ll indulge yourself in a hot drink or two. Stay warm. Besides the proper clothing (you can have enough puffy down garments), hand and toe warmers can keep you from getting cold. I put hand warmers in my down booties. And then I stick toe warmers to the clothing on my abdomen. And a few nips of liquor can help, too, even if the science doesn’t back it up!Sleep warm. Bring a water bottle with a trustworthy lid that can handle boiling water. Stash this piping-hot bottle in your sleeping bag. This will keep you warm and will keep your water from freezing. Also, break out some hand warmers. The packaging does say that you shouldn’t sleep with them, but I’ve never had a problem. Just be sure that they are not contacting bare skin. If you’re going to add extra socks or gloves, warm them up first by stashing them down your shirt for half an hour.Use your sleeping bag to keep other things warm. If you aren’t sleeping in all of your clothes, keep the extra clothes in your sleeping bag. You’ll be happy about this in the morning. You will also need to snuggle with your electronic devices and isobutane canisters. Pack out your human waste. Disposing of your human waste can be tricky if it’s snowy or the ground is frozen. The responsible way to go about it is to pack it out. WAG Bags, Restops, Cleanwaste and other brands of human waste bags make it easy to pack out your human waste and simply deposit the used bag in a trash can once you return to the front country. Yes, these bags do seem wasteful. However, the alternative is that your human waste will wash into the fresh mountain streams come summer. Yuck. Please, pack it out. It’s so dark out. Not sure how to cope with 14 hours of darkness? Well, aside from whipping up copious amounts of hot drinks, be sure to bring a star chart or download a star app. See what you can learn about the night sky. As for constellations, many people know some of the ancient Greek constellations, but do you know the various Native American constellations? And there’s nothing that says you can’t make your own constellations. I have a winter constellation that represents my old cat. He is forever chasing a mouse that he will never catch. You can also pack in a book. Don’t have time to read in this busy world? You’ll have plenty of time with 14 hours of darkness. Or, you can just catch up on your sleep. Most of us don’t get enough of that, anyway.Remember, no matter what time of year, your attitude has a lot to do with how much fun you have out there.
MK Gunn is assistant for education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education.