By MK Gunn
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 time can drive some of us crazy people 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 sub-freezing 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 (or maybe you’re a human radiator and can do it bare handed), 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 fresh 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.
Looking for more tips on sleeping out in the cold? Check out backpacking.net/wintertips. But remember, no matter what time of year, your attitude has a lot to do with how much fun you have out there. Us crazy people will be out there waiting for you.
“Shoo!” “Scram!” “Oooogaboogaboogaboo!”
The Wilderness Information Specialists (WIS’s) in training started throwing rocks at a hollow log. The sound startled the mountains goats and they ran away. We rejoiced! We had chased the mountain goats out of our camp.
Any nature savvy individual knows that harassing wildlife is a faux pas. It stresses the animals and can scare them away from water or forage thus leaving them in a weakened state and more prone to predation. But the mountain goats in Chicago Basin are NOT afraid. The love us. They want to get as close as they can. Why?
Mountains goats normally live above treeline (~12,000’ in SW Colorado) but in Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness, goats can be spotted as low as 10,500’. They have moved lower to be closer to the salt people leave behind – especially our urine. Goats will destroy vegetation in order to get at the salty urine. Therefore, it is important for visitors to urinate on rocks or logs.
And that is just one iota of what folks should know before visiting “The Basin”. There are volumes of information regarding the 4 W’s: Water, Weather, Wildlife, and Waste.
But how is a visitor supposed to know all this stuff? There are plenty of resources available online (search for SJMA’s “Chicago Basin Trip Planning Guide”), by phone, and at the trailhead. But if a visitor gets all the way to The Basin without proper knowledge, a WIS there can explain proper etiquette and why it matters.
On July 19 – 21, another guide and I took a group of six local teenagers to The Basin as WIS’s in training. Before the trip, the teen WIS’s had to complete an online training and test. This included general information about the Wilderness Act, Wilderness regulations, and a list of FAQ’s specific to Chicago Basin. By the start of the trip, these kids were ready! We hopped the Durango-Silverton train to Needleton. We began educating hikers and backpackers before we even got off the train. It took some prodding at first to get the teens to approach visitors, but by the third day the folks hiking in could barely get past them without receiving an onslaught of Wilderness information. The teens were nearly talking over each other to be sure that their information was heard. We talked to 91 visitors over three days!
What was their information?
- Weather: From July into September, afternoon lightning storms are a real threat. Be off the high summits by noon. Keep an eye to the sky and seek cover if the clouds look ominous.
- Water: Treat your drinking water in order to protect from the parasites giardia and cryptosporidium. Avoid getting water from sources contaminated by mines. Look for aquatic macroinvertebrates living in the water – this is a good sign. Also, camp at least 100’ from any water sources in order to avoid compacting riparian soil and prevent scaring wildlife away from their drinking water.
- Waste: Pack out all your trash INCLUDING TOILET PAPER. Critters will dig up buried toilet paper. There are natural items that can serve as toilet paper. Pack out your human waste or bury it 6 to 8 inches underground at least 200’ from any water sources.
- Wildlife: In addition to the mountains goats, be prepared to keep your food and salty gear away from marmots, chipmunks, bears, and moose. Store salty gear (packs, poles, shoes, clothes) at least 5 feet up a tree or in an enclosed tent. When not in camp, store all food at least 10 feet up and 5 feet out.
- No campfires are allowed in the Needle Creek watershed.
- No mechanized or motorized use is allowed in designated Wilderness, including drones.
- Most importantly, this isn’t just a list of regulations to ruin your fun. This is public land that is here for all of us to enjoy. We need to work together to keep it pristine for ourselves and future generations. In designated Wilderness, “man is a visitor who does not remain”. Wilderness is nature in its natural state.
It’s no secret that public lands are under fire right now. But here at the San Juan Mountains Association, we are training the next generation how to educate others to take care of these treasures that belong to all of us. This was the 5th annual teen backpacking trip and I assure you that there will be more to come.
By MK Gunn
Not every adventure goes according to plan, but if it is not planned, the adventure might never go.
This is the sentiment that occurred to me, not all at once, at some point in college. I was, and still try to be, of the spontaneous sort. I don’t mind a good flying by the seat of my pants. Life should be filled with magic and serendipity. It should be a “choose your own adventure” book – you don’t know what life has in store for you next until you turn the page.
I first moved to Durango as a clueless 19-year-old. I was certain of very few things. I knew that I loved the mountains, didn’t like school and needed to stay in school because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life besides go mountain biking and snowboarding.
I arrived in Colorado with most of the proper equipment and waited for the spontaneity to happen. And, to be fair, there certainly was some adventure. I was smart enough to join the Fort Lewis College mountain bike team, which took me traveling all over my new state. I saw new mountain ranges. Explored new towns. Fell in love with new trails. And did some really stupid, fun, irresponsible things.
But these were not my adventures. I was just a follower; a participant. I was not driving my own life … just along for the ride. If no one else was doing the planning, I rarely went farther than the trails behind my apartment. Was this what spontaneous and magical adventure was?
At some point, the fog lifted from my young brain. If I wanted to really choose my own adventure, I had to stimulate the catalyst. I had to start planning.
This wasn’t a lucid thought but rather a long, largely unnoticed transformation. Really, one day I turned around and there I was – the reluctant leader of our next adventure. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. My life was transformed.
I never make any promises to my followers. My cheesy but true motto has become, “It’s always an adventure with MK.” I frequently find myself amid misadventure, whether it be some unintentional, miserable bushwhack or up some gully that is too steep to ascend without climbing equipment or on a slickrock pinnacle in a snowstorm. I’ve been caught in lightning storms above tree line, topped out rock climbs after dark and gotten lost far from camp in the middle of a multiday trip. I’ve broken trail in 3 feet of snow, burned a hole in my pants trying to smoke out mosquitoes and carried a sick llama’s saddle on my back. I’ve broken bones, torn tendons, compromised cartilage, jostled joints and skewered skin. All with no regrets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the thick of a major mishap and thought to myself, “This is going to make a great story if I ever get out of here.”
You see, the reason I never enjoyed planning when I was younger is that nothing is ever quite as exciting when it goes according to plan. Spontaneity and serendipity are forms of art. Planning seems to lend itself to the exactness of science. To be clear, I have nothing against the sciences: I am fully committed to the laws of physics, intrigued by the growth and function of living organisms and even teach science to folks via outdoor education.
Despite planning’s potential for boring exactness, it could lead to the art of misadventure. Nowadays, knowing that not every adventure goes according to plan but if it is not planned the adventure might never go, I am obsessed with planning new adventures. Some I plan an hour before, some months in advance. Here in the San Juan Mountains, my favorite season is what I call clear tundra season – the time of year when the tundra is snow-free. So I have this planned out months ahead of time. If you want me to set aside a day in July, you should have asked me last year.
What’s my point? Here’s an example: My husband and I spent months planning to hike the Colorado Trail. We had an exact time line, including daily mileages and camp spots, boxes of meticulously portioned food, friends lined up to help with resupplies and contingency plans if we needed to send our dogs home early (which we did). We were grateful for such a fastidious plan. Our resupplies went flawlessly. Having a daily mileage goal kept me motivated. We finished on the exact date we had planned and had a day to recover afterwards. But those were not the exciting parts of the trip. The excitement still came from the unexpected wonders and misadventures along the way.
Ten days into the trip, along the West Collegiate route, we came across a sign telling us that we could detour onto a 26 mile reroute that contained 20 miles of new single track on the Continental Divide. The old route consisted of dirt roads and motorized double track. Any adventurous soul would have opted for the mapless reroute. For two days, we would not be certain of where we could find water or if there was a good camp. But within 2 miles, we saw out first moose of the trip. We slept on the Continental Divide that night in a flattish depression out of the wind. The next day, we were caught in a lightning storm above tree line at 9 in the morning. We pulled our tent over us and hunkered down right there in the open. I can assure you, it’s not scary when it’s actually happening because there is absolutely nothing you can do. And the lakes, flowers, mountains and pikas seemed slightly more wonderful on this mysterious path. There was more excitement on this unknown, unplanned way. We were flying by the seats of our pants.
So, please make a plan. Make a good plan. If nothing else, remember the six P’s: proper planning prevents piss poor performance. Use scientific tools to check the weather forecast. You can even plan to explore geologic structures and treat your water with scientifically proven methods. But even the most exact of science is susceptible to the occasional chaos. Sometimes, a catalyst might disrupt the normally predictable into a whirl of serendipitous wonder. Or, you might have to hike home with duct tape and p-cord holding your shoe together.
MK Gunn is the education and program assistant for San Juan Mountains Association. Her book of short stories, Zero Chance of Rain and other Tales of Misadventure, is due out in 2018. She implores you to expect the unexpected.
Ah, the thrill of the wilderness! The mountain vistas! The serene lakes! The smell of the spruce trees! The aching back and feet! The soggy sleeping bag! Wait… hang on… these things don’t have to go hand in hand when you are backpacking. With thousands of miles under a pack and trips in every month of the year, I’ve learned things the hard way so you don’t have to.
Pack your pack correctly
A properly packed pack can make a huge difference in comfort.
– Least dense items go in the bottom. (Sleeping bag, mat)
– Medium density item go in the middle. (Tent, clothes)
– Densest items go on the top or closest to your back. (Water, fuel, toiletries, tent poles, stakes)
– Compress, compress, compress! A loose load will wobble.
– Avoid strapping items to the outside that might swing around.
– Be sure to keep important items accessible such as snacks, bug spray, and rain gear.
Keep your stuff dry
– Store your sleeping bag and puffy coat in a drybag AND use a pack cover or line your pack with a heavy duty trash bag. This is a good idea for defense against both rain and creek crossings. Don’t think you are so nimble that you will never fall in a creek!
– A lightweight trekking umbrella can be a sanity saver! It’s especially handy when there is intermittent sun and rain. Stopping every five minutes to put on or take off your rain jacket might drive you crazy. An umbrella is also portable shade.
– Dry socks are like gold. Bring a pair of socks that will only be worn in your tent. This makes for dry, happy feet.
Keep your luxury items to a minimum
I have seen some VERY large packs on the trail with some VERY tired hikers beneath them. Once a hiker was carrying full sized camp chairs. He told me that many years ago his backpacking mentor advised him to bring everything that he would need to be comfortable at camp.
I believe the opposite is true. If you have a lighter pack, you will be less fatigued at camp and therefore won’t need as many luxuries. All these little items add up. By the time you pack a hammock, seat, playing cards, umbrella, full tube of toothpaste, too many wet wipes, water bottle full of wine, and mini pillow, you’ve added 7 pounds to your pack.
If you’re not trying to pack super light, a goal weight for your pack for 3 days should be 30 pounds including food and water. This will also help you go farther.
Choose your camp wisely
– Water – Sleeping next to a babbling brook lulls me to sleep and rocks me like a baby all night long. But camping in a deep river valley can be miserable in the morning. The colder air sinks down to the bottom and dew can condense so much that you may wonder, as you greet the crystal blue morning sky, if you slept through a rainstorm. It is amazing how much warmer and dryer things can be just a short ways up slope. You will also be farther from mosquitoes.
– Morning Sun – Higher camps also mean more sunshine. With summer temps in the Colorado mountains regularly dipping into the 40s, a ridge camp can be delightful even if water access is challenging. When choosing a camp, get out your compass to see if you have a clearing where the sun will rise. In early summer, the sun rises in the northeast (51 degrees). At the fall and spring equinoxes, it is due east. If you are brave enough for winter camping, the sun rises in the east southeast in late December (116 degrees). You can calculate exact bearings at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/AltAz.php.
Bring hiking poles
Let your arms help your legs. Some people think that poles are for old people but I think they are for smart people.
Wear your favorite footwear
I’ll spare you from the entire history of backpacking footwear, but 50 years ago, 8 inch high boot tops and rigid boot soles were all the rage. These days, you’ll find folks hiking 500 miles in a pair of trail running shoes or even sandals. The point is, not everyone needs a ton of ankle and foot support. Wear what makes your feet happy. You needn’t wear big heavy boots just because your backpacking mentor told you to.
Author MK Gunn is the education and program assistant for San Juan Mountains Association (sjma.org). She is currently on track to backpack in every month of 2016.
(Picture caption: Well packed packs help you to be more stable.)