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.
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.