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Going Outside with Old Man Winter

Snowshoe, ski or sled with warmth and confidence this winter.
By Jason Lathrop - March 1st, 2004

"Boys, there's no such thing as bad weather, just different kinds of good weather," my scoutmaster Royce used to point out on winter camping trips. "Take note of how sound and light play among the snow-covered pine - creating a profound and ethereal beauty - and quit whining, you little wusses."

Good old Royce was a few toes short of a full set, figuratively and literally. However, he definitely had the right attitude when it came to severe cold and dumping precipitation: As plunging temperatures keep the less hardy at home by the fire, you can discover a world of stillness and solitude unmatched by the summer's crowded trails. So long as you have sensibly chosen gear, a few additional skills, and the right mental attitude, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to head out under the great wide skies all winter.

If, like us 13-year - old scouts were, you are utterly new to the idea of winter excursions, here's some advice for the snow adventurer in all of us.

Getting Started: How to Stay Warm

First, the coat is not what keeps you warm - it's the air the coat traps near you. This is why down insulates so well and leather so poorly. Your job is to create this trapped air with insulation layers - and defend it with outerwear.

Creating the air. Start with a layer of synthetic long underwear for your all-purpose base layer. There are many good proprietary fabrics available and any quality, non-cotton, wicking base fabric will serve you well.

Then you'll want to add a sweater and pants made of fleece, the workhorse of outdoor gear insulation - as anyone who's ever visited a college campus or coffee bar in the Northwest knows. Fleece traps air extremely well for its weight and lends itself perfectly to layering. The standard available fleece weights are 100, 200, and 300. This numbering system is the one developed by Malden Mills, manufacturers of Polartec. It's effectively the industry standard, though there are other brands.

Finally, pick up a heavier fleece jacket for colder or less aerobic activities. By adding or removing these layers (plus hat, mittens, and thick socks) you can handle the majority of moderately cold situations. Down is also an incredibly effective insulating material, though a tad warm for modestly cold weather (discussed in more detail later).

Protecting the air. The two enemies of your warm air layer are convection and moisture. Keeping these at bay is the responsibility of your shell outerwear. A high-quality set can get pricey, but will usually last the better part of a lifetime.

Convection, circulating air, is the simple part. It cools you off by transferring the warm air out of your insulation and replacing it with the colder air in your environment. For a shell to keep out the air is not so complicated - even the cheapest ski jacket and pants usually cut the wind. The main required features are competent closures at the waist, sleeves, and collar.

Manufacturing a shell that keeps you dry in wet weather is complicated. The problem is that moisture comes from both within (perspiration) and without (precipitation). To address this, you need pants and jacket with a vapor-permeable barrier, more commonly known as waterproof-breathable. These barriers come in the form of a laminate or a coating. Most transmit evaporated sweat out of your clothing through micropores, holes small enough for water vapor molecules to pass through but not liquid water molecules. Others are hydrophilic, which means the barrier actually transpires the vapor molecules through a complex process that I'm way too dumb to understand. They both work, which is the main point.

Gore-Tex, a porous laminate, is the most common and famous waterproof-breathable barrier. Most still consider it the market leader. While you can't go wrong with Gore-Tex, competing products work well enough that most folks can't tell the difference.

Sledding with Kids

Sledding with the kids is a perfect way to introduce yourself to these. If you don't have any kids, borrow some from a friend.

Where to go. A casual day out in the snow usually involves less driving and demands fewer acres of undeveloped land than more serious forms of winter recreation. The classic destination is, of course, a city park, but there are other options. Most commercial ski resorts offer an inexpensive or free sledding area.

I recommend tracking down the nearest National Forest "Sno-Park" (as they're usually named in typical bureaucratic cuteness). You'll need to buy a winter parking permit (pays for the plowing, mostly) but these destinations almost always offer a perfect, mellow terrain for casual days playing in the snow. Though they're usually not that crowded, previous recreators will invariably have packed down the snow along the most popular routes. Typically (though not always) you can find great forest sledding without needing to bring much more than warm clothes and a sled.

Feeding the furnace. Such a day also provides the perfect time to begin understanding how central a role proper food and beverage intake is to maintaining your health and comfort in the winter wilderness.

Absolutely bring along enough insulated bottles filled with a warm beverage, like hot chocolate or tea. Also bring hearty, satisfying food that responds well to being chilled. Some famous polar explorers subsisted entirely on sticks of butter, but you don't have to go so hardcore. Candy, trail mix, raisins, and so on make the ideal foods. Hot dogs do not.

Experiment with this. You might consider dividing the kids into two groups, a control and variable, only giving beverages and food to one of the groups. Note how upset and cold the other group appears.

Exertion. Working hard makes temperature management tricky because no breathable shell gear perfectly transmits your sweat - eventually you'll get wet from the inside. You've got to learn to compensate by adjusting the clothes. Sledding offers a perfect opportunity to (a) work up a sweaty, euphoric lather racing up hill with the sled and then (b) freeze your derriere off sliding back down.

Now's the time to start fiddling with all the fancy vents and zippers on your parka. Open the armpit zippers and lift an arm to let air in. Unzip the collar a few inches. Lift your hat above your ears a few inches. All of these measures both allow evaporating sweat to escape and circulate the warm air near your body.

Exposure. Even on an overcast day, a snowfield reflects a tremendous amount of UV radiation. For that, you'll need shaded eyewear, goggles or glasses. I recommend having both with you for any winter recreation away from civilization, in case conditions change or you lose one of them (though both goggles and glasses would probably be geeky-looking overkill in the case of a casual sledding trip). Goggles provide protection from cold and sunshine. Glasses only protect against the UV.

You'll also probably discover bringing sunscreen along is good policy as well. One time I sunburned the inside of my mouth one time hiking all day up a snowfield on what appeared a relatively overcast day - spent too much time breathing hard with my lip curled up and ended up with tender gums. The point is, snow reflects UV radiation massively, especially at altitude, and you can get fried easily.

Mittens are another sound investment. Most people, at first, gravitate toward gloves for the added dexterity. They don't keep your hands nearly as warm as mittens, however. And once you get accustomed to mittens, there really isn't all that much you can't do when wearing them that you can with gloves. But if you remain torn between the two, take the middle road with the new "claw"-styled handwear combining warmth and dexterity. Just brace yourself for the lobster jokes.

I also recommend bringing along a few closed - cell foam pads and a proper, collapsible backcountry snow shovel. These are two of the most useful, all- purpose tools (and those most often overlooked by novices) that you would use on a more serious winter camping trip later on. The shovel lets you manipulate the snow. The pad lets you sit down comfortably and keep your things dry. You also might consider investing in a Crazy Creek chair, a handy little sleeping pad that converts into a stay - supported seat. Cascade Designs also makes a version called the Therm-a-Rest'r.

Day Tripping

Your choices, in a nutshell, are snowshoes, Nordic skis, alpine skis, or a snowboard. Which of these you choose will depend on your personal style and backcountry goals. Unfortunately, skiing is a skill-intensive business. All we can do here is provide an overview of what's out there.

Snowshoes. The stand-by of the trapper, snowshoes are a reliable and relatively risk-free means of navigating snowy mountains. You're unlikely to take a serious spill using them, but you also can't move as quickly as you could on skis.

Snowshoes underwent something of a design renaissance a couple of years ago, so there are plenty of good models available - and the segment seems to improve noticeably each year. These days, manufacturers pass over wood and buckskin for more durable materials such as aluminum and Hypalon. However, some models are made of a single piece of molded plastic, rather than a mesh design.

In general, look for beefy bindings, a light overall shoe, and a well-designed shape that won't interfere with your walking. The better designs manage to balance the shoe side-to-side, while biasing the profile outward slightly to keep the shoes from getting tangled up.

Larger snowshoes are more cumbersome, but provide more flotation for heavy people or those wearing a backpack. You should also consider the snow you'll likely come across. Light powder snow, like you'll often encounter on a cold Rocky Mountain day, requires a larger snowshoe to support your weight. A smaller shoe is ideal for that wet, slushy snow found on a 31.9 degrees Fahrenheit day in the Washington Cascades.

Snowboard/Alpine Skis. Volumes could be written about the fashion statement and personal style differences between snowboarding and skiing - make your best estimate about which kind of person you are. Thankfully, you no longer need to carry a junior high student body card to ride a snowboard.

As far as which is actually more fun, that's also a subjective decision. You can't go as fast on a snowboard as you can on skis (though you won't be going anywhere near as fast either can go for a long while). On the other hand, a snowboard can tackle crud and powder in a way skis do only in their dreams. Converts from skiing to snowboarding tend to argue fanatically that the blissful grace of carving on a board beats skiing hands down.

While snowboarding continues to enter the mainstream, manufacturers have also recently begun to reconsider the ski, as well. Several years ago new radical ski designs took off like crazy in the market - very fat skis for heavy powder and skis with radical sidecut for beginner-friendly carving. You'll find both worth a look. On the horizon, you can expect to see trick skis growing more popular. These are shorter boards with curled-up tips at each end intended to bring some of the snowboarder's free-form aerial stunts into the world of skiing.

The best policy, if you don't already have a favorite, is to try them all. Most people need a few days on the slope, so you'll have to invest in a few lift tickets and rental days before you can really know which you prefer. That's a small price to pay though if you plan to invest in a set of skis.

Nordic skis. The term Nordic covers an awful lot of ground. Generally, it refers to all skiing styles where the heel is free to lift off of the ski. Ultimately, Nordic skiing styles are the best choice for real backcountry exploration. Compared to snowshoes, you can move faster and over more kinds of terrain on skis.

On downhill terrain, Nordic rigs aren't as powerful or responsive as fixed-heel alpine gear or snowboards. However, they perform much better going uphill (that is to say, you don't have to carry them).

What kind of Nordic ski set you buy depends entirely on what you want to do. Light, cross - country ski gear is suitable only for groomed trails. That doesn't necessarily imply casual skiing, because cross - country becomes highly aerobic and technical once you've developed the technique.

For off - trail use, the skis and bindings become progressively beefier, more expensive, and suited to a wider range of conditions. In the middle of the range are touring skis. A set of these will be fairly wide, with some sidecut and metal edges. Typically they are worn with single - layer, leather boots and three - pin bindings.

For much steeper, more difficult terrain, most skiers opt for a beefier set of telemark skis. These don't differ much from alpine skis in construction (though you'd use a pair shorter than your alpine set) - full-length metal edges, pronounced side cut, and carve - friendly camber. Typically skiers use much heavier double boots with plastic shell and a cable binding. These transfer power much more efficiently.

The final option here is randonee gear, a fairly new but increasingly popular and sophisticated style. Randonee boots are made of stiff plastic like an alpine ski boot. When climbing, the heel clicks free allowing you to ascend. When on downhills, however, you can lock the heel in place for parallel turns. The downsides to randonee gear include expense, weight, and stiffness.

A word on avalanche training. Once you commit to making the leap from relatively flat parks or groomed skiing areas, you need to seek avalanche classes and acquire specialized gear. The art of evaluating a snow slope's likelihood of sliding is complex and highly approximate. You take your life into your own hands when you venture into the uncontrolled backcountry without training or experienced partners.

Hut to Hut

With these you have all the commitment and travel of a self- supported snow backpacking trip, but without having to haul quite as much gear. On these trips you ski or snowshoe on a fixed route between a series of huts or yurts. These facilities are often stocked with food, fuel, and sleeping bags (though this varies). You carry your personal clothes and any safety gear you need

However, anytime you head off into the backcountry, whether there's a stocked yurt or a four - star hotel at the end of your day skiing, you must be prepared for things to go awry. Here's a bare bones list of what this means: shovel, first aid kit, waterproof matches, candle, avalanche beacon, map, compass, stove and fuel, headlamp, spare batteries, water in an insulated bottle, and plenty of extra, dry clothes.

Obviously, being able to analyze avalanche conditions is as crucial here as with day trips, though complicated somewhat because you may not have access to up - to - date weather reports (taking a weather-band radio can solve this, however, assuming the batteries hold up).

Down gear. For any kind of backcountry overnight trip, down insulation becomes worth its weight in gold. For day trips, fleece will suffice - most of the time you are active and in daylight. But anyone who's stopped at a yurt, snow cave, or other winter encampment as the long winter night settles in will appreciate down.

Like fleece, down insulates extraordinarily well for its weight. Unlike fleece, it does not handle water well at all - a wet down garment is heavy and virtually useless. This makes it most appropriate for cold weather trips where the water in your environment occurs most likely in ice or snow form.

For most people a good quality down jacket or vest will suffice. For the naturally chilly or for very cold winter trips, you might consider down - insulated mittens and pants as well.

Navigation. The most important skill when you step up to multi - day trips is route finding. A stocked hut won't do you any good if you fail to find the thing. Experience and training are the most important components of overland navigation, an art well beyond the scope of this article. Look into a course and read a book on map and compass.

Backpacking with Skis

You reach out to catch yourself, your arms posthole in up to the shoulder, and the pack drives your face two feet into the snow. Such are the pleasures awaiting the novice ski backpacker.

But, if you can just get over that whole face smashed into the snow thing, there's nothing more rewarding than being fully self - supported, cruising through the truly empty mountains.

Skills. As mentioned above, skiing with a backpack is unbelievably difficult at first. You'll need to fine - tune your style, learning to keep your weight more upright and turn less aggressively. Those bounding turns of your unburdened, lift - served day trips will wear you out in a matter of minutes under a full pack. Half the battle is learning to fall sideways instead of face first.

Cooking outdoors without the benefit of a stable platform and seat requires some getting used to. Even if you're only camping in a spot for one night, digging out a kitchen is usually worth the hassle. Find a hill and dig into the side, building a counter and bench. You can throw your sleeping pad down to sit on. You should also bring a one - foot square or so patch of old closed - cell foam for your stove - without it, your stove will melt its way through the snow (a shovel blade can accomplish this in a pinch).

Additional gear. The equipment required to safely camp in sub - freezing conditions and deep snow is not insubstantial.

First, the backpack. The importance of having a well - fitted, internal - frame backpack for skiing cannot, repeat cannot, be overstated. When skiing you want your load to feel like a part of your back; only the better internal - frame packs can genuinely accomplish this.

Second, shelter. There are two schools of thought: some believe snow caves are better and others stand by tents. While it is true that a snow cave will keep you surprisingly warm, they are nothing less than a colossal pain in the neck to build. For a beginner, it can take hours. Even for an expert it is never anywhere near as quick as putting together a tent. The amount of work you'll put into building a snow cave or igloo virtually never outweighs the hassle of bringing a tent along with you, in my estimation.

Having said that, I do recommend building a snow cave a few times. It's a fun novelty sleeping in one and if you ever get stuck out in the open, you should know how to build one with reasonable efficiency.

Third, cooking. You'll want a serious stove, one that melts water fast. I recommend sticking with a white gas stove for their blast furnace output. You'll likely have to melt all of your drinking water, so make sure you have a large capacity pot, about twice as much fuel as you would normally take, and lots of patience. A garbage bag dedicated to gathering clean snow for melting is also useful - the snow near camp tends to get kind of dirty.

Morale. With trips like this, assuming there's no guide, it's best to go with experienced friends. Old hands provide an immeasurably valuable margin of safety and morale. Particularly after the sun goes down, the cold - even when felt by well - clothed, dry people - can have a surprisingly drastic affect on good cheer. Once you stop skiing and encountering new terrain, it takes a certain amount of experience to keep up your spirits.

Staying active puttering around camp helps tremendously, particularly if that puttering results in hot drinks. So does conversation and a deck of cards. Needless to say, a bottle of Southern Comfort also works magic on your group's level of feistiness, but don't overdo it. There are few things as unpleasant as watching the contents of your stomach melt the snow between your feet, believe me.

Jason Lathrop credits his fascination with gear to an upbringing in Walla Walla, Washington, an honest town abundant with sensibly chosen tools. He has reviewed gear on and off since landing his plum first job out of college as an assistant editor in Outside Online's gear section. He has also worked as a science reporter for and a correspondent for Mungo Park, where he had the opportunity to motorcycle in Chile with Lyle Lovett. These days, he's freelancing from Missoula, Montana, and has sold work to a variety of publications, including the New York Times Sunday Magazine.


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