When the Going Gets Cold

Expectations. We form them, even if we insist on trying not to. So what happens then, when winter comes? When the going gets cold, how can we readjust our expectations of what's ahead? Well, we do just that: readjust. We don't hide.


The seasoned thru-hiker's mentality is minimalism. Light and simple. We generally don't carry anything that's not used on a daily basis; no extensive first aid kits, no extra layers, and no just-in-case items. But when your traveling through Colorado's high Rockies in mid-September and winter-like conditions surprise you, that philosophy has to bend. It's often hard to plan and predict the weather; though not impossible. With the help of someone back home, we can usually get cold weather gear sent out and in our hands in a matter of days. For those without a closet of options back home, a local outfitter or trip to the city to visit an REI could be all that's needed. 


 On this hike, with a number of route options, I wasn't willing to sacrifice some of the Collegiate and San Juan Mountains that I'd been looking forward to trekking through. So I made adjustments to be more prepared and comfortable in cold weather and snow conditions: a stove, 3+ season tent, rain gear, and plenty of wool and warmer layers. And for a 250 mile stretch beginning in Salida- boots, gaiters, and microspikes. My dog has a 1lb sleeping bag made by Hurtta that she has used south of the Great Basin in southern Wyoming. So the minimalism, ultralight mentality is temporarily put aside and I'm left carrying a heavier pack.


When it gets cold, a lot of things change. It becomes really difficult to hike in the early mornings or late at night, because of the drastic temperature difference when the sun isn't out. We find ourselves hiking shorter distances per day, yet burning more calories while our bodies work hard to stay warm and carry more weight on our backs. This usually means carrying more dense, calorie rich foods to satisfy the persistent hunger. Items like butter don't melt and add extra fat and calories. For the dog, I pack enough for her to have 2 big bowls of Sojos at night.


Another challenge is finding snacks that don't freeze during the day; things like cereal and trail mix bars. Goodbye Snickers. Keeping water in liquid form can be tough too. At night it has to stay inside the tent, and during the day upside down or close to body heat to keep from freezing. It seems as though half the contents of my backpack are inside my sleeping bag at night to stay warm; sawyer filter, phone, battery pack, clothes. 


Getting a stove out was a game changer. Nighttime dinners with Ramen, Idahoans, and stuffing warmed by belly before going to sleep. Butter or olive oil and hot sauce put it over the top. Every morning I wake up to Dingo making hot coffee for us; which is quite honestly, what got me (half) out of my sleeping bag some days. I even carried out some vegetables to add flavor and nutrition. Since both of us typically hike stoveless, it's been a nice change of pace and something to look forward to. 


Camping begins to have a different rhythm when it's cold. Dingo and I traded in our matching Tarp Tent Protrails for an old REI 2-person Quarterdome to use from Steamboat Springs, CO to Cuba, NM. In that, we had space for the two of us plus Luna, and double vestibules. We LOVED having a warmer tent and separate rain fly. This trapped our body heat on the super cold nights and kept us more than comfortable. The vestibule space was great for cooking while still cozy in our sleeping bags, and packing up in the morning. It's helpful when you can be selective about campsites; finding places tucked under tree cover to try and stay out of the wind, heavy snow and minimize condensation. If the sun comes out in the middle of the day, the frosty rain fly lightens up a fair bit once dry. Having a dog growing a winter coat snuggled on top of you doesn't hurt either. 


The hardest part? Learning how to regulate your body temperature. Everyday, a fair amount of time is spent putting on and taking off layers. Starting the day in sleep clothes; stripping once warmed up. From the time I was a kid hiking in the Whites, my dad taught me to not let myself sweat in the winter months. While wool baselayers do stay warm when wet, they might not dry until crawling into the sleeping bag. I found myself constantly checking the elevation profile to look at the climbing and descending. Keeping the layers minimal going uphill, then putting a jacket and gloves on for the ridgelines and descents. Even when the sun was out and temps in the 20's, the wind chill was numbing. For sleeping, I started wearing thick mountaineering socks and a fleece neck warmer. The key (that I learned the hard way a few times) is to put the layers on AS SOON as my body temperature begins to drop, to trap the heat and keep from having to stop and put your hands in your pants to warm up. 


It's tough because the thru-hiker mentality is to hike swiftly and limit breaks. We have to change our stubbornness on this too. Layering means a lot of frequent stopping, so we suck it up.  


And so, we move on. Get through it by being mentally prepared for temporary discomfort, but having the appropriate gear to escape a potentially terrible situation. Then, we just enjoy the quiet of being out there, when nobody else is.