Lightweight Hiking in Cold Weather
By Steve Gillman
Is lightweight hiking or backpacking safe in cold weather?
It is if you do it right. Last September I was in four feet of
snow at 13,000 feet - in my running shoes and with just 11 pounds
on my back for an overnighter. Too dangerous? I don't think so,
and in any case, I have been going lightweight for too many years
to want to go back to a heavy pack and hiking boots.
Hiking to Crestone Peak
In September 2006 I was in the Sangre De Christo Mountains
in Colorado, hiking up the trail to South Colony Lakes. I surprised
a large buck, which snorted and ran off. I began to see more
patches of snow as I went higher. I broke the frozen puddles
with my walking stick.
I hoped to climb Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak earlier
in the month, but I was rained out. Then it snowed heavily throughout
the high country on September 18. Over the coming days I checked
the online forums to see if anyone was still climbing these "fourteeners"
(mountains higher than 14,000 feet). One person did mentioned
climbing Crestone through the snow - which I didn't want to do.
Still, by the 28th there had been many warm days, so maybe
the snow was melted. It was where I parked the car that morning.
But by the time I was hiking past the South Colony Lakes a few
hours later, I was almost knee-deep in it. Above the lakes and
beyond the last of the trees, the snow was even deeper.
My feet were soaked, but the sun and the climb kept me warm.
I only continued because it looked like there was bare rock up
near the peaks. But eventually I adjusted my goal to just getting
to Broken-Hand Pass, where I could look down into the San Luis
Valley. I quit within 100 yards.
It was steep, and the snow was so deep that I slid back at
least as far as I stepped each time - or further. Then I slipped
and needed to self-arrest with my walking stick to keep from
sliding down a few hundred feet. It was clear I was under-equipped
for climbing any further.
Home For The Night
Hiking down was worse, as it often is. I sunk in the soft
snow and hit my shins against rocks hidden there. I walked on
top of crusted snow at times, until I suddenly broke through
- which I did, for example, when I stopped to look at some bobcat
tracks. But at least I didn't have much weight on my back.
My pack weight was 11 pounds, to be exact. The pack itself
was 14 ounces. My down sleeping bag weighed 17 ounces, and the
tarp 16 ounces. I also had food, water and dry socks. My lightweight
load meant I hardly even noticed the pack - even after 13 miles
Back down by the lakes it was time to put my lightweight hiking
an backpacking skills and equipment to the test. It would be
about 24 degrees Fahrenheit that night.
I found a grassy area where the snow had melted away. The
sun was still shining bright, so I laid out my wet socks and
shoes to dry on a log while I ate mixed nuts, wrote some notes,
and then took a nap. An hour later, several deer walked by. I
woke up holding my walking stick like a weapon.
My socks and shoes were dry, so I put then on and got busy.
It took me 20 minutes to collect enough dry grass and old thistle
stalks to make a thick mattress. This was not only for comfort,
but also for insulation to keep me warm. I set my plastic groundsheet
over this, and strung the tarp overhead. I laid out the sleeping
bag to fluff it up.
I collected dry wood and tinder and laid a fire, in case I
might need it later (I never did). I covered this with pieces
of bark to keep the frost, snow or rain off of it. I ate wild
currants and rose hips, saving my corn chips for a bedtime meal.
The fat from the corn oil would heat me up as it digested - a
good way to start a cold night. I used my walking stick to lift
the bag with the rest of the food up to a high branch where it
would hang for the night.
I put on my thermal underwear, hat and gloves. I used my shoes
with the backpack on top of them for a pillow. The wind started
blowing, so I lowered one side of the tarp before going to sleep.
The frost was heavy and the ice was thick on the puddles in the
morning, but I had managed to sleep well. I packed up, scattered
the mattress materials so they wouldn't smother the plants underneath,
and I ate some crackers. The sun was just rising as I hit the
I had just 9 pounds total on my back by now. That might seem
very lightweight for safe backpacking, but I had everything I
needed - even a camera. On the way back to the trailhead I stopped
hiking long enough to take a photo of Crestone Needle in the
morning sun. I'll be on top of it this summer.