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Lightweight Hiking in Cold Weather

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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

Crestone Needle

Crestone Needle

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.

Tarp Shelter Near South Colony Lakes

Home For The Night

Lightweight Backpacking

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 of hiking.

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 trail.

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.



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