Winter Hiking – Epic Failures… A Noobs Hard Lessons

Posted: September 23, 2011 in Hammock Camping, Winter Hiking

Well I really didn’t expect to receive such a good response to my winter hiking and hammocking blog. But I’ve received a few emails about my gear list for the winter and I really wanted to clarify a few things for the winter noobs starting out. My gangsta ass had a lot of error and twice as many trials before I attempted an overnight winter hike/hammock hang. Here’s a few thoughts on my gear failures:

Wet Socks and Wrong Socks:

Frozen toes are not fun. On my first overnight trip I hiked 5 miles up 2 fairly steep mountains in Harriman State Park (New York Son!) and made camp at West Mountain Shelter. I didn’t change my socks. In about 2 hours my feet went from toasty to…. Wait do I even have any toes?!! If I wasn’t so damn good at making fires I think I may have actually lost a toe or two. To make matters worse I wore 3 season socks with my Keen Growler snow boots. Why? Well because the boots were rated down to -25*F so I figured I could get away with it. My feet couldn’t really warm up at all the entire trip after I made camp. The only time they warmed up was when I finally hiked out at 6am.

Remedy – I wear winter socks now. And I change my socks at camp. And if cold enough I change into 2 pairs of socks. Also I change into insulated camp booties. I don’t mess around, let a playa play!

Down gloves for Hiking is a DUMB MOVE:

While hiking my gloves were MEGA hot. So hot my hands were drenched! What happens to down when it gets wet…. Yep you guessed it once I hit camp and my gloves no longer insulated my hands. I was keeping my hands warm the way I did in my old football days… hands in el crotcho. Ever try to strike a fire steel when you cant move your fingers… Not good at all!

Remedy – I went from a single glove to a 3 layering system for my hands – glove liner, synthetic mitt, Mitt shell (water proof). This allows me not only to vent but a mitten actually keeps your hands warmer as your fingers are kept together to help each other out to be warm. Instead of each digit by itself all cased up doing it’s own thang.

Jacket Shell invites Jack Frost:

So I took what I thought was a breathable jacket shell. Well your friendly neighborhood water monkey started to feel clammy so I took off the shell to expose my fleece jacket…. At 16*F the perspiration inside that jacket was instantly frozen on the inside!! Kind of scary. Clearly that jacket was not breathable.

Remedy – I saved up some money and got eVent shells. Much more breathable and I haven’t had the frost build up on the inside… yet. Still haven’t gotten past 20*F with this set up.

Gear’s Maiden Voyage:

My current gear before my first overnight winter hike was very bulky. I ended up snagging a winter yeti and winter mamba literally the day before I was about to leave. I never set it up on my hammock before. Well lets say you really should test out your gear a few times to work out any bugs you may have.

To make a long story short I had a gap in my under quilt at my head end which was letting in all types of cold air. Either my foot end was too high and my yeti was too far up to my head… or really it was both. In any case I ended up bailing out of my hammock by sunrise and went to the shelter to make a fire to get some heat somehow.

Remedy – I practiced some more and I have had much better success in keeping warm in my hammock (although I haven’t been down to the 3*F which I was in the first night).

Top Quilt was COOL:

No I don’t mean Water Monkey Approved gangsta style awesomeness. I mean while I was in the top quilt I touched the inside of the bag and it was cool to the touch! What the banana cakes is going on here! This friggin thing is rated to 0*F and at single digits it was cool to the touch. And I was all bundled up in my insulated pants (which I hiked in btw… I know) and my montbell UL down inner parka. I just wasn’t as warm as I thought I would be.

Remedy – Well I did some research. First of all my dinner consisted of ramen noodles and some instant potatoes. Hardly enough fuel to keep my fire going. Also, I noted that if you sleep in your insulated clothes your sleeping bags take longer to heat up because your body heat is being trapped in your clothes. SOOOOO, I ate much more fatty meals and kept a lot of snacks handy and I ended up sleeping in my base layers. I tested this in the low 20*F and you know what??? I was overheating! Really cool results. I had to take the top quilt off to vent because I was in Miami… Bienvenido a Miami.

Your Breath is the Devil:

Your breath is a nightmare on your top quilts. In the 3*F I slept in, when I woke up and looked at my top quilt I noticed a nice long ice trail from where I was breathing on my top quilt. I’ve never seen this before nor was this a thought in my head on what could happen in this temperature. Really cool and frightening at the same time.

Remedy – I have none at the moment. I haven’t been able to hike in that temp again. Some thoughts… Sean “Shug” Emery does a ton of deep winter hikes and he uses a fleece fabric to ward off the breath condensation off on his top quilt. It’s an interesting thought I’m still figuring that out.

That’s not ground… That’s Cement:

So yeah.. you think tent stakes are gonna break ground at 10*F. You do?? Yeah so did I. Think again. That ground was harder than steel. I couldn’t break ground with my stakes. In fact I broke a couple trying. I ended up tying my tarp to some loose large rocks. That didn’t fair out too well. It was a windy night and well my tarp dislodged from one of the rocks and it turned out to be a slight nightmare to get it back on.

Remedy – I purchased roofing nails… ya know those big ass long thick nails. I haven’t tried it but I’m bettin I can break ground this time!

Batteries Not For Winter:

Apparently cell phone and camera batteries get the juice sucked out of them in colder temps. I had no idea. In less than 8 hours I went from full batteries to almost dead nothingness.

Remedy – Keep your electronic devices close to your body heat. In fact, sleep with those batteries at night. Longer battery life has been achieved.

Thick Rain Gloves are not the answer:

I had some thick neoprene waterproof rain gloves that I thought I could use as hiking gloves in the teens. That cold bit right through them instantly.

Remedy – Moved to a 3 layering glove system.

Winter Wind and the Balaclava from Hell:

In the teens and below that winter wind really hurts your face. I brought with me a balaclava which I could use to place over my face when the wind was being a PITA. However, what they never tell you is that your breath really forms some wicked condensation over your nose and mouth… And your breath runs right out the top and into your eyes. Total annoyance. Also I found it difficult to breathe.

Remedy – I got myself a neoprene/fleece face mask which has a cut out for the nose and breathe holes at the mouth. I’ve had tremendously better moisture control.

Water from an Alcohol Stove… Better not be thirsty:

Out of curiosity I decided to make water from my alcohol stove using snow. Took 20 min to go from snow to full rolling boil. My advice is if you are nearing to run out of water better make some before you are thirsty.

Remedy – None, just be aware of yo shiznizzle.

No traction = keep the camera rolling:

My second year I thought I could go an ultra-light approach and use down socks with a waterproof shell… and some CCF (closed cell foam) padding on the bottom as a camp bootie. The only problem is that the shells had ZERO traction. I wish I had the camera on when I was walking around in 2 feet of snow. I was launched in the air multiple times and slid down a slope… the pad shifted and my feet froze.

Remedy – Picked up synthetic booties from 40Below which have some traction. More importantly they secure better to the feet. Haven’t tested in the snow yet.

I think that’s it for now… Here is one of my winter testing day hikes and then my brave first time ever winter hiking and camping videos:

Keepin it real…… Real COLD!

Water Monkey

  1. ArcsandSparks says:

    One thing I bring winter camping are 6-10 plastic grocery bags. I use them if my stakes don’t hold. Just fill them with snow and bury them, the handles on the bags make them easy to tie your guy lines to. Bonus, they weigh next to nothing, take no pack space and cost nothing! Good write up for noobs WM!

  2. Mark B says:

    Good article.

    Unless you fall down a lot, I’d reconsider waterproof as a requirement for jackets or pants for cold winter hiking. If it is cold enough to freeze the water on the inside of your gore-tex jacket, then you generally don’t need to worry about precipitation getting you wet. The most you would need would be a wind shell which could shed any falling snow. Plus it will breathe much better.

    Waterproof does have a place for boots, gaiters and gloves.

    Also I’d recommend mittens instead of heavily insulated gloves. They will be warmer with less insulation.

    My final recommendation would be an old school hiking stove like the MSR Whisperlite for melting snow. Nothing better than white gas when you need to be running the stove for a long time.

    • The only time I wear waterproof clothing now is if it is snowing. Mainly water proof rain pants (eVent) when I’m snow shoeing. The shell would be applied mainly at camp to trap more heat unless It is really snowing while I’m out and about.

      As far as mittens I actually made that remedy and spoke about it in the second gear item in this blog.

      Yes melting snow a canister stove is way more efficient. I actually spoke about this in my first winter blog. In an effort to save some weight I stick with my alcohol stove and build fires for my metal water containers.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. William Puckett says:

    Good words of winter wisdom! Thanks, Raul!

    Keep ’em coming!


  4. Stick says:

    Great post man. And a few of those things I too found out myself, the hard way. But hey, those are the times/things that we really remember… good times… 🙂

    Concerning the socks, unfortunately we get very little snow down here. The couple of times that I have done hikes in snow though I was successful with using some knee high gaiters, my regular hiking pants, some mid-calf SmartWool socks and a good pair of waterproof boots. This worked great during the day, even postholing through snow up to my knees, or down a well hiked trail where much of the snow had been turned to splashing slush and mud. At night I wear some Lorpen Expedition Polartec / PLoft 1 socks. (I tested these for BGT and have been very happy with them. Check them out on my blog, under Clothing and then footwear.) However, I don’t wear 2 pairs of socks because you don’t want to restrict blood circulation in any way. As I am sure you already know, this will lead to frozen toes as well.

    Anyway, enjoyed the post! Keep up the good work dude.


  5. John Pittman says:

    Wigwarm -40 wool socks = feet NEVER cold. (the brown ones)
    Sweedish military cotton anorak = very warm at-rest camp shell, impervious to fire embers, and it’s affordable. (but for dry cold only)

  6. Dan says:

    One small tip I learned years ago winter camping in Maine was to carry a water bottle around my neck packed with snow while you’re hiking. Not a huge one, but enough for a cup of hot chocolate or whatnot. If you keep this tucked inside your gear (maybe on top of your base layer), your body heat will melt the snow and you’ll have water ready when you’re thirsty.

    The best part is that, if you’re looking for something hot, water will boil faster than snow (less heat requirement due to only one state change), so you can have your hot chocolate faster.

    What we would do is fill it with snow and every hour or so, stop and repack it as the volume decreases as the snow melts to water. By the time you get to camp, you’ve got a full water bottle ready to go.

    Alot of the body warmth/perspiration and battery-life issues are things that skiers and snowboarders have been battling for years. In the course of your research, you may want to look into those communities as well for tips on dealing with sweat removal and battery-life issues.

    Overall, great post – keep it up! I’m really enjoying your blog.

  7. Enjoyed your report, and the videos. It was interesting to see how a hammock works, unfortunately there no trees where I walk (see Youtube ‘Mulhacen in winter’). I’m a newbie to walking, so find these blogs very infomative. Please leave a comment if you do watch my clip.
    Keep warm, and stay safe.
    Regards Steve. (Spain)

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