Training: Winter Camping Exposes Weakness Nothing is easy when snow blankets the ground and temperatures drop below freezing. Every component in your system, including yourself, is pressure tested. Take advantage of the training environment and go winter camping to prepare for the year’s challenges. Camping in winter provides an opportunity to learn new skills like snow shelters and practice perishable skills such as melting snow for drinking water. You can get away with a lot in warmer seasons, but that won’t cut it in winter. Removing wet clothing to dry outside the shelter is a fool’s errand. Issues in winter need to be dealt with and not postponed for short-term comfort. Insecure tent anchors can find you waking up as you roll down a mountain still inside your tent and sleeping bag. After a few winter trips, all other times of year in the mountains seem easy in comparison. The thought of staying out overnight or even several days can seem daunting, and a winter trip is not the first I’d recommend for someone still learning the basics. But after several years of backcountry travel in more permissive environments, a few winter trips will yield significant dividends. Winter camping builds confidence in yourself and your fieldcraft you can leverage in any season. Camping in winter conditions is all about the details. Everything from route planning and meal prep to fuel consumption and hydration plays a more significant role. You can get away with a lot when the weather is fair, but everything matters once the mercury drops and the daylight is scarce. Winter camping is an essential skill to prepare for climbing remote peaks, backcountry skiing, and hunting the North country. These training excursions don’t need to be a next-level suckfest, but they often default to type 2 fun. After decades of slugging it out with Old Man Winter, I now prefer this season to any others due to the lack of bugs and snakes, few bears, abundant water in the snowpack, and a flat snow platform to sleep on each night. Winter brings challenges not encountered at any other time of year. It’s also a decent opportunity to train with a partner, face shared hardship, and discover compatibility. Frostbite is a genuine concern, and you should understand the signs, symptoms, and treatment. You’ll know if you and a prospective partner are aligned when you place your buddy’s bare, stinky feet in your armpits to warm up so he can put his boots on to snowshoe to the truck after a brutally cold night. Avalanches are another concern if venturing into steep terrain. I highly recommend taking an introductory avalanche class, www.avtraining.org, and carrying the required safety equipment, including an avalanche beacon, snow shovel, and probe. Proper route-finding and establishing your camp in a safe zone will help mitigate some risks, but the dragon is always lurking under the snow and never to be dismissed. Start close to a trailhead and ease your way into longer trips away from the road. Plan several years to learn the skills, build experience, and acquire the specialized gear that’s required. A lot of the gear can be rented at an REI, www.rei.com, to include snowshoes, 4 season tents, and warm sleeping bags before committing to buy them. Winter is the perfect time to test a new kit, challenge yourself, and have an adventure. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and intimidating, but the confidence gained in your skills cannot be overstated and can yield immense results. Gear Locker: Snowshoes & Trekking Poles; A Perfect Pairing MSR EVO Ascent Snowshoes: $209.95 www.msrgear.com Black Diamond Equipment Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles, $185.00 www.blackdiaondequipment.com When the snow gets knee-deep, hiking becomes difficult and inefficient. The decision for foot travel then narrows down to skis or snowshoes. Backcountry skiing requires expensive and specialized equipment and years of training to become proficient. Snowshoes, however, are affordable and need only a few minutes to gain proficiency. Snowshoes should be in your backcountry arsenal for winter training and adventures if you’re serious about becoming a student of the game. I’ve trained thousands of people using snowshoes for winter travel. They are a simple tool that straps to almost any boot, increasing the overall surface area, thereby floating you near the top of the snowpack. Depending on the application, not all snowshoes are adequate for off-trail hiking in mountainous terrain. Snowshoes that are several feet long and made of tubular aluminum do not perform well for aggressive mountain travel. These snowshoes are best reserved for day hikes on flat ground and other light use. I’ve seen many aluminum snowshoes bend and break on frozen, uneven terrain and bridging icy rocks and logs crossing creeks while wearing heavy packs. The MSR Ascent is a snowshoe that I’ve seen capable of handling backcountry abuse. These snowshoes possess all the attributes you should look for in a backcountry snowshoe. 1. Aggressive side rails to gain purchase while side-hilling. This feature is crucial to limit tail wash-out in soft snow and provide purchase on firm snow. You’re limited in the terrain and direction you can take contour navigating without side rails. 2. Crampons on the binding for climbing. The binding must have metal fangs on the bottom of the binding for secure purchase when going straight uphill, like climbing out of steep creek drainages. 3. Heel elevators to take the strain off calves and quads. This feature flips up in the back of the binding to support the heel and help level the foot when climbing mountains and steep hillsides. This feature can be overlooked but, once deployed correctly, saves a significant amount of energy and suffering. 4. Strong decking made of plastic or polycarbonate that can withstand heavy weight and abuse and won’t leave you stranded if a crack develops. 5. Removable tails. Tails allow you to fine-tune the surface area and increase it when the snow is soft and deep or your pack is heavy. MSR EVO Tails: $49.95 6. Replaceable straps for in-the-field repair. Always take one extra binding and heel strap as they can break and fall off with aggressive use. MSR Classic Snowshoe Strap 18”: $12.95 Because snowshoes increase your foot’s size, they can challenge your balance when walking in deep snow or steep terrain. A pair of sturdy trekking poles are mandatory to stabilize walking and prevent falls. I use the same trekking poles year-round, changing the baskets to suit the environment. The Black Diamond Equipment Alpine Carbon Cork trekking poles provide a robust and lightweight solution for year-round hiking. 7. Removable powder baskets provide versatility. Switching out the smaller summer trekking baskets for the larger powder baskets in winter increases the surface area, allowing firm pole placements, limiting the pole plunging deep into the snowpack. Removing the baskets also enables the poles to be used as shelter anchors for overnight forays saving weight and adding efficiency. Black Diamond Equipment Oversized Powder Baskets, $7.95 The Closet: Fit Matters For Performance Each layer in a technical clothing system has its part to play, and to achieve the most performance, they need to fit correctly. It’s not enough to buy a bunch of clothes and expect them to yield exceptional results. Today’s modern clothing systems are capable of tremendous performance if attention is paid to seemingly negligible factors like fit. Each brand will fit differently, so it’s essential to find one that builds clothing that fits your body type. As a general rule, you should not have to size up or down between layers to get the proper fit if you buy from the same manufacturer. However, each person is different, and some may find themselves on the edge of two sizes. If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend choosing a size that doesn’t restrict movement or circulation. A good brand obsesses over the fit as it builds each layer for a specific purpose and placement within a system. Take these points into consideration when building your systems. Let’s review the six layers that make up a backcountry clothing system and their ideal fit. 1. Baselayers should have a contoured fit achieving maximum skin contact. This allows for the most efficient transfer of moisture. This foundational layer usually provides plenty of stretch but should not be tight or have a compression fit. A technical outdoor clothing system isn’t intended for a controlled sporting event like football. A tight-fitting base layer restricts blood flow making appendages prematurely cold. 2. Softshell pants should have an athletic fit to provide a good range of motion and dry quick. Stretch fabrics of either nylon or polyester offer a slim profile reducing the overall weight of the garment. They also allow for unencumbered movement for climbing mountains, crawling under brush, and high-stepping over blow-down. 3. Active insulation should fit athletically and not bind with other layers. Traditional heavy-weight fleece is a basic form of active insulation but is often too snug for versatile layering within a clothing system and limits its placement. Active hybrid insulations, which I prefer, provide room to capture body heat and feature smooth face fabrics for low friction layering within a system. 4. The Windstopper jacket should have an athletic fit to promote efficient moisture transport and create a thin micro-climate inside the garment to regulate body heat. The layer often utilizes stretch fabrics to achieve performance. Due to this layer’s versatility, I often layer a Windstopper shell under a hybrid active insulated top for maximum breathability and range of motion but have the option to move it to the outside when light precipitation falls. 5. Static insulation should have a relaxed fit for easy layering over all other clothing and binoculars. This fit allows body heat to be tapped while not compressing the insulation of the layers underneath. The puffy jacket is repeatedly donned and doffed all day while taking breaks, glassing, and hanging around camp and should easily layer. Puffy jackets don’t feature much relative stretch, so given the option, choose more room versus less. 6. Rain gear should fit loose enough for easy layering and range of movement. If it’s too snug, it will needlessly tire and hinder you while hiking and climbing. High-quality stretch laminates are scarce, and for this reason, rain gear relies on expert patterning for a good fit. Due to the lack of stretch, rain gear may be the most difficult layer to achieve a correct fit. Technical fabrics and insulations are capable of amazing performance, but they are not enough on their own. These ingredients need to be constructed with intent and built into quality clothing. Each layer and technology has a distinct purpose and part to play. If you don’t take fit into consideration when assembling a technical clothing system, then you’re just wearing clothes. The Word: Seek Discomfort Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s a phrase I repeatedly said to others as an instructor, and I still say to myself weekly. You should become familiar with this mantra if you seek adventure outside and aspire to push your boundaries. No matter how good the equipment and clothing or how experienced you are, living outdoors comes with discomfort, sometimes even pain. Social media, outdoor brands, writers, and friends have all put a romantic spin on life in the backcountry. I’ve fallen for it and perpetuated it often as a closet romantic myself. The truth is that life in the mountains can be downright shitty but isn’t that part of the allure? Backcountry trips look glamorous in pictures and are often accompanied by a poetic verse that glosses over the hardship, the pain, hunger, mental anguish, and stench. Austere wilderness holds a strong allure but underestimating its toll on both mind and body is naive. We need to accept this reality, train to the standard, and meet its terms. Greg Everett talks about toughness being developed through four elements in his book, Tough. 1. Character: understanding who you are and what you really want to achieve. Wilderness provides the conduit to discovering our true character, sometimes providing uncomfortable insights. 2. Capability: building skills and experience required to meet your goals. Training with purpose can often be tedious and challenging but it is the path that leads us towards our objectives. 3. Capacity: The amount of time and hard work to accomplish our goals. How much are we really willing to dedicate to our craft? 4. Commitment: the amount of time and effort to accomplish our goals. It can take years and even decades to build the foundation capable of supporting our desires. I’m as big a pussy as anyone, but I accept this and leverage this awareness to consciously overcome daily obstacles, helping me focus on difficult training throughout the year. In the Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, he discusses the idea of something called a Misogi. “In Misogis, we’re using the artificial, contrived concept of going out and doing a hard task to mimic these challenges that humans used to face all the time.” Hardship is part of what we seek when we head into the mountains with a pack on our backs. “Misogis can show you that you had this potential you didn’t realize and that you can go farther than you ever believed.” Effective training involves repeatedly putting yourself in specific, controlled, and demanding situations to build calluses, preparing the mind and body for real life. Focused training provides opportunities for failure without the consequence of a once-in-a-lifetime tag in your pocket or being caught in a gnarly storm and genuinely needing to navigate for safe passage. Winter provides the perfect training ground to test ourselves and expand our quiver of experiences that can’t be provided any other time of year. Distractions are minimal, while the opportunity for growth is limitless. The cold weather training environment is an ideal place to seek discomfort and build resilience but only lasts a few months. Take advantage of it to find adventure and become a more durable human.