I have always been on the search for outlets in the heart of winter to scratch my outdoor itch - cabin fever will set in quicker for me than most, I feel. Living in beautiful Colorado, the mountains beyond Denver offer a wide variety of options for outdoor recreation in the winter; most people in this state embrace partaking in colder activities! I enjoy nordic and downhill skiing, ice fishing, sledding, winter camping and snowmobiling when I have the chance. I will save those topics for another day, however.
After wholeheartedly abstaining from the Valentine's Day get-up happening in the city, we decided to explore the southern part of Rocky Mountain National Park on our snowshoe adventure. I always recommend going with someone on backcountry adventures, especially if the climate and elements are expected to become, or already are, adverse. In this instance, we were expecting heavy snow, and have to consider avalanches as a real threat. Therefore, we decided against going above tree line (10,500 - 11,000 ft.) as the danger of snow slides significantly increase with less trees to break the fall. Avalanche safety is a serious and all-to-often occurrence in the high country, so I advise a course on avalanche safety and awareness before attempting adventures in these conditions. When in doubt, don't 'go for it' if an avalanche seems even remotely possible. So, now that's out of the way..
What does one bring on a backcountry day hike in the snow? I'll start with the clothing. Layers are the key in any cold weather situation, giving the adventurer the ability to shed and add articles as needed. Generally speaking, I will start off with a long-sleeved shirt and pants that are a synthetic 'wicking' material - a way to zap the perspiration from the body. These articles of clothing can range in price, but I've found that 'knock off' brands will work just as well as name brand. Check you local "Wall" store. A warmer option would be fleece-line long john pants. Next, I add at least one pair of wool socks and pull them over the bottoms of my long underwear base layer. Just remember: it is difficult to take of a pair of socks with all other layers on your body if your feet become too warm. So, although your toes may be cold when you start, begin the cardio exercise and your piggies will tend to warm up. Another consideration may be a pair of wicking socks, followed by the wool socks on top. After the socks, I will add my layers to my upper body, namely: a wool long-sleeved 'long john' style shirt - something that is tight fitting to the body. Merino wool is a great, quick drying option that is ubiquitous among outdoor gear manufacturers. Finally comes the hard shell outer layers vital to cutting down wind exposure and outside precipitation. I have found great success with ski pants and a ski jacket with a hood as my top layers for our snowshoeing adventures. I will wear a balaclava that covers my nose and chin - wind will bite at any piece of exposed skin. A fleece hot over the balaclava may be too much once the miles start to add, but it is always nice to start off with the extra warmth. Add a pair of sunglasses to prevent snow blindness and some quality chapstick and you're ready for whatever the elements will throw at you!
Next - gloves: I love using mittens, but they sometimes seem TOO warm for my liking. I rarely use GoreTex products, but gloves are one place I will make an exception. GoreText helps cut down loss of warmth from wind, and helps repel SOME moisture. On the same note, GoreTex is also great at keeping moisture inside of the glove (or any other article clothing for that matter). Another great option would be a 'liner' glove followed by something heavier duty. Finally, footwear: our overwhelming choice for winter backcountry hiking are 'Mountaineering' boots - heavier version of hiking boots as they generally have a hard shell around the outside and come well above the ankle for maximum snow protection. We had been snowshoeing in regular 'hiking' boots, but found that all of the snow caking around the snow shoes and our boots were causing our feet to chill after a few hours. So we made the transition to heavy duty mountaineering boots, and won't look back! Last but not least, we will sometimes put our gaiters on over the snow pants and boot if you know we will be encountering some serious snow depth! Between good ski pants, mountaineering boots and gaiters, one should have no problem keeping all snow from inside the boot!
For safety reasons, we always pack all gear, even for a day pack, namely: sleeping bag and extra warm layers, tent or tarp, avalanche shovel, some sort of fire starting capability, and a cell phone in case of emergency. We will always have plenty of protein and carbohydrates, and water to keep our insides working at full steam. We try to avoid as many simple carbs and sugar as possible because, even though they taste great, we tend to 'crash' after a few hours of sustained cardio workout. I will save an in-depth review of good hiking foods for another article. We make a valiant effort to keep our overall pack weight low all the while making sure we have everything we need for the day, but nothing more!
And now, the most important part of the hike: the snowshoes! What size and style of snowshoes one will chose will depend on a few things, but above all, the depth and kind of snow. On a warmer day with the sun shining and no new snow is falling I recommend 18" - 30" snow shoes. This range of sizes should keep the hiker on top of the snow, but not be too cumbersome and prohibit easy walking. If the day appears to be colder with little to no sunshine hitting the snow, and especially if new snow is falling, a larger of snowshoes is advisable as they will keep the hiker on top of the snow better than smaller shoes and won't cause one to 'post hole' as often. I've worn some HUGE snowshoes before and they can cause me to trip over myself, so be careful when deciding on length and width of the snowshoes. Remember: wet, heavy snow will prevent one from sinking into the snow as much, i.e. post-holing," especially with a larger snowshoe. Colder snow tends to be dryer and fluffier, so a hiker will inevitably sink into the snow more than with wetter, warmer conditions. A ~22 inch snowshoe will work for 75% of your adventures, but pay close attention to the snow! Choose wisely!
Most important: have fun! Stop and smell the wonderful spruce trees, drink ice-cold mountain water, and enjoy the views, if there are any! Backcountry adventures in the winter as quiet and peaceful and always calm my body inside and out! Be merry and hike on!
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