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Winter is quickly approaching, and my friends and I (relatively inexperienced backpackers - only been on 2 trips of 9 days each) were wondering how much experience is necessary to safely backpacking winter assuming the correct equipment is used.

Michigan's weather in the UP ranges anywhere from -30 to 30°F (-34 to -1°C) during the winter, with typical nights ranging from 10°F - 20°F (-12°C to -7°C).

This trip would last for probably only 3 days.

  • Is this specific to Michigan or world wide? :) is specific it'd help to give some details on Michigan's usual winter weather, temp, snowfall etc. – Aravona Sep 28 '15 at 14:18
  • @Aravona Updated! – Ryan Welsh Sep 28 '15 at 14:32
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    How remote are you planning on getting? Are you planning on trekking miles form civilisation or a camp site? – user2766 Sep 28 '15 at 15:38
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    @Liam we will be within 20 miles of a town with a hospital somewhat nearby, otherwise I would consider it pretty remote. – Ryan Welsh Sep 28 '15 at 16:41
  • In the "correct equipment" category, make sure your sleeping pad(s) have a total R-value of 5 or more. Many people don't realize the pad actually matters just as much as the bag, and then get cold in their fancy 0° bags. – requiem Oct 1 '15 at 5:25
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Your number one concern when winter backpacking is breaking out into a sweat while hiking, getting your clothes wet, and then getting hypothermia after you stop for the day, but at temperatures of -30°C you're also concerned with frostbite.

Layering is key, you must know how to properly layer your clothes so that you can regulate moisture, NEVER let yourself break out into a sweat, because if you get your clothes wet you will catch a chill when you stop.

One of my favourite things about winter backpacking is you don't even need to carry your backpack. You can just bring a pulka (sled designed for winter travel over snow) and drag your gear behind you:

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Pulkas are super nice, because you need to carry more with you in the winter than in the summer, like extra clothing layers, heavier boots, a warmer sleeping system, snowshoes/skis, hot water bottle... And you can easily carry twice as much as normal with a pulka. Pulkas are also preferable in deep snow, because having a bag on your back makes you heavier and sink more with each step.

My next favourite part about winter camp is that you don't need to bring a tent if you know how to make a good snow shelter, and my third favourite thing is doing dishes, because you can just scour out the inside of your bowl or mug with snow and it gets it sparkly clean in seconds, it's super convenient.

As long as you know how to survive in the cold (assuming you know how to do being from Michigan), then you should be ok, but perhaps spend a night with your buddies in your back yard before embarking out into the wilderness, you can get your sleep system worked out with a warm place you can retreat to if needed.

  • Do you have any links to a good website regarding proper layering? Great information that I hadn't thought about! – Ryan Welsh Sep 29 '15 at 11:16
  • @RyanWelsh You can get a good overview on MEC. – ShemSeger Sep 29 '15 at 14:37
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If you've never camped out in winter, I would suggest a trial run. Sleep out in your backyard one night in those temperatures with whatever gear you plan to use for your longer trip. That way you can adjust your gear to your comfort level. You can also try out cooking, washing, changing clothes, etc.

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Here's my basic personal gear list. But even if you have all the right gear, I would find someone experienced to guide you for a few years. Or go car camping a few times. There's not a lot of difference between winter camping next to your car and going on day hikes and winter camping in the middle of the wilderness except that if you camp next to your car and something goes wrong, you can just hop in your car and turn on the heater. You're going to learn how to survive in the cold either way.

The important thing to know is that winter camping is an extreme sport, but it's not extreme like skiing down a cliff. Split-second decisions don't make the difference between living and dying when winter camping. It's slow-extreme, where a decision you made early one afternoon might be the reason you are screwed the next morning.

Also, skis > snowshoes.

  • Hi Sam, I'm curious to why you say to use a nalgene bottle and not a steel one. Without having tried camping in -30C temperatures my thought would be that in very low temperatures your water is almost guaranteed to freeze. With a plastic bottle you can't do anything, but with a steel bottle you could heat it over a flame to melt the contents or pour hot water from a pan without risking the bottle melting. – Stephen Paulger Sep 30 '15 at 15:26
  • You shouldn't let your water freeze in the first place. During the day, keep it inside your parka or use an insulated bottle sleeve. At night, put boiling water in it and drop it in the bottom of your sleeping bag (with the top on tight!) for cozy sleeping. Or you can bury it under a foot of snow to keep it from freezing solid (mark the spot with a ski pole so you don't lose your water). If it does freeze, just invert your Nalgene in boiling water until you can unscrew the top, and pour in some boiling water to melt the contents. No big deal. – samglover Sep 30 '15 at 16:13
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    As for why plastic over steel, because steel is a conductor and your water will freeze that much faster. Plus it's cold as shit against your skin. I mean, you could use steel and it's not the end of the world. It's just that the small advantage of being able to put your steel bottle in a flame isn't enough of an advantage. Plastic is just better overall. – samglover Sep 30 '15 at 16:16
  • OK thanks, I think I'd overestimated the risk of the water freezing and the risk of putting hot water into it. – Stephen Paulger Oct 1 '15 at 14:09
  • @samglover -- It's better form to quote the content in your post, rather than rely entirely on a link to another site (even your own). The web changes, links die, and then the answer becomes less valuable/worthless. – Russell Steen Oct 25 '15 at 15:14
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For the situation you're talking about (3 days backpacking in winter), knowledge is more important than experience. Know how to use your gear. Know how to keep warm and dry. Know not to walk on thin ice across rivers. It's doubtful there is anything you would encounter in Michigan in three days that would require experience in order for you to know how to deal with. In other words, Michigan does not have any unusual dangers that common sense is not equipped to recognize.

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