On a gray, damp morning a few days before Thanksgiving in 2007, I set out on a three day hike to some obscure sub-alpine lakes near the Mountain Loop Highway in Washington’s Central Cascades. The forecast called for cloudy skies with a chance of rain showers, but by the time I was nearing tree line it was snowing hard. My goal was to camp at a couple of the lakes as part of an ongoing school project documenting bird and mammal species throughout the Cascades and Olympics during the late fall and winter. I’d started the project the winter before, and enjoyed the challenge of staying reasonably comfortable in such an inhospitable climate. Or maybe I just enjoyed the feeling of finally being warm and dry again when I got back to my truck. It was never comfortable, and rarely fun in the traditional sense of the word. But those three days late in November 2007 stand out as some of the longest days and nights I’ve had in the mountains.
By early afternoon the brush and trees were sagging low under the weight of the new snow. It melted on contact with my outer layers as I pushed through the vegetation, and my rain gear was soaked through in no time. By the time I found a place to camp everything I had was wet. In the past I’d had some luck with drying damp layers by wearing them in my sleeping bag at night, so I figured I’d give that a try here. I ate dinner, heated up a water bottle to sleep with, and zipped myself up in my 20° sleeping bag and nylon bivy sack underneath a lightweight tarp shelter. I slept for a while, but after a couple of hours woke up shivering. The condensation from my drying cloths had collected inside my bivy sack, and my sleeping back was now filled with clumps of useless wet down. I fired up my stove to heat another water bottle to curl up with and did some push-ups to warm up my core; a process that I would repeat many times throughout the night.
By dawn it was about 15° and my sleeping bag was covered in a veneer of ice and filled with frozen blobs of down. I forced my feet into frozen boots and jogged around the area to warm up. I ate breakfast, packed up my camp, and set off for the day knowing that wherever I camped that night I’d need to have a fire to dry out my gear. I stopped at several pre-planned spots throughout the day to do my wildlife surveys, and then set out for a lake about half a mile from the main trail where I would spend the night. I started looking for firewood about an hour before dark, but could tell right away that I was in for a bad night. The day had warmed up just enough to melt some of the snow, but as soon as the sun dropped behind a ridge the temperature plummeted and left all potential firewood covered in ice. I looked under boulders where the snow hadn’t piled up, near the stumps of the biggest trees in the area, under downed logs… There was no dry wood anywhere.
Darkness came. My sleeping bag was still wet, and quickly froze. I didn’t even get inside of it. I cooked dinner and heated a water bottle, but I’d burned most of my fuel the night before and had to use it sparingly. Temperatures again dropped into the teens, and push-ups and jumping jacks were all I had to keep warm. I was exhausted by the time dawn finally came. I retraced my steps back to the main trail only to find that my tracks from the first day had been buried in snow, making the trail that I’d come in on nearly impossible to find. Before long I was pretty much lost. I could follow my tracks back the to where I had camped on the first night, but not to the trail that would take me to my car. I wandered around for hours looking for landmarks. By afternoon I was getting worried: my sleeping bag was still soaked, and I was out of fuel for my stove. Storm clouds were building over the treetops. Could I make it through another night? Just as I decided to give up on searching for the trail to focus on looking for firewood, I came across some fresh bear tracks in the snow. I followed them. They seemed to be walking down an unnaturally log and brush free corridor in the woods. The trail! Once I found it I was careful not to lose it, and within a couple of hours I broke out into the clearing where my truck sat covered in six inches of snow.
Choosing the right sleeping system (in most cases a combination of a shelter, sleeping bag, and pad) for any given trip into the backcountry is one of the most important decisions you will make in planning your outing. Extra ounces quickly add up to extra pounds, so every ounce that you add to your pack will make moving during the day a little bit less enjoyable. But obviously if you don’t bring enough you’re in for some suffering during the night, and might even be putting yourself at risk if things go sideways. In the case of those cold nights I endured in November 2007, I packed what I thought I’d need based on past experiences. The thing is though, in the past I’d always been able to start a fire when I got too cold or wet. Complacency and a little overconfidence led to me being unprepared for the worst case scenario. So before I start giving gear suggestions I’ll add this caveat: In the summer in a place like the western US, you can spend a night out in the mountains with very little if you’re willing to accept some discomfort. In the fall, winter, and early spring… Don’t mess around. Bring what you think you’ll need to stay warm until your own experiences show you that you can get by with less.
Photo: A camp below Peak 11,300 on the Ruth Glacier in Alaska. We didn't want to have to move our entire basecamp up the glacier for just a couple of nights when we went to climb 11,300, so we brought only a lightweight Black Diamond Firstlight tent and 20 degree sleeping bags. The tent served its purpose, but we should have brought our warmer bags. We were so cold that we didn't get any sleep the night before the climb.
How warm of a sleeping bag do you really need? A lot of people default to a 0-20° bag, which is great if you get out year round and can only afford one bag. Does most of your hiking take place in the Cascades, Sierras, or middle elevations in the Rockies in the summer? I’ve found a one and a half pound, 40° bag to be just right in the summer. There are lighter bags out there, but the one I have is the one I could afford at the time. Most 20° bags on the market weigh about a pound more. I’ve experimented with sleeping bag alternatives (emergency bivy sacks, space blankets, whiskey), but they’re not worth it if you actually want to rest at night. When we were doing the Southern Pickets Enchainment in the North Cascades in September 2011, Sol Wertkin saw me zip up in my 55° Dueter Dreamlight and said “yeah, you’re going to be dreaming pretty lightly in that thing.” He was right. I didn’t get much sleep that week.
These days I bring a 15° down bag with me in the Cascades in the winter, and wear all of my layers including my puffy jacket to bed if I need to. Sometimes I’ll also stuff my feet into a fleece or puffy jacket and sleep with a hot water bottle between my thighs so that it warms the blood pumping through my femoral artery. This setup also works at high elevations in the Peruvian Andes, and at moderate elevations in the Alaska Range during the summer. When I really need to go lighter in the winter I’ll bring a 40° bag and accept that I’m not going to get much sleep. Winter nights can be over 14 hours long in the Cascades, which is a long time to shiver. Along with my 15° and 40° bags I have a -20° bag for expeditions and car camping in the winter. It’s too heavy and bulky to carry in a pack for the most part, but it sure is nice to have when I need it. Before I had that I would just bring two lighter bags (a cheap, low quality 0° and a 20°), which worked ok down to -10° but is less convenient and comfortable.
As far as sleeping pads go, options have really improved in the last 10 years. A couple of years ago I spoiled myself by buying a MSR NeoAir Xtherm. They are pretty pricey ($239 for the long version), but I justified it by reminding myself that I sleep out in the woods all summer for work, get out a lot in the winter, and don’t have a young back anymore. It’s thick, well insulated, reasonably light, and packs down small. There are two downsides: the insulation makes an annoying crinkling sound until it gets broken in, and they can pop if placed directly on gravel, sharp rock, or pine needles. Place it on a ground sheet of some kind if you don’t bring a tent, and bring a repair kit if you’re going out for more than a night or two. I also have a thinner, half-length pad for when I want to go a little lighter in the summer. I’ve used super light foam pads (known in the climbing world as hardman pads), and have done things like lay out climbing rope or pine boughs to sleep on. Do what you gotta do, but don’t plan on a good night’s sleep of you go those routes.
Photo: Aaron Scott in our luxurious basecamp on the Ruth Glacier in 2011.
I could, and might someday, write a whole post about shelters, but I’ll try to keep this short. I used to think that tents were a waste of weight and pack space. I probably convinced myself of that because I couldn’t afford a decent one. When the weather is perfect and the mosquitoes aren’t bad I like to sleep under the stars. The rest of the time I like to have a tent. In the summer I try to avoid going out if the forecast is iffy (except when I’m working for the USFS), but unless I’m sleeping on a high ridge where bugs usually aren’t an issue I’ll at least bring a tent without a rainproof fly so that I don’t have to wake up to mosquitoes biting my face. In the fall, winter, and spring it’s nice to be able to fully escape the weather and benefit from a little trapped body heat. Go for the lightest tent that you can afford for how many people will be sleeping in it (less than four pounds for a two-person tent); you really only need a four season tent if you’re expecting heavy wind or more than a few inches of snow. Vestibules are nice to have to keep your packs and gear dry, and if I’m camping on snow I’ll build 1-3 foot tall walls to block the wind a little. If I’m trying to go as light as possible when camping in the snow and I expect the weather to be decent, I’ll bring a floorless Black Diamond Megamid and a sheet of nylon to use as a ground cover. They don’t offer quite the same warmth and protection as a real tent, but are lighter and big enough to sit up, melt water, and cook in. They are also great to bring on glacier expeditions to use as a cook/hang out tent.
Click on the gallery below for a few more tips.
That's all for now! Next week I'll write about food and cooking, which is probably what people ask me about the most relating to this stuff. Have a good one!