Taking on the Calendar Year Triple Crown means covering mileage in less than ideal conditions. Normal thru-hiking season on the Appalachian Trail lasts from roughly late March to October. I, on the other hand, decided to take on the iconic trail starting early February with a late April completion date. This decision meant I would be hiking in the snow, alone.
The learning curve was short and steep. Here’s an overview of the essential tips, tricks and strategies I quickly figured out — ones that ultimately helped me tick off not only the AT, but also the CDT and PCT in 2016!
Snow Becomes Water
This is a simple lesson from high school chemistry, but its significance can’t be understated when on a winter thru-hike. Most nights the temperature dropped below freezing. Then during the day, when the temperature warmed up, any snow and ice clinging to the tent would melt, soon making my shelter wet. Starting off with a simple tarp, this quickly proved to be an issue and I soon switched to a double-wall shelter.
Double-Wall Tents are Your Friend
My plan was to use a simple tarp in the corner of shelters to create my own small pocket of warmth in the three-sided structures. While this technique worked well on the nights when I camped at shelters, given my ambitious schedule, I wasn’t always able to end the day at them.
With the trouble created by snow and freezing rain when dispersed camping, I decided the best option was to switch to a single-person, double-wall tent. The single-person tent made the bubble of warm air around me much more comfortable quicker than a larger tent. The rain fly that attached to the top of the tent allowed me to separate the icy part from the dry part, and maintain some level of comfort for days on end, as opposed to my shelter becoming wet after only one inclement night.
Microspikes and Trekking Poles Dull in Ice
I stretched most of my gear to its limits. Microspikes on the Appalachian Trail in the winter proved to be no exception. Especially as I got up toward Maine during the height of ice season in the northeast, I noticed the points had grown noticeably dull. The ice was so hard that I had to sometimes stomp my foot down into it to gain any traction at all from the spikes. The same situation played out with my trekking poles as well, and on the Appalachian Trail section of the Calendar Year Triple Crown I had to sharpen the points twice.
Pack Extra Socks
One night in the Smokys, before I went to sleep, I hung my wet socks on the ladder rack of a bunk in a shelter. In the morning they were frozen solid. The socks were unusable. There was no way I could have put them on even if I had tried. Luckily, I usually carry two pairs of socks and rotate them. But, in Maine the weather rarely got above freezing and I often had two pairs of socks tucked between my layers at any given time trying to soften them to a usable state. I added a third pair of socks in the coldest sections, meaning at least three days of comfort and dry socks to put on in the morning.
Electronics Drain Quickly
Within a week I realized it was going to be different hiking in early February. Everything was harder, electronics chief among them. When my battery pack, headlamp or phone were on the outside of my pack and exposed directly to the cold, their functionality paled in comparison to their performance in decent weather. I had to sleep with my electronics in my sleeping bag and bring extra batteries for my headlamp. Now, I’ve combined the battery weight with an external charger, and carry a rechargeable headlamp in cold weather.
Put Your Feet in an Empty Backpack at Night
I struggled in the northeast. It was April but I underestimated how cold the weather was going to be. I reassessed and picked up more clothing at each resupply point, but in between it was a struggle to stay warm. I am a warm sleeper, but even so, if I am too cold, I can’t sleep. On one night where I couldn’t get warm enough to sleep I discovered a trick. I emptied out my backpack and slid the toebox of my sleeping bag into my empty backpack. My toes warmed up quickly with the added layer of warmth and I quickly fell asleep. I continued the technique for the rest of the Appalachian Trail and still employ it in cold weather to this day.
Plastic Bags Keep Hands and Feet Warmer
A simple trick I learned on one of the colder weeks was that plastic bags can be great insulators and warmers in a pinch. My gloves were not warm enough to maintain my finger dexterity, so I searched my backpack for what could aid in their warmth. What I settled on were empty plastic bags that I had used to pre-package my homemade dehydrated meals. I grabbed two bags out of my pack and stuck my glove-clad hands inside them. Warmth slowly returned and eventually my hands were sweating. In the past, I have also used this technique on my feet, putting a plastic bag between my sock and shoe, with similar results.
I neglected to provide my email address:
This winter (2020-2021) has turned out to be a bit harsher than the last two. As we live in Carter County, TN and we are 20-30 minutes from a number of AT trail heads, if you are in a pinch email me I perhaps I can lend some comfort.
Thoth al Khem
Congratulations on that endeavor. There are really no words to express how awesome a Hike that was in those MISERABLE conditions. WELL DONE.
Interesting that hikers are finding the use of plastic bags to increase the warmth of their hands and feet. In the 70s Chouinard sold Vapor Barrier Liners. Below is a link to a page with further info and an additional embedded link detailing the VBL concept.
Pursuing the ultralight concept can have consequences for the unprepared.
I dont spend a lot of time back packing in winter because I live near tahoe in California the snow is just to deep(micro spikes will get you no where in feb). But I do splitboard and for several days at a time and I have learned that if you don’t want it frozen or want it to be dry in the morning it goes in the sleeping bag… Socks, Boot liners, Water bladder, I phone, beacon, tooth paste, ect… So I have a bag that is a little oversized. I am ultra light in summer but in winter I drag a sled and prefer to error on the heavy side. Nothing worse than being cold all night and having to get up in the morning to start your long day exhausted.
Last year I discovered Sealskinz waterproof socks and they worked so well! Because even my waterproof boots would get saturated after days of snowhiking with no way to dry them.
Hmmm… If I was to do the AT in winter I would take:
1, GTX Merrill Moab Mid boots WITH US Divers 3 mm closed cell neoprene divers’ socks for VBLs (over thin poly liners)
2. GTX knee high gaiters (YES, for God’s sake! WEAR them!)
3. Tarptent Moment DW solo tent W/ “solid” panel inner tent. Or at the least my TT Notch Li. (A TARP doesn’t cut it for winter camping.)
4. eVent parka (size XL to fit over down vest or light down jacket)
5. down vest &/or jacket with DWR treated down.
6. polyester mid weight base layer (& 2nd layer for sleeping)
7. fleece gloves AND light GTX mittens
8. Fire Maple BLADE 2 remote canister stove (VERY light W/titanium legs/pot stands, vaporizing fuel tube, rotating canister attachment
9. light fleece balaclava (for sleeping and cold weather)
10. plastic flask of 18 year old single malt Scotch (makes cold nights WARM)
11. SLEEP SYSTEM: overstuffed Western Mountaineering Megalite bag (20 F.) REI FLASH Insulated air mat. (15 oz., R 3.5)
I could get all of this in my 61 L. Osprey EXOS (W/extra side pockets)
NOTE: US Divers brand 3 mm divers’ socks over poly liners is THE best VBL and is necessary in winter. keeps inside of boots DRY! Plus the only socks needed are heavy wool or fleece “sleep socks”. Carry 4 pair thin poly liner socks and wash regularly. Change them every night 7 put sweaty liners in quart ZipLoc freezer bag.
GTX gaiters keep snow from falling inside boots AND add at least 15 F. to boot warmth.
I live in Minnesota and have lots of experience hiking in snow. These tips were excellent, for newbies and experts alike. All tips and ideas are welcome and much appreciated. Not everything works for every body, and not everyone has the same resources ($$) – so, sharing ideas to encourage people to try new things is awesome. Ultimately, getting more people safely outside to enjoy hiking and nature is the goal. Thanks, Jeff for the great article! Congratulations on your thru-hikes! Here’s to many more.
I believe this article is aimed for newbies who have never backpacked in winter or snowy conditions and who want to maintain an ultra-light pack. Just a word of warning-ultra light is not the best for thru-hiking in winter conditions! I am not sure how he thought that a tarp would be enough of a shelter for these kinds of conditions? And no gaiters? That will keep the snow off your feet as the second to last photo just makes my feet cold looking at all that snow on his ankles and calves. You might also go to a more sturdy hiking shoe than light-weight trail runners. Another key piece of gear is a sleeping bag liner, it’s worth the investment and can add 10-15 degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag and some pack down to the size of an avocado. Also, double-socks for winter conditions helps as well-liner socks inside your warmer socks. Double gloves or a waterproof over-glove will keep your digits from freezing. Also, why would you have shorts on? Just wear long pants over your hiking tights? Not sure about the reasoning on that one-there won’t be a single shorts-day in these months. Microspikes will dull on rock and dirt (not from the ice) so try to stay on the patches of snow and ice to keep them sharper. -From many years of winter backpacking and cold weather camping/hiking/mountain summits.
Nothing new here for me, but definitely great details to share with others not experienced in winter backpacking.
Could you have gone with snowshoes instead of microspikes in some places? Would have been worth the little bit of weight in order to stay atop the snow!
Love reading your articles Jeff, and hiking vicariously through you!
Great article with loads of useful information even for those of us who simply day hike in winter conditions. Photos were a great compliment to the article.
Great article…. Love the adventure. As an avid winter camper a few things would help you out. I’ve used a WM reflective vapor barrier bag for those extra degrees of warmth inside a sleeping bag. Keeps water vapor from collecting in bag on successive nights and weighs almost nothing . A down hood is a must have as well. Then use your down jacket to go over foot section of bag to warm your feet . Very light too. Sleep is your best friend . If you don’t get it the next day is miserable. My father taught me many years ago to use plastic bags for your feet . Freezer bags are best and sometimes I carry gore tex socks . It keeps your toes warmer for sure. I use gore Tex shell over my gloves. Keeps gloves dry . Use convertible down mitts as well with fingers that can be exposed for various tasks then sheltered right back inside. Those down items mentioned weigh nothing and are so valuable when you are cold. For a stove I use the MSR XGK . It’s noisy and and uses white gas but it’s the only one that works in Sub-Zero temps and boils snow for water . Heavy I know but the gas canister stoves just sputter and you end up eating cold freeze dried food. Always have a ultra lightweight top and bottom poly pro thermal for sleeping only. That way it’s always dry.
Many more tips…. Email me for more.