Saturday, January 26, 2013

Winter hiking: Lessons learned

The main goal of this trip in the Appalachians has been to gain experience in winter hiking - and I gained a lot. When reading my lessons learned though keep in mind that all this refers to winter hiking in moderate climate. The temperatures never dropped below 15 F and I never had more than a couple of inches of snow. Do not apply my experiences to harsher climates.

Campsite on the Pinhoti
NeoAir: A big problem on winter hikes is bulk. The sleeping bag is bulkier than normal, you need a good and big tent and of course an adequate sleeping pad. In order to reduce the bulk of all of this I specifically bought a new NeoAir All Season for this trip. It has a high R-value suitable even for hardcore winter hiking and is still pretty lightweight with 580 gr - and even less bulky than the TAR Prolites. I was still skeptical when I used it the first time: It still looked very delicate and the fabric rather flimsy. But after reading mostly good reports I decided to give it a try. Well, I should have listened to my bad gut feeling. Already on day 8 I woke up to a rather deflated NeoAir. I still hoped that the deflation had to do with the change of air temperature but that turned out not to be the case. The pad had a hole! And of course this was a very cold day... The NeoAir comes with a repair kit and the repair itself is very easy: You just put a patch over the hole and that's it. But first you have to find the hole and that is a huge problem in winter - as I had to find out the hard way. First you need a stream or creak that is not frozen and deep enough to submerge the NeoAir. Don't underestimate that problem as the NeoAir is very thick. Then you have to dink around in cold freezing water until you find the hole or your fingers are frozen stiff. In my case the latter happened first. And if you happen to find the you have to dry the fabric before you can apply the patch. I gave up before that and bailed out to a nice motel with a bathtub...  The most important lesson I learned was: NEVER trust a NeoAir! It is very comfortable, but still too delicate. I have used TAR Prolites for several years abusing them a lot and have had a puncture only once! But with the NeoAir I get a puncture within one week despite treating it like a raw egg? I think that even the NeoAir All Season is not robust enough for a single pad and I will never ever take it on a winter trip again without a backup. If you get a hole in subfreezing conditions you will have problems repairing it and that can lead to a potentially life threatening situation. Either don't get a NeoAir in the first place or only use it in combination with a close cell foam pad - which is what I will probably do in the future. But make sure that the close cell foam pad has an R-value high enough that you can survive with it if the NeoAir fails.

My canister cosy
Gas canister stove: I knew that gas canister stoves do not perform well in the cold - the gas cannot vaporize in cold temperatures leading to a very small and fickle flame. I thought I could solve the problem by warming the canister first with my body warmth but it was so cold that this trick did not work very well. As soon as I fired the stove up outside the canister got cold again and the flame diminished. I was getting desperate and even wanted to buy an external stove for inverted use and liquid feed. By turning the canister upside down the gas can be fed into the stove in a liquid instead of a vaporized state solving the cold temperature problem. But I could not get such a stove - and it would have been much heavier and bulkier than my beloved Snowpeak Gigapower. So instead I built a canister cosy. I used white packaging foam that I cut into 2 pieces. I wrapped one big piece around the canister and taped it together and cut another round piece for the bottom. Luckily the whole thing fit perfectly well into my pot together with the canister. And to my big surprise it worked incredibly well! Of course I had to pre-warm the canister before putting it into the cosy but with that combination the stove performed as well as it does in normal summer conditions. I can highly recommend the canister cosy for moderate winter use as a cheap and lightweight solution.

Rain gear: The biggest weather problem on this trip has been consistent cold rain with temperatures dropping afterwards and freezing my wet clothes stiff. I knew that no rain gear is completely waterproof but I learned that the biggest problem zone of a rain jacket are the arms. Why is that? I am hiking with trekking poles and using them your hands are in a higher position than your elbow. If it is raining this has the effect that water will slowly run down from your hands and wrists into your jacket soaking the arms of whatever warm layer you are wearing. In hard rain it got so bad that the water even reached my armpits and started trickling down the side of my body. I tried to avoid that problem by cinching close the arms of rain jacket but it did not help at all. The only solution for this kind of situation is NOT to use trekking poles! If your arms are hanging down all the time water will not get inside the arms. But unfortunately the terrain was so rocky that I had to use trekking poles...

Drying clothes: Because of the above mentioned problem I often had to deal with wet clothes and find ways to dry them in cold and wet weather. It did not help to hang them up in the shelters over night. They would drip dry a bit but still be wet. There are two ways to dry them: Smaller pieces that were only slightly wet I dried overnight be wearing them inside my quilt. I used my wind jacket to prevent the moisture of the wet clothes penetrating into my dry insulation. This method worked surprisingly well for damp socks and one piece of wet base layer. I guess it helped a lot, too that I was using a synthetic quilt. I'd be afraid to use this method with a down quilt because down uses its warming abilities when getting damp. But this method only works for one or two pieces of clothing. What to do with the rest? I let the stuff drip dry over night which can have the effect that you wake up and find your clothes frozen stiff. Keep in mind that frozen clothes are much bulkier than dry clothes! I then started wearing the wet stuff dry during the day. This is a slow process as you can only dry one piece at a time. If you wear too many wet clothes at a time you'll just get hypothermic. Again I used my wind jacket as a protective layer for my dry insulation layer.

Sleeping bag/quilt: I have used a synthetic quilt for this trip, the Enlightened Equipment Prodigy 20 quilt. For quite a while I have been very disappointed with down and for this trip down would have been a catastrophe. Almost every night I had to deal with plenty of condensation. When I woke up in the morning the footbox of my quilt was wet from touching the tent walls. And very often the upper part of the quilt was wet from my breathing. With a down sleeping bag moisture would have penetrated into the down, made it clump and the insulating qualities of the bag would have been seriously compromised. Synthetic is so much more robust! The humidity did not degrade my synthetic quilt's temperature rating. My quilt came with 10d Nylon shell fabric which dried surprisingly fast. When I woke up in the morning I turned the quilt inside out and slipped back into the quilt. It took only the time I needed for breakfast to dry the shell fabric through my body warmth. Do not take a down bag/quilt on such a trip. The prolonged exposure to humidity will degrade the down's insulating qualities quickly and you'll be unable to dry it properly. Synthetic is the material of choice for cold and wet climates.

Ford on the Georgia Pinhoti
Stream crossings: I had to manage dozens of stream crossings that I could not boulder hop any more with dry feet. In summer conditions I would just ford with my shoes, I was awfully afraid of getting wet feet and socks because in the cold weather all that would just freeze. So I applied two strategies: If the water was less than ankle deep I took advantage of my Goretex mid size hiking shoes. I would just quickly walk through the stream. Although Goretex is not completely water proof it is still relatively water resistant when submerged only briefly. So as long as the water did not come in over my shoes and I walked through quickly my feet remained relatively dry. The little water that penetrated the Goretex shell usually dried during the day. But when the water was higher than ankle deep I was facing a bigger problem. Fording barefoot was usually not a good option. First of all I did not want to hurt my feet and secondly the water was ice cold and I would also step into snow. Neoprene socks were the ideal solution! I had brought them with me from my paddling trip and put them on only for river fords. They are NOT waterproof, but only little water will penetrate and because of the insulating quality of neoprene my feet would not get cold. Plus the Neoprene offered good protection against sharp rocks.


Thorsten said...

Very good post about winter hiking and the techniques you used.

The pot cozy drew my attention in particular:

How du you manage to get the canister warm enough in order to make the cozy "work"?


German Tourist said...

@Thorsten: Warming the canister up under your clothes for 10-15 minutes is enough. It works best if you have the canister next to your skin. As soon as I started setting up my tent I would start warming the canister. By the time my camp was set up and I settled in the canister was more than warm enough to use.

Travelbug said...

For finding punctures you can use a tool for bicycle tubes (Lochfinder) which is basically a small box with a sieve at the bottom and styropor bubbles inside. Small and lightweight ;-)

Geher said...

Nur eine Idee, aber "Regenhandschuhe" oder Ärmelgamaschen über die Ärmel der Jacke ziehen?

German Tourist said...

Gute Idee, werde ich beim naechsten Mal probieren.