Knowing how to survive in harsh condition is an important skill to have if you want to be self-sufficient. Last year, we pushed ourselves to get out on some winter backpacking trips, battling deep snow, blizzards, and intense cold. Here is what we learned:

the sunlight on north face alpine guide 2 tentThe Sun is Everything

I remember on one of our first winter backpacking trips, poking my head out of the tent vestibule and just waiting anxiously for the sun to hit us. Even though it was speckled through the trees, those tiny patches of sunlight might as well have been furnaces. It was enough to keep the bitter cold at bay, enough to justify getting out of the tent.

In the winter, the sun becomes a physical presence, and you have to make good use of every second of sunlight you get, if only just to warm up a little bit.

You Have to Trust Your Gear — And Yourself

For the most part, gear failure in summer is an inconvenience. Gear failure in the winter can quickly become life or death. If you only have one stove and it stops working, you have no access to water. If you’re relying on an inflatable sleeping pad and it pops, you’d better be able to repair it or prepare for a long night of battling hypothermia. If your tent fails under a wind or snow load, you’d better know how to build a shelter.

But there is something very empowering about that, too. Because it also comes down to trusting yourself. Trusting that you’ve chosen the right gear and that you know it well enough to repair it in the field if you have to. Trusting your own competence, planning, and resourcefulness to know that you have backup plans and the ability to innovate if you do face a critical gear failure.

winter backpacking storm in the tensegrity 2Storms are Terrifying

But, if you prepare in advance, you’ll be ready to face them. Especially in winter, I won’t settle until I’ve found the perfect campsite, where I’m confident there’s no avalanche terrain around us. I’ll bury snow stakes 2 or 3 feet down if I can, and stake out every guy line the tent has. I’ve been known to completely start over to move the tent 5 feet and turn it a few degrees to be better positioned against the wind. Excessive? Maybe. But I’ve experienced tents trying to blow away with me in them, and I don’t mess around with storms.

That’s our little 3-season tent facing down the approaching blizzard in the Tetons. Whipping winds, boulders rolling down the hills around the meadows where we were camped, and a constant cycle of snow, rain, and slush for over 12 hours straight. In our group, 3 of 5 tents failed in some way – broken poles, flooding, or just getting flattened by wind.

Don’t take shortcuts, and prepare and set up your shelter for the worst, and you can ride out any storm.

Nights are Very, Very Long

Basically, once the sun goes down, that’s it. Retire to the tent. Nothing matters but staying warm. And in the dead of winter, that’s a solid 15 hours.

Because most humans can’t sleep for anywhere near that long, we needed ways to entertain ourselves. We’ve played 20 questions extensively, tried reading or watching downloaded TV shows on a phone, or just slowly drove each other crazy. In those long hours of lying bundled in a sleeping bag in the freezing cold, you get to know yourself and your partner very well.

Everything Will Freeze if You Don’t Put it in Your Sleeping Bag

Stuffing my previously warm feet into frozen ski boots is an experience I never, ever want to have again. Waking up to find that the water you worked so hard to melt has frozen solid in your nalgene is no fun, either. Or trying to bite into a power bar only to find that the cold has made it hard as a rock.

Having un-frozen water and food requires a lot of thought and planning ahead in the winter.

condensation on tent wallEverything Will Get Wet

Yeah, condensation is a real issue. Keeping things dry becomes your main motivating force, because let’s face it, once something gets wet, it stays wet. Or it becomes ice. Neither is good. Keeping things dry takes planning and forethought. You can’t count on being able to dry things out in the sun during the day, so there’s no shortcuts here.

Solitude is Easy to Find

This is probably my favorite thing about winter backpacking. The outdoors are getting more and more crowded, and finding true solitude is rare anymore. But there are few people who will brave even a short backpacking trip into the snow-covered mountains. Out west, avalanche danger is a major deterrent, and rightly so. Even in areas that are safe from avalanches, though, it’s a safe bet that you’ll have the whole area to yourself.

Waking up to a silent, untouched, snow-covered forest is one of the most sublime beauties I’ve experienced, and makes all the hardships more than worth it.