It’s winter. You’re sitting in your office, working in the lowland indoors but thinking about summer in the highland outdoors. Remember that epic swimming hole? Sipping a beverage of choice with good friends during sunset on an incredible backpacking trip? But alas, it’s winter and backpacking is not an option… or is it?
West Virginia’s rugged highlands are superb settings for winter exploration. A well-prepared backpacker is rewarded with bear prints in the snow and sunlight glinting off rime ice-encrusted spruce forests: an invigorating jaunt through a magical snowglobe. A poorly prepared backpacker is rewarded with following their own footprints and sleepless nights: a frozen foray into a dangerous and dumb situation. I should know, I’ve learned from many of the following mistakes.
Know the Snow
Iconic places in the highlands like Dolly Sods and Spruce Knob receive 15 feet of snow in an average year and share a climate similar to southern Canada. The kicker is our climate is more variable. Roaring Plains can go from balmy +50°F to a wind chill of -50°F over the span of just two days in January. But with some preparation, you too can enjoy this icy wonderland without the 12-hour drive to the land of poutine.
Entering the wilderness unprepared can quickly result in serious trouble. To avoid dangerous situations, one must know the snow. Ditch your weather app and find your mountain destination on www.weather.gov to get a detailed, accurate forecast. Staying dry is critical during a successful outing, meaning wind and water matter just as much as temperature. Pay attention to the precipitation and windchill. Pick times when the weather will definitely be dry or when any snow that falls will be dry and powdery—27°F or below. Hiking when it’s 15°F and snowing is way better than 33°F and raining!
Double Up, Double Down
Before you begin to pack your bag, you need to unpack your ego. Winter backpacking is not the time for long days with lots of miles, seeing how light you can get your pack, or being a trail badass. It’s badass enough that you’re out there in the cold. Instead, seek peace, solitude, and beauty. You want to be comfortable, so double down and snuggle up.
Double check your gear before heading out—even if it’s brand new. Although it was amusing to see the shape of my body melted into the snow under my tent, it would’ve been nice to know that my new inflatable sleeping pad had a hole in it before an overnight ski touring trip last year.
Double down by doubling up (or more) on all the essentials: gloves, hats, wool socks, base layers. Also bring doubles of your preferred fire making and route-finding materials. Imagine it’s 10°F outside, snow blankets the ground, and you just fell in a creek. Your trail map, lighter, and fire starter are in your pocket. You need to immediately swap out those wet gloves, base layers, and socks, then make a roaring fire and set up camp. If you didn’t double up, you’d be double screwed.
Snuggle up for warmth, safety, and fun. Some of my greatest joys in life have been eating pancakes, drinking whiskey, and lounging with my wife in giant, puffy sleeping bags like beached elephant seals while a blizzard raged around our camp.
Twelve hours of darkness means you want a cozy place to hole up for the night. While that overlook provides an idyllic summer campsite, epic viewpoints mean epic winds. Search for a protected spot with good cover. Spruce and hemlock groves make great campsites by providing natural wind breaks and keeping heavy snow off your tent.
Staying dry is crucial. As soon as you get to camp, change out your base layers: socks, gloves, underwear, everything touching your skin (remember, you doubled up). If you’re reading this, that means you’re a mammal and you sweat the entire time you’re hiking—even when it’s below freezing. Ten minutes after you stop hiking, that damp layer of moisture starts to make you very cold.
Bring a good insulated thermos. Before you go to bed, make a batch of hot cocoa or coffee to sip in the morning while you’re still cuddled up in your sleeping bag. You can also fill a water bottle with heated water and stuff it at your feet to produce some extra heat in your bag when you go to sleep. And as always, practice Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics or use an established campsite.
In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy unleashed four feet of heavy snow across the Potomac Highlands. It was awesome. A few days later, some buddies and I went snowshoeing in Dolly Sods. The snow had erased any semblance of the trail system. As evening settled in, the wind picked up, more snow started to fall, and visibility dropped to a few feet. We wandered aimlessly trying to find our way and eventually found another set of snowshoe tracks. Eureka! Surely these people knew their way off the plateau. But, wait… didn’t we already walk by that crazy rock formation? Doh! We were following our own footprints around in circles.
Shortly before deciding to make a last-resort snow cave, my buddy’s superhuman sense of direction led us on a tiresome-but-ultimately-successful bushwhack out of the Sods and into Canaan Valley. Tired and hungry, we graciously entered the land of burritos and beer. Huzzah!
Although our story ended well, we were dumb. Don’t be like us. The weather is no joke when you’re out in the elements, which can make it especially difficult to navigate. Carry one paper map in your bag, one in your pocket, a compass, and download an offline map on your smartphone.
It’s equally important to understand the landscape. If you lose the trail, know which direction you need to trend to follow a drainage, reach a road, or identify another way out. Ask yourself whether that ice-crusted mud in front of you is just mud on the trail or a waist-deep bog that you’re about to sink into. Unless you are very experienced, avoid all but the smallest stream and creek crossings, and assume those streams are at least twice as deep as they are during the summer or fall. If you choose to make stream crossings during very cold weather, work out an actionable plan with your partner on how you will immediately get warm and dry if either of you falls in the drink.
While it may seem like a tall order to plan a winter backpacking trip, it’s well worth the effort. Get a practice run by heading out for an overnighter in late autumn to test your skills and gear. The rewards verge on the magical: hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness to yourself, forests transformed into ephemeral ice sculptures, and stars blazing out of an inky black sky. We’re fortunate to live in a region where wintery conditions can occur nearly six months out of the year. Instead of sitting inside waiting for the mercury to rise, double down and open up your adventure possibilities in West Virginia’s winter hinterlands.
Cam Moore is Central Appalachians Director at The Nature Conservancy. He’s a weather nerd, praiser of Ullr, and glutton for punishment.