Becoming a Cold Weather Adventurer: Notes from MIT Outing Club's Winter School
Growing up, I was always an outdoorsy person, but cold New England winters kept me cooped up inside for a big chunk of the year. Last winter, I decided to take my first winter mountaineering and ice climbing lessons to start building the skills to become a year-round adventurer.
Earlier this winter, a friend told me about MIT Outing Club’s annual Winter School in January. It was 16 hours of lectures, demonstrations and stories from trip leaders and outside speakers. The course was a great introduction for anyone looking to get outside more in the winter.
I’ve compiled some of my notes from the course here, and added my own anecdotes that I’ve picked up over the past year. While reading about this stuff is a great way to whet your appetite, some of the skills and more technical aspects should really be practiced before you go out and try using them.
I’d highly recommend Northeast Mountaineering’s Introduction to Mountaineering course if you’re in New England.
Regulating your body’s temperature is one of the most important parts of being outdoors in the winter. Your core temperature can vary a lot depending on whether you’re moving or stopped, and weather conditions can change quickly.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the most important thing to think about is preventing yourself from sweating. Having moisture on your skin draws more heat away from your body, and then if you stop moving or it gets colder, that moisture chills quickly and can make you uncomfortably cold.
You ideally want to have a system of many layers that each add a bit of warmth, that way you can easily add or remove layers as your temperature and activity change.
Put on your warmest, puffy layer as soon as you stop moving, and take off layers or open up zippers and vents before you start sweating.
The ideal layering system has 3 parts:
You want something that will wick and pull sweat away from your body. For winter activities, this will usually be something synthetic like Patagonia’s capilene material, or something wool.
Definitely no cotton, and that goes even for underwear and t-shirts. Studies have show that you lose more heat wearing wet cotton layers than you would if you were naked. Cotton kills, and it’s especially dangerous in cold winter conditions. That also means no denim, khaki or most types of flannel.
Base layers usually consist of
- Synthetic T-Shirt
- Liner Gloves
- Liner Socks
The goal of this layer is to maintain a pocket of trapped, warm air as a barrier against the cold. Usually this will be fleece or wool, but it could also be something warmer like down or synthetic fill materials.
You don’t need to go crazy with this layer – on my recent Mt. Washington climb with temps in the single digits and wind chills well below zero, a light fleece jacket kept me warm over a base layer and under a shell. You’ll generate a lot of heat while moving around, so make sure you have something with good venting options.
Your insulating layer will probably be
- Warm Hat or Balaclava
- Light Jacket or Sweater
- Gloves or Mittens
- Warm Pants
- Wool Socks
This layer is to protect you from the wind and rain. It’s usually made of a coated nylon, or else Gore-Tex or some similarly waterproof+breathable material.
If you’re traveling above tree line at high elevations, or there’s any snow or wind in the forecast, this layer will be essential in keeping you warm and cozy.
Most people already own “ski jackets” which tend to be heavier and have both shell- and insulation-like properties. But this makes it hard to layer, since it’s effectively two layers in one. You’re better off going with a light insulation layer and a rain jacket so that you have more options.
To stay protected, you should have
- Snow or Ski Goggles
- Rain Jacket or Shell
- Outer Mittens
- Windproof Pants/Bibs
- Nylon Gaiters
- Waterproof Boots
Another easy way to adjust the dial on your body’s core temperature is to bring a few different hats of varying weight. Since you lose a lot of your body’s heat through your head, a warm hat can really keep things toasty. But if you’re feeling a bit too steamy, taking if off for a few minutes or switching to a lighter one is a great way to dump excess heat.
It’s worth repeating that the point of a layering system is to make it easy to adjust your temperature and keep your body happy. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and be sure to shed layers before you sweat.
Winter Footwear and Traction
Your feet are what carry you into and out of the backcountry, and it’s important that they’re protected and cozy so that you don’t have a bad time.
Usually, you want your winter boots to be either all leather or else a combination of plastic outer boot and inner insulating boot.
Those “snow boots” that you see in department stores won’t cut it. Your boots need to be both well-insulated and waterproof, and you also want a very rigid sole if you’re going to be using crampons or microspikes. But the most important thing is that the boots fit well.
You probably don’t want to commit to buying a pair of boots for your first winter trip since they tend to be expensive, but you can usually rent them from a guide program or outing club, or borrow a pair from a friend. These usually have the added benefit of already being broken in for you.
Under your boots, you’ll want a good sock system. Usually people wear two layers, a light inner synthetic one, and an outer warm sock, usually wool.
Just as with the layering system on your body, you need the inner layer to wick sweat away and keep your feet dry, while the outer layer holds warmth and cushions your feet.
If you start to feel a blister coming on (called a “hotspot”) it’s important to stop immediately and take care of it before it turns into a full blown blister and ruins your trip. You should dry the area off if it’s sweaty, and put some kind of protection around the area. Some people recommend moleskin, but regular old duct tape works well too. If you think you’re at risk for getting a hotspot, put some duct tape over the area before you head out, that way the sock will rub against the tape instead of your skin.
Over your boots, you’ll usually want to have a pair of gaiters to protect your lower legs and keep snow and mud from getting in over the top of your boot.
These are usually waterproof and made of heavy duty nylon. If you’re wearing crampons, they’ll also protect your pants, as it’s easy to accidentally kick yourself with the spikes on a crampon while you’re walking and tear a hole in your pants. Gaiters are usually ~$40 and are much easier to replace.
Crampons are a set of metal spikes that attach to the bottom of your boot to give you super stable traction on steep snow and ice. These are usually only necessary for serious mountain or ice climbing.
Depending on the type of boot you have, there are different types of crampon designs. They can also have different construction designs, spike patterns and strap systems depending on what sort of terrain you’ll be covering and how technical your needs are. REI has a good guide.
When you’re wearing crampons, keep in mind that they’re sharp and will cut your clothes or bags if they get snagged. You want to walk with a slightly wider gait to avoid them catching on your pants.
When you’re not wearing them, you want to make sure they’re stored inside a specially-designed bag (they usually come with one) to keep them from tearing up the other gear when they’re in your pack.
You should also beware of snow “balling up” underfoot, meaning getting caught between the spikes and effectively turning your crampons into platform heels.
If the snow is soft and sticky, you’ll need to clear it from under your feet by banging your ice axe against the side of your foot.
Other Traction Aids
If you just want to be able to hike on your favorite trail in the winter and won’t encounter anything too steep, then you’ll probably be okay with a lighter traction control like Microspikes or YakTraks.
While crampons require winter mountaineering boots with stiff sole and special notches, lighter traction control systems slip on over your normal hiking boots or sneakers.
I bought a pair of Microspikes a few winters ago and they’ve come in handy many times on trails in winter. They’re a great idea to buy if your just want to do some basic winter hiking instead of becoming trapped indoors from December through the spring.
Snowshoes are great when the snow is deep – you don’t want to “posthole” or sink your boot deep down into the snow with every step.
By distributing your weight across a much wider surface, a snowshoe reduces the amount of pressure you put on the snow and allows you to “float”.
Snowshoes usually have some claws or teeth on the bottom which offer a bit of traction, but not nearly as much as crampons. When walking in snowshoes, you want to take wide, high steps so that you don’t trip yourself and the snowshoe doesn’t get caught in the snow.
If you’re with a group, it’s a good idea to have someone up front breaking the trail through the snow, with everyone else following along that trail, making it increasingly packed down. Make sure you switch leaders often since it’s much more tiring to break trail than it is to follow in someone else’s.
Backpacks and Day Trip Gear
If you’re used to hiking in the summer, then you probably already know most of what you’ll need to select a backpack for a winter outing. You want an internal frame backpack which keeps weight on your hips and the load close to your back so it’s not unwieldy.
Keep in mind that the gear you bring out in the winter is usually bigger and heavier than summer gear, so you might need a bigger bag than you’re used to.
While a 15 liter bag might work well for summer day hikes, usually you’ll want about 30 liters of storage for a winter day hike bag, or 65+ liters for winter overnights.
When packing, you want to keep your heavy stuff closer to your back and lower down in your pack, just as you would when packing for a summer trip.
You generally want to keep traction gear – like crampons and ice axes – on the outside of your bag so that the sharp spikes don’t tear up all of your other gear.
Many winter packs have dedicated pockets and attachments for shovels, crampons, ice axes, skis and haul systems, which you usually don’t see on summer packs.
Before you put on the pack, you want to loosen all of the straps. Then put it on and first secure and tighten the hip belt, then tighten the shoulder straps, and finally adjust the load lifters. Adjusting and readjusting the pack every time you put it back on will help prevent soreness and fatigue.
Inside your pack, you always want to have the “ten essentials”, as follows:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp or flashlight)
- Basic First-aid kit
- Fire (fire starting device as well as tinder or candles)
- Repair kit and multitool
- Nutrition (high energy snacks)
- Hydration (water or sports drink)
- Emergency shelter
You should always have the ten essentials with you whenever you go out, but they’re especially important in the winter, when your margin for error is much smaller.
In the summer, you could probably survive an uncomfortable night out without some of them in an emergency, but in the winter getting stranded without them could have serious consequences.
Hydration, Nutrition & “Going” in the Winter
When hiking in the winter, it’s normal for someone to burn around 5,000 calories a day – more than twice what most people normally burn.
Keeping your body fueled and hydrated is extremely important, and you have to pay extra special attention to nutrition to ensure that you don’t end up cold and miserable.
Since the air is usually very dry in the winter, you’ll lose a lot more water than you might think. You generally want to have 2-3 liters per person for a day hike.
It’s usually a good idea to fill one water bottle with something warm – like hot chocolate or soup – in the morning when you head out. Wrap the bottle in a sock or other insulating material if it’s really cold out.
Because the water in the bottle is swishing around with every step you take, it usually won’t freeze unless temps are well below freezing. If that’s the case, you want to store your water bottles upside down, so that when the top surface of the water freezes first, it isn’t obstructing the mouthpiece and blocking in the rest of your water.
You want to have one bottle that’s easily accessible for quick stops, and another bottle or two that are buried deeper inside your pack where they’ll stay warmer and resist freezing.
In terms of nutrition, you should think about the following 4 nutritional aspects:
- Sugars for quick energy
- Complex carbs for sustained energy
- Fats for sustained energy over long periods
- Proteins for energy and tissue rebuilding
On the trail, dried fruits, nuts, energy bars and hard candy make great snacks. For morale, it’s often nice to stop and have a big meal for lunch. Bagels, beef jerky, chocolate, cheese and crackers are healthy, delicious and easy to pack.
Eat a lot, because no matter how much you eat, you’re probably still going to run a calorie deficit. Always bring more than you think you’ll need, since sharing your extra snacks is a great way to make friends on the trail.
Keep in mind that your snacks will most likely freeze. Apple and other fruits, soft candies and anything else with high water content will most likely become rock hard within hours.
If you don’t want to lose a tooth biting into a snickers bar (which has happened), throw your food in the freezer a few days before your trip and see what happens to it.
On my Mt. Washington trip, my clif bars froze pretty solid, so I kept one or two inside my jacket to warm them up before eating. Your body will be giving off a ton of heat that you can use to thaw or even pre-heat your snacks!
When you’re wearing lots of layers and everything around you is frozen solid, “going” in a sanitary and environmentally friendly way gets very tricky in the winter. But that shouldn’t stop you from answering nature’s call – you should be peeing every few hours if you’re staying properly hydrated.
If you’re going to wander off from the hard packed snow on the trail, make sure you don’t sink into the soft snow as you venture off. You probably want to take off your pack and any outer mittens, but leave liner gloves on.
Depending on the pants or bib you’re wearing, zipping things off might take a few moments. Sometimes you’ll find that the shock of the cold on your privates makes you not have to go anymore – that’s normal.
While you might dig a quick cat hole to poop in over the summer, it’ll be impossible with deep snowpack and frozen ground – but if you just leave it in the snow then it’ll be totally exposed when everything melts in the summer. Gross!
With #2, you need to poop on or into something so that you can carry it out. You should have a small kit of plastic bags, disposable latex gloves and toilet paper to keep things sanitary and easy to clean up. Put the latex gloves on over your liner gloves so your hands stay clean and warm.
Also, beware of hand sanitizer in the winter – alcohol freezes at a much lower temperature than water, so your Purell may still be liquid, but it could literally be colder than ice, so you probably don’t want to dump a bunch of it on your bare hands. Keep your liner gloves on and cover them with the disposable latex gloves is the easy, warm way to keep things clean.
Winter Navigation & Avalanche Hazards
As with any trip, it’s important to have a detailed plan before you head out. You should know what your goal is, what emergency evacuation routes are nearby and have a schedule for when you should reach the major milestones along the way.
If you’re just going out for a day hike, you should have a hard “turn around time” at which point you need to abandon the goal and head home, so that you make it back before darkness falls or conditions get bad.
There should always be someone back home who knows exactly what your plan is, and when you’re scheduled to return, so that they can send help if you don’t make it back on time.
When you’re navigating in whiteout conditions or other precarious situations, it’s important you take the time to check your progress using a map and compass or GPS.
You want to avoid “relative navigation” where you make decisions about where you are based on where you’re already heading and where you think you just came from.
This causes errors to accumulate and is one of the leading causes of hikers getting lost. Stop and locate yourself on a map often, so that you know exactly where you are.
It’s especially important that you don’t wander aimlessly in the winter due to avalanche danger. Whenever there has been recent snowfall on top of ice or dense snow, you have the potential for an avalanche.
Avalanche conditions are affected by wind, precipitation and changes in temperature, so it’s always a good idea to check the most recent avalanche conditions for the area you’re traveling in – usually, those forecasts are updated daily.
If you are going to be somewhere where avalanches are a real concern, you should have a beacon, probe and shovel, and know how to use all three.
People who get swept up in an avalanche often only have minutes before they suffocate, so whoever is on scene immediately becomes a first responder – which might be you.
Check the snow pack throughout the day by digging out a deep cross section of snow and looking for alternating hard and soft layers which might break off or slide over each other.
Make sure you stagger your group through exposed areas – don’t all hike above each other in a line because you’d all get swept up if an avalanche is triggered.
If you are swept up in an avalanche, there’s various advice on what to do, but it’s been hard to test or prove these techniques – your goal should always be to avoid getting swept up in the first place.
If you can, some say you should drop your pack or try to use your arms in a swimming motion to stay on the surface. Since suffocation is the main concern for people who are buried, you want to cover your mouth to keep it from filling with snow, and try to keep the other arm up to help clear an airway to the surface or visually signal rescuers.
If you like hiking in more aggressive terrain, you’ll often hear people refer to the “tree line” or being “above tree line.” This is the area where wind and weather are so severe that plants larger than a small bush have a hard time growing. And because there are no tall trees to protect you, hiking above tree line is far more exposed than other types of hiking.
Above Tree Line
The appeal of traveling above tree line is that you often get great views and have a more challenging, rewarding trip. But the dangers are very real. In strong winds, it might be hard to communicate with your group, or even think.
Taking off your pack to fetch an extra layer can become a massive chore if you have 50mph+ winds whipping everything around you. I saw a guide’s metal ice axe get blown over the edge of a cliff in 80mph winds near the top of Mt. Washington.
Wind also increases the rate at which you lose heat. If you’ll be traveling above tree line, it’s important to have a windproof outer shell to help stave off the heat loss.
Frostbite and hypothermia are very real possibilities when you’re above tree line. You don’t want any exposed skin – that means face masks or balaclavas and goggles with a tight strap.
The other, more subtle danger of being above tree line is that weather conditions often change very rapidly. From the base of a mountain, you might be able to see a storm rolling in hours before it arrives, but mountain tops often have their own weather systems and strong storms can whip up with very little warning, offering little time to descend or find shelter.
Sometimes you’ll see “cairns” above tree line along the trail. These are carefully placed piles of rocks used as navigation aids.
On a clear day, you might wonder why a trail has cairns every few yards, but in whiteout conditions, even traveling a few feet from one to the next can be a dangerous navigation challenge.
If you’re going to be hiking above tree line, you’ll usually want to bring an ice axe with you. There are many different kinds of ice axes depending on what terrain you’re navigating. But usually the standard mountaineering ice axe is all you need for a hike.
You can use axes for all sorts of things – cutting steps or seats into hard snow or ice, setting up belays or anchors, or even as a walking stick. But the most important use of an ice axe is for self-arresting in the event that you slip and start sliding down the side of a mountain.
The basic idea is to bury the head of the axe into the ground while rolling your weight onto it to bring yourself to a stop. Self-arresting is definitely something you want to practice a few times on easy terrain before you head somewhere where you might actually need to use it.
Be Smart About the Risks
Whenever you venture out into the backcountry, there are hazards, regardless of the season. To ensure a fun trip, you need to plan ahead for the hazards you know you’ll face – exposure, hunger, thirst – and make sure you avoid adding any additional hazards.
As the boy scouts say, “be prepared”. Know your gear and how to use it. Go through your first aid kit so you know what’s inside. Don’t just pick up an ice axe or strap on some crampons and assume you’ll “figure it out”. Take the time to learn and ask someone if you’re not sure.
It’s also really important to listen to your body. While winter trips can be cold and sometimes challenging, you should never feel uncomfortable or scared.
If something feels off – maybe you need a snack break or your boot is causing a blister – tell the rest of the people you’re with. It’s much better to stop and take care of things sooner than to press on and let issues worsen.
Finally, make sure you respect nature. Mountains are steep, winds are cold, darkness can lead to trouble. Always check the conditions before you go out – that means weather and avalanche forecasts – and make sure you’re comfortable going out in those conditions.
Stick to your agreed upon turn around time, and cut your trip short if conditions get bad. Most climbing accidents happen on the way down the mountain, usually around dusk or sunset. You want to make sure you have plenty of time to get back unless you’re planning to hike in the dark.
“Put yourself in a position to be lucky, don’t rely on luck”
- Quote from “Alpine Climbing, Techniques to Take You Higher”
I’m hugely grateful to all of the MIT Outing Club leaders who gave presentations and shared their stories. I learned a ton and feel much more comfortable heading out on winter trips now. And shout out to Matt Stein Photography for some of the sweet shots in this article.