Cold Hiking: Shoulder Season Backpacking Basics

The following text has been shared from ECTThruHike.com.

Backpacking is an activity that is not nearly as popular in the Spring and Fall as it is in the Summer, but in some ways can be more rewarding at these off peak times. Spring and Fall offer a different insight into nature and you won’t have to deal with the abundant crowds and insects brought on by warmer weather.

The biggest challenge in shoulder season backpacking is temperature – nighttime lows can easily dip well under 0 degrees celsius. If you’ve done overnight trips in the Summer, this temperature difference may seem like an insurmountable hurdle – but that’s not at all the case. In fact, many of the skills and equipment pieces used during the warmer months can be easily adapted to three season use. Below are a few tips that make the transition from sleeping outside in the Summer to the Spring and the Fall more bearable.

First, to quickly gain knowledge beyond the scope of this text, check out Paul Kirtley’s excellent video on Winter Woodland Camping. Paul focuses on Winter in the UK, but the info is applicable and fully adaptable to the shoulder season in Eastern Canada. I usually link to videos at the end of an article, but this one is so great that it deserves mention right at the top – it’s long, but it’s packed with goodness (and there’s even a summary at the end).

In addition to the information in Paul’s video, here are some popular best practices and techniques to extend the usefulness of your gear when the temperature drops.

Clothing

When backpacking in the shoulder season, don’t take a big puffy jacket. A few layers of lighter clothing – fleece, down – are better than one heavy layer. Your clothing shouldn’t be cotton – check the labels. Be particularly diligent about your base layer clothing (socks, underwear, long johns / thermal underwear, undershirt). These items should never be made of cotton, or even cotton blends. Stick with synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, or natural fibers best suited to the task such as merino wool.

I would estimate that wearing cotton base layer components are among the most common of mistakes made by those new to shoulder season backpacking – this directly relates to comfort and safety.

Unless it’s extremely cold and windy, while hiking you’ll need to wear surprisingly little to stay warm. Generally, you’ll only have a problem keeping warm when you stop or sleep – so as soon as you stop moving, put on an extra layer. You’ll need to be constantly taking clothes off or putting them on during the outing – almost to an annoying degree. Have your favorite pieces readily available in or on your pack at all times.

For more on this topic in relation to the East Coast Trail, see the Footwear and Clothing page.

Sleep Setup (sleeping bag + sleeping pad)

The first rule of thumb for shoulder season camping with any ground based shelter (such as a tent) is: You Need A Sleeping Pad. The best Sleeping Bag in the world will be useless in cold temperatures without a Sleeping Pad. This can be an insulated pad designed for lower temps, complete with an R insulation rating, or one of the thicker inflatable summer pads + space blanket thrown underneath. When combined with a beefier sleeping bag, this can be the “make it or break it” piece of equipment when sleeping on the cold ground.

Before heading out perform this little test with one of your water bottles: fill it with water, close it tight, and check for leaks. Squeeze it and throw it around a bit. If it passes this no-leak test, it’ll be a very welcome addition to your sleep setup on a cold night. Once you’ve reached your camp site and setup, just before you go to bed, heat some water just short of boiling and fill the bottle. Close it tight, and check it again for leaks. If it’s still water tight, throw it in your sleeping bag a few minutes before you get in – not too long before… perhaps just while you go to pee. When you get in your bag, push the bottle down by your feet and move it around during the night to deal with any “cold spots”.

This is the main reason I actually prefer to take a couple of plastic water bottles over a hydration bladder – I wouldn’t trust the seems on a bladder filled with hot water. Water bottles have no seams – they’re also lighter and easier to fill.

For more on this topic in relation to the East Coast Trail, see the Equipment page.

Both a space blanket and a water bottle are excellent examples of multi-use items; you’ve added no weight to your pack, but through creative use of things you already have you’ve dramatically increased your level of comfort.

Safety

For more general info on safety while hiking and backpacking on the East Coast Trail, see the Introduction page.

Traction
You need assistive traction devices when traveling through the woods in the Winter. In mid to late Fall and early to mid Spring you also need them. Just because you’ve noticed there is no snow in the area in which you live, it doesn’t mean the forest and trails are free of ice and snow. There are a variety of styles – it doesn’t have to be elaborate. If the city is free of snow, lean more toward something that is lightweight and easy on / off as opposed to some huge contraption that is difficult to attach.

I’m the last person in the world who will suggest you carry something in your pack that will not be used – but an assistive traction device should be considered essential in the beginning of Spring and the end of Fall.

Light and Heat
It gets dark early in the shoulder season, and even moreso the closer you get to Winter.

Bring a headlamp. Headlamps are far more useful than flashlights. Test it at home, and if you’re unsure about the installed batteries, either replace them or (a less desirable option on short one night trips) bring some spare batteries. Your headlamp doesn’t have to be terribly large or bright – it’s more important that you’re comfortable wearing it – that it not feel clumsy and “top heavy”.

You may choose to create a fire – prepping for a fire is hard work, but an unintended side effect is that it’s an activity that will generate body heat and keep you warm. Later, the result of your work can provide valuable heat and light.

It’s worth noting that camp fires are actually illegal in some areas. A discussion of whether or not it’s a good idea for the state to limit the public in their connection with nature and basic human instinct is a topic that is beyond the scope of this text. In any case, it’s essential that any activity such as this be kept small and that it follow LNT principles regarding minimizing camp fire impact.

If you think you’ll be cutting wood to prep a fire, bring a saw, not an axe. Unless you work with such equipment on a daily basis, a saw is far safer than an axe. Accidents happen, and an axe gets more dangerous the further you get into the forest. If you’ve not yet included a saw in your kit, garden centers are a great place to find small, foldable pruning saws. Look for one with aggressive bi-directional teeth and a locking mechanism that secures the blade in both closed and open positions.

 

If your trip in the woods is solo, I urge you to check out Paul’s video. If you’re going with experienced users, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or loaner equipment if you’re lacking just one or two essential pieces – often experienced users have an abundance of gear.