Author: Amy Kelsey. Amy Kelsey is the Executive Director for the Catamount Trail Association, the non-profit responsible for maintaining and conserving The Catamount Trail, Vermont’s 300-mile backcountry ski trail.
Even when we are diligent in our trail clearing efforts, Mother Nature always throws some challenges we didn’t anticipate. As a backcountry traveler, it’s important to have the knowledge, skills, and equipment to cope with an ever-changing environment. Whether you swear by mittens or by gloves, waxable or waxless skis, natural fibers or synthetics, here are a dozen tips to help keep you comfortable out on the Catamount Trail or in the backcountry this winter.
1. Adjust your layers early and often. If you can keep yourself dry by minimizing perspiration, you will be warmer throughout the day. Wear just a baselayer if you are warm enough. Add insulation (fleece/down) and a windproof layer (shell) when you stop. This holds all the heat you are producing in, and can help dry off the layer next to your skin that may be wet due to perspiration or precipitation.
2. Invest in some wicking undergarments, and I don’t mean your long johns! Ladies, go find a lightweight synthetic or wool jog bra or cami that provides sufficient support but doesn’t turn into a wet sponge next to your body, and get some matching bottoms. Men will benefit from wicking boxers or briefs as well, and may appreciate windblocker briefs on the coldest days. I recommend Ibex ‘s wool seamless underwear.
3. Carry extras gloves or mittens. I use a pair of lightweight fleece or wool gloves to climb, then switch to mittens for descents or less strenuous traverses. Because the climbing gloves get the most wet, I carry an extra pair of glove liners, just in case. Cold hands put a real damper on fun.
4. Use a thermos, or two. You need as much water on the trail in the winter as you do in the summer, but it can be difficult to ingest ice-cold water in winter. Be kind to yourself and carry some hot water or herbal tea in a thermos. Caffeinated beverages may taste great, but they are diuretics and will not hydrate you well. Consider carrying a wide mouth thermos full of hot soup for lunch. It’s worth the added weight.
5. Carry a small foam pad in your pack. You can sit or stand on it at lunch, insulating your seat, or your feet, from the cold snow below.
6. Store your water bottles upside down in your pack. They will freeze from the top down, so storing them upside down will prevent the threads on the lid from freezing, allowing you easy access when it’s time for a drink.
7. Use Arm & Leg Circles to keep warm. For cold fingers and toes, spend a minute vigorously swinging your arms in large circles, then spend another minute swinging each leg back and forth from the hips, like a pendulum (remove your ski to do this!). It won’t be long before you will feel the warmth rush back into your extremeties.
8. Keep your climbing skins warm by storing them against your body between uses on a day tour. Cold, frozen skins will not adhere to your skis well. Tuck them inside your jacket, and be sure your jacket is snug so they don’t fall out. Dry climbing skins thoroughly each night and before storing to keep the adhesive in good condition.
9. Be sure your snacks contain some fat and protein. While sugar and carbs are great for quick energy, fat is the slow burning fuel you need to keep your energy and temperature up all day.
10. Adjust your pole length for climbing and descending. If you don’t have adjustable poles, you can grab below the grips to make your poles shorter. This can be particularly helpful when contouring along a sidehill. It will be more comfortable and efficient.
11. When skiing downhill through trees, take your hands out of your ski pole straps. If the basket catches on something, being in the straps can lead to a dislocated thumb or shoulder. Wear glasses or goggles to protect your eyes from tree branches.
12. Bring a plastic or metal scraper to remove ice build-up underfoot.