In the course of my work as a fly-fishing writer, I find myself spending a lot of time on the water during the winter. I love fishing in the winter, but I’m not sure if I grew to love it out of necessity — or if I always held an affinity for the way fishing changes when the weather turns.
Regardless, the point is that I am consistently out in the mountains on cold-weather adventures. Be it a late-season elk hunt or fishing rivers ringed with ice, I’ve had my fair share of trips in weather that most people opt to avoid.
But with the right preparation, some basic knowledge and a desire for adventure, you can go out and have a blast in Utah’s mountains during the snowy months of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the best tips for doing just that.
The biggest complaint people have is staying warm. While it’s easy to buy a big down jacket, snow pants, boots and some beanies, that’s not always the most effective way to stay warm in cold weather.
Even though it’s the most simple outdoor tip there is, it’s worth mentioning: An efficient layering system is the best way to stay warm and dry during the winter.
A great layering system will look something like this:
- A moisture managing base layer. If you sweat too much, or if water gets into your base layer, you’ll get cold quickly. A base layer that manages moisture is a must, and my favorite thing to use is merino wool. While pricey, it’s worth the money and by far the most effective base layer material I’ve ever used.
- Insulation. Next, you need something that’s going to keep you warm. My favorite is fleece, because it’s lightweight and keeps you warm even when it gets wet.
- Weather protection. Your last layer should be some kind of a shell, to keep you dry and insulated from the wind. My absolute favorite waterproof jacket is the one made by Frogg Toggs. Frogg Toggs are ultra-lightweight and 100 percent waterproof, but for really severe weather, they don’t have the insulation needed to keep you toasty. This is where a down jacket is a great piece of equipment.
In addition to making sure you’ve got the right layering system, you want to make sure you’ve got a great pair of waterproof boots. When your feet are warm, it is easier to be happy.
An important thing to remember about your boots: Don’t lace them up too tight. Tight boots make it harder for your blood to circulate, which in turn will mean your feet get colder that much quicker. Make sure you’re wearing wool socks, and you’re set for a good day of staying warm.
Now, if you plan on camping out in the snow — which isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds — there are a few other things you need to be aware of.
First, winter camping can be incredible. There are no crowds, and most important, no bugs.
The landscape takes on a different personality when it’s covered in snow, and there’s a certain solitude when camping in the winter that just can’t be achieved other months of the year.
If you plan on camping in the snow, you’ll need the following essentials:
- Down sleeping bag. A sleeping bag stuffed with down is a great choice for warmth. Down is an incredible insulator, and the bags are relatively light. When choosing a sleeping bag, remember to get one rated for at least 10 degrees colder than the worst weather you expect to encounter.
- Tent footprint/tarp. A footprint or tarp for your tent will help keep any unwanted moisture from seeping through the tent floor. When you sleep on the snow, your body heat will melt the snow beneath you, and that can sometimes create a wet mess. A tarp under your tent keeps you dry.
- Sled. Although sledding is a great wintertime activity, sleds are also incredibly useful when hauling gear through the snow. I’ve been on more than a few winter camps where we had to trek five miles through snow-covered wilderness. Being able to put all the gear on a sled and tow it behind me was a lifesaver.
- Cooking stove. You may not be able to get a fire going in the snow, so you’ll want to bring along a cooking stove. My favorite is a single-burner backpacking stove. It’s cheap, and the propane/butane fuel lasts a fair amount of time and is inexpensive as well.
Obviously, that’s not a comprehensive list, but those items will make your winter camp much more enjoyable.
The other common concern with recreation in the winter is staying safe. Avalanches are an obvious concern, as is frostbite, hypothermia and getting lost.
Again, I’ll return to the most basic piece of advice: Tell other people where you’re going, how long you plan to be gone and when you’ll return. Honestly, that alone can mean the difference between life and death.
Staying warm will also go a long way in being safe while out in the snow. Always carry hand warmers, matches and some sort of fire starter. I personally like to use the lint from the dryer trap as my fire starter — it’s light and catches easily.
In the end, staying safe while on late-season trips boils down to common sense. Keep a calm head on your shoulders, think logically and don’t overreact. If you can do those three things, you’ll enjoy a wonderful time out in the snow.
Spencer Durrant is a writer and fly fisherman based in Utah. He writes the monthly Trout Bum column for the Standard-Examiner, and contributes regularly to Hatch Magazine. If he’s not on the river, he’s at home tying flies or writing. Connect him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.