2015 DEC - Backcountry Skiing & Snowshoeing
What’s in Your Snow Pack?
By Rich Macha
Winter is fast approaching, and whether you like it or not, snow and cold temperatures are guaranteed. Hopefully you’ve stayed active in the fall, slowly have become accustomed to cooler weather, and now are ready for some winter fun.
Personally, I’m looking forward to exploring on skis a new section of the Northville-Placid Trail between Benson and Northville, as well as revisiting a variety of favorites like the historic Raymond Brook Ski Trail in the Adirondacks, the trail-less Aiken Wilderness in southwestern Vermont, and the rolling trails of the Huyck Preserve in Albany County. Whether your preference is for skis or snowshoes there is no shortage of destinations to choose from.
I’ve been reading weekly ranger reports of lost and injured hikers over the warmer months and have come to conclude that many folks venture out into the backcountry hopelessly unprepared. Many hiking parties are without map and compass, or the knowledge of how to use them, plus many are without a headlamp or flashlight – and thus unprepared to travel in the dark when their outing takes longer than expected. When wandering out into the backcountry in winter pay extra special attention to what you have.
You should carry the “10 essentials” in all seasons. These essentials include: 1) a whistle to signal for help when needed; 2) map and compass (add a GPS if you’d like); 3) a knife, multi-tool or Swiss Army knife is useful; 4) headlamp or flashlight plus extra batteries; 5) drinking water in an insulated container (drink before you feel thirsty) and extra food and energy snacks; 6) extra clothes, including rain/wind protection even if the forecast calls for none; 7) a first-aid kit, including a pain killer like ibuprofen, some bandages, and blister treatment like moleskin; 8) fire-making items (matches, lighter, fire starters); 9) emergency shelter (can be anything from a large heavy-duty trash bag to a bivy sack); 10) and sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen). A repair kit is frequently mentioned as an essential; a roll of duct tape often comes in handy for making a variety of temporary fixes. I usually keep these items in a pouch which goes with me all the time whether I am hiking, paddling or skiing.
A cell phone can be a useful item in emergencies, but may not work in certain remote areas. In the Adirondacks the emergency phone number is (518) 891-0235; it is (518) 408-5850 in other areas of New York; dialing 911 will work too but may take longer to get to the right authorities. However, a cell phone should not be a substitute for good preparation.
As winter approaches I start adding some items to my pack. Chemical hand-warmers are cheap, usually last for up to seven hours, and don’t take up much space. A hot drink in a vacuum flask, a spare pair of wool (or waterproof) socks, and an assortment of headwear, gloves and mittens find a place in my pack. A winter pack has to be bigger in size than a summer pack to accommodate these extras – 2,000 cubic inches or 35 liters is usually enough.
Save the cotton clothing for indoor pursuits – damp cotton can suck the heat right out of you. Synthetics and/or wool will keep you more comfortable in the outdoors. While cross country skiing, I seldom need more than two layers of clothing while on the move, so everything else is in or on my pack.
Staying warm while stopping for a break or to eat lunch can be a challenge – do not wait until you are cold to add layers. Some folks I know, especially those that perspire a lot, change into a dry base layer, then add extra warm fleece or wool layers – a down jacket is often the best choice for the outer layer. It is also a good idea to bring an insulating pad to sit on; my ski mates laugh at me when I bring along a lightweight six-foot-long sleeping pad, so that I can take my after-lunch nap!
Snow can be a good, although cold, substitute for toilet paper when needed, but if you do use the latter then it should be disposed of properly. In snowy conditions the toilet paper cannot be buried under five to eight inches of soil like in summertime, so it must be either burned or carried out in something like a zip-lock bag.
Some very good general details and up-to-date Adirondack trail information can be found at the NYSDEC website (dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7865.html). The trail info is updated weekly on Thursdays so it is wise to check out this website before heading out on any trip in the Adirondacks.
For me, staying home, in any season, is not an option. With a little bit of thought and preparation, I can have some fun exploring the winter landscape, and minimize the chance of potential mishaps. Sharing a backcountry adventure with some like-minded friends can add to your enjoyment and safety!
Rich Macha leads cross country ski trips for the Albany Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, and is owner of Adirondack Paddle’n’Pole in Colonie, a store specializing in canoeing, ‘kayaking and cross country skiing – visit onewithwater.com for some of Rich’s winter trip reports.