Winter Backpacking in the Olympics

I have been an avid backpacker for the past 20+ years. I enjoy getting out, especially in the Olympic Mountains. But I have been a fair weather treker, at least until the past 3 years. My problem is that I get cold; easily. And once I get cold it is very hard to warm back up again. As a result I usually didn’t start getting out until May or June and was usually done by the end of September.

A second problem I had is that the Olympics are generally snow covered during the winter. And in the high country the snow lasts well into the spring and even early summer. Snow travel requires a different set of gear and skills that I had not developed. And much of that was due to problem number one; it was cold. So I would sit at home and long for summer to come so I could dust off the gear and get back out there.

A Cooling Trend

Eventually I start pushing the start of the season a bit earlier each year. Slowly I learned how to keep warm when it was cold out. And I started to develop some skill and confidence in traveling through the snow covered passes. I still got cold, but with better gear it became tolerable. I did still avoid rain as much as I could though. Drying out in the winter is nigh on to impossible.

About three years ago I started to venture out during the middle of the winter. But I seldom went up into the high country because of the very real dangers of solo travel in the snow covered alpine country; it was more dangerous that I generally was comfortable with. I also began investigating the use of a pulk to haul gear when there was enough snow on the ground to make it feasible.

And now I am able to really enjoy the time spent out in the Olympics during all seasons, even the dead of winter; at least when it’s not raining. I have made several trips into the eastern Olympics this winter, and expect to go out at least a couple more times before it starts to thaw out. The intent of this post is to share some of my experiences and gear in the hopes that it might be helpful to others who are looking at doing the same thing.

The Gear

During the warmer months of the year I tend toward using a lightweight setup. I will be able to get out for a few days with a pack weighing in the low 20 pounds. But I pretty much abandon the lightweight model in the winter. Protection from the cold becomes the most important factor for me. No doubt I could get gear with a much better weight to warmth ratio, but it is too pricey for my budget.

Hanging Off the Ground

I do not like sleeping on the ground, and use a hammock as much as possible. In the summer that is easy. But in the winter it becomes more challenging to stay warm. But I am now able to stay toasty down into the upper teens. I am using an REI Quarter Dome Air hammock, a bridge design. I have used several other hammocks over the past 10 years but prefer this one. And I also have a collection of quilts built for those hammocks. But I was never really able to stay warm until the REI hammock last year.

I have purchased the underquilt that REI makes for this hammock, but it is really a summer quilt. I use it in the winter as well though. But I supplement it with a winter underquilt that I have rigged to hang underneath the REI quilt. Inside the hammock I usually have a 20 degree sleeping bag as well as a second quilt to pull over the top. Generally I will be in the sleeping bag with it zipped most of the way up. And the second quilt will start off down around my feet, but will often be pulled up before the night is out.

The REI hammock comes with a small tarp for weather protection. But it really offers little protection from blowing snow or rain. So this winter I have replaced it with a 13 foot SuperFly tarp from Warbonnet Outdoors. This tarp is big enough to completely enclose the hammock, including doors at the end. I have not been through blowing snow with it yet, but am confident it will keep the weather off me during the night.

Clothes

I do not skimp on clothes. They are not overly important when actually hiking. But become extremely so when stopped and during the night. As I expressed earlier, I get cold easily. So it is very important that I have enough warm clothes to prevent the shivers from taking over.

I generally take a couple of fleece layers, one thin and one medium. I also have a down jacket, pants and booties; mostly for sleeping in. A pair of snow pants with a bib and a heavy shell to wear on the outside. On my feet will be a pair of waterproof socks during the day, inside of insulated boots. At night I change into a pair of Alpaca socks. On my hands will be a pair of possum down gloves, frequently under a pair of OR insulated mitts. And on my head goes a merino wool beanie and sometimes a balaclava, the hood from my down jacket, and the hood from my shell. Did I mention that I get cold easily?

This is clearly a lot of clothes, and you may well not need as much. But I find it much more enjoyable to hang out in camp when I am not shivering. And this allows me to do that. Each person who goes out will have to decide for themselves how much is enough. But this is what works for me. And I am quite willing to carry the extra load in order to enjoy the trip.

The Pulk

A pulk is essentially a sled that you can pull your gear in. It is quite popular in some locations, but it does have some limitations. While it works well on flat or gentle terrain. It does not work so well if you are navigating many switchbacks, or if you are traversing across a slope. And it goes without saying that you do need snow all the way down to the trailhead. But I have successfully had it 6 miles up from Staircase, up the Dosewallips to the old Ranger Station, and the Elwha from the washout at Madison Falls to the end of the hot springs road.

My pulk is a 5′ children’s sled. I have 2 6′ PVC poles to pull it with. Inside of each pole is a strap that is attacked to the front of the sled and to the belt that I pull with. The purpose of the PVC poles is to keep the sled from running over you on the downhills, something it will readily do. I also have added 5 sets of straps and buckles to allow the load to be fastened to the sled. The straps are very important, as is the enclosing tarp. You will not use a sled very long before you will discover that it can easily roll off the trail, and without having the load well secured, you will have a mess on your hands.

Warnings When Using A Pulk

There are some important points that should be mentioned when using a pulk. It is important to keep your weight as low as possible. My experience with pulks is that they are very tippy. A low center of gravity will help that a lot. A second point is that they do not do well if you are following a deep and narrow path in the snow. If the path is narrower than the sled, the sled will end up with one side at the bottom of the trough and the other at the top of the trough. That makes pulling it harder, and makes it more prone to tip. You are better off breaking a new trail. It is harder walking, but easier pulling.

Switchbacks can be problematic. When you have a 5′ sled attached to you back with rigid 6′ poles, your turning radius becomes very large. So short switchbacks are very challenging. You may find you have to unbuckle from the pulk in order to get around the switchback. Coupled with that is that switchbacks are generally found on steeper trails where the pulk becomes harder to pull. Or to keep behind you on descents. You are better off sticking with old roads or gentle trails.

Traversing a hillside is also very challenging. Sleds are made to slide. And they like to slide downhill. But if the downhill direction is at 90 degrees to the direction of your travel, you and the sled will end up with very different ideas about the course you should be taking. I have nearly been pulled off the trail several times when the sled started down the side slope, generally rolling as it did so. You can add fins to the back of the sled to minimize that, but that will not fix it entirely.

Other Stuff

In addition to shelter and clothes, I take along my JetBoil Flash to cook with. A rechargeable SteriPen to treat water. And snowshoes and/or Microspikes. I also will generally carry a small thermometer so I can keep track of how cold it is; a headlamp and a small light for the hammock; an Ursack to store my food; an inReach to keep in touch with the wife; and my smart phone with an external battery pack. The last is important because the nights are so long, and its nice to be able to curl up and read while its too dark to do anything else.

Up The Dosewallips

The Dosewallips is one of my favorite places to go during the winter, for a number of reasons. It is relatively close, only taking about two hours to get to the trailhead. It is now a 6.5 mile road walk from the Case Creek washout up to the NPS campground. This is a fairly easy trip, and one that I can easily use the pulk for. The campground is equipped with picnic tables, bear boxes and a pit toilet. There is a perfect set of trees to hang from near the river. And, most importantly, there is hardly ever anyone else there; especially during the winter.

The trip up usually takes about 2.5 hours with a pack and bare ground. With lots of fresh snow, a pulk and snowshoes; it took just over 6 hours. That does include a stop for lunch at Elkhorn that I don’t usually make. But it was still pretty slow. Snowshoeing is a lot of work and slower than by foot. Especially for me. I followed tracks for the first 5 miles, but after that it was just deer and rabbit prints in the snow. I made it into camp in time to setup camp and boil water before the sun started to set. After dinner and cleanup it was time to curl up and read for a while.

The next day was a quiet day. I alternated between walking around the campground loop and sitting cross ways in my hammock studying, praying, and meditating. It was a very quiet day, but productive spiritually. Toward the end of the day I got camp ready for the expected evening snow, had dinner and curled back up in the hammock and read for a few hours.

Wednesday morning dawned with only a trace of snow having fallen during the night. After breakfast I broke camp and headed back out. This time the trip only took about 4 hours. And the snow was melting fast down low. Another day or two and I would have had to carry the sled the last couple of miles. All in all it was a very good trip. And one I will likely repeat a time or two before winter is over.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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2 thoughts on “Winter Backpacking in the Olympics”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait until I can spend more time in the woods, it’s nice to hear about how others go about it, good tips and advice.

    Reply

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