I recently got back from a double overnighter in snow and cold of january in the Colorado Rockies. Surviving and thriving outdoors in the winter is challenging, and I learned some good lessons, which I thought I'd share with you.
AO is comprised of mountainous evergreen forest with aprox. 95% tree cover, interwoven with dirt roads and trails. Elevation range 7,000-8,500 feet. Weather was cloudy, with sporadic snowstorms beginning about halfway through the trip and lasting till the end. Temperature -2F to 25F. Humidity aprox. 16%. Powdery snow, depth ranging from 3"-14".
Team of 4 friends will move on foot aprox. 3 miles along a closed forest service road and set up camp for the night in an abandoned structure before nightfall. The next day they will move on foot to a site aprox. 1 mile away, recon it, and return to the structure to spend another night. In the morning they will pack up and make the 3 mile trek back from whence they came. Primary objectives: brave the winter, escape piss earth, feel alive, and have fun.
GEAR - WORN
The usual EMS synthetic boxers
DeFeet Aerator socks (you want thin socks for the type of boot I have)
Gen3 ECWCS Lvl 3 "waffle" tops and bottoms (too hot to wear when moving for many people, even at 25F, but I get cold easily)
Gen3 ECWCS Lvl 4 wind shirt (first time on a trip with this and I really love it, it's miles ahead of a BDU or ACU and breathes well. Once again ECWCS is the haven of non-stupid military clothing)
Baffin Borealis boots (can't recommend these enough. They weigh a fraction of what USGI mickey mouse boots weigh. Nonabsorbent TPU shell with a removable minimally absorbent foam liner bootie that you can quickly dry off and even wear inside your sleep system. These are galaxy brained boots, but I talked to a guy from Baffin at the OR show last year and I get the feeling that the Borealis is not long for this world, so if you want them buy them ASAP.)
Outdoor Research crocodile gaiters in multicam (bit of a pain to don and doff, but prevent pant legs from absorbing moisture and freezing in the snow)
USGI overwhite pants (not the cotton blend, the newer synthetic ones)
USGI nomex flight gloves (good balance of warmth and dexterity, and they even provide a little protection from the wood stove)
Icebreaker merino neck gaiter (wool rather than synthetic so I can pull it over my mouth without sucking in microplastics)
self-made multicam ushanka with Climashield Apex insulation and coyote fur (someone probably sells something almost as cool as mine. It will probably cost a lot but it will be worth it. I'm a big fan of ushankas)
GEAR - RUCK - OVERVIEW
The ruck is a Mystery Ranch SATL, spray painted camo. It's pretty chonky at 6.5lbs empty but I felt like taking it for a spin. Armor standoff pontoons have been removed to save weight. A USGI MOLLE canteen pouch and a USGI 100rd SAW pouch are on the belt.
GEAR - RUCK - SLEEP SYSTEM & SHELTER
Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow. It had a hole, I thought I had repaired it, but when I got out there it went flat after an hour. Still not sure if I can recommend these for hard use or not.
Sealline MAC Sack containing an Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20deg ultralight down quilt. This is the main component of my sleep system, and when combined with the swagman and waffle tops and bottoms I was plenty warm inside it at night
Thermarest XTherm inflatable cold weather sleep pad. Insanely high R value of 6.9, beats anything else on the market. Provides so much warmth.
Thermarest Z-lite pad. R value of 2.0. Weighs very little It is mainly here to protect my XTherm pad from punctures.
Sealline MAC Sack containing a Helikon Tex Swagman Roll. I've raved about this thing before and I'll do it again. This is the woobie of the 21st century. Acts as both an overcoat and a sleeping bag. One of my most recommended items.
Sea to Summit 8L ultra sil drybag containing an M65 liner jacket and pants (AKA "poofies") that I have added snaps and toggles to so that they can be worn by themselves. This is a great cheaper alternative to either down insulating layers or an ECWCS level 7 suit.
Unknown (Rothco?) poncho. Copy of the USGI poncho but lighter and less sticky. Carried to make an emergency tarp shelter but not used.
Self-made dyneema bag containing 6x MSR mini groundhog stakes and 4x LoopAliens on Atwood Micro Cord. Carried to make an emergency tarp shelter but not used.
GEAR - RUCK - HATS AND GLOVES
Self-made ushanka, as discussed above. Around the headband is a Manker E03H headlamp, my personal favorite.
Helikon Tex Multicam fleece cap. Just like the USGI fleece caps, but in a cooler color. Can be worn when the ushanka is overkill, or can be worn under the ushanka if it's wicked cold.
Cowhide leather gloves. These are specifically for touching the wood stove and hot cookware when cooking. Sometimes the nomex flight gloves don't cut it
USGI nomex flight gloves, as discussed above.
Icebreaker merino neck gaiter, as discussed above
cheap chinese fleece gaiter, to double up over the merino gaiter if need be
Outdoor research mutant mitts. Has a trigger finger so you can shoot, and wrist lanyards so you can pop them off in a hurry without losing them. I use the flight gloves as contact gloves that go inside of these
Self-made 1.9oz PU nylon zipper bag to store all this stuff
GEAR - RUCK - DRINKS
2x 32oz Gatorade bottles, painted camo. AKA the world's best canteen
Baggie of aquatabs, to purify water taken from streams or ponds
Propel powder packs, to provide electrolytes and mask the taste of bad water
Hot cocoa powder and breakfast essentials powder, to make a nice warm drink
Nalgene plastic flask of whiskey. The cheapest you can find. The nastier the better. Straight rot gut.
GEAR - RUCK - FOOD
Eggs, bacon, cheese, scallions, butter, mustard, and white wine vinegar for making breakfast. Each man was responsible for cooking one meal for everyone. I really like this system
Small spice kit from Townsends containing salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and thyme.
Half loaf of french bread
Wensleydale cheddar (the official cheese of Wallace & Gromit)
A stick of the greasiest pepperoni I could find
Bag of homemade ritz crackers (seed oil free)
Fruity bear gummies and lemonade ring gummies from natural grocers
Freeze dried strawberries
GEAR - RUCK - FOOD
Fozzils snapfold dish/bowl/cup set. Folds flat, weighs nothing, easy to clean. I love it. For those wondering, Fozzils is the successor to the now defunct Orikasu.
~500ml titanium mug with handle and bale and lid. Chinese copy of a toaks or a snowpeak. You want one with a bale. You can get them on ebay.
Sea to Summit Alpha Fork/Knife/Spoon set, with a P38 can opener attached
GSI Outdoors folding spatula, for cooking. There were several pots and pans waiting for us at the structure
GEAR - RUCK - TOILETRY
Hand sanitizer. Never use it so I might take it out
Sawn-in-half toothbrush and travel toothpaste for the ultralight meme
Bottle of ibuprofen with duct tape wrapped around it to tape my mouth when sleeping
Bag Balm for chapped hands and lips (very important in the winter)
Spare pair of DeFeet Aireator socks (didn't use them)
Sunscreen (didn't use, but my face did get a good bit of sun)
Bugspray (unnecessary but I'm too lazy to take it out of my kit)
Lens cleaning cloth
An almost empty roll of toilet paper (no sense in carrying an entire roll)
Gold bond body powder
Sea to Summit TPU valuables drybag to carry it all in
GEAR - RUCK - MISCELLANEOUS
Self-made orange 210D zipper bag containing a Kidde AA powered carbon monoxide alarm, to monitor air quality inside the structure
An individual first aid kit (IFAK)
A prototype SSE overload bag (no you can't see it, don't ask)
A prayer kit containing a cross, a diptych, a prayer book, and a pocket new testament
A copy of Ernst Junger's Forest Passage for reading on my downtime
GEAR - KITBAG
I carried a Hill People Gear Kit Bag on my chest. You can read about what I carry in it on this blog post. On this trip it had all the standard stuff except I ditched the Glock (had an AR instead) and I added a Vortex laser rangefinder for use on the recon
GEAR - SNOWSHOES
These snowshoes were intermittently either worn or strapped to my ruck, depending on snow conditions. If it's not noticeably difficult to walk through the snow, then there isn't enough snow to need snowshoes. People really often use them when they're not necessary.
For the life of me I can't tell you what brand they are. I bought them used and immediately spray painted them white, including over the logo. They are some sort of youth model, about 20", and have shitty 1" webbing and ladderlock bindings that I need to replace ASAP.
Besides the bindings though, they were great. Many will tell you that a snowshoe like this is too small for me, but I think they're great for more tactical use. Another man had a pair of MSR Lightning Ascent snowshoes, and they seemed to fit into a similar category.
Small and large snowshoes each have their positives and negatives, which I've outlined below:
Lighter, smaller, packable
Sink into the snow deeper
Less weight on feet
Worse over flat ground
Easier to run in
Often rarer, more expensive
Less likely to trip
Better on slopes and inclines
Sink into snow less
Heavier, bulkier, less packable
Better on flat ground
More weight on feet
More common, cheaper
Harder to run in
More likely to trip
More awkward on slopes and inclines
As you can tell, I'm biased toward the smaller snowshoes and I think they are the better choice for tactical use. However, large snowshoes still have their place, and that place is flat terrain with very deep, powdery snow, such as along the northern edge of the CONUS. Look at your local snow conditions to determine which is right for you.
LESSONS FOR WINTER OPERATIONS:
Snowshoes have a MUCH narrower use case than most people think. You need to consider that one extra pound on your foot uses the same energy as five extra pounds on your back. So as a rule, you should not don snowshoes unless it is very difficult to walk in the snow with regular boots. Don't hesitate to take the snowshoes off again if you reach shallower snow.
In lieu of (or addition to) snowshoes, consider carrying microspikes. These are lighter, pack smaller, are easier to don and doff. They don't spread your weight out like skiis or snowshoes, but they drastically increase your traction. Use them on icy terrain and on slopes that are slick with snow or ice. Just remember to take them off when not needed because hard surfaces will quickly wear them down.
You'll want big, dark tinted sunglasses or goggles, and you'll want to wear them often, or else you will get snow blindness.
Dehydration is a big threat in the cold. You tend to feel less thirsty, and you may drink less because it is a bigger pain in the ass to access your water.
On that note, you need to keep your water from freezing. This basically rules out hydration bladders below 32F because their tubes will freeze solid. This is one of the reasons why I like canteens more. Flip your canteen upside down and it will keep the cap from freezing shut. If you canteens are freezing in their pouches on your LBE, stick them inside your ruck or in your jacket pocket.
When route planning in the snow, you must consider the unique variable of snow depth. Deeper snow = more effort to traverse. This must be considered both at the micro scale ("if I walk on the leeward side of this rock there will be a deeper snow drift") and on the macro scale ("if I walk along the north-facing slope of this hill the snow will be deeper because it gets less sunlight")
Skiis and snowshoes both seem pretty loud. It's hard for you to be observant while wearing them because the sound of your own shuffling feet is so loud. But on the flipside, snow muffles sound by a LOT, so I'm not sure if you are easier or harder to hear from a distance when moving. That would be a good thing to test.
Tips for staying warm when sleeping: wear an ushanka, ideally with a chin strap and fold-down eye flap. Eat something before bed, or if you wake up cold. Put on fresh warm socks to sleep, or even double socks or booties. Wearing a mosquito net on your head traps air and keeps your face slightly warmer. Use multiple sleep pads, or in an emergency make a thick bed of pine boughs to keep yourself off the cold ground.
Whenever you stop moving, whether sitting or standing, position yourself on bare ground, a log, or a rock instead of on snow. It will keep you warmer.
As always, thank you for reading, and if you have questions feel free to DM me on Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck out there!