Don't Let Winter Stop You

Easy, snow-free backpacking trips

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Far too often, those of us who live in the northern woods tend to put away the backpacking gear for winter.

Of course, we enjoy our play days on the mountain, frolicking in the lustrous snow, but overnighters are often replaced by a stop at Chair 9 (or Milano’s, or Graham’s, or the North Fork, or Il Caffe Rifugio, etc.) and a night spent among the featherbeds of home. Nothing wrong with that, Lord knows. Been there.

But, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, with our ringing cell phones and cascading email, the opportunity to slip the yoke for a few days of quiet and beauty is compelling—and therapeutic.

If you are a summer backpacker, of course you know what I mean. But summer, let’s face it, friends, is short. We are wise to expand our horizons and hoist that pack all year long. Especially now in the dead of winter, when we need it the most.

If the idea of snow camping leaves you cold, fear not: There are multitudes of lovely low-elevation backpacking destinations that are usually snow-free. Of course, a little rain is not, technically speaking, impossible.

Sound cold and wet? Think again. There is certainly a plethora of gear and clothing available to ensure your comfort in almost any conditions likely to be encountered in this neck of the woods in winter. With a high-quality shell, lots of layers of lightweight polypro and fleece, a down jacket and insulated boots, you can enjoy a night in the woods in style and comfort.

Four-season tents weigh half of what they did a decade ago. Integrated sleeping bag and pad systems provide remarkable warmth for minimal weight. I always bring a small tarp, useful to cook and speculate under.

In the winter, the forest is a study in contrasts. In calm conditions, it is hushed and still: The sound of a twig snapping reverberates like a gunshot. When the wind blows, it is a living entity, branches flailing and tent flaps slapping. For most pilgrims, the calm is preferable.

Where to go? Close at hand, the Baker River Trail is wonderful, as is the Baker Lake Trail (on the east shore of Baker Lake). Near Darrington, the Boulder River Trail provides access to a beguiling remnant of old-growth forest and a sweet waterfall. Obstruction Pass State Park on Orcas Island features campsites on the Salish Sea, reached by an easy half-mile trail. Bring water.

The Olympic Peninsula offers a cornucopia of options; rainforest hikes in the Hoh Valley, Dungeness, Duckabush, and Quinault areas, and on the South Fork Skokomish River Trail. Numerous idyllic excursions on the wilderness beaches of Olympic National Park are perfect in winter. Shi-Shi beach, Rialto Beach to Hole-in-the-Wall, Cape Alava, and Third Beach are all spectacular. Spending a lonely evening beside the sea is great for recharging the psychic batteries.

Sure, you can stay at home. But maybe it’s better to embrace the north wind and quiet the chattering monkey-mind.

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