Rain, fog and cooler temperatures have settled into central California, but Fresno backpackers are still likely to be casting their eyes east, where a blanket of snow now drapes beautifully over the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Even the most diehard summer backpackers are still longing for the high country, perhaps wondering what their favorite mountain haunts look like during winter.
Winter backpacking is, obviously, quite different from outings at more temperate times of year. Gear, trip planning, and preparation are all different, and hiking is most likely to take place on snowshoes or skis.
If you're a three-season backpacker who's thinking about trying a first winter trip, consider these pointers to make your first outing memorable, enjoyable, and safe:
1. Be conservative. Choose a route and a destination that you can traverse comfortably on snowshoes or skis, which make travel a bit slower and more arduous. Winter gear tends to be heavier than summer gear, and considerably less daylight is available for hiking, so consider your endurance and be realistic about how far you can go to reach your bivy. Hunting is still in season in the national forests in the Fresno region, so your best bet will be a trip to one of the nearby national parks.
2. Take a little extra. Winter days and nights in the Sierra are much colder than the temperatures for which Fresno backpackers are acclimated. Pack an extra layer or add a lightweight synthetic blanket to your gear list to ward off any unexpected chill. If concerns about being cold have dampened your enthusiasm for venturing out in the winter, these extras will give you the peace of mind you may need to make a start. You may not use this extra gear, but if the need arises, you'll be so glad you brought it along.
3. Check the weather. And check it again: Weather in the Sierra can be unpredictable year round, but an unexpected storm in the winter can be deadly, especially for those with less experience with winter outings. Get an accurate report for your area of travel from NOAA during the days leading up to your trip, and call the ranger station in that area to confirm local conditions. Check the forecast again the night before travel and don't be afraid to postpone if high winds, storms, or extreme temperatures are in the mix. Winters are long in the high country, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to go out when conditions are more favorable for first-timers.
4. Stay on trail: All backpackers should be knowledgeable with a map and compass, and these skills are critically important in the winter, especially for off-trail travel or breaking trail. Staying on well-traveled winter trails greatly diminishes your chances of getting misplaced or lost in the wilderness. Yosemite National Park, just under 100 miles from Fresno, offers some good options for a first winter outings that would work for novices. Snowshoe and cross-country ski access is widely available in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and the SEKI Wilderness Office can provide advice on appropriate trips for winter backpacking beginners: (559) 565-3766. The Sierra National Forest
5. Check in: Look out for your safety by providing information to those who would need it should something go wrong. Wilderness permits are still required in the winter (from the ranger stations in Yosemite and self-permitting in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks), so you'll have an opportunity to check in with rangers or sign in and provide trip details when you pick up your permit. Leave an itinerary with your a loved one or friend that describes clearly when and where you're headed and when to expect you back from your first winter outing. An unexpected change in plans during a winter trip can turn quickly into hardship or a survival situation, but the availability of detailed information about your whereabouts improves the likelihood that a rescue will be prompt and successful.
First-time winter backpackers should probably head into the wilderness with another person or a small party. If you're lucky enough to know someone who has experience backpacking in winter conditions, find out whether he or she would be willing to accompany you on your first trip. Wilderness knowledge learned during temperate months will serve you well in the winter, so you'll be a good partner on a winter trip, even if it's your first.
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