We enjoyed, as promised, many cold days in the woods. Our coldest night was well below freezing. We got water from a spring and it starting freezing right away in our water bottles! One of my friends had a story about being near hypothermic one night because it had been raining during most of the day and then the temp dropped and it was snowing. His clothes were wet then it got really cold and he had no dry layers. I’m not sure what he did, other than I know there were some friends at the shelter that night who helped him out.
Dealing with winter conditions is probably the number one reason a southbound thru-hike is ranked as more difficult than a northbound hike. (Although some nobos do face similar conditions in early spring). So, how do you deal with the cold when you can only take what will fit in the pack?
Jeff and I believe the number one safety measure for the cold is to have a sleeping bag that is warm enough. He decided that I should take his 5° bag and he’d use my 15° bag. Also, another huge consideration is the warmth of the sleeping mat. I quickly learned that my inflatable mat really is no better than a pool toy: it has no insulating properties whatsoever. Instead of buying a new one (my top pick for the winter mat costs nearly $200), we supplemented mine with a ridge rest mat that was already in our repertoire. As for waking, the only significant change was switching to goretex running shoes. I was able to find my exact running shoes in goretex (waterproof). The goretex is a pain when it’s warm, because your feet sweat. But on those several days we had cold rain or snow (or ice), they were an improvement to the mesh shoes.
We’d have to remember to keep our water bottles close to our sleeping bags so they wouldn’t freeze solid. The wet shoes have to go in a plastic bag and in the sleeping bag at night so they won’t be frozen when you get up in the morning. Jeff took the season as an opportunity to buy a “winter” backpacker stove. Fuel canisters don’t do well in freezing temperatures because the gas turns to liquid and then won’t burn. This new stove enables you to turn the can upside down so the liquid will flow through a hose that is routed past the flame. The fuel turns to gas in the hose.
Even though we did experience some snow storms, it would only be for one day and not enough would accumulate to pose a problem. In the south there are many hostels and we took advantage of staying indoors when we had the opportunity.
Sound fun? Actually, winter can be stunning. We had a couple of hoar frosts: when the humidity/mist/fog freezes on everything. Every branch, every blade of grass is covered in ice. From an overlook, the upper elevations are perfectly white, while the valleys remain untouched. Some of my favorite ice was the strands that grow up from the ground in clusters. They’re like ice grass. Also the crunch of the frozen ground is very satisfying. Did winter ever make me wish I was a Northbounder? NO!