There’s no better time than the darkest days of 2020 to lace up your boots, strap on snowshoes or skis, throw your gear in a toboggan and start an adventure — as it turns out, a lot of people in Washington have had that idea.
Meryl Lassen, a communications consultant with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, says people are heading into the wilderness in unprecedented numbers this winter.
“REI and all the retailers are reporting that sales of winter equipment are skyrocketing this year,” Lassen said. “And we’re seeing it in our Sno-Park permit sales. I mean we’re up by over 100% in some cases.”
For those who like to camp during the warmer months of the year, s’mores and hot chocolate around a campfire with Jupiter and Saturn converging in the night sky might also sound like a way to forget your worries in this stressful pandemic year. But stop, wait, think: You can’t just throw stuff in the car and head out.
Winter camping is no joke.
“A lot of these folks are kind of COVID refugees where they’re trying to find something to do where they’re going to be fairly safe,” Lassen said. “And maybe they learned from summer hiking that they really like the outdoors and they want to try it in the winter. But it is a whole different ballgame.”
Even experienced campers can get into trouble with the Pacific Northwest’s penchant for high winds, gyrating temperatures and moisture-laden snow known as “Cascade concrete.”
New campers, for instance, should probably stay away from the pass areas east of the Interstate 5 corridor at first. Strapping on a pair of snowshoes and tromping into a pristine valley is a good way to get into trouble.
And it’s not just avalanches that kill.
“If you’re going to one of these places, you need to be researching things like avalanche danger, and you don’t go out alone and you make sure your friends don’t fall into a tree well — all of the obvious winter safety stuff that may not be obvious to a lot of new folks,” Lassen said.
Um, tree wells?
Turns out snow doesn’t pack around the bases of those majestic but deceptively dangerous giant conifers that dominate our forests.
“It hollows out [around the base] because the tree is still metabolizing and it warms everything up,” Lassen said. “So you’ve got this crust over the top and you fall sometimes 10 feet into this well. And people have suffocated. It’s almost like being buried in a full-immersion avalanche. So, yeah, watch out for tree wells.”
With that in mind, beginner winter campers should focus on what might euphemistically be called car camping — easy-to-reach locations you can drive to and where you camp near facilities. Backcountry camping is a different animal and should only be attempted with proper gear, training and fitness.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a snow zone, you can camp in your backyard. Washington State Parks maintains more than 100 Sno-Parks and 3,000 miles of trail, much of it suitable for low-danger outdoors experiences for all ages, with easy-to-reach safety features should things go awry.
Lassen’s suggestions for novices looking for a scenic camping spot that’s safe for beginners includes Sno-Parks at Lake Easton, Lake Wenatchee and Fields Spring state parks and the Marble Mountain Sno-Park in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just south of Mount St. Helens. Among the benefits of these parks is availability of facilities with easy access to parking. Some, like Hyak at Lake Easton, are near towns that offer nearly immediate refuge.
“These are great places to take your family and see if you like it, and also be safe in that you are close to heat sources and your car, and you can get out of the elements,” Lassen said. “And then going forward, you can decide if you want to get into a little bit more intermediate situations.”
Along with a higher level of knowledge about the conditions, winter camping also requires a higher level of commitment in gear. You should be familiar with the winter 10 essentials, a list that includes a portable shovel and avalanche beacon. Ideally, the prepared winter camper should have stepped layers of synthetic clothing, including a waterproof outer shell, warm boots that dry easily, and proper head and hand coverings. And things like a four-season tent and sleeping bag, while not necessary, are definitely more suitable.
It sounds expensive, and it can be, said Spencer Carson, owner of Turntables & Trails, a Greenwood-based used gear store. An aspiring winter camper could easily spend $1,500 before hitting the trials. But that’s not necessary, especially for the beginner.
“You don’t have to walk into a high-end outdoor retailer and buy every single four-season piece of equipment,” Carson said. “Most of your current summer equipment can be adapted for the winter at a significantly lower cost than buying completely new winter gear only. It just isn’t worth it for most people. You can buy that later. If you love it, you decide you’re going to go out every weekend over the winter, then buy dedicated equipment. But otherwise adapting is easily the better call.”
For instance, you can take a sturdy three-season tent and augment it with tarps above and below to create a moisture and temperature barrier. A thick Therm-a-Rest pad paired with your summertime foam pad will help boost the warming power of that three-season sleeping bag. And you can buy synthetic liners for the bag, or even use blankets.
Carson also suggests other basics like a small stove for easy warmth and to keep your water supply drinkable (keeping your water from freezing is one of winter camping’s biggest challenges). A compact snow shovel is a winter camper’s best friend. Yaktrax-style traction cleats that slip over your boots aren’t a bad idea for icy conditions. And snowshoes make things more fun.
Like Lassen, Carson suggests aspiring campers take it slow — both in the gear store and on the trail. Don’t be afraid to seek advice or even direct training.
“If you’re going to do something like that and you don’t feel comfortable, there’s all sorts of guide services out there, groups that you can meet up with who have tons of classes and things to get yourself familiar and comfortable first,” Carson said. “Don’t start out mountaineering up into a snow tamp at 15,000-feet elevation. Don’t go camp on Rainier overnight as your first expedition into the winter. Start a little slower.”