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First winter backpacking trip
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Doug Smith
(Jedi5150) - F

Locale: Central CA
First winter backpacking trip on 02/17/2012 20:09:43 MST Print View

Hello all, I can't wait for summer to go backpacking, so I'm not (...waiting). :) I've decided to do my first winter backpacking trip and some advice would be appreciated. Due to not having tons of spare vacation time, I also have to tie it in with a family trip for the wife and kids. Here is the idea I've come up with. Palm Springs/ Mt. San Jacinto SP. I figure for my first winter camping, Mt. San Jacinto should be slightly (or even a lot) less cold than the Sierras (Tahoe or Mammoth) that were my other option. I'm somewhat limited to the touristy spots as you've noticed, because for the 2 or 3 days I'm gone, my family will need hotel, eateries, swimming pool, dog friendly places, etc.

Mt. San Jacinto seems like a good plan. The family can have fun in Palm Springs and a quick ride on the Aerial Tram will take me to a winter alpine hiking area (I've hiked there in the summer). I'm pretty set on gear. I have good cold weather clothes, sleeping bag, stove, etc. I think I will likely get the cloth "anchors" that REI sells to use in place of tent pegs.

One of my biggest questions is crampons vs. snowshoes. I know that at the top of the tram, there is a cross country ski/ snowshoe rental place. I'm really not interested in skis because I'd prefer to stick with the boots I already have. I'm curious as to thoughts on which would be better between crampons and snowshoes for this area. I'm not going to be doing any climbing or technical stuff. Mainly hiking/ camping.

I'd appreciate any advice or suggestions, particularly if you've been to this area in the winter before. Also any advice for a first time winter camper would be appreciated.


Edited by Jedi5150 on 02/17/2012 20:13:51 MST.

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
Snowshoes on 02/17/2012 21:48:09 MST Print View

Snowshoes are all that is needed, they should have enough bite to go where you can camp. Ive never used crampons, they would only be needed on hardpack side hills, exposed areas where the sun has melted the snow and turned it to ice or climbing a very steep peak or later in the season climbing the same. Ive snowcamped up north in Desolation Wilderness in April and wished I had crampons to climb out of one lake to get to where I wanted to go, the Velmas and Dicks Lake. Bring two good sleeping pads to sleep on to protect you from the cold ground. Stay hydrated on your hike to your campsite, even in winter, your body uses lots of water. Theres more but if you have gotten out in the summer and have the winter gear, you otta be good. Chemical heat packs are great for keeping your feet warm while hanging outside before going to bed and especially in the morning, unless you are the type that eats in your shelter. May need to try to activate them an hour before actually needing them. Ive had delayed activity in the ones I have used. More. Bring a shovel if you have a light one for this activity, may help in the morning to remove your anchors. I use SMC stakes myself. Youll be surprised how much dry snow can be packed down.

Edited by hikerduane on 02/17/2012 21:51:09 MST.

Doug Smith
(Jedi5150) - F

Locale: Central CA
snowshoes on 02/18/2012 12:01:50 MST Print View

Thanks for the suggestions Duane. It sounds like snowshoes is the way to go. I immagine they will rent the poles as well (I don't own trekking poles). I just noticed there is a "Trip Planning" subforum. I wonder if that would have been a better place for this thread? On the other hand, it is winter related, so maybe not.

Andy F
(AndyF) - M

Locale: Midwest/Midatlantic
Re: First winter backpacking trip on 02/20/2012 12:02:56 MST Print View

For a first trip in the winter, it's best to go along with someone else. I'd at least do a backyard or car camping trip in the cold as a dry run first.

For tent anchors, I like to use sticks with a 3' length of cord with a bowline loop at each end. Run the cord around the stick (not wrapped), bury 12", stomp hard all around the stick, let it setup. Then, clip the two loop ends onto the loop end on your tent guyline with an S-biner. When it's time to break camp, leaving the natural anchor and yanking the cord out is much easier than digging out the anchor. (Not my original idea--can't remember where I learned this.)

Edited by AndyF on 02/20/2012 12:05:36 MST.

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
First winter backpacking trip on 02/20/2012 12:30:55 MST Print View

As the prior poster said, "For a first trip in the winter, it's best to go along with someone else. I'd at least do a backyard or car camping trip in the cold as a dry run first." Winter camping is great fun, and you sound like you know what you are doing. But unlike the other seasons, when a gear mistake, unexpected bad weather, or injury is likely only to make you miserable, the risk in winter is far graver. Find an experienced partner if you can.


Jeffrey McConnell
(Catalyst) - F
San Jacinto is a good choice on 02/20/2012 19:25:37 MST Print View


San Jacinto is a good choice for your first winter trip. It's pretty easy to get back to the tram to bail if something goes wrong. You should probably be fine with just snow shoes. If you have microspikes, take them along. For up to date conditions on the mountain check out Great resource for info on San Jacinto.

Doug Smith
(Jedi5150) - F

Locale: Central CA
Re: San Jacinto is a good choice on 02/20/2012 22:21:18 MST Print View

Thanks for the suggestions guys. Andy and Richard, I've thought long and hard about your suggestion to bring another person. It's definitely good advice. The problem is I'm short of people who are nuts like I am. None of my usual "adventure" buddies (including my wife), think that camping in the snow sounds like a fun idea. Haha. If I can find someone with decent winter mountaineering experience, that would be the way to go.

On the plus side, I have pretty decent outdoor experience (just not winter backpacking). I've been on a wilderness SAR/ technical rescue team for 13 years and EMS for even longer (I've done cliff rescues/ body recoveries, etc). I'm not trying to sound boastful. Nothing is more dangerous than a person who thinks they know it all. But I do at least have some of the basics, such as land nav, survival skills, etc. That's the only reason I bring it up.

Andy, your tent stake/ anchor idea is excellent. I'm going to borrow it for sure.

Jeffrey, your point is one of the biggest reasons I chose San Jacinto for the first try. It is a populated area (even in winter), and as you said, the tram/ restaurant building is a great way to bail out of the going gets too tough.

Jerry Bridgeman
(jerry2636) - MLife

Locale: Huntington Beach, Ca.
Re: San Jacinto is a good choice and Microspikes on 02/21/2012 09:56:14 MST Print View

Micro-spikes +1

I went up San Jacinto 2 weeks ago for the same purpose to test gear. It was a great idea since it was going to be 10 degrees colder then I expected and needed another layer of sleeping pad. Temperature was 28 degrees and going about 10 degrees colder that night.

So after setting up camp and nap for an hour in the afternoon I found out what I needed to know. My NeoAir was cold on snow. I packed up and was at the tram in less then an hour just as it was getting dark. It was fun since I picked a day a storm was coming in. I was the only one out on the trails on Tuesday.

Everyone at the tram building thought I was very adventurous coming in out of the snow storm with my backpack on. I didn't feel like telling them different.

+1 Micro Spikes or something for ice. The snow had melted and refroze leaving a layer of ice under 1" of new snow when I was up there. Very unsafe without microspikes. In fact I fell walking 20 feet from the rangers office to a log to sit on to put on the micro spikes. After putting them on it was great.

All the problems with winter camping talked about in the forums came up.

Ice hard ground was hard on little stakes putting them in. Hard to get out bigger stakes from the frozen ground.

Need good draft protection. Tarp was to drafty. Bivey good idea or 4 season tent.

Bigger backpack by about 30 percent for extra warm gear.

Loose face mask covering the mouth and nose area to prewarm air = No cold face.
Neoprene socks over thick wool socks = No cold feet in trail runners. "Water Socks" from REI

Good easy way to learn without having to having suffer a cold night if mistakes are made. If the gear works then stay the night. But you enjoy it either way.

Let me know when you are going. I need to fix these problems and find some new ones.
You don't need snowshoes in current conditions but hopefully that changes.


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: San Jacinto is a good choice and Microspikes on 02/21/2012 10:58:42 MST Print View

From the Tram Station to Round Valley Campground is almost 3 miles. A little further to Tramarack Valley Campground. Trail is somewhat up and down, elevation gain is 600 feet. The trail tends to be hard packed and slippery in winter. Unless there has been recent snow, the snow pack is usually pretty hard unless it is warm in the afternoon. You will be traveling at elevations from 8,500 - 9,100 feet. This is a good first winter outing. I would not be too ambitious for a first trip, especially if you live at lower elevation. You will be starting your hike at 8,500 feet.

You could hike from the tram to Little Round Valley, but you will be climbing up near the peak of San Jacinto, and 1.5 miles down the other side. A side trip to the peak is fun. Round trip is about 14 miles. However, you need to bring and know how to use an ice ax. Probably not a good first time trip.

For a first time multi-day trip you might want to set up a base camp at Round Valley or Tamarack Valley and do some day hiking.

Traction Devices/Flotation

I much prefer crampons over microspikes up there. Here are some weight specs for Kahtoola stuff:

Microspikes = 14.4 oz
Aluminum Crampons = 18.9 oz
Steel Crampons = 23.3 oz

I will take the 2 oz per foot penalty for aluminum crampons anytime. Note that rocks will dull the aluminum quickly if you choose to go that route.

Snowshoes are heavy and hard work, but sometimes needed. Often I bring snowshoes and crampons, hoping I don't need the snowshoes. I would rather carry them on my pack than on my feet :)

Footwear: You need warmer insulation and a means to keep your feet dry. You can use trail runners, but need a bigger size. My system is a liner sock, thicker wool socks, Rocky GoreTex Socks, Thinsulate sole inserts, and OR Verglas Gaiters.

You probably have warm enough clothes for hiking already, but need a puffy for when you stop or are in camp. Down pants are nice for around camp. as are down booties. Need at least two pair of wool glove liners as they can get wet. Also, it can get windy, so you need a shell glove.

Don't underestimate the weather. It can get very windy and the weatherman is not often accurate on possible snow. Take a 4 season tent if you have one. Lighter options are for people with a lot of winter experience. I have a Scarp 1 for winter only use in the San Jacintos.

A NeoAir is not going to hack it for most people. Plan on overnight lows in the 20's or even lower in winter. On June 1st last year, the high was 32. I use a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core and a thin foam pad.

A Tram ticket is $23.95 for adults. You can get a season pass for $150.

It is recommended you get a permit in advance if going on a weekend. A couple of Boy Scout Troops on a weekend can take up the quota. It is $5 per person.

If you would like some company, I would be happy to go with you on a weekend. All of my vacation days for the year have already been scheduled, so I cannot take any additional week days off. I live at the base of the mountain so it is easy for me to go if I have some advance notice to get a kitchen pass from the wife.

Doug Smith
(Jedi5150) - F

Locale: Central CA
Crampons on 02/21/2012 12:30:22 MST Print View

Jerry and Nick, outstanding input, thanks! I really like your after action report Jerry. That's the same thing I hope to accomplish. I appreciate the offers to come along. I can let you guys know exactly what dates once I get the plans ironed out, but most likely sometime in the last two weeks of March. Nick, unfortunately weekdays is probably when I'll have to go since hotel costs are much cheaper for the family. I'm not sure what your schedule is like either Jerry.

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
Heat packs = warm feet on 02/21/2012 21:02:19 MST Print View

I open up some of those Grabber brand toe warmers an hour or so before needing them to help keep my feet warm, whether in the evening or morning eating and packing up. I usually keep my stove running on low to use as a hand warmer. Last weekend I hooked up with a large group for a change and slowly watched them go to bed by 8:15. Morning temps per two zip-o-gauges was 2F and 7F per a digital gauge 5' off the ground a few miles north of the Kit Carson Pass on 88 up north here. Snowshoes were nice coming out as the trail was well packed by a few groups of overnighters, no slipping. There are a bunch of us up north here, Sac area, Bay area and me up in the mountains. You could join us, but we may all be too far away, plus they are mostly on Facebook and I'm not, so most of my trips now are solo.