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Climbing 14ers in Winter: Getting Started

Gear You'll Need


As the snow accumulates and temperatures drop, you'll need more than your summer gear to hike 14ers and 13ers in winter conditions. Each climber has their own opinion on how much gear to bring in winter. If you carry too much gear, you risk being slower due to the added weight. If you go "light" by choosing not to carry items which may not be necessary if all goes well, you risk being without it if it's needed. For example, an experienced climber may choose to leave the ice axe and crampons at home because he plans on taking a ridge route, avoiding snow fields and couloirs.

If you're reading this, you're likely doing research because you're not an experienced winter mountaineer. Our advice is to bring items you will or may need, especially in the case of an emergency like a fall or an unexpected overnight stay. Let's be clear, though, even with the proper overnight winter gear, having to spend a frigid night at high elevation is extremely dangerous. Carrying gear you may only need in the case of an emergency is a tricky topic since the extra gear adds weight, which can make your day more difficult. It's a balancing act but some items, like an emergency bivy, should always be in your winter pack.

Below is a list of items that are used on fall, winter and spring hikes when there is snow.

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GPS, Map & Compass

Many winter 14er routes are different than what you'd hike in summer. Some are simple variations to the standard route, while others take a completely different line up the peak. If your route has a trail in summer, it may be hidden by snow in winter. You may expect a visible trench/line in the snow where others have passed and then daily winds fill it with snow. Longer day hikes may require you to start (and end) in darkness, making the route-finding even more difficult. The point here is that a winter hike often requires route-finding and the need for navigation, so bring your GPS or smartphone navigation app and printed maps and know how to navigate with each. Having the ability to follow a GPS track and record your own could save you from getting off-route. A popular 14er route like Quandary's East Ridge route can become quite confusing with low visibility or when your footprints have been erased by the wind.

If you'll be using your smartphone, consider using the 14ers.com Mobile App, GAIA GPS, PeakBagger or some other app that has multiple layers of information as well as tracking and waypoint recording. Slope Angle shading and satellite imagery are very helpful for avoiding avalanche terrain. Make sure you have the route line/track loaded into the app before you head out and use your phone sparingly to conserve power. If you're using the 14ers.com mobile app, 14er route lines can be displayed on the map and you can overlay your current position to make sure your on the route.

GPS units with satellite communication abilities, like a SPOT or inReach, provide text messaging via satellite as well as the ability to direct search and rescue (SAR) teams to your location in an emergency situation. They are great for communicating with your family and friends if you are running late or make plan changes.

But keep in mind that as good as electronic devices are, cold temperatures drain electronic batteries much faster. Be sure you have a supplemental battery pack if you plan to rely on electronics for your navigation. Consider a battery back with enough power to charge both your phone and a GPS messaging device at least once. 5,000-10,000 mAh is usually a good battery pack size and not too heavy.

Don't forget the map & compass. There's a reason these are part of The 10 Essentials. If your GPS/Smartphone dies and you're not sure which way to go, you need to be able to break out the compass. At a minimum, we recommend educating yourself on the proper way to use a map & compass. REI.com: How to Use a Compass

Snowshoes

Snowshoes are an essential piece of gear for traveling thebackcountry in winter and spring. Most snowshoes sizes are based on your personal weight (don't forget to add your gear weight). But you can always go larger or smaller for personal preferences.

Without snowshoes, travel can be difficult to nearly impossible on some routes. The energy and time you waste trying to wallow through deep unsupportive snow can end your journey quickly and turn you into a sweaty mess. Spring snow can be solid and supportive in the morning, then like walking through mashed potatoes in the afternoon. Many rescues have ensued from people who hiked in with no snowshoes in the morning, comfortably on top of the frozen snow, who can no longer hike out in the afternoon without snowshoes due to the softening conditions.

For beginners, you don't need to spend $200-$300 on a new pair of MSR snowshoes, which are pretty standard for winter mountaineering. If you stick with winter hiking, you'll eventually buy something similar. These mountaineering style snowshoes usually have better crampons, edges with teeth and heel lifts which help when hiking steep terrain. They are far better and are safer to use than the aluminum tube style you will also see out there. The tube snowshoes are designed for flat terrain and not mountainous terrain.

Lots of outdoor gear/ski shops will rent snowshoes. This is a great way to have the right gear for novice winter hikers. You can also borrow from a friend. The less expensive snowshoes (the tube design) you can purchase from Sam's, Costco, Dick's etc. will get you up many of the beginner level Winter 14ers.

One helpful option to look for when selecting snowshoes is a heel lift. This feature is great when on steeper terrain.

Another option is to purchase used snowshoes at used gear shops, Craigslist, etc.

(The skiers will affectionately refer to snowshoes as "slowshoes" – and they aren't wrong. It is entertaining to see the mini-debates in trip reports where one partner was on skis and another on snowshoes. They each have their own virtues and faults. Use whichever is right for you – the important thing is you have flotation to keep you on top of the snow.)

Microspikes

Microspikes are traction footwear that slip over your regular boots or shoes. Usually with a rubber-like upper and chains and spikes on the bottom. These help when walking on slick, icy or crusty snow and can make the difference between hiking to the summit and turning around. Most come with small draw-string bags for storage. Kahtoola has been the standard, but other companies are putting out good products. The simple YakTrack models are not good, but YakTrack does make some with teeth.

Microspikes are not crampons, and not meant for ice climbing or traveling on very steep terrain. Microspikes are very flexible and are meant for light duty, for lack of a better term. Some people wear spikes in all snow conditions for extra traction to prevent those minimal foot movements that can wear you out over a long day.

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Crampons

Crampons are semi-ridged pieces of traction footwear that attach to mountaineering boots with bindings. Crampons are meant for steep terrain, like couloirs, and icy conditions. If microspikes are for light duty, crampons are for heavy duty use. A good general rule is that you will want crampons for any terrain that exceeds 25 degrees.

How to choose crampons

Strap-on style crampons will fit over any boot or shoe, but are not as rigid as clip-on or step-in crampons and are not meant for ice climbing. They are great for when you need more than microspikes, but not full attachment. They are more likely to slip off than the other styles. The step-in style is less likely to fall off and are a must for the hard peaks.

For the beginner and moderate winter peaks, crampons are overkill. But, they will be an essential piece of gear once you start looking at Class 3 and Class 4 peaks and couloirs. Steel crampons are stronger, will last longer, but weigh more. Aluminum are lighter, but will wear out faster.

Gaiters

Leg gaiters prevent ice buildup on your boots and pant legs as well as keep snow out of your boots. This helps keep your feet warm and dry. On long days or overnight trips it's important to keep your pants dry and wet feet can be dangerous. Gaiters come in long and short lengths; In winter, you'll want longer ones that go up to just below your knees.

Some shell pants have built-in gaiters which can be hooked to the top of your boots but these are more helpful for skiers/boarders who are wearing a high boot that the gaiter can cover completely.

Trekking Poles

Many people use trekking poles in summer, but they are extremely important on winter hikes while traversing slick surfaces, steep terrain, and using snowshoes. The extra balance and stability they provide is indispensable and will reduce the load on our joints and muscles. Make sure you have poles with snow baskets to help your poles sink less in soft snow.

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Ice Axe

An ice axe is the tool you will quickly appreciate having with you on summit attempts.

Other than your brain, an ice axe is one of the most important pieces of winter safety gear to have with you on summit attempts. The key is knowing how to use it. An ice axe can be more detrimental to you if you try to use it and don't know how. People have ended up injured, like an axe to the face, from trying to use an ice axe and not knowing how to use it.

The ice axe is primarily a rescue tool to save you (self arrest) from sliding down a slope, if used properly. It adds stability to walking and can be used as an anchor when you stop for a break on a steeper section of icy/snowy terrain. The axe is also used to cut steps in hard pack snow or ice.

It is highly recommend that you take a class on using an axe, or have an experienced friend teach you and then practice until using it is natural and your muscle memory is set. Watching a YouTube video alone is not going to help you learn. This is a hands-on learning experience that will help you develop the skills to potentially save your life someday. Ask any experienced winter climber if they have had to self arrest and chances are good they have at some point and can tell you what would have happened had they not self arrested successfully.

An ice axe can also be used to help you glissade down those long fun slopes when snow conditions are right, especially in spring and early summer.

Side note: an ice axe is different than ice tools which have shorter handles and are used for ice climbing.

Avalanche Gear

Avalanche safety gear consists of a personal locator beacon, a shovel and a probe. Many of the beginner level Winter 14ers are usually avalanche safe if you follow the winter routes. But, that is no guarantee especially during heavy snow years (Spring 2019) or years with crappy snow (2020-21).

Consider taking an AIARE Level 1 class that will teach you the proper use of the avalanche safety gear. But remember, avoidance is a far better strategy than relying on avalanche equipment. If you are caught and buried in a slide, even with a beacon, your partner will need to locate you and excavate you within minutes – and neither of those is easy or fast to do.

Eye/Sun Protection

This is mentioned in the What to Wear section, but it important enough to mention here as well. Wrap-around sunglasses and goggles are a must. On sunny days, sun reflects off the snow which can cause snow blindness. Goggles can also protect you from the sun. But their main purpose to protect your eyes on windy days, with or without sun. You'll want both in your pack. And yes, you can get a sunburn in winter! It is often even easier than in the summer due to the reflection off of the snow. Apply sunscreen at the car. It might be frozen if you wait until later to apply it.

Mittens

There is no substitute for the warmth of mittens. Some gloves are great and can be worn all day on a winter excursion, but don't underestimate the value of a pair of mittens in your pack, even if they are just for an emergency. If you like gloves better for the dexterity they provide over mittens, be sure to get something that's warm enough for your winter hike.

Water

Remember to drink plenty of water while you hike. When it's cold outside, you might be less inclined to stop for water. Make it simple by keeping water within reach so you can drink regularly throughout the day.

Yes, water freezes in winter. It is recommended you use water bottles and not water bladders in winter. Bladders are great in summer but the hose and mouth pieces will easily freeze in winter. If you still want to use your bladder, leave the hose at home and use it as a reservoir for the bulk of your water and keep a smaller water bottle in your jacket which can be refilled occasionally. There are hikers that are adamant about using a bladder+hose in winter and take numerous steps to prevent freezing. Sometimes those steps work but if the temperatures are expected to be extremely cold, avoid the hose system.

  • Use an insulated bottle. Hydro Flask bottles are popular, but you can also find less expensive insulated bottles at Ross or Wal-Mart. Fill it with hot tea, coco, coffee or soup for a nice warm treat during the trip.
  • Regular water bottles wrapped in wool socks or an extra shirt/layer and stuffed in the backpack will stay liquid for a while. Make sure the cap is tight, and place the bottle upside down. If freezing does occur, it will usually be at the surface which is now on the other end of the cap. (The socks/layer can be your extra emergency gear.)
  • Start with warm or hot water if possible. (If you have a camp stove you can heat water at the trailhead.) If you use boiling water in a Nalgene bottle with an insulated cover or the wool socks mentioned above, you typically can get 6-8 hours of warm water, depending on outside temps.
  • To help with convenience, use an insulated water bottle carrier that straps to the outside of your pack or shoulder strap.
  • Using supplements like powder or mixing with Gatorade/Powerade lowers the freezing point a few degrees.

Your water will eventually freeze if you are outside long enough or the temperatures are cold enough. Make choices to prolong the inevitable. Some people will carry a small gas stove+pot as an emergency item in case it's necessary to melt snow for drinking water.

The 10 Essentials

And a reminder to not forget the 10 Essentials while hiking in winter:
  • Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger (phone/device: cold temps will shorten battery life, carry a portable charger with cords, switch your phone to "airplane mode" to conserve the battery)
  • Headlamp plus extra batteries (cold temps will shorten battery life, lithium batteries will usually last longer), Headlamps with separate battery packs are popular in cold temps because you can put the pack under a layer or two.
  • Sun protection sunglasses, goggles, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen (sunlight reflected off the snow can increase the chance and intensity of sunburn, as well as sunblindness)
  • First aid: including foot care, frostbite care
  • Knife: plus a gear repair kit
  • Fire: matches, lighter, tinder, fire starter and/or stove
  • Shelter: carried at all times (can be an emergency bivy)
  • Food: For the day and a bit more
  • Water: For the day and a bit more
  • Proper winter clothes: For the hike, an extra layer and for emergencies. An extra pair of socks can help with wet feet or cold hands in an emergency.

A Night Out: Survival Gear

The annoyances that occur during a summer hike can become dangerous or deadly in the winter. The margin of error shrinks in winter. Carrying extra gear, survival gear, will be heavy. But this gear can make the difference between surviving a subzero night on the mountain and freezing to death or losing fingers or feet to frostbite.

Can you survive a night out on a winter slope with the gear you are carrying? There are numerous items to consider carrying on winter excursions. Each person has their own tolerance for what might be needed and should pack accordingly. Some suggested items include:
  • Emergency bivy or an industrial trash bag to use as a shelter
  • GPS locator device (Spot or inReach)
  • Phone with battery pack and cords
  • Extra coat or layers
  • Extra socks and gloves
  • Fire starting kit
  • Backpacking stove & metal cup/bowl
  • Candles & matches
  • Extra hand/toe warmers
  • Extra Food
  • Extra Water

Sled

For longer winter excursions and overnight trips, consider using a sled to carry your gear. You can buy mountaineering sleds or rig a cheap, plastic sled.

Seat Cushion

Yes, this might seem like a luxury item, but many hikers carry these to separate themselves from the cold ground or rocky edges. There are companies that sell foam or blow-up cushions. Or you could cut your own from an old, foam sleeping pad. The extra bit of protection helps keep your body warm on breaks or survival situations.

Vehicle

When traveling to the backcounty, one should carry winter gear for your vehicle. It's very common for vehicles, even 4x4s to get stuck. Items to include are a shovel, kitty litter or a bag of sand for traction, tire chains, tow strap, battery charger, and a blanket. Leaving extra food and water in the car is also a wise choice.