Tips for the Backcountry 

Wisdom learned through winter adventures 

“Once I could not fathom turning 50. But as I did recently, I’m grateful to still enjoy outdoor activities that I started in my youth. Following are lessons I’ve learned (often the hard way) over the years. This installment focuses on snow activities, especially in spring.”

My first visit to Sonora Pass arrived on a beautiful May day. Long after the downhill resorts had closed, I borrowed skis and tramped around in the snow delightfully. But the next morning, my beet-red face made clear my mistake, and I’ve never forgotten to guard against sunburn again.

1) Try snowshoeing. You’ll have whole snow-covered mountain ranges to yourself. Then try cross country skiing for more speed and fun. Best conditions for both usually arrive in March and April. 

2) Dress in layers, avoiding cotton. Fabrics like wool or polypropylene insulate your body temperature even when wet. 

3) Carry skins (sticky fabric strips) and wax for cross country skis. Skins helps climb steep hills. Wax increases your glide, speed and efficiency.

4) Time your outings wisely. Early spring provides better snow and longer and warmer days. 

5) Beware the sun. Its ultraviolet light burns skin quickly at high elevation, even in cloudy skies. Sunscreen and lip balm help. Covering your skin helps more.  

6) Avoid stormy weather. Deep powder can slow one’s pace to a crawl. You don’t have to be there when snow falls to appreciate it.

7) Drive smart. If you think you need chains, you need chains. Put them on, even if it’s stormy outside. Carry emergency supplies, like food, water, blankets and flashlights. Taking a day off to avoid weekend traffic increases safety and makes a better trip.

8) Try snow camping. Read up about winter gear: choose a good tent, stove, and sleeping bag. Carry a snow shovel to flatten your camp site. Try this close to a road and your car on your first time. 

9) Camp comfortably. An inflatable mattress insulates your body temperature from the snowpack beneath you, providing warmer rest than a foam pad. Check for leaks before you go! Heat water, fill your bottle and take it into your sleeping bag with you. Make sure the bottle is closed securely! 

10) Start your outing early in the day. Stories abound about skiers and snowshoers caught after dark and forced to spend a night in the snow. Yosemite’s Ostrander Ski Hut has “benighted” scores of would-be visitors on its ten-mile trek from Badger Pass, including yours truly, twice! At least I was prepared to “bivvy” comfortably the second time. A related point: carry emergency overnight gear on long day trips.

Don’t let these words of caution give you the wrong idea. Four trans-Sierra treks and many shorter snow outings rate among my favorite outdoor memories. Millions live within a few hours of California’s snow country, but just a few enjoy public lands in winter and spring. If you join us, I think you will be glad you did.