Some of my favourite outdoor adventures to date have been in the middle of winter with snow everywhere and a lot less people around. Getting to the hut at the end of the day and cranking the fire up to thaw out your toes is pretty satisfying, but suffering through the experience of tramping in the winter months is easy to avoid with a few simple additions to your kit and allowances to your plans. So before you settle in to binge watch that next series on Netflix, take another look at the topo maps and see if you can't tick off a few more huts before spring.
1. Location, location, location
Do your homework and make sure you pick a hut with a good fire and plenty of places to get firewood from before you go. If you want to be super hard core then you can bring your own kindling in to get the party started as dry wood can sometimes be hard to come by depending on how good the previous tenants have been with putting stuff in the wood shed. If you're heading somewhere without a fire then make sure your sleeping set up is warm enough for sub-zero nights - a 3 season sleeping bag with a silk liner is good place to start. For those of you opting for a night in a tent, choose an insulated air core mat with a higher R-value to keep you warm on the ground.
Remember the days are going to be shorter so keep in mind that being able to walk for 10 hours straight is only as good as having 10 hours of daylight to walk in (or a really good head torch). Picking a track that gives you plenty of time to reach the hut and collect that all important firewood is key to you having a good time. We've taken axes with us on occasion and made an afternoon of restocking supplies for the hut. Chopping up a few trees is also a really good way to stay warm and entertains that lumberjack fantasy I know you secretly have.
Part of your initial planning should include avoiding any significant river crossings if you're still learning to look after yourself in the wild - not getting wet should be your major priority. Whenever you go tramping it's always helpful to read trip reports and look for areas where you might have issues if the weather changes suddenly. This is even more important in winter as the risk of hypothermia can often lead to poor decision making even by fit and experienced trampers. If the route is prone to slips and/or avalanches, make sure you have a plan B or exit strategy if conditions turn out differently from what you expect.
A few things change when the mercury hits zero and one of those is the white powdery stuff. This makes for magical instagram shots, snow angels and also an impressive disappearing act by the track. If your intended route is poled this will make things easier but be prepared to follow your map more closely than you would in summer when well-worn paths are clear as day. Add a little more time on to your intended trip length for wading through fresh snow or negotiating slippery rocks, you'll be surprised how much time you can eat up trying not to fall on your butt. If the track goes over a pass you'll need to carry an ice axe and crampons even if you're unsure if you might use them or not. Also, learn how to use your ice axe and crampons somewhere safe before you need to try them out on a not so safe slope. This could be a great excuse for a day trip somewhere to play in the snow for a few hours but still go home to a hot shower.
*Until you can self-arrest from upside down flying backwards down a slope (this is how we were made to practice) then your ice axe probably falls more into the "decorative" category
2. Stuff to wear
Just because you need to stay warm doesn't mean you suddenly need to hire 50 porters and 12 donkeys to carry your gear for an overnighter. The secret is being able to layer everything you have into one epic weather proof suit of pure warmth. With the exception of a spare set of thermals to sleep in, I wear a thermal layer top and bottom, high pile fleece mid layer, insulated jacket, waterproof hardshell and softshell pants (I always carry waterproof pants for anything more than light rain). If I got soaking wet from say falling in a river (please don't test this theory) these will warm back up with my body heat as long as I'm moving and uninjured. If I need to stop moving due to injury then I'd change into the back up thermals, get in my sleeping bag and set off my beacon but I'd still be warm. In reality my insulated jacket (I carry a Macpac Pulsar Primaloft Gold Jacket) is usually too warm to walk in so I keep this in a dry bag in my pack for wearing when we stop for food or at night in the hut.
Until you've been able to test your gear in the wet and cold and see how it performs it's better to err on the side of caution and take an extra dry mid layer to keep in your pack for emergencies. A spare pair of dry socks is an absolute must, I keep one pair dry for at night and put the wet ones back on each morning if we're walking for a few days. Anything else you choose to add is up to you but make sure you don't go too crazy adding weight as moving at a good speed and taking fewer breaks may be better than a slow, cold trudge to the hut. Keeping your head, neck and hands warm is just as important as your core so find a combination of accessories that gives you good coverage and stays warm when wet. Merino is ideal for this and I always carry a merino neck gaiter or balaclava to keep me warm especially at night.
I'm all about taking everything I need and nothing else but I have two words that may be about to change your life.... Down Booties. Hut shoes are nice and stuff but these babies weigh next to nothing, are snow proof on the bottom and act like tiny sleeping bags for your feet. While the traction control is somewhat questionable on ice, you'll be so stoked not to have to put on wet, half frozen boots for that midnight trip to natures urinal. They also keep your feet toasty inside your sleeping bag if things get seriously cold!
3. Appetizers and Refreshments
Food is fundamentally important to sustaining us everyday. To the tramper who is three days walk from civilisation and feeling like things are turning a little bit Revenant-like, food is everything. Unlike on a summer hike where it's less socially acceptable, gas here is definitely your friend. Take twice as much and embrace hot drinks, hot soup, hot noodles and hot water in your alloy bottle inside a sock (the sock stops you burning your hands and makes for a nice hotty in your sleeping bag at night). Interestingly it's also a good way to dry wet socks...
You will want to eat more when it's cold so on top of the usual Freeze Dried staples it's important to pack an extra "treat bag" full of all the worst/best things for you. I'm particularly fond of Picnic Bars, condensed milk and that instant cheesecake mix that you just add margarine to. Eat often and make sure you take the time for a hot drink if it's particularly cold going midday. An insulated flask is a nice addition to your kit as you can fill it with coffee in the morning and still have a hot drink a few hours later, even if there isn't anywhere to pull out your stove. Water may be harder to come by if you're travelling up and over a pass so make sure you melt plenty of snow for drinking water when you have the ability to or fill up in the last stream you pass before heading to higher ground.
4. Bonus Points
Pack the following and be a GC (good camper).
- Newspaper to start that fire I keep mentioning - bonus points if you leave some for the next group
- Matches and candles (see above)
- A book - you're going to have more time in the evening to kill before bed so bring a sudoku, cross stitch or that Ukulele you keep meaning to learn how to play
- Bothy Bag - this is an emergency shelter that will help warm you up if you fall in that river. While it's no good to actually sleep in (we tried - too much condensation) it's great for getting out of the rain to eat lunch, sort some gear out or have a little cuddle.
- Emergency Locator Beacon, these are getting pretty easy to hire now so there's no excuse for not carrying one per group
- Thick, insulated and water resistant gloves, because everyone likes warm hands
- Sun Glasses, don't worry you'll only ever forget them once
- Epicly warm sleeping bag - 3 season at least (comfort rating -5 degrees to -10 degrees) and pair with a silk liner. Yes it's expensive but it'll last you a decade usually so price it out by year and casually compare it to say what your spouse may spend on their hair/car/coffee addiction in the same time.
- Front spoon - when tramping with a partner opt to take the preferred front spoon position for maximum warmth and strategically place yourself between them and the fire. Better still, take your favourite K9 companion, they're like giant hot water bottles if you can get past being licked sporadically throughout the night.
- An actual hot water bottle - ask your local pharmacy if they have any half size hot water bottles, worth the extra weight 100 times over extra clothes to sleep in.