How to Leave No Trace While Winter Backpacking

With a few more months of winter ahead for much of the country, many backpackers who haven't ventured out since the fall might be getting the itch for a few good nights out on the trail, even if the temps are pretty chilly. To be full prepared for the winter trips, a little additional planning and preparation should take place to account for the colder temps and shorter days. One important piece of planning that also needs to be considered is how to adapt to the Leave No Trace Principles in winter. Since they take on a little different twist in freezing temperatures, here's a brief run through of the Leave No Trace Principles for Winter Backpacking:

Winter Camping Photo by Chris Martin


� Planning Ahead: With nightfall coming early, there's less time to move from campsite to campsite, take day trips, or wrap-up any chores around camp. Before leaving for your trip, it's a good idea to review the route, any closures or winter regulations, and weather conditions. Everything tends to take longer in cold weather, so be sure to give yourself enough time to get done what you need to while it's light outside.

Once on the trail, pay special attention to any trail markings, it's not uncommon for them to be covered in snow so it's extra important knowing the lay of the land. A GPS or other navigation device might not be a bad idea in you're new to the hiking area. Also, wear a flexible layering system to keep your body the right temperature throughout the range of activities you go through during the day.

winter backpacking
Winter backpacking (photo courtesy of Ken Murphy)

� Durable Surfaces: When hiking during the day, try to stay in the middle of the trail, using already marked trails if possible. If fresh snow has fallen and you are the first person on the trail, do your best to find the middle of the path and keep a safe distance from tree branches, they are more fragile in the winter and tend break off while frozen.

Travel away from avalanche prone areas, steep slopes and slippery hills. At camp, look for snow or other solid surfaces instead of areas where there might be vegetation starting to grow. Finally, be careful of traveling on ice unless you are confident about how thick it is. Even though a river or lake look frozen over, it's hard to tell how thick the ice is unless you can confidently test it before walking on it.

� Campfire Impact: Just like during 3-season camping, starting a campfire in established rings is your best bet. While branches might be snow covered and frozen, they can still be dry enough for a fire so look for fallen branches for firewood instead of taking them from live trees. Before you leave camp, spread the cooled ashes around and try your best to cover the fire area so it looks as natural as when you arrived.

Leave No Trace
Example of poor campfire LNT behavior (photo courtesy of Jason Fowler)

� Dispose of Waste: As always, "pack it in, pack it out." Any food or trash that is left around will freeze, leaving it until the snow melts in Spring. For any human waste, burying it in the ground or under snow will only allow it to freeze then thaw out when the temperatures warm. Instead, let it freeze and pack it out so it can properly be disposed of once you return.

� Leave What You Find: With snow covering just about everything, we will not be as tempted to take a souvenir from our trip, so it's easier to leave everything how we found it. Anytime leaving camp, try your best to even out the snow or destroy the snow shelter or igloo you might have made.

� Respect Wildlife: With cold temperatures and scarce food, the long and cold winter months are tough on the wildlife. Be sure to observe from a safe distance and do not leave any food or trash around the campsite.

� Be Considerate of Other Visitors: While the winter might not be a popular time for backpacking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiers and other winter activities can keep a wilderness area busy. Continue to respect others while on the trail and keep an eye out for fast moving, snowmobilers, skiers, or snowshoers, and allow them room on the trail.

Winter Backpacking Photo by Chris Martin


It doesn't take much more planning to create an exciting trip out in the woods during the winter months, but additional measures are needed. With a little extra prep the days and nights out in the snow can be as enjoyable as they are during the summer.
Author bio:
-Ryan runs the backpacking site The Amateur Outdoorsman. Ryan's writings are geared towards helping those who are just getting into backpacking learn new skills and gain additional knowledge so they can have a little more confidence in their skills before heading out on their next backpacking trip. When he's not busy with work, or writing he likes to head into the Sierras and around Lake Tahoe for some good hikes and a little tenkara fishing.

**The member-driven Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This copyrighted information has been reprinted with permission from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org


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