Tips For Your First Winter Trip Into The Backcountry (From Someone Who’s Been There)

When Kathmandu asked us to put their top-end XT Series to the test in the Aussie alpine region, on the first days of winter, we were stoked. Rachel was really frothing, it was going to be her first winter trip to the backcountry! Now she’s ready to tell you how you can get out there.


One of the best things about going back to work on a Monday morning is swapping stories from the weekend with your colleagues, and nothing fascinates people quite like tales of derring do. So when I returned from my first winter trip into the backcountry of Kosciuszko National Park I held a captive audience. I should have prepared a PowerPoint presentation because my phone exchanged hands all day as my friends pored over pictures and videos I had taken as conditions fluctuated between mild and extreme.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

It did look pretty awesome. The most common remarks were “You’re amazing, I could never do something like that,” and “How do you do it?”

The thing is everyone can do it. I do have an appetite for adventure and a fair whack of grit but I’m no different to anyone else out there. If you’re well equipped and with the right people the only real skill you need is placing one foot in front of the other. So if you’ve ever thought, “That looks awesome, but I can’t do it,” here are some tips to get you started. Just know that yes, you can do it.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Study The Weather Forecasts

When you’re heading out into the wide, wide world to try something new you don’t go in blind, and there isn’t much that is more important than the weather when you’re out in the elements. Reading weather forecasts is somewhat of an art and it can be tricky, my number one info nugget is always check the weather station your forecast is coming from. You may enter ‘Kosciuszko weather’ into your search engine but the resulting report could come from a number of different weather stations at different altitudes in the area. I may have read the wrong one a few times…

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

The more detailed the report the better, things like exact weather station location, freezing levels, rain, snow, highs, lows, sunrise and sunset times, and wind speed and direction, are all very helpful in both preparing, packing and planning for your trip.

After weeks of checking forecasts and doing snow dances it looked like the general gist of our weekend was going to be wind, rain and snow; I guess that’s what we asked for! At any rate, after donning the Kathmandu XT Series gear we’d been sent to test out and packing an extra helping of noodles, we were prepared.

Mad About Gear? Here’s What We Thought: How Does Kathmandu’s High End Gear Really Hold Up?

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Advice From Someone Who Has Done It Before

Come the night before departure, I had been nominated as one of the trip drivers, probably due to my flawless driving record. I got a little worried as I had never driven on snow or ice before, so I did what anyone would do and I asked my Dad.

“Remember to actually engage 4WD.”

Firstly, Dad I’m not a moron and secondly there are flashing neon signs to remind you.

“Drive like there is an open bottle of whiskey on your bonnet.”

Firstly, Dad… That’s actually really good advice, thanks.

For the record, I remembered to engage 4WD before the flashing neon lights appeared, the whiskey bottle advice worked and we all arrived safely.

Buddy Up With A Friend Who Knows More Than You Do

Not only is it safer but learning on the job can be one of the best and quickest ways to acquire new skills, very similar to asking Dad for advice but far more valuable. I was super excited about this trip for a few reasons. One, snow. Two, navigational experience. I had rarely gone off the beaten track before and I was keen to learn a thing or two.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

During the trip we used a combination of maps, GPS and a handy little app called PeakFinder to guide our way up, over and around the mountains. PeakFinder was particularly great when we needed to position ourselves on the map as the weather closed in and find the way up to a saddle and subsequently the peak we wanted to summit. The conditions were pretty gnarly, I definitely came out of the experience with plenty more knowledge than I went in with and I will be far more comfortable on my next trip that strays from the path.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Sleeping Mats (Plural)

Following on from my previous point, when your experienced bud tells you that you should bring an inflatable mattress as well as your closed cell foam mattress, don’t say, “Yeah, nah I’ll be right.” Guess who barely slept on their first snow camping trip? This girl. Guess who didn’t have any problems? Everyone else.

When snow camping, insulation from the icy ground is important, you want a mat with an R-value of 4 or greater and the combination of air mat and closed cell foam will have you sleeping sound. I will never forget how cold my butt was that night and I’ll definitely never forget the faces of my smug, well-rested adventure pals.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

What You Wear Matters (More Than Usual)

Of course what you wear always matters when you’re outdoors but it’s particularly important when you’re in an alpine environment. You aren’t going to get away with softshell pants and a rain jacket. Alpine weather patterns can be extreme, at times unpredictable and have a habit of changing throughout the day. All of us had been subjected to these sorts of conditions and we weren’t taking any risks, we would be dry and damnit we would be warm.

Photo by @adrianmascenon

A few things we all agreed on: GoreTex overalls are the ultimate lower body hard-shell and dope as hell, hoods are good (no-one wants rain running into their midlayers or cold ears) and having breathable waterproofs makes high output mountain climbing way more comfortable.

Surprisingly my favourite piece of gear turned out to be my snow gloves. Like most snow gloves the insulated waterproof outlayer made delicate tasks difficult: enter the compatible liner. These were great for any task, even using my smartphone, but most importantly they stayed warm even when wet and once I had finished doing what I needed they slipped straight back into the outer. When you’re out in the snow and rain your gloves WILL get wet so if you don’t have a good glove system consider having multiple pairs of gloves to keep your fingers warm and dry.

Photo by @adrianmascenon

Equip Yourself Correctly – Part 1

Before we began the long drive from Sydney someone suggested we pack the snow shovel and snow pegs and we all laughed, the snow season didn’t look to be starting any time soon and the ski fields were pretty much grass. If there was snow surely it wouldn’t be so much that we couldn’t hit soil, besides the prediction was minimal. We had obviously forgotten that any trip I embark on is bound to have far more extreme weather than is predicted. Foolish.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

As we approached camp the snowfall really picked up, I had never seen anything like it. The snowflakes were bigger than 50c pieces and made a ‘thunk’ on my hood every time they hit – after just an hour our tents looked more like igloos. I’ll never forget standing in front of our tents as the snow floated around me, for a moment there was not a whisper of wind in the air and the mountain peaks were invisible amongst the cloud. It was so quiet it felt almost ethereal.

Photo by @adrianmascenon

All our equipment turned out to be sufficient but those little extras would have made setting up camp a helluva a lot easier. Digging out tent sites and tables by hand is hard work (even with bomber gloves) and I wouldn’t have minded a nice little snow wall to block the wind for added warmth.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Note: We went at the very start of winter so the snow wasn’t too deep. Later in the season gear like snowshoes, avalanche probes, avalanche beacons, shovels, and even crampons and ice axes, might be necessary.

Equip Yourself Correctly – Part 2

I’m just going to keep this short and sweet, if you’re packing it out make sure your poo-tube is of adequate size. I don’t think I need to explain this further.

Very Related Reading: How To Poo In The Bush

Know When To Say When

This is a really important one. We had big plans and we fell short, covering only half the distance we thought we would by 2.00pm. The weather was closing in and the wind increasing as we moved up the mountain and every time we stopped for snacks we talked about what was next and how far we could move by what time. So when it came to 3.00pm and we stumbled upon a flat sheltered area we all had the same idea.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

I think we were all a little disappointed we didn’t make it further, but no one regretted the choice and we got to frolic in the snow storm with our toasty tents already set up and waiting for us. It’s important to note that ascending further and finding a campsite in the dark would have been dangerous in the conditions we faced. We made a decision for our safety and it was the right decision.

Stay Active

Once you make camp and stop moving around you will need to layer up or risk getting cold, and the easiest way to prevent the chills is to stay active. There are several activities I can recommend and at the risk of being too obvious…

SNOW. BALL. FIGHT.

There is nothing more fun than pegging snowballs at your mates, just don’t be that guy who makes an ice ball, even if you’d like to exact revenge on your extra-smelly tent mate. The backcountry is no place to be suffering from blunt force trauma. Other fun activities* include but are not limited to: making slippery slides, building snowmen, kicking over snowmen and constructing your new sub-zero living room – just make sure the table is level. For optimum warmth when you jump into your sleeping bag pump out a few rounds of star jumps and high knees before you crawl in.

*All activities tried and tested by the WAE team.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Have Your Food Hot

Hot food will help keep your core body temp up and warm your hands as you eat it. It makes being out in the elements just that little bit more manageable. Our track diet consisted of hot coffee, ramen, chickpea curry and porridge, with snacks in-between of course. Cooking can be a bit of a chore especially when you don’t want to take your snow gloves off, so having food you can either heat up in a pot or add water to is a good idea.

Fuel Matters: In cold temperatures or at altitude gas canister stoves don’t work very well. You’re best off taking a liquid fuel stove that can be pressurised by hand. (If you do take gas canisters, chuck them in the bottom of your sleeping bag when you sleep to keep them warm.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Have Fun

I think this piece of advice is too often overlooked. Have you ever heard the saying, “Your problem isn’t the problem, it’s your attitude about the problem”? Bad weather? No worries. Cold hands? Take a break. Steep snowy route? Send it. Fall through the snow into a frozen river and get your boot wet? Laugh at yourself with the rest of your mates.

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

The backcountry will challenge you and a lot of the time these challenges present themselves as both physical and mental hardships, embrace it. Admire the beauty of a snow storm and be proud of the badass you are for enduring, no, enjoying it. I have always found being the positive person is infectious and people will follow suit. No-one wants to be the wet blanket and no-one wants to miss out on the fun. Sometimes I make bad jokes, sometimes I sing great songs out of tune, but I always have a smile on my face even when I’ve just fallen through a snow-covered bush and I can’t get myself upright.

Photo by @adrianmascenon

Winter in the alpine backcountry is amazing and I enjoyed every moment. Well maybe I didn’t enjoy not sleeping but apart from that it was 24/7 awesome. The weather was challenging, the ascents were hard and the snow-covered scenery was just phenomenal. It isn’t an untenable idea and provided you are prepared with the right gear, skills and knowledge, or you have an adventure pal who can bring it to the table, you got this. So know the conditions, gear up, get out there and have fun.

So how did Kathmandu’s XT Series hold up? Read our in-depth gear test to find out!

Photo by Rachel Dimond | @wanderer_rachel

Kathmandu sent us into the backcountry to test out their XT Series gear. Their top-of-the-range kit couldn’t have been more at home in the frosty, wet Australian Alps, leaving us to focus on the beauty all around us.

 


Australia’s alpine region is stunning:

How Does Kathmandu’s High-End Gear Really Hold Up?

Watsons Crags // Kosciuszko Mini-Mountain Experience (NSW)

Overnighting On The Main Range // Kosciuszko National Park (NSW)

Hiking the 10 Highest Peaks in Australia

A Raw Intro To Aussie Ice Climbing // Blue Lake & South Rams Head (NSW)