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I was surprised when I got to the Ira Spring trailhead parking lot. I arrived at 8 AM and had expected only a partially filled lot but found it was nearly packed with only a couple of spaces available. The fact that the day was literally cloudless and the sky was that shade of blue that inspired Perry Como had a lot to do with it.

Strapping on my 45lbs backpack, (hiking the Cascades above 3,000ft this time of the year you tend to have a lot more gear) I started out. I had on an out layer which didn't make it half a mile before it was strapped to the pack. The sun was blinding and with that much weight I was really heating up. As the trail changed from an easy incline to switchbacks there appeared snow/ice patches more and more frequently. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have put on my crampons a lot sooner.

With all the traffic on the trail, you would have thought you were on I405 at rush hour. That was fine by me as I met a lot of really friendly folks and enjoyed conversations with folks that were just as happy as I was to be on the trail. Some were very experienced, some not so experienced, but all enthralled by the views of the mountains and especially Mt. Rainier.

I made it to Mason Lake around lunch time and after a quick bite to eat, set up my hammock and rainfly. The sun was shining, the hammock was inviting so I relaxed and took a nap for an hour. Why not?

As the sun started moving closer to the edge of the mountains I decided to get busy with setting up for the night. I found a flat rock, moved it over to my camp site and with a few twigs built a little fire on it to keep warm. The wind was really picking up so I got creative with some paracord and my ground tarp to make a wind break. For the most part it worked but as the evening wore on, the wind became stronger and started to blow the embers of my little fire all over the place. It was time for bed. I shoveled a load of snow onto the fire to put it out and crawled into my hammock expecting to get a good night's sleep. Nope.

The wind kept blowing harder and harder. Twice I had to get up and adjust or fix my rainfly which was being battered badly by the wind. The noise was a little un-nerving and I could hear my hammock straps vibrating in the wind. Finally, about 2am the wind abated and I was able to drift off to sleep.

The morning was worth it. Mason Lake was a perfect mirror of the mountains surrounding it and honestly took my breath away. I cleaned up the campsite and took down the wind break I'd put up. It was partially taken down by the wind anyway and then cooked up some porridge and a cup of tea. The lake was enchanting and I lingered over breakfast and delayed breaking camp for a while just enjoying the views.

Finally breaking camp, I got packed up, did a last walk around to make sure there was nothing left from my visit and headed back down the trail. Despite the scary night, this was a great overnighter.

I think at this point, everyone is familiar with layering, (if not I've put a few useful links about it down below). What is often overlooked is the difference between hiking in the cold and relaxing around camp in the cold. So let's talk about that.

Our bodies generate a lot of heat. A 180lbs man hiking up an incline of 6%-15% for an hour will burn up to 656 calories. Fortunately we humans dissipate heat quickly by sweating. Which is just fine if you're walking around in shorts and a T-shirt. It's a different story when we go hiking in the cold. We layer our clothes, with a base layer, an insulating layer, and then a waterproof shell. Add in two layers of wool socks, gloves, and an insulated hat and we have a situation where that heat doesn't dissipate so well. We're sweating in a thermal suit designed to keep all that heat in and the cold out.

"Yeah, but my base layer is moisture-wicking and I'm not wearing any cotton.", you say. Good. However, even the most moisture-wicking fabric will still have moisture and as you hike along, your body is getting hotter and moister. After hiking a mile or so, you've removed your wooly cap, stuffed the winter gloves in the backpack, and taken off your waterproof shell. Perhaps even the insulating layer is stuffed into your backpack. Then you arrive at your campsite or lunch spot. This is when things change.

You're no longer active. Your body isn't generating massive amounts of heat. That 180lbs man is now just burning about 84 calories an hour. This is where you may need more than that insulating layer. Your fingers, ears, and head start getting cold very quickly, toes too.

This is why I recommend having two pairs of gloves, two hats, a scarf, and a puffy jacket stashed in your backpack on winter hikes. On the hike up, you're wearing gloves that will just barely keep your hands warm, once you get to camp, out come the ski gloves. Trudging along you have a moisture-wicking ball cap. At camp, you pull out that wool cap that covers your ears and wrap a scarf around your neck. Unpack the puffy jacket and put that on over your insulating layer and under your waterproof shell.

Winter hiking and backpacking can be some of the best times you'll spend in nature. Just make sure you've packed for not just the hike or camp, but for both. See you out there!

Useful Links

The balmy days of summer are over, and for those of us in the PNW and other northern latitudes, this means the best days of hiking and backpacking are upon us. Seriously. The trails will be a little less crowded and we get to break out our foul-weather

gear and find out just how good our knowledge, experience, and gear really are. We'll be hiking in mud, over wet rocks and roots. Starting a fire will be difficult. Setting up our tents and hammocks will be more challenging. Keeping our feet warm and dry becomes a high-priority issue. Most of all, our resolve will be tested. We are lucky here in the Pacific Northwest in that we get to enjoy a climate that is cold and damp from November through to April or even May. Hikers in the southern regions are denied this blessing.

As you plan your backpacking and hiking adventures this fall and winter, take the extra time to research the area you are going. Read recent reviews about the trail and location. Keep in mind the weather predictions don't always take into account what the weather will be like in the mountains. Accept the fact that you'll be taking some extra gear, and won't be moving as fast as you did in the summer. If you have the opportunity to bring along one of our fellow outdoor lovers from the warmer states, give them the first crack at starting a fire. :)

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