The Joys of Off-season Hiking

Cover Photo Granite Peak Trail Squaw Valley October 4 2015

When I set the clocks back this fall, I accepted the hard
truth that the prime of the 2015 backpacking season is truly over. The winter storms are now making their way from
Alaska to the Sierra, and bringing with it a foot or more of snow to the higher
elevations. I am now at least 6 months away from backpacking across wildflower
covered plateaus into granite cirques cradling blue-green lakes sparkling in
the sun. <Deep sigh>

But as the years pass, and my experience increases, I find
my seasonal range extending. While I still feel a pang of sadness when the leaves
fall and the weather turns crisp, that feeling is now coupled with a rush of excitement
for adventures to come right around the corner.


Fall color, certainly, is one thing to love about season
change. While California does not have the full range of Vermont’s fall
palette, we do color well in our own right. The bright yellows of our thick
aspen grove may be our most dramatic expression of fall.

Wandering into an aspen grove at its color peak is, I
imagine, like what Dorothy experienced stepping out into a Technicolor Oz –
colors so vivid that they are at once joyful and profoundly disorienting. It’s a
thrill. And while aspens put on our brightest fall show, we have shades of red
and orange as well.

Color on the Piute Pass Trail, September 2015. All images: Karin Schwartz

Peace and Quiet

The peace and quiet is another thing to love about season
change. The backcountry is yours, and yours alone, for hours or days on end,
even on the most popular trails. Trailhead quotas end, and with that, permit
stress disappears, when cooler temps return. A friend and I recently backpacked
up over Rockbound Pass in Desolation Wilderness, and didn’t see a single other
soul for more than a day after we left the trailhead.

Pass in Desolation Wilderness, October 2015

Variable Conditions

The changing seasons do bring special challenges, as my
friend and I experienced on the second day of that same backpacking trip. Hours
and hours of first hail and then driving rain and cold temperatures kept us in
our tents for almost 24 hours, eliminating our planned loop hike on our layover
day. My friend woke to find her tent had developed a moat, and that her shoes
had floated away. I built a rock bridge
to help her get out of her tent.

I built a
rock bridge after a moat formed around my friend’s tent at Lake Doris in
Desolation Wilderness, October 2015

Happy Feet

Staying dry and warm becomes especially critical when the
temperature drops. And that much more difficult. Pursuits like this require a
good boot or shoe with a waterproof membrane, such as the Oboz Bridger Mid BDry
or the Phoenix Low BDry.

(Tip: if your boots
get wet in cold weather despite your best efforts – perhaps because they
floated across a moat while you were sleeping – try changing into dry socks,
and putting your sock-clad feet into plastic bags, before re-inserting your
feet in your wet boots.)


Snow is another reason to love the backcountry when the
temperatures turn cold. Snowshoeing does not necessarily require much more
fitness than summer hiking, so long as the snow is not fresh but has had a
chance to consolidate.

Snowshoeing up to Lake Winnemucca and Round Top, April 2014

The scenery makes the effort worthwhile. And the ambient
temperature doesn’t to be cold.

in a hammock after show shoeing up to Lake Winnemucca off of Carson Pass, March

Some dogs love it. My dog has a fair amount of fluff, and
paws designed for floating on snow. However, not all dogs are made for snow,
and some preparation may be required, so please do your research.

Sasha the
snow dog at Crater Lake in South Lake Tahoe, December 2014

Be Aware

There are particular challenges that may require special
skills and equipment, such as navigation, avalanche zones, and hypothermia. Avalanche
awareness classes are available from REI, but the gold standard is a multi-day
class taught by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education

And then there is winter snow camping. I bit the bullet and
took an excellent multi-day class offered by the Sierra Club’s snow camping section in
the San Francisco Bay Area last year. They taught us how to navigate, stay
warm, and eat well, even when the weather goes south.

camping with the Sierra Club in Lassen National Park.

That’s my bright yellow tent in front. The warmest and
quietest choice, however, is to build a snow cave, which is what about half of
our group did. It was so much fun that I am going back for more in 2016.

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