Where “winter” stands for mountain weather in the mid latitudes for that half of the year
General belief about winter conditions in the mid latitudes relates to highly technical activities where the activity itself is the goal and not the means to get somewhere: climb the mountain for the sake of climbing it, not to cross onto the other side.
This is all fine. As a mountaineer, I often do this. It is also not exclusive of winter. The difference is that in the snowy, mountainous terrain the technical goal is often seen as the only option. I’m aware this may be a very local thing, specific to places where there is snow only in the mountains. Scandinavian flatlanders can surely imagine other things to do in their winters. Living in the Central Iberia Highlands, however, the conditions seem to favor the out-and-back conquest over the overnight travelling scheme.
As much as I may enjoy technical climbing, the travelling is my favourite outdoor activity. A small scale, winter version of it is a wonderful thing to try.
Thinking of reproducing the (thru-)hiking thing in winter conditions, I came down to skis and found them perfect. Skis don’t feel comfortable in extreme settings. They can get you there but they’ll prompt you to take the easiest way. I’m aware there’s people who do really extreme stuff on skis. It’s certainly possible but not the essence of the tool.
Skis recall on me similar feelings of flowing with the landscape as the simple hiking on dry ground. It takes a while to get used to having 1.5 meter feet but it soon becomes sort of the natural thing to have in an environment where you would otherwise sink or slide uncontrollably. Skis are about sliding -in a controlled fashion. It makes for a great implementation of the flowing through.
New challenges, same strategies
Winter conditions pose new challenges but the solutions are quite the same as they are in the summer. Some additional items are needed together with beefed-up versions of other common summer items. It all means more weight and volume so the ultralight strategies to packing are more important than ever: careless packing would make the final result deterring. Optimization is due.
Weight and volume
Volume is just as much of an issue as weight itself: insulation for the winter nights takes a lot of space and requires a sizeable pack. This affects the dynamics of downhill skiing.
Skiing with a big pack
Center of gravity displacement can be compensated by a slight forward lean when going uphill but it can get challenging when skiing downhill where applied forces will direct the turns. Skiing down is not the same as with a small pack or no pack at all. Which makes sense because the goal is usually not the same anyway.
Skiing elegantly is not out of the question but the main factor is doing it safely. Skiing down with a big pack on is not the right time for a skill fashion show.
The great added value in travelling is in extending the trip beyond the limits of the journey and what happens in between: it gets dark and the scenario changes. You need a home and you need to do home stuff.
This is different in the winter than it is the rest of the year. Those pics of a colourful tent in a snowy landscape are nice but snow life is not so bucolic. Being in the snow all day, then all night, then the following day and night is tough when you’re travelling.
A shelter system that’s good for the summer months may not be so for winter. Beyond the obvious weather factors, there’s the size: we happily spend time outside in the summer months so a minimal shelter may do. Winter conditions may be not welcoming so a small shelter that would estrictly work may feel awful. The compromise between shelter livability and weight becomes more critical.
Yet spending the night out is one of the most special things about winter, probably even more than during the rest of the year. It’s the time to connect with your environment and be a part of it, the time to stop, look and feel. There’s nothing like that.
Ultralight in the winter
Same idea as in summer but yet more critical: careless packing in the winter is deterring at best, dangerous at worst. Careful gear selection and packing is a sure must.
Parts of the ultralight philosophy apply perfectly well in the winter: thinking of your kit as a set of items that work together and supplement each other, applying multi-function where appropriate and going for simplicity and robustness as general principles. Other ideas don’t fit as well: sometimes, some maximalism and redundancy may be due.
Minimalism finds a new challenge in the winter: when shaving weight is most critical, it’s also trickier. If you thought you had reached your sweet spot between weight and function, try the winter! It gets fun all over again.
In an average winter day, the mountains get empty of humans earlier than in summer. The feeling of being on your own is more powerful. The connection with the place is trickier but the end result is most rewarding. In the winter more than ever it’s the mountains that rule. You are the guest. You’ll be allowed to take it all in only if you behave.