March 05, 2021
Feel the Rhythm! Ten Tips for Thriving Outside This Winter
Words and Photos by Taylor Bracher
When the going gets cold, Taylor Bracher gets moving, continually building on a skillset that allows her to enjoy her Alaska Winters to the maximum. Wherever you experience your cold time of the year, the tips and tricks she shares in this post can help you put an end to the idea of hibernating for the “off-season.”
Growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia, my sisters and I spent a lot of summer days getting dirty making mud pies in our backyard, floating through splashy water in inner tubes down clear streams, and biking through green tunnels of rhododendrons in the Appalachian Mountains. Ample opportunities existed for children to explore the outdoors, and my parents were the kind to kick us out the door in the morning and say, “Don’t come back ‘til dark.” Now my mother wonders if I’m ever coming back from Alaska.
My new home state is worlds away from where I grew up—where winters were gray and rainy, and people seemed to hibernate until the return of color in Spring and Summer. I’ve come a long way, literally and figuratively, from where my dad taught me and my sisters how to make it down the mom-and-pop ski hills in North Carolina and West Virginia, on manufactured snow on outdated rental gear.
I didn’t really learn how to ski until my first Winter in Alaska when I was 25.
By that time, I’d spent a few summers working in the land of the midnight sun. When the entire season began to feel like one long day, I started imagining that the stillness of the mountains blanketed in snow, and the slower pace of Winter could actually be a comfort. I got a seasonal job in a ski town in south-central Alaska, learned to ski, and haven’t given up extreme Winter since.
Now I live year-round near Denali National Park, in Interior Alaska, and I feel integrated into the place I call home because I have seen the dynamic change of seasons–I have experienced Alaska’s circadian rhythm on the scale of a year, instead of “one very long day.” And in immersing myself into the mountains, I have found that I, too, am a participant in this rhythm. I need the long, muted nights to balance out the intensity of summers spent exploring mountaintops and valleys — backpacking, packrafting, biking, moving constantly.
I love winter! It’s a critical part of my mental health, and I find there’s nothing better than gliding over fresh snow, whether classic, skate, or backcountry. I am an equal-opportunity ski enthusiast! Maybe the things I’ve learned in my seven winters in Alaska can help others experience the rhythm of winter too.
Do your homework! When traveling to a new place, learning a new sport, or venturing into a new season (especially winter, where the stakes are higher in the cold), gather the most information you can to prevent accidents, close calls, or just cutting the adventure short. Experience is one of the best teachers, but if you don’t have that yet, here are some resources I’ve found helpful over the years as I’ve progressed from skiing to big expedition mountaineering.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper
Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book by Allen O’Bannon and Mike Clelland
Glacier Mountaineering by Andy Tyson and Mike Clelland
Luc Mehl does a thorough job of discussing trip planning resources, equipment suggestions, food considerations, and repair kits for Winter travel. If you’re looking to get into big, ultralight Winter trips, this is a good start for a wealth of information.
Snotel Interactive Map shows snow depth and other data from the USDA at different sites across the country
Windy displays all kinds of interactive weather data
Hillmap and CalTopo allow you to easily view (and print) USGS topographical maps and plan routes. You can add slope angle shading which is helpful in determining where you might pass through avalanche terrain.
If you can afford it, nothing beats field-based courses specific to Winter activities. If you plan to travel in the mountains, learning companion rescue and how to assess snowpack and terrain is essential, so I highly encourage an Avalanche Level 1 as a minimum before skiing in avalanche terrain.
Bring your positive attitude and do everything with intention.
Staying positive goes a long way in keeping you comfortable in uncomfortable places! When things get tough, I make an effort to stay kind in my inner self-talk. (“You can do this, Tay!” is a lot more productive than, “You’re so bad at this, Tay.”) I try to remember why I wanted to be in the wilderness in the first place and remind myself that my body is resilient and can handle this.
Move with intention. Especially when it’s extremely cold, we have less energy to waste fumbling with zippers or chasing after a dropped glove that’s blowing away in the wind. When I’m winter camping, if I’m out of my sleeping bag, I make sure I’m always doing something productive.
It’s dark. Go outside anyway! I live in a place where we get fewer than four hours of daylight on the winter solstice, and for almost two months, the sunlight doesn’t directly hit my house. I could hibernate, but then I would miss the magic of a sunrise turning into a sunset, the softness of cotton candy skies, and the feeling of ice crystals on my eyelashes and in my nose. And with bright snow, stars, the moon, and the aurora borealis, it never feels that dark.
Show your feet some love. A proper fitting pair of boots is the best piece of gear you will ever own, and nothing can ruin a trip like destroying your feet. To avoid blisters, keep your feet dry! On long trips, I pull the liners and insoles out of my ski boots every night and sleep with them inside my sleeping bag to dry them out. On hot days, I take off my boots and socks to let the sweat air out when I can. Baby powder is another option I’ve used on long trips (medicated Gold Bond has a scent that can also be helpful when your boots start to smell).
Sometimes keeping your feet dry isn’t an option, so preventative taping is key to avoiding blisters. And if you have a hot spot, stop and deal with it. It will only get worse.
I’ve been backcountry skiing at -30 F. No ski boot is made for temperatures that low, so when it’s that cold, I prioritize efficient, continued movement to keep the blood flowing from my warm core all the way to my toes. I will use wool insoles in my ski boots, and I have moosehide mukluks or down booties that I wear when I’m not skiing. I have friends who use chemical toe warmers, but I find that they take up valuable space in my boots and thus make my feet colder.
Last year on our descent to base camp on Denali’s West Buttress, I picked up clean, untouched socks I had cached weeks earlier at 11,000’. After three weeks of salt and grime building up in my same clothes day after day, I felt like a new woman. Never underestimate the power of clean socks!
Beware of the screaming barfies. While ice climbing a couple of Winters ago, I got the “screaming barfies” (the painful sensation that makes you feel nauseated when your hands warm up after a period of extreme cold) so bad, I actually barfed! The next day, I bought down mittens and invested in a jumbo box of hand warmers at Costco. Even a minor cold injury can have lasting effects, as the damage will make you more susceptible to an injury like frostbite in the future. So, keep your hands, feet, neck, and head warm. Along with hand warmers, I’m a big fan of a buff (wool or fleece or both, depending on conditions) around my neck, a warm hat, and lots of hoods to block the wind and keep my heat in. Warm extremities are the key to staying warm when it’s really cold!
It’s easier to stay warm than to get warm. An efficient layering system is crucial to staying warm while you’re moving as well as when you’re stopped at the top of a windy summit. I prefer wool base layers (as opposed to synthetic, because they don’t hold as much stink, and you can wash the stink out), a fleece layer with a hood and chest pocket (like the Patagonia R1 zip-up), a wind shell of some kind (a wind shirt, a softshell, or GoreTex depending on conditions), and some puffy layers (again, how puffy depends on conditions, and sometimes I wear multiple at once). An efficient system is one where you can add or remove a top layer without having to adjust anything underneath. Goggles are often overlooked, but full coverage is really nice when the winds are howling, and snow is pelting you in the face.
Puffy skirts: not just for women! I had a male friend on Ski Patrol who would wear a down skirt on cold mornings because sitting on the icy chair lift at 10 below was pretty miserable! I used to think puffy skirts were silly, but our butts and thighs are part of our core, and the insulation from a skirt can keep you remarkably warmer. I have a mini puffy skirt that is perfect for skiing without hindering my movement, and I wear it anytime the temperature drops below 10 degrees.
Keep your tech warm. The technology I always bring on winter trips, whether it’s a long trip or only one day, includes a headlamp, my inReach, a lighter, and maps/navigation- either my smartphone with maps downloaded on it or a paper map and compass, often both. Batteries die quickly when they’re exposed to cold temperatures, so be proactive and keep everything essential warm.
I travel with my phone off and in a pocket against my body. If the phone is cold and I need to use it, I’ll try to warm it up before turning it on (putting the phone against a hot hand warmer for a few minutes can help). I keep a lighter in my pocket as well, and depending on the temperatures, I might keep my headlamp in another pocket. So far, I’ve found that my inReach can tolerate sub-zero temperatures and still maintain battery life.
Eat now and eat often. Eating as much as I want might be my favorite part of winter camping. Just like everything else you bring on a winter expedition, you have to consider that your food might freeze. I stuff snacks into my pockets to keep them warm and try to pack things that I can eat even if they do freeze (for example, you can still bite into frozen string cheese, but you might break a tooth on a frozen Snickers bar). I don’t worry too much about what I pack on a day trip, but on anything longer than a couple of days, I want to pack foods that are high in calories but still lightweight. If I’m not too weight conscious, I’ll also bring a thermos of hot tea.
On winter camping trips, I usually pack dehydrated envelope meals for dinner for their ease of cooking. I never eat these in the summer, but when it’s 30 below, efficiency is key, so cooking a gourmet backcountry meal is the last thing on my to-do list. And I recommend taste-testing a few of these before you commit to them on an extended backcountry trip. Some of the brands give me heartburn and keep me up all night with stomach grumbles.
Last climbing season on Denali, I struggled a lot with GI issues and not being able to eat and digest food comfortably, which is unusual for me. This is where I discovered the value of protein powder and powdered drink mixes like Tailwind, which includes not only electrolytes but also proteins and calories. If you can’t eat, drinking calories is totally a thing!
Restock your vitamin D in the Spring. Spring is the best because the days are long, and the sun is finally tangibly warm on my skin. And the snow is (often) excellent! Sun protection becomes essential, so I remember my glacier glasses (which protect my eyes from visible light and UV rays), a sun hoody, a hat with a brim, and sunscreen for my face and lips.
It’s important to know that clothing without a UPF rating won’t necessarily protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, and a lot of those rays reflect off the snow. Places like the insides of your nose and mouth and the underside of your neck will burn quickly. I once burned my neck really badly because I thought my wool buff was protecting me when it wasn’t.
I’ve been fortunate to experience the Alaska Range on skis, from the high-altitude glaciers to the icy river valleys. I’ve found that winter in Alaska requires moving with intention, the appropriate gear, experience, and some grit. But year-round, there is no place I’d rather be.
Taylor Bracher lives with her husband and their 15 adorable pairs of skis, in the small town of Cantwell in the heart of the Alaska Range. She got her BS in Anthropology from Appalachian State University, thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and has worked in Alaska as a ski patroller, park ranger, and mountain guide. When she's not helping others safely explore the wilderness, she enjoys skiing, backpacking, packrafting, and fishing right out her front door. She dreams of someday flying ski planes and having all of her friends and family move to her neighborhood.