Cold Weather in Colorado: Advice, Tips, and Tricks

Introduction

Colorado is well known for its outdoor adventure persona with a multitude of nature-filled activities to participate in. You might first think of our popular summer activities but there is no shortage of fun winter outings that are sure to fill your need for adventure. Whether you’re skiing, Snowshoeing, Ice Fishing, Snowmobiling, Sledding, or Camping it is important to be prepared for whatever snowy obstacles you might come across. In this blog we will discuss some winter outing advice, safety, gear and location recommendations, and tips and tricks of cold activities. So, pull up your snow boots and strap in for this wild ride into the depths of Colorado in the winter.

Safety

Although you should do your individual research on how to be safe for each specific winter activity you choose to partake in, there are some general rules you should follow to ensure your safety with any winter activity.

1.     Don’t go out alone.

It is always a good idea to participate in outdoor activities with at least two other people because high adventure also means high risk. The risk of outdoor activities in the winter such as hiking or camping is even higher because if you get lost you could easily freeze to death overnight. Going with a group of people is a safety measure where everyone is keeping an eye out for hypothermia, frostbite, and making sure everyone drinks tons of water. A general rule should be that if you aren’t going to be in a populated area such as a ski slope you should not go alone. You should always let someone know where you will be and when you plan on coming back.

2.     Know the signs of cold weather injuries.

Frostnip, Frostbite, and Hypothermia are three of the most common injuries in cold weather outings and all can be serious. Hypothermia signs include severe shivering, dizziness, confusion, exhaustion, stumbling, incoherence, loss of motor control, and slurring of speech. Often someone with severe hypothermia will try and take off clothing layers, complaining they are too hot when it is obviously freezing to others.

Here’s a field test: make the person walk a straight line. If they can’t navigate a straight line, initiate first aid steps. Move the person out of the wind and cold if at all possible. Get warm (not hot) fluids and food into the body. Put on warm dry clothes. If the person is in the early stages of hypothermia keep them active. If the case is advanced, keep them quiet while treating.

Symptoms of frostbite include tingling, numbness, itching, burning, cold sensations, and blue or white pigment of the skin. If you experience any of these symptoms you should plan to leave immediately and seek medical help. Do not try to rewarm in the field, if the tissue refreezes during evacuation the damage will be greater.

Frostnip symptoms include bright red skin. Treat frostnip by skin-to-skin warming and no fast warm-ups or rubbing of the skin.

3.     Cross check multiple weather news outlets before going on your trip.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a reliable source to get specific weather information for any given location and can be found here:

https://forecast.weather.gov

You should be checking the weather several weeks or days before your outing based on the length of the trip and it’s always a good idea to pack for the worst even if it’s not predicted in the forecast. Make sure you check for wind chill because exposed skin can get frostbite in less than 30 minutes when the wind chill dips to minus 180 F.

For longer trips in the wilderness, it is a good idea to carry a radio that can access the National Weather Radio Frequencies NWR Stations (weather.gov). Use the radio to check for changes in the weather a couple of times each day.

4.     Study up on all of your first aid and survival skills.

As a general rule, you should always know some basic first aid skills, especially if you often participate in outdoor activities. When going on any outdoor adventure during the winter it is crucial that you understand the risks, symptoms, and treatments of several injuries. Pay special attention to treatment for cold-related injuries. On any overnight trip you should have basic survival skills and should bring tools to help you in case things go awry. When going on adventures that have a low chance of you seeing other people, even if you aren’t planning on spending the night, you should always be prepared for the worst.

Tips and Tricks

1.      Warm your clothes.

If you are camping, heat up your clothes in your sleeping bag in the morning before you get up to prevent unnecessary coldness.

2.     Sleep Smart.

Always change to fresh clothing for sleeping. Clothing, such as socks tend to compress their loft and absorb sweat. Fresh socks and a fresh knit hat will provide much more warmth than clothing that has been worn all day.

Make sure your sleeping bag is not too tight to move around in comfortably. A tight sleeping bag will restrict warm air insulation. A sleeping bag liner or light blanket will add warmth and comfort. Make sure there is enough room in the bag for the extra layer.

When sleeping in a sleeping bag you should never cover your face in the bag because the condensation caused by your breath will create a cold wet environment for you to sleep in.

A thick, closed foam sleeping pad is essential to insulate you from the cold ground.

For extra warmth use a reflective space blanket. Wrap yourself into the blanket shiny side in to reflect body heat back into your sleeping bag. 

Have a proper 3 or 4 season tent with a weather fly that runs all the way to the ground to keep wind, rain, and snow off the tent, a good ground cloth to keep moisture from coming up off the ground and stiff aluminum poles to prevent the tent from collapsing under the wind or snow. Never pitch a tent under snow-laden tree limbs, the snow may drop off the tree onto the tent or worse the tree limb could break away under the weight of the snow and hit the tent.  

3.     Prepare your activities and equipment ahead of time.

Always have several layers of clothing for all winter outings. Colorado’s Weather can change rapidly with little warning so although it might be sunny when you start your trip, you could be stuck in a snowstorm in less than an hour. Always pack a top layer that is waterproof and another layer that is fleece. It is a good idea to take off any layers of clothing that have gotten wet and are up against your skin. Waterproof snowshoes are a good option for the winter but avoid fabric or leather boots. Gaiters to keep snow out of your boot tops is also a very good idea.

4.     Move.

Wearing layers of clothing isn’t enough to keep you warm as it simply protects the heat your body is already making. In order to stay warm, make sure you are constantly moving during your outdoor activity. Avoid becoming uncomfortably hot as this will increase perspiration and cause your clothes to get wet.

5.     Avoid wearing cotton clothing.

When cotton is wet it has a hard time drying and stops providing any warmth. Cotton socks can easily get wet from sweat and cause you more harm than good. Instead, opt for Fleece or wool clothing.

6.     Keep doing the basics.

It might seem like you need less water because it’s cold and you aren’t sweating as much as in the summertime. You should still be drinking plenty of water but avoid freezing it or putting in ice as that will only aid in getting colder faster. You should also still wear sunscreen even if it’s cloudy. Both clouds and snow magnify and reflect the sunbeams and can cause a nasty burn if you’re not prepared.

7.     Plan for more breaks

Winter cold saps more energy just keeping your body warm, so plan for more breaks in the activities. Use the breaks to check on everyone, are they staying warm and well hydrated, are they dry? Setting up a warming station with drinks and snacks should be considered when you are going to be out all day.

Gear Recommendations

Warmth depends more on the type of materials you’re using than the brand of material.

Outdoor fabrics to choose from:

Cotton                            Worst                Natural fiber

Wool                               Good                Natural fiber

Poplin                             Very good       Poly/Cotton blend

Polypro                           Best                   Synthetic

Polar fleece                   Best                   Synthetic

Supplex/nylon             Best                   Synthetic

Clothing Layers

1.     Base Layer

The main function of the base layer is to wick away moisture from your body. The base layer should consist of a Thinsulate hat, capline or polypropylene shirt, thermal bottoms, and polypropylene sock liners.

2.     Middle Layer

The main function of the middle layer is to trap body heat. Over the base layer wear a wool hat, fleece jacket, wool pants, wool socks, and wool mittens.

3.     Outer Layer

The main function of the outer layer is to repel water and wind. The outer layer shell should consist of a hooded Gortex parka, nylon pants, rubber pack boots, and over mitts. You may want to add sunglasses and a nose and cheek face protector.

Make sure that all clothing layers fit comfortably and loosely with each other. Bundled up too tight constricts blood flow and will make you colder. Loose clothing will allow warm air to circulate and insulation work to keep you warm.

Keep spare clothing such as hats, socks, and glove liners to change out during the day should the ones you are wearing get wet, either from snow or sweat.

Now that you know the right materials to choose from you can start shopping.

Places to Go Winter Camping and Learn About Winter Safety

Colorado has endless places to enjoy the winter weather with a multitude of activities including winter camping. The Denver Area Council offers two locations for camping in our off-season (not during the summer). Both offer campsites, cabins, and more, that are available for Scouting and non-Scouting organizations to rent. 

Tahosa High Adventure Base has been a part of the DAC since 1938. It is nestled in the Rocky Mountains, near the town of Ward, at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet, making it one of the highest Scout camps in the United States. Tahosa consists of 320 acres, which includes several high alpine meadows, a large lake stocked with trout, and access to adjacent national forest lands. Tahosa is currently open for unit camping year-round. Heated cabins are available for various group sizes. Tahosa also hosts the winter camping program Okpik.

To make a reservation at Tahosa: https://www.denverboyscouts.org/camps/year-round-camping/

Okpik is a 2-day/2-night adventure that provides the opportunity for Scouts to develop confidence and gain skills to camp and live outdoors during extreme weather conditions. Participants receive preparation training for the physical challenge, cold weather dress, first aid and emergency procedures, food and water control, cross-country skiing equipment use, snowshoeing, and winter shelter building. Okpik provides state-of-the-art training for leaders, (both youth and adult), to gain confidence in taking groups into a cold environment and surviving year-round camping. This cold-weather training is appropriate only for those leaders and campers who have basic Scouting skills and mild weather camping experience. Training includes building skills that can ensure a successful, fun, and safe cold weather camping experience. These must-know skills are important because cold weather camping mistakes can be serious and certainly are not something upon which to build young Scout’s experience. Okpik Winter Camping is a physically vigorous weekend. All gear and food for the weekend is pulled on sleds and most of the day is devoted to shelter building and it can be very cold. Youth should have the mental and physical ability to complete and enjoy the weekend. All participants should undergo physical training to condition themselves for a very invigorating and challenging weekend. This camp is full for the winter of 2022 but you can find more information for next winter at https://www.denverboyscouts.org/camps/tahosa-high-adventure-base/okpik/

McNeil Scout Ranch at Peaceful Valley is the larger of the DAC’s two camp properties. Located in Central Colorado on the edge of the Black Forest, MSR is 65 miles southeast of Denver, near the town of Elbert. The property includes 3,316 acres of mountain park terrain and sits at 7,000 feet in elevation along the Palmer Divide. It is home to Camp Cris Dobbins, Camp Dietler, and Magness Adventure Camp. In addition to summer opportunities, there are numerous opportunities for weekend camping during the off-season, including unit use of the shooting ranges. To learn more about year-round camping at McNeil Scout Ranch visit https://www.denverboyscouts.org/camps/year-round-camping/

Closing

This article is only a starter and guide for outdoor winter activities, and you should always do your own research and prepare for each individual winter activity that you do. The Emergency Service Corp of the Denver Area Council works to prepare those in the Council to conduct activities safely. Their monthly meetings are often combined with training such as CPR, Stop the Bleed, and Winter Camping. For more information about the ESC and their trainings contact Brad Johnston at Johnston.Brad@outlook.com.

For more information on the Denver Area Councils best winter practices visit these links:

Cold-Weather Gear Suggestions: https://www.denverboyscouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Cold-Weather-Gear-II-1.pdf

State of Alaska Guide to Cold Injuries: https://www.denverboyscouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Alaska-Cold-Injuries1.pdf

ESC Winter Camping Tips and Tricks: https://www.denverboyscouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ESC-Winter-Camping-Tips-and-Trickss_2022.01.pdf

10 Secrets to Winter Warmth: https://www.denverboyscouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Secrets-of-Winter-Warmth.pdf

Published by heatherdiviness

Media Specialist for McNeil Scout Ranch at Peaceful Valley

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